Young Poets Over 65:
Rossmoor, Adam David Miller, Silver Voices
Previously published online by Jannie M. Dresser at www.examiner.com, July 21, 2009.
“Can do” permeates the Ivy Room at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek where poets--average age 70--gather the first Monday of every month to practice their art. Marc Hofstadter, a relatively recent resident of the retirement community, is their guide. Each brings a poem they have recently written or revised, or a poem by a beloved author, and then they ‘go to,’ parrying words with zest, if not zeal, humor, insight, and good-natured support.
Poet Phyllis Devich
The group of between 15-18 poets represents over a millennium’s worth of worldly experiences that can be wrangled into 14-line sonnets or 3-line haikus. Some of them wrote in high school or college but then life intervened; others have only begun to explore poetry writing. At 90, Jean L. Autrey, is one of the oldest in the group and is obviously held in high regard. Her poem reflected a vision that she had experienced while walking across Rossmoor’s expansive park. (Watch out Arthur Rimbaud and James Weldon Johnson!)
I rode out in May at just past 1
and it was horns
Long, white horns singing
in the sky
Long, white trumpets
made of cloud
Calling, singing, sounding
Against the blue, blue of the sky
The hills were drying
The rain had gone
But the trumpets were calling
Of things yet to come
They pointed left
But was that message next
Or already done?
I rode out in May
At just past 1.
(untitled poem by Jean L. Autrey)
Aside from offering emotional release, opportunities to experiment with the sounds and meanings of words, or a format for the reflection on loss and change, poetry has given the group a 'community within a community' where intellectual exploration and creative imagination are honored. The poets listen intently as each reads and then provide feedback. Autrey’s poem was about “paying attention,” suggested Dian Gillmar.
Jean Georgakopoulous, a retired English and drama teacher came to the group with a fair amount of literary background and experience in workshops. After visiting a writing group in St. Louis years ago, she realized “I can do this” and has since written a number of poems and a novel. Another poet/novelist, Gail Marshall O’Brien attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with Welsh poet and translator Joseph P. Clancy.
Martin (“Mike”) Portnoff saw an ad for the poetry group in the Rossmoor News and, at age 65, thought he would “give it a go” although he had never written poetry in his previous six decades. A retired diagnostic radiologist and avid bicyclist, Portnoff hardly fits the stereotype of someone living in “an old folks‘ home.” Alan Winslow, another retiree who worked as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, checked out the group in July. “I think of myself more as a reader than as a writer of poetry,” he said and then shared a poem by Thomas Hardy as well as his own effort at rhymed couplets.
Hofstadter founded the group at Rossmoor in 2005 not long after moving from Oakland with David Zurlin, his partner of many years. Hofstadter is a member of the illustrious east-coast family of scholars and writers which includes historian Richard Hofstadter. Marc Hofstadter has written and published poetry since 1982. In the beginning, he showed his work to a well-known poet who told him his “poetry was pretty bad.” Hofstadter credits Oakland poet and poetry teacher Clive Matson for renewing his confidence. Now, he has several books to his credit, including his most recent title Luck, and is a popular reader in local venues. He started the Rossmoor poets not only to share his knowledge and love of poetry, but to establish a locus of writers in his new neighborhood. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of leading the group but I don’t actually teach them that much; they provide the substance. They’re a remarkable bunch.”
Phyllis Devich (pictured at top of the article), born in northern Minnesota of Serbian and Dalmatian immigrants, said she has attended school “all her life” and holds a doctorate in education from the University of California at Berkeley. She shared a poem that had been worked over after a previous meeting of the group. “I was so inspired by the feedback, that I took the edits completely to heart,” she said with enthusiasm.
When one poet mentions an article he had recently seen that wrote about writing groups and institutions with “a snobby attitude,” several others chimed in with differing points of view. Writing groups of today are not unlike the informal settings for the poets of old, one remarked: “I imagine writers sitting around in a pub; for example, and C.S. Lewis brings in a poem that a fellow writer suggests “is a bit too mystical . . . I’d change this or that.” A workshop is a “community that affirms and encourages writing, and supports other writers,“ someone else suggests as another poem is passed around for critique. Not surprisingly, it is a poem dealing with loss and death.
She died . . .
my childhood friend
not yet 70.
I talk with her
in my head.
In night dreams
Where are you?
and find her
walking away with the others.
