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Where I’m From: Poetry Project Preserves Elders’ Memories

Peiper Bloomquist

Bill thomas: Hi, this is Bill Thomas at Prairie Public. When the pandemic descended on us, a lot of people wondered rightly about being able to continue. You can imagine that this would especially apply to a project for older people, since they have repeatedly been identified as very vulnerable. But at the Burleigh County Senior Center, they used an Arts for Life grant from the North Dakota Council On the Arts to do a poetry project based on a sort of template, Where I'm From. Lisa Bennett works at the Burleigh County Senior Centers where she did this project. And she reads from a poem produced, in spite of the pandemic.

Lisa Bennett: I am from Dust, by Norma Nichols. "I am from dust, from sealer, and Comet.

I am from the brown painted house in the heart of town, which we fixed up every year.

I am from the sunflower, and from the apple tree, and from the dried apples we took from it.

I am from ham on Easter, and from the honest and trustworthy.

I am from Edward and Bee. I'm from baking oatmeal rolls that would melt in your mouth, and carpentry, and from being on time.

I'm from swimming a half hour after lunch, and I'm from the music by the moody blues. I'm from a long line of doers.

I'm from New York in the Catskill Mountains and Irish ancestry, from steak and potatoes, from going on vacation in the rain and going home with heavy tents. Mom didn't want to sleep in water. Quilts held high and pictures taken, and an old hair piece hanging on the wall, a few hundred years old, looking like flowers made of the family hair." April 2020

Bill thomas: Makes you want to do one of these yourself, doesn't it? Alicia Underlee Nelson wrote about this project.

Alicia Underlee Nelson: The poem's inspired by the elders of the Burleigh County Senior Center leap off the page, and they go straight to your senses. The heady scent of lilacs mingles with fresh bread from a summer kitchen. Fibber McGee and Molly plays on the radio as the grandmother's clock keeps time. The quiet moments that make up a life can be just as evocative as the major milestones. The lives of 14 individuals are rendered in a series of sensory snapshots that put the reader right in the subject's shoes.

The truth of these poems is nestled in dozens of tiny details that history often overlooks. It's in the bark of the gnarled Oak tree, digging into the back of your knees as you hang upside down from its branches. The crinkle of a brown paper bag of Christmas trees. The tart taste of blueberry jelly on your tongue. The elders are served by Bismark's Burleigh County Senior Center live in their own residences and come to the Center for classes, activities, and meals. Social distancing measures that curb the spread of the coronavirus have made community building a challenge. So site manager, Lisa Bennett felt that the poetry project, which could be conducted remotely was a responsible and timely way to use the facility's Art for Life grant from the North Dakota Council on the Arts and to process the feelings that's stirred up by a global health crisis.

Lisa Bennett: I think every one of the people that did this poem, Where I'm From will say that it gave them time to think about what's important in life. And I participated as well. Most of the people grew up in the depression or shortly thereafter, so they know what it's like to give up things. It was a very good reminder at a perfect time when we're all homebound basically.

I'm from Shared Bathtub Water, John Maddock.

"I am from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, from Lifebuoy soap and Watkins vanilla. I am from a two story farmhouse with a summer kitchen, a kerosene cookstove filling the air with mom's fresh bread.

I am from a vegetable garden below the barn, the lilac bush blossoming for Memorial Day. Mom's love for flowers, geraniums, irises, surrounded by a wire fence.

I'm from midnight masses, and a father with patience and tolerance, from Jack Pat, Jack Matt, and Stinky.

I'm from 4-H and angel food cake for birthdays and from driving our toy trucks on the veins of dad's arms as he read the newspaper.

I'm from, "Don't lick the frost from the steel fence post," and, "Who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder."

I'm from visiting graves with relatives on a Sunday.

I'm from Grand Forks, North Dakota, an Irish father and French mother, apple pies, and Good Friday oyster stew, from being saved by an older sister after falling through the ice on a stockpond. She found a post and hung onto it. The leather Davenport, where I would rest and take comfort in the picture of a young girl watching a robin in the trees. Mom's red garden cart tucked away in our garden shed." April 2020.

Credit North Dakota Council on the Arts

Alicia Underlee Nelson: The subjects called writers Matthew Musacchia and Maureen McDonald Hinz, who asked them a series of questions about their memories. After the discussion, the writers shaped their responses using the Where I'm From poetic template, developed by George Ella Lyon. The finished poems were shared with the seniors who were encouraged to send copies to friends and family and published in the community newsletter. The poems will soon be compiled into a book for the elders as well. Some of the subjects admittedly needed a little convincing at first. "I thought, oh dear, my life is not exciting," last Nancy Skerrett, describing her initial reaction to the interview with McDonald Hinz, "but I found a lot of things to write about. I hadn't thought about some of this stuff for years. It was a really fun for them," says McDonald Hinz. "Once they started sharing the poems with friends and family, I knew it was going to bring up even more memories and discussions." Lisa Bennett said.

Lisa Bennett: That's the value of this program and this poem is after reading about air raid sirens and ration cards, living on WPA wages, or a struggling farm profit and the tales of surviving icy ponds and exploding stoves and harsh winters, and most of them without reliable heater indoor plumbing. I've gained a whole new appreciation for the people I serve here at Burleigh County Senior Center. It taught me that they all lived really full lives. And it also proves to me that the human race is very resilient. This was just a wonderful project, and I hope that we'll do it again in the near future.

Alicia UnderleeNelson: Irene Walter, a poet herself, used the poem written about her to inspire her own work. She says, "Anyone can and should do a project like this with the people they love. You just have to go back and think about how things were," she advises. "I wish that we had asked our grandparents more because there's so many things we wonder about now. Talk to the older ones while they're still here."

Lisa Bennett: I'm from an Irish Clogger and Dixieland Funerals, by Nancy Keating.

"I am from the television, from spices and potatoes. I am from a very big house with big windows and nice trees, very peaceful with a lot of sunlight coming in.

I am from lilacs, spirea, and wild roses, the Souris Mouse River. Our house, an island with four bridges all around. I'm from midnight mass and nobody ever saying goodbye. From Philadelphia June. Phyllis and Clancy and Junebug.

I'm from smoking unfortunately, and dancing lessons. And from everyone learning to play an instrument. I'm from look it up and Benny Goodman's Sing, Sing, Sing.

I'm from beautiful Sunday dinners of meat and potatoes.

I'm from Minot, North Dakota and Swedish, Irish, German, English. Eggs Benedict, and Yorkshire pudding. From a grandfather, the first sheriff of Renville County. Grandma campaigning against him to stop him from keeping the job. His Sheriff's badge of nickel and my mom's wedding rings kept in my living room right here." April 2020.

Bill Thomas: That was Lisa Bennett from the Burleigh County Senior Center reading one of the poems worked up as part of their Arts for Life project from the North Dakota Council on the Arts. The report you heard was written by Alicia Underlee Nelson. It's part of a series called "Little Stories" at the Arts Council.  They commissioned writers to tell some little stories about how people in the arts were responding to these challenging times and finding new ways to do things. You can see more of them at https://news.prairiepublic.org/programs/little-stories or you can go the North Dakota Council On The Arts website, https://www.arts.nd.gov/.
This project is supported in part by a grant from the North Dakota Council on The Arts which receives funding from the state legislature and the National Endowment for The Arts. I'm Bill Thomas.

See the Smithsonian Institution’s feature of this project,

Credit North Dakota Council on the Arts

Credit North Dakota Council on the Arts


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