Naomi Cohn sometimes uses tiny windows to help her poetry students choose what to write about.
Her tool is a simple piece of paper with a hole cut out of it that students look through to narrow their field of vision. Whether the writing group is inside a room on the 10th story of a senior high-rise or a basement with opaque windows, using this “viewfinder” can give participants a tool to focus on subject matter.
Cohn, a St. Anthony Park poet and creator of Known by Heart, an enterprise that specializes in providing writing experiences with older adults and people with disabilities, says the first time she tried this was at Ebenezer senior living complex in Minneapolis. She assumed her students would take the viewfinders to the windows and look at the street or up into the sky or at a tree or the city skyline, but “people wrote about a hand or their friend’s face.”
“That’s one of the things poetry does is it takes a specific,” Cohn says. “We might be writing about the universal theme of love or loss or winter or whatever, but we take a particular twig with ice on it or a particular gesture that our friend does, and that’s our window into that writing.”
Cohn is bringing her writing work to St. Anthony Park in April with a series of workshops through St. Anthony Park Area Seniors (SAPAS), a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to seniors, and to Seal Hi-Rise in South St. Anthony this summer. Workshops with Hamline Midway Elders are in the works.
These workshops are part of a 2015 Knight Arts Challenge grant Cohn received to develop arts activities for older adults. Additional funding for the project has come from Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, Trillium Family Foundation and Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.
Cohn, 53, studied genetics, history and visual arts as an undergraduate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Her post-college work included community organizing, copyediting at Encyclopedia Britannica, nonprofit communications and grant writing. She became more interested in doing her own writing in her late 20s, as writing tasks became more complicated when she began to lose her eyesight from myopic degeneration, a condition that damages the retina.
“At first, [creative] writing was kind of a way of exercising a different muscle, and then I got addicted to it,” she says.
In 2010, Cohn went back to school for a degree in psychotherapy. In 2014, she enrolled in a master’s program in family therapy. An internship at Ebenezer was the spark that ignited her writing workshops with older adults.
“I was there as a family therapist intern, but they have great lifelong learning programs, and I realized that I love working in that capacity with older adults,” she says. “I think family therapy and psychotherapy can be useful,” yet the people she worked with “didn’t feel broken, but they were perfectly willing to come to a poetry or creativity group and through that process build relationships.”
Which is essentially what you aspire to do in a family therapy session, Cohn says. That made her realize that poetry is a powerful intervention, and she began to look for ways to use it in her work with older adults.
Cohn wanted to bring the work into her own community and reach the “80 to 90 percent of us who are aging in our homes, often isolated, often with mobility issues. How do we serve those folks?
“From a gerontology perspective, where you are on the spectrum from isolation to connection is indicative of outcomes Window from 1 in terms of quality of life,” Cohn says. “Social connection and reducing isolation is incredibly important in the mental and physical health of older adults. I certainly have seen that anecdotally in how people come into a [writing] session and how they leave.”
People offer “incredible support” to each other in these groups, Cohn says. “Poetry gets personal pretty fast.”
Society has internalized ageism, she says, “so to empower older adults to authentically share their experience feels important to me.” And a gathering of people learning, writing and sharing their creations “is a powerful form of community.”
The SAPAS classes will be held four Mondays in April and May, 10 a.m.-noon, at Centennial United Methodist Church, 2200 Hillside Ave. The first class, “Writing Home: Building Blocks of Poetry,” will be held April 3. Subsequent classes will be held April 17, May 1 and May 15.
The classes are free, but registration is required and space is limited. You can call the SAPAS office at 651-642-9052 to register.