(poem “She Died” by Jean Georgakopoulos)
The poem’s layout reminds someone of “a musical score where the line breaks and punctuation guide the reader, showing where to pause, what to emphasize, and how to read the poem itself.” Several poems broach the subject of connection and relationship. Dian Gillmar reads “One Small Boat” which ends on an unexpected role reversal between a mother and daughter:
As the mist lifts we see
the horizon, a silver line
drawn by the sun. She pulls the boat
along the dock, steadies it
as I climb out and reach for the rope
she tosses to me.
(from “One Small Boat” by Dian Gillmar)
Gillmar confesses that her adult daughter was uncomfortable being placed in the leadership position but then laughs: “With my luck as the boat comes in, I’d miss the dock!” Gillmar doesn’t live at Rossmoor, but makes the monthly trip to Walnut Creeek because she has enjoyed the group so much.
Rossmoor is a relatively upscale retirement community in Walnut Creek, built around a golf course with lots of open landscape and several clubhouses, including the one where the poets meet. The stereotypes of its elder residents, however, are worth tweaking. When Portnoff moved in, he once rode through the entry check-point on an Italian racing bike dressed in sleek garb: “I was riding bad, looking good, when security caught up with me. They couldn’t believe I was a resident.” Portnoff brought an experimental poem entitled “Kaleidoscope,” where he arranged letters, words, and phrases in a “cut-up” style to create several shorter concrete poems, poems that explore the playful iconography of type and font on the page. Portnoff’s life has always been “about discipline,“ he says, and that aspect drew him to poetry. After finding ways to read the poem aloud, John Whalen said that he didn’t know what the poem was about but that “it sounded good, like reading the Paris phone book out loud.”
Geraldine M. Stokes “Jeri” for short,” is a descendant of Mormon pioneers who walked with their hand-carts and covered wagons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to settle Salt Lake City along with Brigham Young. Her ancestor wrote many Mormon songs. In the 1960s, Geri studied sociology at Cal where she recalls how “bongs were passed around in class.” Recognizing that she couldn’t earn a living from her academic studies, she turned to real estate where she applied some of her anthropological training: “I learned a lot about people from their garbage.” As she read her poem, “Youth’s Mantra,” murmurs of recognition went through the room. The poem was the result of a writing exercise. “I didn’t think I could write a poem on demand, but my friend told me ‘oh, yes you can,’ and set up an exercise using a timer.”
What will I be when I grow up?”
When did it stop?
Did I catch the golden ring
Was I ground down, crushed
By circumstance and routine?
Elderly and snow capped,
Questions of the past.
(from poem “Youth’s Mantra” by Geraldine Lillie Stokes)
Within the brief two-hour session, they shared their work, schemed about how they could get their local newspaper to include poetry and news of poets, dissected the use and value of workshops, classes and writing exercises, and shared their love of words. It made me want to holler and throw up both my hands by the end of the session, so exhilarating to be with such a devoted and fun group. At age 56, I still have a way to go before full-scale retirement, but the Rossmoor poets made it look like a great way to spend life’s remaining chapters.
(Sid Kahn and Alan Winslow)
He has published four books of prize-winning poetry and more recently a notable memoir, Ticket to Exile, but he has been a Navy officer, an English professor, and a community activist. He founded a publishing company (Eshu House) and helped to launch or maintain several other arts organizations. He has produced numerous radio and television shows, and continues to promote the work of others and take classes to expand his knowledge of poetry. Ticket was honored with a nomination for best creative non-fiction of 2008 by the Northern California Book Association and was a finalist for the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. You can often see Miller riding his bike through Berkeley's streets, or at one of the hundreds of poetry readings or events around the City.
For 21 years, Miller taught English and creative writing at Laney Community College in Oakland, where he launched a community-written literary magazine. Until the 1990s, he continued to teach at University of California Berkeley and with the Bay Area Writing Project (now a national organization). But as early as 1970, he was already helping to promote the writing of others when he compiled Dices, or Black Bones, a precedent setting anthology that featured many contemporary African-American writers, including Ishmael Reed and Al Young.
Miller’s own writing has mostly been as a poet: Forever Afternoon, published by the University of Michigan Press received the prestigious Naomi Long Madgett Award. "For me, verse is more valuable for the particular moments of experience, and prose more suitable for a narrative of one’s life," says Miller, but during a writing retreat at the Vermont Studio Center, he felt compelled to shift gears. "I was sketching pieces about my childhood, and went out to walk in the snow." When he returned to his room, he found himself at the keyboard overcome with emotion. "I suddenly realized ‘I hurt.’" He recalled the incident that became the framing structure of Ticket.
