Vitaly Bantov writes poetry in both Russian and English (Photo/Natalie Schrik)
Vitaly Bantov writes poetry in both Russian and English (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

New Litquake project puts lives of our elders on paper

For the physically active and financially solvent, the Bay Area is a wonderland of cultural and recreational opportunities. But what about those who are older, with limited physical abilities and financial means?

A few years ago, that question popped into Jane Ganahl’s mind after she attended a Smuin Ballet performance at the senior facility on the Peninsula where her father lived.

“It made me wonder what life is like for seniors whose facilities don’t have all the resources they’d like to have to offer such creative stimulation,” said Ganahl, co-founder of Litquake, a literary festival that takes place each fall around the Bay Area.

Fast-forward to a recent Thursday morning at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, formerly known as the Jewish Home of San Francisco. The staff bustles around, attending to their many tasks. Light from the windows illuminates the faces of elderly people sitting quietly in the halls. Art is everywhere on the walls. Finches chirp in large birdcages along the corridors. A peaceful ambiance reigns.

Suddenly some residents start to make their way to a meeting room, on foot, with walkers or in wheelchairs. Inside, San Francisco poet Charlie Getter greets each one of them by name, with a jovial remark. The residents also greet one another with familiarity and warmth.

One woman named Edie is wheeled in by an attendant. Spotting her gray curls just done up at the salon, everyone compliments her on her new hairdo, including Getter. She banters back in a deep, gravelly voice.

“These are my people,” Getter says, grinning ear to ear.

Welcome to the Litquake Elder Project, a new community initiative that seeks to include seniors in creative expression through poetry, prose and reading their work aloud.

With Getter is another writer, Lisa Galloway, who structured the program to bring some of the energy and purpose of Litquake to elders who cannot go to the festival in person.

“Our goal,” said Galloway, now project director, “is to provide an outlet for seniors both to engage with one another and with their own creative energies.”

Lisa Galloway and Charlie Getter (Photo/Natalie Schrik
Lisa Galloway and Charlie Getter (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

Ganahl had previously articulated that goal to the Litquake board of directors, but wasn’t sure how to make it happen until she met Galloway — at a poetry reading, of course.

A published poet with an MFA in creative writing from Pacific University in Oregon, Galloway, 40, once worked in Kaiser Permanente’s palliative care program conducting end-of-life interviews. As an undergraduate in college, she created a project that paired seniors with creative writing students in order to facilitate the telling of their stories.

“I’ve also lost a lot of family and friends,” she said, “so I guess the later stage of life is a soft spot for me.”

After her chance meeting with Ganahl, Galloway wrote a proposal outlining how writing teachers could go into facilities to work with the seniors on telling their stories. The Litquake board enthusiastically approved, and with seed money from the California Arts Council, the Litquake Elder Project went forward. The first sessions took place in September 2017 at a day-use facility for seniors in downtown Oakland. There have also been classes at another day program called Cayuga Connectors.

But Litquake really wanted to reach out to seniors who couldn’t get around. After surveying possible residential facilities, Galloway settled on the Campus for Jewish Living (CJL).

“The population at CJL is the mix and type of population that we really wanted to work with, as the seniors there have more restrictions on being able to go elsewhere to attend a class,” said Amy Kaminer, Litquake’s development director.

The inaugural classes began two months later.

One of the prospective teachers Galloway interviewed was Marina Lazzara, a poet, nutritionist and singer-songwriter who shared her interest in working with seniors.

“It was a dream for me to bring these two worlds together,” Lazzara said.

CJL sees the project as a valuable addition to what they can offer, said Sinead Dinsmore, who coordinates enrichment activities for CJL residents.

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Poet Charlie Getter leads a session of the Litquake Elder Project. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

“Sometimes the residents need to be encouraged to get out of their rooms, but once they get to the workshop, they enjoy it,” said Dinsmore.

With Galloway at the helm, the Litquake Elder Project currently has four writing teachers: Getter, Lazzara, Kevin Dublin and Julie Rogers. Sessions are 90 minutes and last eight weeks, after which a small anthology of the seniors’ writing is printed in a booklet called “Words Matter.” So far three have been published. Organizers said about 100 different residents have taken part in the workshops, with a core group that keeps coming back for more.

They are quite diverse, but united by their interest in writing.

“We didn’t choose to work specifically with a place that was Jewish, nor does the CJL only serve Jewish folks, but they were welcoming and open to working with us,” Kaminer said.

