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.



Snow and poetry

Quite content to have missed out on the East Coast snow, but wouldn’t want you to miss out on these poems featuring snow, by Patricia Kirkpatrick and Heid E. Erdrich, the featured performers at the next Known by Heart poetry performance on Monday 2/2/2015

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah...

Not what Minnesota looks like at the moment, hallelujah…


Patricia Kirkpatrick, Letter from United

Heid E. Erdrich, Last Snow

Enjoy…and of course, we hope you can join us and live and in person on February 2 for poetry, memory and the things we care about enough to carry in our hearts.

Known by Heart Poetry Performance featuring

Heid E. Erdrich and Patricia Kirkpatrick

Hosted by Naomi Cohn

February 2, 2015, 7 pm

Merriam Park Branch of the Saint Paul Public Library,

1831 Marshall Ave, Saint Paul 55104

Free and open to the public

Want to get hands-on?  If you want to try your own hand at integrating poetry and memory, check out the Memory Matters workshop, starting 3/2 at Dreamland Arts.

Details and registration:Click here

Both Known by Heart performance and the Memory Matters workshop made possible by the lovely people at the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.

Where we store lost memories

Chicago still has a bit of the crusty charm I remember from childhood

Chicago still has a bit of the crusty charm I remember from childhood

Earlier this month I got to go back to Chicago with one of my sisters. We grew up there and I lived there in my twenties and thirties. Seeing old friends and revisiting remembered places certainly kicks up a fine dust of memories. I was struck by the different qualities of our respective memories. A lot of my memories have been polished down to images and some associated emotions. My sister, meanwhile, has all that too, but she has a much richer memory of details and information, what happened where and when.

By comparison, I seem to have dumped vast quantities of things: old phone numbers, addresses, dates. And perhaps this makes some sense. In recent years I’ve leaned hard on memory as a practical strategy for vision loss. Things remembered don’t have to be looked up or read off a page.

So I buffed up my memory for memorizing terminology for grad school and for numeric codes I need to put on diagnostic assessments and treatment plans for my therapy internship. I leaned on it to memorize the 246 contractions or abbreviations used in Grade 2 Braille. I used it up committing poems to heart.

And, perhaps that meant that my mind dumped a lot of information about what happened where and when in my many years in Chicago many years ago. Or perhaps dump is not the right word. more like those old memories were crumpled, crushed and pushed aside.. They’re still in there somewhere, but something like an old ball of tinfoil shunted under a kitchen cabinet by the deft paw of a cat long gone. Even if you noticed it amid the hard-to-reach dust bunnies, it would be hard to unfold and make sense of its original form.

The late lamented feline champion of tin-foil-ball soccer.

The late lamented feline champion of tin-foil-ball soccer.

September 16 — Known By Heart Poetry Performance

Mark your calendar… poets Ed Bok Lee and Sharon Chmielarz are going to give their take on the intersections of poetry amd memory. Through their poetry and dialog, they’ll look at what it means to know something by heart. Hear poems presented from the heart and join in a conversation about poetry and the things we value enough to remember.


Date: Monday, September 16, 2013, 7 pm
Performed by: Ed Bok Lee and Sharon Chmielarz
Host/Curator: Naomi Cohn
Location: Hamline Midway Library, 1558 W. Minnehaha Ave., St. Paul.
Web: http://www.thefriends.org/ai1ec_event/known-by-heart-poetry-performance/?instance_id=

Artist bios:

Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, winner of a 2012 American Book Award, and a Minnesota Book Award for Poetry, and Real Karaoke People, winner of a 2006 PEN/Open Book Award.

Sharon Chmielarz’s eighth book of poetry is Love from the Yellowstone Trail. Her work has been a finalist in the National Poetry Series, and in ‘99, ‘01, ‘02, ’05, ’07, ’10 and ‘11 nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It’s been featured on American Life in Poetry (‘07) and individual poems translated into French and Polish. She’s had poems published in magazines like The Notre Dame Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, The Hudson Review, The North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Commonweal, Salmagundi, Margie, The Seneca Review, Louisiana Literature, Ontario Review, CutBank. She’s the recipient of the 2012 Jane Kenyon Award from Water~Stone Review

Naomi Cohn’s poetry has been recognized by grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, VSA Minnesota, and numerous residencies. Her writing has appeared in Water~Stone, Fourth River, and Star Tribune, among other places. Red Dragonfly Press is publishing her chapbook, Nectar and Eternity, in 2013. She developed Known by Heart as part of a larger project on memory and forgetting.

