R: You’ve been integral to the creation of several programs celebrating spoken word. The National Poetry Slam now attracts 15,000 people a year, the Precision Poetry Drill Team changed the way Santa Fe teens experienced classical verse, and now the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project uses familiar poems to forge connections between patients and the present. When did you first realize the impact spoken word and performance poetry can have?
GG: In middle school I found I could make my friends laugh by writing funny rhymes that had the feel of dirty limericks. It was a powerful to see the effect writing, then memorizing and being able to recite those goofy lyrics could have. That led to writing songs in the singer/song writer tradition, which led to a poetry class at Indian Valley College in northern California, finding Aram Saroyan’s “Genesis Angels—The saga of Lew Welch & the Beat Generation,” writing my first poems and getting published in the school poetry journal. My love of poetry dates to that class taught by David Rollison in 1978.[…]
In the middle of each of the names you mention, […]is “Poetry.” How interesting that you make the distinction that they celebrate spoken word but do not ask when I first realized the impact poetry could have.
It’s all poetry to me. Poetry has a long tradition as an oral art form, if we start with the Cave Poets, (if there was cave art there must have been cave poets), then to our homeboy Homer and on to the troubadours, count in all those nights around the family hearth reciting “Charge of the Light Brigade,” sprinkle in Vachel Lindsey, (by the way do you know he walked from Chicago to New Mexico and traded reciting poems for bread and a place to crash? The original couch surfer!), back track to the Cowboy Poets, have a cuppa, cuppa Beat coffee, hop to the Bronx in 1978 to catch the first glimmerings and re-invention of the “romantic poets,” and their use of iambic pentameter as MCs and rappers and then we get to Marc Smith and his the creation of the Poetry Slam, around 1986, which brings us full circle back to the Greeks and “poetry competitions.”[…]
Poems need to reach the listener’s ear as much as the reader’s eye—at the core of recitation, spoken work, performance poetry, is the text and the creation of the poem. For me each of those projects you ask about is based on the celebration of poetry and finding a way to make poetry useful to one’s community.
R: I love that this adventure started with “the man from Nantucket!” I think I make a common mistake in setting poets and their poems into neat little compartments without linking them to the larger discipline that is poetry. The focus on integration—with daily life or other genres—and the emphasis on usefulness and relevance is what I find so compelling about your programs. 6 years ago you began bringing poetry to Alzheimer’s patients through the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP). What inspired you?
GG: In 1997, I received a small grant to give a series of workshops at an adult daycare center in Northern California. No instruction on what to do, just to use poetry. I hit on the idea of using classic poems the people might have learned as children. One man had his head down, not participating; I would say he was completely unaware of his surroundings. I said the Longfellow poem “I shot an arrow in the air,” his eyes popped open and he said, “It fell to earth, I knew not where.” Suddenly he was back with us and able to participate—I was hooked.
It showed me how powerful those classic poems could be. How useful poetry could be with this community. It was the beginning of understanding that even in the late stages of dementia that people can remember words and lines from poems they learned as children. Imagine how powerful it must feel to remember those words.
At the same time my mother was in the last stages of terminal cancer. Through a combination of the drugs she was given to relieve the pain and the progression of the cancer she had grown unable to think and communicate clearly. One day my father called to ask me to come over as my mother was having a particularly hard time. I had the books I was using in the workshop in the car with me and I thought, I would bring them inside with me and try reading the poems to my mother.
On arriving, I found her quite agitated. I began to read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” to her and soon she was calm. She was born in May so the line, “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” had a special resonance for me.
Then my father Billy and I began to recite a poem that she had teased him with when they were childhood sweethearts. My mother quite gently began to say the poem along with us, even laughing as she joined in:
It was one of her last moments of real clarity and a moment of playfulness that quite powerfully again brought home to me how powerful to people and of use these poems could be. She passed away about a month later.
I don’t want to leave out the crazy humor anyone dealing with a loved one with memory loss issues goes through. A few days after that first reading of poems I was in my mother’s room, she was drifting in and out of consciousness and I again start to read, “Sonnet 18.” This time she opened her eyes and shouted at me, “What the hell are you doing in my room!”
R: How wonderful to be able to treasure an unexpectedly joyful moment with your mother at such a harrowing time. It sounds like APP can not only give people coping with memory loss a map to the present for a time, but also provide closure for their loved ones in moments like the one you described. What is it about poetry that bridges the gap between people suffering from dementia and their family, friends, and present?
GG: [In the summer of 2010], Wisconsin Public Radio discussed a couple whose solution to dealing with the wife’s dementia was a murder suicide. I was listening while driving between poetry sessions in Green Bay, sessions that were full of laughter and surprises in creating poems. […]
How does poetry work with people living with memory loss? The quick answer is I don’t know. Alzheimer’s disease in many ways is one of those subjects that are a fascinating area to work in because it is a subject where our knowledge ends. We don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s. We don’t really know what the person is able to think, feel and experience in the very end stage and they can’t tell us.
[David] Shenk talks about how in some ways Alzheimer’s mimics the early stages of life only in reverse. How hard do we work with infants to make their life as full as possible? Don’t we owe that to our elders as well?
I am working on a longer piece entitled. “The Biology of Poetry,” which will go in-depth into answering your question of what makes poetry work with people with dementia. It will look at two studies the first of which shows that reciting poetry lowers stress rates, the second which shows increased synaptic activity when people are placed in an MRI and they read lines of Shakespeare based on the grammatical technique of a “functional shift.”
I believe those two studies, one calming the body and one exciting the mind are at the heart of the reactions we see in using poetry with people with dementia the high level of positive facial expressions, laughter, verbalizing memories, and robust social interactions.
The ancient epic poems of the Greeks and the practice of the African Griot, or keeper of the history of the community, still in use today, show that poetry is one of our earliest memory storage devises. The rhyme, rhythm, and beautiful shaping of words in poetry forms the core of how our minds work. When so much of the mind is stripped away by Alzheimer’s poetry is a powerful tool to connect with that person.
R: Adrian Mitchell, British poet, stated that “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” While researching this quote I searched for the opposite, “make poetry relevant,” and a review of your book popped up. Living this passionate life swimming with poetic influence, what do you say to those people who have not yet found poetry important or relevant?
GG: A benefit and underlying strategy of projects like the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project (APP) and Precision Poetry Drill Team is being able to reach segments of our community to poetry that might not otherwise be exposed to it. For instance the poets working with the APP have interaction with healthcare workers and we often get a response of surprise at how powerful poetry can be. Here is a quote from one of the people we have the pleasure of working with.
-Angela Paoletti, Attic Angel Activity Director, Madison, Wisconsin.
I try to show by example how powerful poetry can be and take a small step in changing people’s perception of poetry. At my father’s 80th birthday party this past weekend, his friends began asking questions about how the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project works and rather than talk about the techniques in the abstract, I did call and response with them reciting the opening couplet “The Tyger,” so suddenly in the middle of the party I had a table full of people chanting
In the forest of the night
There was laughter, and the breath and spirit of William Blake filled the air!
For more information about:
David Shenk and his book The Forgetting: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/forgetting/read_first.html
One of the studies mentioned above: http://ajpheart.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/287/2/H579
A fascinating look at linguistic structure and the brain: http://thereaderonline.co.uk/features/the-shakespeared-brain/
(photo courtesy of Mike McGee)