“Litquake prides itself on reaching a wide, diverse population and trying to meet people wherever they are. We would like to continue at the Campus for Jewish Living and we also hope to expand to additional sites, given sufficient funding.”

Galloway estimated that about half of the participants did some sort of writing in their younger years, with some of them published.

But it’s not really about the poems. Or rather, it is and it isn’t.

Phyllis Koestenbaum, 88, a published poet who used to teach poetry at Stanford University, wound up at the Campus for Jewish Living in 2016 after her husband died. A stroke eight years ago took away much of her eyesight and robbed her of the ability to type or hold a pen.

Undaunted, the teachers in the Elder Project suggested that she dictate her words into a recording device with the help of an aide, which they then transcribed. She doesn’t fuss over editing the way she used to.

“This class makes me believe again in who I am,” said Koestenbaum, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair. “I don’t believe in myself until I come to this class. People are so kind. I love it.”

Turdy Warshaw reads from work she wrote as part of the Litquake Elder Project. (Photo/Natalie Schrik)x
Trudy Warshaw reads from work she wrote as part of the Litquake Elder Project.

Bernice Palmer, her blue eyes contrasting with her bright, rose-colored sweater, has been writing poetry since kindergarten and was published in a poetry journal in Florida. Later in life, she became a news reporter at the Santa Ynez Valley News in Santa Barbara County.

“I would like to get back to writing poetry,” she said assertively. “I want to see us published.”

In Lazzara’s view, “It’s not about the poetry. It’s about keeping memory alive. About sparking the memories.”

Lazzara wrote her master’s thesis on the letters of Emily Dickinson, and sometimes uses the format of letters to get the residents writing — to someone they once knew, or haven’t seen in a while, even someone who has died. She said that students find their own voice very easily in that mode, without inhibition.

“It can get very emotional,” she said. “I’ve been moved to tears.”

But for resident John Kuppinger, who is in a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking due to a facial condition, it’s all about the fun.

Dublin, one of the teachers, said Kuppinger is always the first to start on a writing assignment — and the first to finish. Assignments vary constantly, with the teachers offering a variety of poems as examples and often using music, photos or objects as prompts for the seniors to explore in their writing.

“I always can’t wait to hear what he writes,” Dublin said of Kuppinger. “For the non-poets, there is always something they can write about, whatever their skill level. To write is an assertion of selfhood — that’s a big part of it. They are excited for an opportunity to share. They seem interested in hearing what the others have to say, or have written. There is value just in their giving one another attention and time.”

For those like Koestenbaum with a history of writing, the classes offer them “practice, validation and engagement in something they love.”

At the session on this particular Thursday, Getter asks the Litquake intern, Ashyka Davé, 27, to perform an excerpt of a classical Indian dance.

“It’s called ‘Lord Krishna plays his flute,’” Davé says sweetly.

Vitaly Bantov (left) and John Kuppinger in a session of the Litquake Elder Project (Photo/Natalie Schrik)
Vitaly Bantov (left) and John Kuppinger in a session of the Litquake Elder Project (Photo/Natalie Schrik)

Participants are asked to describe what they saw, and after watching the dance intently, they bend over their papers, pencils in hand. When it comes time to read their poems aloud, many describe Davé as “lovely” or “graceful.”

”I like it that everybody had a little bit of a different take,” Getter jokes.

“Lord Krishna is lucky that people are dancing to him,” Koestenbaum says wryly.

Galloway said that the workshops help the residents break through the isolation they often feel when they move out of their own homes and into a residential facility. The ability to express what’s inside and hear each other’s stories makes them more connected.

“You build a community by virtue of sharing regularly,” she said.

The residents are not the only ones who are deeply affected.

Dublin said that he “actually learns a lot” from the seniors. “Their experience is so vast.”

“I walk in humbled. I leave floored,” Lazzara said. “We’re working with people who are wiser than we are. Everyone has experiences.”

Ganahl said the project “fits in beautifully with Litquake’s mission to foster a love of literature and storytelling, and bookends nicely the work we’ve been doing with Kidquake for many years now.” Kidquake, as well as Teenquake, involve field trips for children to the annual Litquake festival, letting them hear authors and take part in workshops.

“Perhaps,” Ganahl said, “our aim has become to encourage a love of the written word from the cradle to the recliner.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.