Poetry circle attracts passionate seniors

Lawrence Sandy didn't know the first thing about poetry when he was invited to the Soul Food Poetry Workshop at Baycrest senior’s home two years ago. The invitee told Sandy he didn't have to return if he didn't like it. "So I went and became addicted and have been going ever since," says the 96-year-old Baycrest resident. Every Wednesday for the last eight years, seniors who live at the facility, and others from the community, gather in the Terraces at Baycrest's Fireside Lounge to present, recite and discuss poems.
The notion of putting their thoughts and feelings into free verse or rhyme is new for many of them, but the core group of 20 cherish the outlet poetry brings and the circle that enables them to share it.
Recently the Occupy Toronto protest in St. James park inspired a poem, prompting a discussion about police states and oppression.

Poetry is a no-nonsense pursuit and "the fastest route into the soul," says Lesley Shore, the retired English professor who has led the group for the last seven years. "You get right into the heart of the matter, so there's nothing superficial about these discussions." Shore, 65, took over from founder Marshall Margolis, after the lawyer with a passion for poetry lost a brief battle with melanoma at age 60. The workshop is partly a tribute to him, she says. It’s a model she believes should be copied and shared with other seniors' homes. So Shore will present their model at the Ontario Gerontology Association conference in April. The theme is innovation and she believes their workshop fits the bill. "The participants are not just appreciating poetry, they are writing poems that reflect their lives and reading one another's poems," she says.
Shore is seeking funding or a publisher and plans to put a book together about how the group formed and evolved, and will include some of the poetry.

"I use it kind of like a confessional," says Helen Cornfield, 95 “and a half,” she’s quick to correct. Cornfield's husband of 68 years died two years ago and she misses the partner with whom she shared every thought and action. "I have these feelings and who am I going to tell them to? I don't have a best friend, but I can write it down," she says. It was Shore who encouraged members to write and share their own compositions.
"Writing poetry has had an enormously positive effect on their lives, because it allows them to express themselves and to create," she says. "Many of them have not done that before." And though everyone benefits from the support the group provides each person, outsiders should not presume these weekly sessions are for bemoaning lost youth.
"They are having a good time," Shore says. "They are involved and their minds are stimulated."
That rings true on a recent Wednesday afternoon as Alissa Poskanzerg reads her poem called Canadian Geese, in which she ponders the organization of a flock flying overhead in formation — how they decide who leads, how they stay together, without leaving the weak behind.

She concludes:
We look up in awe.
Where is the Leader we can trust?
Politics is a favourite topic for Poskanzerg, 85, who has been writing poetry for about seven years, but kept it to herself before joining the group two years ago.
"It was very personal to me, but since I started coming to this class I feel comfortable enough to read it," she says.
The group is not for everyone — Sandy notes that his wife of 71 years prefers to stay home and watch TV. But the introspection that has come from writing and sharing poetry has given him an appreciation for his past that he started to lose when the couple moved into the home 10 years ago. Those stirrings of self-pity have vanished.
"That's been a godsend for me," he says.

by Barbara Turnbull

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