What is your primary artistic medium?
I am a poet and was a late bloomer. Though I wrote stories under the nightlight as a child and in high school, I didn’t come to poetry seriously until my thirties. I love that writing is an art form you can begin at any age.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
Soon after getting my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, I was given the opportunity to teach in the New York City Ballet Poetry Project. Following a performance, poets went into the public schools and taught a series of classes using movement, music, and elements of the ballet as triggers for writing. I discovered that I loved teaching and had a gift for it.
What led you to creative aging?
I am a member of the New York Writers Workshop, an alliance of NYC authors, and through them taught a class one evening at the NYPL Mid-Manhattan Branch. Jessica, the Senior Librarian emailed afterwards asking if I’d like to teach poetry to older adults as a part of the Lifetime Arts Creative Aging in America’s Libraries Project. That class led to other workshops and a wonderful collaboration with Jessica. I’ve just finished teaching a class there based on the experiments of the New York School Poets and Painters.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
Their frankness, their receptivity and open-ness to experimentation. I often use unusual materials and activities as a mirror and precursor to writing. The students may, for example, make collages, draw, or collaboratively build a structure from stones. In one instance they tore petals from roses, which were then strewn on the table. That last exercise they approached with some hesitation, but it evoked some of the most beautiful writing of the semester.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
Though recently my work has been with adults, this January I was poet in residence at Ecole Internationale de New York, a private school for French children. It was great fun. What struck me returning to this age group was the children’s sheer joy at discovering what it is possible to do with words and their imagination.
The older adults have delighted in experimenting with language and have surprised themselves at the directions a line or phrase can take them. But I think they take particular pleasure in their ability to make a poem and meaning and beauty out of their own lived experience.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
This is really a gentle challenge — of creating a balance between a focus on the poetry and the opportunity these classes offer for social connection and new friendships. To not lose the thread of the lesson. Conversations naturally arise from poems just read or written. I remember, for example an exchange of recipes after reading a poem about food and the kitchen. On another occasion there was talk about what it was like growing up in New York during the summer after one of them wrote a roof-top city poem. I see these as one of the pleasures of the workshops, but also am looking for the moment to bring the focus back to the poem or the class.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
One of the great things has been working with people from such rich, diverse backgrounds. Looking at the anthologies we’ve created from these classes, there are poems about Sugar Hill, El Barrio, Hungary, Israel, and the Deep South. I learn so much from these students, from their stories and, from many of them, a graciousness of spirit that I hope I can have in myself. It is satisfying to see their pleasure in having written something that surprised or delighted them or to see them opening up to using language in unexpected ways.
What have been your most memorable moments?
One of my students wrote with great delicacy and fierce honesty. In one of the first classes she wrote a poem about how she became someone else in other people’s eyes as a result of being diagnosed with a serious illness. I can’t describe the feeling in the room after she read it. It was a simple, brave act that taught me something that could not otherwise be put into words and that I struggle to put into words here.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
I think first is the ability to build trust, create a space where they feel safe trying something they have never tried before. Along with that, the ability to break down the elements of the art form into a sequence of small, lively, interesting lessons that build skills and confidence. Listening, and being aware of the particular strengths and abilities individual students bring to the work and pointing out ways they can use them in the writing. I also like to create a rich environment, with many different kinds of poetry, artworks, and materials; and a sense of play.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
My students are always teaching me: How honest can I be? What kinds of leaps can I make? Where is it possible for me to go in my own writing?
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
I am working on assembling a new book of poetry. The poems have both an other-worldly and European feel to them. The challenge is to find the through-line that will link the pieces together.
You can learn more about me and my poems by going to my page on the website of The Urban Range, a New York City poetry collective.
Upcoming workshops I am teaching:
Thank you Hermine for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.