Learning by Going #9: A Volunteer Perspective

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Becky Hampton, Known by Heart volunteer and author of today’s guest post, second from left at a poetry session earlier this year.

One of my big learnings— or at least reminders— from Known by Heart is how big-hearted people can be. I’m thinking in particular about a handful of volunteers who have helped enrich poetry sessions and help elders get their words onto paper.

Today Known by Heart offers this guest post from , one of a handful of wonderful volunteers who has helped in numerous and unexpected ways with Known by Heart.  Big thanks to Becky for this piece and for her volunteer help behind the scenes.

Here are Becky’s observations about her experience visiting a poetry session this past winter. Big Thanks:

After pulling into the parking lot of the Merriam Park Community Center, I hesitated a moment before opening my car door. It was February and five degrees above zero, not counting the wind chill which, by my amateur estimation, was something like twenty below. The walk from my car to the building was short but the cold seems to stretch the seconds, so I steeled myself and walk-jogged to the entrance, teeth chattering, my gratitude for warmth heightened.

I was here during my lunch break, to visit one of Naomi’s Known By Heart poetry classes for seniors.  As a behind-the-scenes volunteer who creates electronic documents of poetry written by some of Naomi’s students, I wanted to experience what one of a class might be like and meet some of its participants.  Being there on a cold day in February seemed to underline the importance of a class like this. The winter can feel lonely for anyone, as we huddle inside, away from the common spaces outdoors in which we would need to hide, anyway, behind our layers of coats and scarves and hats.  It can feel even more lonely for seniors or people with disabilities, as mobility during the winter is made more difficult.  My own grandmother and I are very close, and I know how difficult winters can be for because of her limited mobility.

Naomi’s class was a warm fire that invited people in. Into conversation, into community. Though my visit was short, I could tell the class provided a connection point for each participant. The connection they made was not only with each other (the class began with each person taking a turn to share a word and corresponding movement they associated with the month, followed by the rest of the group echoing the word and movement), but with themselves.  The class provided time for each participant to write in response to a prompt, to share something they had written, or to hear aloud the writing of poets outside of the classroom.  Participants seemed open and glad to be there, freely sharing or responding to each other.  These components, and Naomi’s facilitation, which modeled respect and interest in each voice, made the classroom a “warm space” of community, in which each member was valued and seen.

Becky Hampton is a writer who works in the nonprofit sector.


Learning by Going #8 –It Really Does Matter What We Carry in Our Hearts

I’m learning I never get over the impact of a person sharing a poem from memory…

I’ve had my own practice of committing poetry to memory for years. And forgetful as I am, I believe it has a real value. But merely asserting this is one thing. It is something altogether more powerful to witness.  A poem drawn from within a body, from a person’s secret store of memory.

Each poem that comes from the heart is different.

Each person and the reasons each of us holds a particular poem in our heart is different.

Often the poem is surprising. Often, in my classes,  it is nestled in the memory of someone with significant memory loss. But there is this mystery that they still remember this poem in a way they can share.

Often memory loss is not the only challenge the poem-holder copes with. Often it is the person who seems most cut off—Struggling with memory. Struggling with hearing. Struggling with eyesight—even the 24 point font eluding capture and interpretation. Struggling even to speak…So often lungs are no longer strong enough to push air past the vocal cords as well as they once did.

So often the poem comes out in a small voice.

Like the other day…I was leading a small group and had just shared Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers”

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Hope is the thing with feathers….

We were focusing on birds, both real and figurative. Bird poems always seem to get people going. The the conversation was swooping and fluttering.

And then, a few wisps of voice from a woman who’d been sitting, seeming shut down and withdrawn. But as if from a great distance we hear these words:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson’s lines are rising from her throat.

Barely a whisper, but no less powerful for that.

The other voices and sounds fall away.

She says a few lines. And stops.

But we have stopped talking about birds and imagination and reality. We wait to hear more.

She starts again

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

and slow but sure recites the whole short poem.

I swear she glows when she is done.

Learning by Going #7: Experiment? Failure? Risk and Learning….

In my last Learning by Going Post I talked about being an experiential learner.  I think I made it sound serendipitous and easy…but the reality is often messy. Sometimes learning is learning what not to do again.

