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.

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.

Gratitude for a night to remember








Wednesday’s Known by Heart event at the Hamline library had a great turnout. Who know so many people cared about poetry and memory?

I loved hearing John Minczeski’s and Andrea Jenkins’ take on the question of the connections between poetry and memory; I loved learning from audience members that some of them get together as a group and memorize poems.

 Thanks to all the people who came to the event; to  John and Andrea for taking part in the Known by Heart experiment; to Zaraaawar Mistry of Dreamland Arts  for his good-humored  and amazing mentoring on ways to perform poems; to Jon Skaalen  of VSA Minnesota and Morgan Gracye Willow for ASL guidance;  to the Thursday night poets Ann McKnley, Lia Rivamonte, Barbara Davis, Sue Kunitz,  MaryAnn Franta Moenck,  and Alice Duggan; to the Studios of Key West; to Alayne Hopkins from the Friends,to John and the Hamline Midway librarian,  to Dona Schwartz and Karen Hering for project and other wisdom; and to Ray for being Ray.

 Thanks also to the Minnesota State Arts Board and The Friends of the St. Paul Public Libry and the Hamline Midway Library for helping make this event possible.

 Naomi Cohn  is a fiscal year 2011 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Why I won’t be presenting “What happens to a dream deferred”

The window of a church in the neighborhood where I grew up.

One of the poems I’ve memorized for the Known By Heart project is Langston Hughes’ Harlem, better known by its first line, What happens to a dream deferred? It’s a vivid, powerful poem; its strong images and cadences make it memorable. Easy to memorize and well worth sharing.

But Saturday night I had the opportunity to see Are You Now or Have You Ever Been….Carlyle Brown’s stunning and eloquent play about Langston Hughes appearing before Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities. Gavin Lawrence

offers an amazing performance as Langston Hughes. Brown’s script makes great use of poetry and history, wrapping them in a compelling dramatic package. And the topic is chillingly relevant to the present day.

The performances are equally outstanding. I couldn’t begin to bring the heft and nuance to Hughes’ lines that Gavin Lawrence does. So please go see this play.

And if you want to hear what stayed on my own list, please come see me and Andrea Jenkins and John Minczeski in the Known By Heart event  this Wednesday, May 9, at the Hamline Midway library. (Sponsored by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and made possible by  a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board)

Storage is always a problem

(These are plums, not peaches, but certainly juicier than a hatrack)

For the human mind, the issue of memory is actually not just storage, but retrieval as well.

I’ve been wrestling with both storage and retrieval in the Known by Heart project. It sounded like a great idea at the time, create a bunch of poems designed to be memorized and present them from the heart. But as the day draws closer, I’m reminded of a few things about myself. Really, just one thing: How, as a middle-aged person with a fast-shrinking brain, am I supposed to get all this work stuffed in my head?

I started this project with some ideas about what makes poetry memorable. Memorizing the E.E. CUMMINGS, “as freedom is a breakfast food” (I think it’s officially known as 25 in his collection 50 Poems) I noticed how pattern and image make things memorable. For example, it’s hard to forget “as hatracks into peachtrees grow/or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair.” By contrast, I found more abstract lines in the poem, “as the impure think all things pure” hard to make stick in memory.

Pattern is another tool I noticed as I started memorizing other poet’s work. E.E. CUMMINGS’s “as freedom is a breakfast food” relies not only on image. It uses iambic lines, (lubdub, lubdub a pattern as familiar as a heartbeat). There’s also pattern in a repeated line revolving through the stanzas of the poem.

So these tools: image and pattern have helped. But I’ve been learning new tools as well that play on other aspects of how we remember. More on that soon.

Memory as revision

As I mentioned in my last post, I started this project with a few ideas about how to make poems memorable and easier to memorize. But in my work with theater coach Zaraawar Mistry* of Dreamland Arts I keep learning new things about poetry and memory

As a cognitive phenomenon, neuroscientists tell us that memory is a process of revision, that each time we access a memory, we change it. Memory of events is highly fallible, malleable and untrustworthy. One of my favorite examples of this is a friend, in her sixties, telling me that she and her siblings had recently each drawn a plan of their childhood home. They drew different sketches—not just details of where the door was, but rooms in different places.

So, memory as revision, that should come as no surprise. But it’s been a surprise and delight to realize how the work of putting a poem into memory can be an excellent revision tool for a writer.  Something about this memory work reveals, with great clarity, a great deal about a poem.  Those words that seemed so perfect on the page suddenly lose their shine. But it’s not just that extraneous words and phrases don’t seem worth the work of remembering them.  Sometimes the memory work offers clarity about the whole poem—the flow and movement of the thing become clear. At leat that’s how it seems to me. I hope you’ll be able to come judge for yourself on May 9.

 *PS: Go see Mistry’s one-man show, The Other Mr. Gandhi, if you possibly can. It’s amazing, it’s at Dreamland Arts, and he’s added some performances in April. that’s all I’ll say about it.

Isn’t memory obsolete?

If you’re old enough, you may dimly recall a quaint time when people remembered each other’s phone numbers.  To contact my true love, I had to do something more than speed dial 1 or tap a screen.   Once upon a time we used to have to remember things because we didn’t have everywhere-access to the internet to tell us where to eat, how to find the hospital, remind us what nasty thing our BFF just said about us on Facebook. We didn’t have apps to tell us the Costa Rican bird we just heard was a three-wattled bellbird

And once upon a time before that people used to have to sing epic poems because they had no means of writing down their history and myths.

But beyond a certain contrarian steampunk retro silliness, why bother to commit things to memory, to know then by heart?

1) I think it’s just a shame not to use all that brain-jelly that was set up to store memory, to remember, to do its work of shuttling sparks between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.  I still think it’s useful to remember how to walk, even though I’m grateful for trains, planes and automobiles.   

(For a highly readable account of current research on just how the brain stores or encodes memory, look at Terry McDermott’s 101 Theory Drive.)

2) It’s a way to keep yourself entertained when the power goes out. If you’ve committed a few things to memory, you’ll never be bored.

3) It’s a way to claim what matters to you:  A piece of your culture, your history, or something that inspires you. Not something that was beaten into you like the times table or an obligatory prayer, but the things you choose to take the time to commit to memory

So is human memory optional? Perhaps; perhaps not. You choose.