Poetry is good for the soul, therapeutic for problems

To start a short session of meditation, teacher Roberta Pressman passes around a picture of a beautiful, rain-soaked green forest. Her students, ages 54 through 82, each take a look at the picture, ponder it, and close their eyes.

Next, Pressman leads her students through simple physical exercises with their eyes closed. She has them shake their feet, squeeze their hands above their heads to get the blood circulating, move their toes inside their shoes.

“We’re going to think about leaving our problems outside the door,” says Pressman in a calm and soothing voice. She leads them through a forest, where rain falls though the branches, and a rainbow appears. Finally, she takes them to a door and has them imagine what is behind the gateway.

This exercise is not happening at your local meditation center. This is happening at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, in Pressman’s poetry club group. A Montefiore Senior Center activity, the club meets the first and third Fridays of the month, year-round.

After the meditation, participants take 15 minutes to write anything and all that comes to their minds. Some individuals are very concentrated; some have smiles as they scribble. A few put their hands on their foreheads and write with furrowed brow. One or two choose not to write, and sit calmly watching the others. At times writers seem to have some difficulty choosing the appropriate words.

When everyone puts down their pens, the group of about a dozen finds that there are different interpretations of the picture that was mentally sketched. Some have written stories, one has written a haiku, and others have made rhymes out of their thoughts.

For the most part, imagery of nature shines through. Phrases like “Large butterflies with wings like jewels,” “rivulets of rain” on the roof and “how beautiful nature can be when no one is peeking” are shared with the class.

On the other hand, Irving Kruger makes his comedic. “What I get out of meditation, I was confused by my medication,” he reads, receiving many nods of agreement from the class.

“I think of the ones that I can keep,

“If they could only put me to sleep.

“But I find my mind won’t let me,

“When my memory starts to leave, forget it.”

The students clap and compliment after every reading. A close-knit bunch, many members have been together for two years since the reopening of the community center.

With more than 25 years’ experience teaching poetry and in poetry therapy, Pressman explains that she places more importance on the emotional aspects of reading and writing poetry than on criticism. She said her class centers not on the literary side of poetry, but the emotional side.

“In a way it’s very good [not to criticize], but I’d like to bring in some criticism sometimes. I do it sometimes, but I like to emphasize the emotions in the positive aspects as much as possible.”

She believes that poetry is a perfect vehicle through which to express oneself, because it concentrates emotions.

“It has shorter lines than essays or stories and [therefore] compact thoughts and emotions that go into the poem,” she says. “Haiku especially, it’s like a puzzle. It helps to get the brain going.”

Poetry even can play a part in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, she suggests.

And for many poetry club members, this class has helped in healing, and keeping the brain and soul active and awake.

Ilene Mauser, who has tried her hand at children’s literature in the past, started writing with Pressman two years ago. Mauser, who has difficulty walking, said writing helps with the physical pain she experiences. Her closest friends in the class have served as positive motivators, and have helped her through some of her more painful times. They even chat online when not in class.

“This is the place I get the most benefit,” Mauser says. “To listen to their writing, it’s very inspiring.”

George Mintzer says he is able to express himself better now. “Some of us have memories, some of us even have dreams, but how can we articulate them?”

A number of the participants are Jewish, though there is no special emphasis on Judaism per se. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for Pressman to use a timely Jewish holiday as a theme to get people writing.

A core group shows up most of the time, while others come and go as they can. The class is free.

Marianne Herman, 65, started writing in 1986 and says she will never stop.

“I enjoy coming,” Herman says. “I will never consider myself elderly. My spirit and soul will never grow old. I feel very inspired to feel younger and younger and younger.”

The poetry club’s spring book and poetry reading will take place 12:30-2 p.m. Friday, May 19 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. The public is welcome.