So in this post I want to share one of the messy days.

I developed a lot of the approach to poetry sessions that I’ve been offering through Writing Home at Ebenezer housing for older adults in Minneapolis. When I started there Pat Samples was the Lifelong Learning Co-ordinator there and she was a great mentor. After I had earned her trust, she was really wonderful about letting me try new things.

Trust is so important in this work.Earned trust ….from participants and before  that from site partners, activity directors, lifelong learning coordinators. Whatever the title, it is right and appropriate that before anybody lets you loose to “experiment” with a creative activity, you need to earn people’s trust. We’re dealing with people’s lives here. And part of the power of poetry is that it can go pretty deep pretty fast into people’s lives— into their pain, into their stories.

So Pat did not immediately let me loose…but once that trust was developed she just let me do whatever I proposed. Things didn’t always go according to plan and I made some pretty significant mistakes along the way. But I think she always respected that I was leaning into the edge of the possible of how much depth and fun and good writing you could bring to —-or out of—-a group.

So sometimes it gets messy: like the time I brought in a poem about water and change and had the bright idea of bringing in jars of ice I’d frozen in mason jars in my freezer to class a hot summer day.

The poem, New Water by Sharon Chmielarz was in no way mistake. I used it for the first class in an eight-week series about revision and creative process. The poem sets that up that idea of seeing things in a new way—re-visioning—in a lovely way.

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Ice may, or may not, be the poet’s creative friend….

But it might have been a mistake to bring in the ice, especially traveling on the bus. Also I had no way of knowing that one of the group participants was going to bring in a lovely summer desert full of whipped yogurt and honey  and bright berries. Since the only serving spoon we could find was much larger than the cups we were spooning it into, some shipped goo and smashed berries got on the table, on the poems, and on one or two writers.

And then there was the ice. I’d envisioned setting out the jars of ice, gradually melting, as tangible examples of transformation and change…an invitation to writing about change and to the transformative possibilities of revision.

The reality was less lofty. On the hour-long train and bus ride, even in their little cooler, the little jars of ice started to sweat and drip and one of them cracked in my bag.

So with the combination of sticky dessert and wet pools from the sweating jars, it was a bit of a messy day, but no one got hurt and we had fun and some great poems came out of it, including a fabulous haiku about the three phases of water.

Since that day I’ve re-used that poem, New Water, but not the ice jars….but at the end of the day, I believe both creativity and learning depend, at least in part on risk.

Big thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, and the Trillium Family Foundation for funding to make this project possible.

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Learning by Going # 6: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

In his poem  “The Waking”  Theodore Roethke says:

“ I learn by going where I have to go.”

I used to have that poem by heart, helped by its cadence, repetition and form (something called a villanelle…another favorite example is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). But most days, I am still not sure what Roethke’s poem means. One of the lovely things about a poem is you don’t have to grasp it on a logical level for it to be part of your life. And that line, “I learn by going where I have to go” has become a kind of mantra for me. It is, I suppose, another way of saying, I seem to be an experiential learner…

If you had asked me five years ago whether I would be specializing in using poetry with older adults, I don’t think I would have told you that was in my plans. But in addition to the strange serendipity of connecting to working with people two or three decades older than myself  (initially through a family therapy internship,)  there is a very real way in which these writing sessions I’ve developed grow out of continual experiment—Each session I develop I try something new, large or small. Each session, through experiment, I’m experiencing what works best, what’s within my capacity.

My first exposure to people using poetry with older adults was through the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. A PP MN specializes in engaging and enlivening older adults, especially those with dementia, through poetry and creating group poems. I’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful mentors in learning about arts and aging, including Patricia Samples, Zoë Bird, and Rachel Moritz, all of who generously shared the ways that they successfully use poetry and writing and creativity with older adults.

I love their work. And I quickly realized the creating group homes probably wasn’t going to work for me. Since I’m legally blind, writing down peoples words on a big flip chart and then transcribing it later was a complicated task. Of course there are other ways to capture people’s words, but this difficulty, while no doubt surmountable, led me in a different direction.