Concrete Memory — Sidewalk Poetry 2013

Kevin Walker's sidewalk poem

Kevin Walker’s sidewalk poem

Here’s a chance for your words to be remembered underfoot. March 15 is the deadline for submitting your short poem to Saint Paul’s Sidewalk Poetry project. Since 2008, Marcus Young and his colleagues at Public Art Saint Paul and the City of Saint Paul have been creating an evolving book of poems under our feet, with our sidewalks as the pages. If you live in Saint Paul, you can be part of it.

Click here for guidelines


Good luck…

Recommended Reading: Moonwalking with Einstein

Memory as a sport? Give me a break. I didn’t expect to like Joshua Foer’s book about becoming a mental athlete, vying for a championship based on the ability to cram and recall huge amounts of useless information.

But Moonwalking with Einstein is a great read and Foer does far more than just chart his journey into the nerdy world of memory athletes.

Along the way he provides an engaging explanation of how neuroscientists currently understand memory. He shows us how the extreme accomplishments of memory champions build on ancient and (conceptually) simple techniques of linking image, place and memory. He takes us through the history of moving memory out of our heads and into technology…and he’s not just talking about SD cards and smart phones here: As Foer points out, writing and books are also forms of external memory storage.

If the question of memory intrigues you in any way, find yourself a copy of this book.

Memory and Humor

My parents, Rella and Barney Cohn, in the 1990s. Their wisecracks live on.

I think about my parents this time of year. My mother was born in October and my father died in November. They’ve both been gone years now and on rainy days like this, I think about the inadequacy of my own memory as a vessel for the entirety of their lives. But that sounds somber and serious and even as my memories of my parents erode, I remember my parents idosyncarcies and my  father and his sense of humor about the decay of his own memory. Here’s something I wrote about them when they were both still here…


What Remained

Ten years ago my father couldn’t tell a red light from a green one. We noticed when he asked the same question twice. How’s the weather up there? A minute later, How’s the weather? How’s the weather? Every visit, he was more shrunken, more confused. Stutter, silence, fall. The first time he disappeared in the Field Museum men’s room, for twenty minutes I fretted among plastic dinosaurs, at last asked a complete stranger to retrieve him, zipped, buttoned. Later on, we sought what remained—memories of a former colleague, Hail, hail the gang’s all here, his great strength of will, bald old snapping turtle gathering his endurance, waiting. Like the time my mother went on for twenty minutes about the origins of the name Zanvel. Natter, chat, a steady rain of knowledge. My father sat silent, dull,  but suddenly leaned forward, grinned, showed yellow teeth, said, I‘m worried about your mother’s memory.


Go see Red Eye’s fresh take on the old topic of memory

As fascinated as I am by the processes of memory and forgetting, creating a memorable theater experience based on the encoding and storage of memory sounds like a tall order.

But Red Eye Theater has done just that with Meromyny—it’s heady, witty and poignant and the action literally takes place inside the mind—with the characters scrambling to accept and store the endless stream of new information we’re all bombarded with. (Miram Must as Jargon leads the excellent cast. Steve Busa directs; Rachel Jendrzejewski, playwright)

Go see it if you can.

Known by Heart Continues

Just confirmed with Friends of the St. Paul Public Library that we’ll be doing some more Known by Heart programming, exploring poetry and memory. After the May event, people told us they enjoyed hearing poetry presented from memory. The intersection of words and memory is a topic that resonates with people.

Known by Heart will continue as a series of four events in Fall 2013.  Expect some new poets presenting work from memory, workshops on presenting work from memory, and a memorized poetry slam.  I’m thrilled to be working again with the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, as well as Zaraawar Mistry, Dreamland Arts, who’s agreed to co-present one of the workshops with me.

 I’ll keep you posted as we finalize details.