The book’s dramatic core focuses on when, as a young man in Orangeburg, South Carolina, he was abruptly arrested and jailed because he passed a white girl a note; it read "I would like to get to know you better." She was a visitor to the shop where he worked as a cobbler’s apprentice; he was black, she was white. Held without charge in the local jail, it was clear the local sheriffs wanted to teach him a lesson. Fortunately, Miller’s mother arrived to get him out, but the experience left an indelible impression.
In Ticket to Exile, Miller evokes the Depression-era south in scenes from his childhood and adolescence in Orangeburg, a town segregated along old plantation lines. "You might have a street with a big house where a white person lived next to a row of houses inhabited by blacks." As Miller points out, "you did not have to segregate people physically in order to have social segregation." This is something many northerners do not understand, thinking instead that segregation is a suburban-urban issue where blacks are relegated to housing projects and ghettoized neighborhoods far from middle-class shopping malls and tract-homes or luxurious downtown condominiums. In the south, whites and blacks often lived near enough to know each other’s business and where the watchful eye of the White Citizen‘s Council and local police could back up the unspoken racial rules. Miller’s hometown, known as "the Garden City" was the locale for a tragedy in 1968 when state troopers quelled a civil-rights protest at a whites-only bowling alley by firing into the crowd, killing three and wounding 27. As recently as 1997, the Ku Klux Klan filed for permission to stage a march there. Now a city of about 13,000, with a large surrounding area, Miller reports that while some things have changed, most of the region's African-American population still live in poverty.
Miller’s memoir captures the terrifying oppression of such a time and place, adding a unique voice to the work-of-witness that memoir can provide. The fact that he became a writer is in itself a minor miracle, considering that schools were ‘separate and unequal.‘ "We were not taught to think that we could be writers," but his mother read poetry to him and he had relatives and family friends who were great storytellers. Those who told ghoststories, in particular, activated his imagination.
"I must have had some feeling that I wanted to do something with writing since I once gave two quatrains to a young professor from the college when he came to the shoe shop where I worked." Miller recounts how his critic "shot them down" but gave him a dime tip for polishing his shoes. "With that sort of encouragement, you just don’t think of yourself as having an ambition to be a writer."
With his many publications, four books of "verse" as he likes to call them, and Ticket to Exile behind him, there is no doubt of Miller’s talent and perseverance. He is now focused on writing the second part of his life, his experiences in the segregated Navy and his years spent gaining an education. Of Miller’s work, Al Young, California's Poet Laureate emeritus, wrote that Miller “sings America from the raw heart of yet another of her darker brothers.” And may the chorus respond, Hallelujah!
As deacon of the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, Stan Morner recalls visiting the elderly in nurs-ing homes and senior centers, and noticing that when performing for those affected by Alzheimer’s or other disabilities of aging, they often began mouthing the words of songs and poems they knew. Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia, which describes this phenomenon, helped to inspire him to found Silver Voices.
Last year, Morner proposed the idea of Silver Voices to the Contra Costa County chapter of the Ina Coolbrith Circle, for which he serves as Vice President. He points out that living in nursing homes, retirement communities, or gathering at senior centers, are members of a generation who were taught poetry in school through the process of memorization and recitation of long verse passages. It is not surprising that bringing poetry into these places would provide pleasure and possibly improve the quality of life of many of our oldest citizens.
Silver Voices is planned as an outreach program in line with the Ina Coolbrith Circle’s mission of preserv-ing the history and literature of California. The goal is to take poetry to where seniors gather and share its enjoy-ment across generational and cultural boundaries. The group now includes participants from both Contra Costa and Alameda counties and is developing a training program. Besides Morner, Silver Voices includes: William Landis of Oakland, Maggie Morley of Kensington, Robert Eastwood of Danville, David Alpaugh of Concord, and Maria Rosales of Martinez. The local group is interested in recruiting new members.
To date, Silver Voices has held six interactive programs--approximately one a month--at the Lafayette Senior Center, the Aegis Group in Concord, and at Contra Costa County churches. The fledgling organiza-tion is interested in creating a model that can be used elsewhere and there is some interest in starting a Silver Voices in Sacramento. To join Silver Voices, individuals should be members of the statewide Ina Coolbrith Circle, be available for readings (often on weekdays), and have transportation. Before representing the group, they will receive training, observe a Silver Voices performance, and participate in a performance.