It led me to working with older adults who Still have the capacity to create individual works, for the most part, their own writing in class. And ironically , through working with groups of older adults on their own individual voices and poems, overtime I found more ways to build creative community.

At first I saw my family therapy learning and work and my teaching artist work as very separate. But overtime I have brought more and more and more of my family therapy expertise around how people interact with each other to the work I do with poetry.

The writing groups are not therapy.  That’s part of what I love about these groups. There is a certain kind of freedom in working In a “nonclinical” space. But my students teach me again and again how deep and meaningful the  community of support and encouragement that people can create in a writing group can be. More soon.



Learning by Going #5: “People Are Good”

At one of my partner sites for the Writing Home project, after a writing session I usually stop by the cubicle of the senior services  program staff person to say how things went. Usually I am full of stories, how wonderful people’s creativity and imagination and play and writing were, and how much fun we had, and how kind  and supportive people are with each other.

What kind of support an I talking about? Sometimes a good poem opens a door to people to write about their own experience…poems like “Vision Test”, by Patricia Kirkpatrick or Breathing, by “Mark O’Brien” can encourage people to get pretty deep pretty fast into their own medical or body experiences or traumas. Most of the bodies in a room full of people mostly 65 and older have been through some stuff. And I’ve seen a lot of moments where group participants seem to know how to provide just the right environment of empathy and support to people to move through the re-living an experience that writing can sometimes be.

Sometimes this support is between people who already know each other, as neighbors or from exercise class, or craft group. Sometimes the support is between people who started as strangers a week or two before when they walked into poetry group. They have become close through writing in community.

So one day, without going into a lot of detail (because we’ve agreed in our Writing Home sessions, that “What happens in poetry group stays in poetry group”)  I’m  describing a few  of the day’s lovely moments to Jeanne, who’s worked for decades at the same organization running the senior center activities and overseeing the Meals on Wheels program.

I believe in the power of writing sessions as a way of creating community, I tell her, but it’s one thing to say it and another to see it in action.

Jeanne smiles and stops me, “Naomi,” she says, “People are good.”

I have known Jeanne a long time and I know her to be wise and kind. And at first I shake my head to myself. I have a hard time making a blanket statement like this: “People are good.”

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a time when homicide rates exceeded even the ugly pitch of current headlines. By the time I left Chicago in the nineties I’d been burgled, robbed or assaulted 5 times; two of the incidents involved a gun or knife.

To put it another way, I grew up in a time and place where it was important to be nobody’s fool, where wariness and skepticism were important values. “People are good” was not imbibed in my baby bottle.

And then there is a certain amount of ugliness going on in the world around me.

So I do not lightly come to the idea of innate goodness.

But on a daily basis, through these little writing sessions at libraries and senior centers, I see people acting out of a positive e hunger for community for goodness, for ways to help each other.

~People bring each other cookies and treats.

~They offer to write for those whose hands don’t do it alone.

to read for those who cannot read.

~They listen.

~They hold each other’s pain.

~They managed on the day after the election to create a space of healing, without getting into politics. (how many times have I yearned for this same combination of compassion and restraint in social settings since then!)

These folks are not just writing wonderful poems; they might be teaching me how to live in the world.

So what do I say to the proposition: “People are good”

When Jeanne says this, I an silent. I don’t know. I’ve got my upbringing; I’ve got the news…I don’t always feel I am good. I have certainly seen other settings where poets don’t behave well; I wouldn’t say they are bad. but I don’t know if I would say they are good.

I can say:

People seem hungry for good.

I can say people have goodness in them and that poetry group, on a good day, can bring out that goodness. It’s one of the privileges of this work to watch it.

Learning by Going # 4: Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me

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Don’t be confused by my starting this with the first line of Clifton’s poem, which also stands as its title.

The poem’s final lines are


…come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.


You can find the full text on poets.org


I’m learning how important it is to make poetry and “everyday,” every day thing

The American Academy of Poets has a nice weekly feature called Teach This poem, geared toward K-12 classroom teachers. While the suggested lessons don’t usually fit my “classrooms” or my “students” who tend to be in their seventies and eighties and often have more to teach me than vice versa, I still enjoy the weekly poem selection.

