Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Alzheimer's Poetry Project

Sometimes it's good to dive into the internet archives of favorite sites on a rainy Sunday -- great discoveries can wait in response to every click of the mouse, and the sheer volume of posts can seem daunting until one really stands out. Readers can determine a writer's influences, a casual mention of an author can open a whole new shared interest or provide an essential "aha" moment of understanding.

Levi Asher's Literary Kicks site has been rolling on since 1994, and the blog that began primarily as an exploration of the Beat generation ethic has broadened into an expansive contemporary journal, with contributions by a large number of writers on many topics as well as Action Poetry, a freeform space for "speed, spontaneity and responsiveness to others in the room."

Here's an excerpt from Asher's 2008 post entitled "The Alzheimer's Poetry Slam." It's a blast to read and opens the door to a whole area of new thinking about literature and the way listeners respond to it, even those who are considered unreachable through disability or disease. The post originally appeared August 12, 2008.

The best poetry slam I've been to this year was in a room full of Alzheimer's patients at the East 80th Street Residence in New York City.

... I sat in a circle with more than twenty senior citizens, all of them suffering from moderate to severe memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer's or Alzheimer's-related disease, watching spoken-word poet and author Gary Mex Glazner work the crowd. Before beginning, he walked the circle, looking deeply into the eyes of each attendee and clasping their hands. Then he started in with the poems -- all of them classics, designed to burrow deep in the memories of the bemused listeners, who responded at surprising moments.

"Tyger, Tyger --" Glazner began.

"Burning bright", a man in the back shouted out. They remember William Blake at the Assisted Living Care center on the Upper East Side, and they also remember William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That's really the whole concept: victims of Alzheimer's disease might not remember what they've done four hours ago, but they remember classic poetry, and anybody who doubts how much this might mean to them only has to sit in this circle and watch each person's eager, satisfied response.

... Like any good slam poet, Glazner doesn't work in isolation; he'd brought a gang of eager young poets from Study Abroad on Bowery's "Summer Institute of Social Justice and Applied Poetics" to work this room with him, turning the session into an encounter between multiple generations. The visiting poets read some of their own work and helped keep the "call and response" going, encouraging the sometimes confused patients to repeat, respond to and cherish each individual line they heard. Cherish they did.

.... The Alzheimer's Poetry Project is a growing movement -- you can find more information about it here.

The post brought a number of responses, moments of recognition from readers who had similar experiences with friends or relatives. One comment summed up the power of poetry to remain in memory, a far stronger connection even than the written word: Poetry exists in breath. It tends to remain, as they say, on the tip of the tongue. For millennia, that is how it has stuck around, especially before, but also after, the advent of written language. The APP's obvious success is another kind of proof of the idea that poems are easier to remember than most other things.

(photos of Gary Mex Glazner and the Study Abroad group by Levi Asher)

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