On Monday, November 16, 2016, in honor of MLK Day, Teach This Poem featured Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”  I smiled to see it, it’s a poem I count as beloved.  I’m far from the only person to know it by heart, in whole or part. (And I keep finding more and more people who do, most recently David Mura and Margaret Hasse)

And another piece of my response was, yes, Clifton’s voice is a wonderful one to lift up in honor of the national holiday. And lifting up her voice should not just be a once-a-year thing.


I’m learning what I can do

I don’t say this from a position of having this all figured out. Clifton says she was


born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman


I wasn’t born in slavery, literally or figuratively. I’m a middle-class white woman, learning to live with the chronic condition of whiteness, constantly blundering around with my privilege and implicit bias. Like any chronic condition, sometimes I manage okay, other times I screw up. Only this is a chronic condition whose symptoms hurt others more than myself. I do the best I can, knowing I will often fail.

As a teaching artist/poet organizer I am still learning, struggling to figure out ways to bring my personal concerns for promoting equity with the realities of my classroom.

While I often fail, I care about undoing racism. I also care about undoing ageism. These two concerns sometimes bump up against each other in interesting ways in sessions. I am still figuring this out.


Poems keep teaching us. 

In the mean time, I know one thing I can do is bring in a variety of voices, and not just on MLK Day.

It’s a commitment that’s pretty easy and enjoyable to live. There are so many gorgeous and useful poems out there. Below is a very short sample of some poems I’ve used in my own teaching. For those of you that like or need to focus on craft in your teaching, in this short list you can find form example (pantoum and haiku), metaphor/comparison/figures of speech, image and writing from the senses, diction, and a whole lot more.


Natasha Trethewey, Incident

Rita Dove, Heart to Heart, Chocolate

Langston Hughes Suicide’s Note, Harlem

Lucille Clifton, lesson of the falling leaves, homage to my hips, I am accused of tending to the past

Donte Collins, what the dead know by heart

Ross Gay, A Small Needful Fact


Gratitude to Clifton, these poets and every other writer who, through their words, helps me stand for a moment in their experience, and understand it a little better.

Whoever you are, whoever you teach or work with, I hope you will fold them into your own session plans or reading or knowing by heart. And I’d love to hear about the voices you are lifting up. Every day.

Learning by Going #3: The Surprising Value of Free



Teaching free writing classes through the Writing Home project has been turning some of my ideas about money on their heads.

I’ve been surprised at how valuable it has been to offer writing classes for older adults for free

It was something of an accident that Known by Heart Writing Home workshops are being offered at no charge to participants. The budget for the project did not depend on charging participants and in discussions with site partners, I trusted their sense that not charging a fee would make it easier for people to try something new, even if they had enough dollars in their pocket to pay. I was fine with the decision, and yet….

A chorus of inner voices protested the decision to offer classes for free. Like most people, it turns out I have a lot of beliefs about money. In this case, they included:

1.Paying is a form of respect. Artists deserve professional respect and in our society professional respect means money. It’s just plain weird in our culture how one minute someone can be talking enthusiastically about the amazing value of art in people’s lives and the next minute practically fall off their chair when an artist or teaching fee is named that represents something south of minimum wage when all of the artist’s time is taken into account, not even touching the professional training. I don’t like to reinforce the idea that artists should do things for free, just work for love.

2. Paying is a form of ownership. I learned this back in my community organizer days, when I worked organizing tenants. I worked with folks who lived in deep economic poverty. Paying to be part of the tenants union, meant you had a stake in the direction of that group, the power to speak up.

3. Paying is a form of commitment. I’ve seen how paying for something makes me take it seriously.  Even though I’ve been writing for decades now, signing up and paying for a class means I will do the assignments. I’ve seen this time and again in others as well.

4. Paying/charging money is a  form of solidarity. Poets and novelists and dancers and a host of other creative folks rarely make a  living directly from the production of their art. Teaching—in educational systems, in community settings—is one relatively stable form of income stream for many artists. So I don’t want to undermine others’ ability to legitimately charge for their teaching work.

In addition to trusting my site partners’ abundant expertise, I made peace with not charging in the following ways:

1. Many of the older adults I work with don’t have money for all their ongoing bills, much less to pay for a class.

2. Not everything of value is about money. For example, Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift, makes a strong argument for the possibilities of de-coupling creativity and art-making from the money economy.

3. Barriers: Sometimes people have so many barriers to art-making or  writing that anything we can do to remove a barrier is all to the good. Elders often have mobility issues.  And there’s the barrier of negative messages people have gotten about art and art-making—“you shouldn’t say that” or “that’s not important” or… if offering a class for free can somehow be a counterweight to those messages, then that has value.

4. Pay it forward: Known by Heart’s been given the gift of cash and in kind support so making the resultant programming free to participants feels like a way of paying it forward.

Enough of the inner voices. How has it played out? So far

People value free.

I heard several participants say to me or in how much they’ve wanted a class like this. How they’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time. And part of what they are looking for is that it’s free.

People show generosity when it’s shown to them.  Participants in these free classes have been so generous with each other—in bringing in treats, in supporting each others words and stories.

People can still manifest a strong commitment to something free. People showed up (which as I’ve observed elsewhere—in an interview with Knight Foundation’s blogger Ira Brooker —is sometimes no small thing). People worked hard on their writing and on supporting each other in their writing.

I have to say my site partners have been abundantly right. Not to negate the importance of my arguments for charging above, but I’ve been learning from this experience.

I can’t speak to whether people’s barriers to paying for a class are perceived or real. But Maybe it doesn’t matter. I haven’t given up my values around seeing teaching artists be well compensated for their work. But it’s educated me a bit about the importance of having free offerings for people. It can open up a certain kind of creative community. It can invite people to the table.

I think that’s worth something.

Learning by Going, #2: You Don’t Even Need a Window



I organize a lot of Known by Heart/Writing Home poetry sessions around windows. There are tons of interesting poems that  feature windows (see a couple below). I also like to connect writing to other art forms, so sometimes we write responding to images of paintings —Many students respond especially to Vermeer, whose paintings are filled with windows, seen and implied.

I also like to introduce something painters call a view-finder.

A viewfinder  can be as simple as a piece of card stock with a rectangle cut in it. There are fancier adjustable versions. Simple or fancy, painters use a viewfinder to select what scene or slice of the world they choose to paint.

I like to introduce writing and poetry craft elements as things, that once we learn about them, give us more choices. For example, we may or may not want to rhyme or have lines with a certain number of stresses or syllables, but once we know what a line is, we have more choices about how we use them in a poem.

And the viewfinder is an object lesson in what to me is the first element of writing craft:

We get to choose what to write about.

And this is one of those places where art-making and wellness intersect. Making choices is a key aspect of art-making, of finding our unique voice, of honing our craft. And to bring in the mental health or therapy perspective, having a sense of choice and making choices even in difficult times or situations, is a key aspect of emotional well-being.

So back to the writing with a view-finder. When I do this activity, writers often choose to focus on something within the room where they are writing. But it’s very helpful to have a window. It gives writers more choices; for writers with mobility limitations, a window with a view is no small thing in maintaining a connection to the world outside.

I give participants each a viewfinder, show how you can include more or less of a scene by bringing the frame closer or farther away from your eye.

It’s such a treat to hear what an array of images or stories a group of writers write looking out the same window. Suddenly one scene prisms into the individual perspectives of the writers.

But I was a little dismayed recently when I walked into a room I hadn’t taught in before equipped with my stack of viewfinders to realize there were no windows that my writers could look out at. I had been in the space a few years before, new it was a basement, but remembered it had windows. But I had forgotten they were not clear glass. No view to the outside world and not much to inspire in the room: Stacks of chairs,  formica tables, drab carpet.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The group dug in with gusto and found thinks to write about I would never have imagined—persona poems from the perspectives of the furniture, internal monologues, a prose poem about a lost loved one.

So what did I learn that day? Trust your writers. If people have made the effort to show up, they will find a way to write something fresh, unique, compelling, from the heart. The writers remind me we have the power of choosing what to focus on in even the most unpromising setting.

That’s something that has a use way beyond that one poetry class.

A Couple of Window Poems:

Alicia Ostriker, “August Morning, Upper Broadway”

Natasha Trethewey, “Incident”