Sparking memories, and tears, with poetry

April was National Poetry Month and you’ve probably read about poetry in this space before. Poetry enlightens, inspires, challenges…and also provides a way for people living with Alzheimer’s to reconnect with their memories. The arts – painting, crafts, music, dance – have long been used to awaken the minds of those living with memory loss. So it’s no surprise to me that well-loved poetry can do the same.

During National Poetry Month last year, I met Gary Glazner in Washington, D.C. Glazner is the founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, and when I heard him speak, I was moved to tears. My own father lived with Alzheimer’s and he passed away in 2001. Charming to the last, my dad continued to enjoy games and music with us, and it was clear that he could remember beloved lines and melodies. As his language ability diminished, Dad was able to share himself with his touch and his expressions. We miss him.

There are few poems that I personally can recite fully from memory, but there are many that would come back to me with some prompting. Some lines and stanzas, of course, stay with me, such as this from Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the road less traveled by / and that has made all the difference.” I even remember some Shakespeare from a memorized recitation in junior high school: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / but in ourselves that we are underlings.” With some help, I could remember the rest.

That’s why I’m excited about the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. This program facilitates the creativity of people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Using a call-and-response technique, session leaders engage participants in the enjoyment of poetry, as well as the creation of new poetry as a group collaboration.

In the 10 years since the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project was founded in neighboring New Mexico, Glazner and his associates have held sessions at facilities across the U.S. – including here in the Denver area – as well as internationally. The Project also trains local facility staff to keep the program going for residents.

I corresponded with Gary Glazner recently, and we talked about his audience: people, predominantly seniors, in various stages of memory loss. Facilitators seek to bond these people as a group built on shared words, passions, and discoveries. The session leader recites lines of classic poems and the participants echo the words. Even those who have lost their language abilities often respond to the rhythm of the poetry.

These well-loved poems then serve as inspiration for the communal creation of an original poem by the group. The Project quotes the Northwest Arkansas Times: “…somber expressions became animated. Hands clapped. Feet stomped. Eyes shone with humor, recognition, and later in the hour, tears.”

It is with tears again in my own eyes that I write this. I wish – oh, how I wish! – that I had shared poetry with my dad in this way. He would have loved it. And I know right where I would I have started for the father who would watch multiple sports games on stacked TVs: with the Mudville nine, and Casey at the bat.

Andrea Doray is a writer who often quotes Frost with this, as well: “And miles to go before I sleep.” Contact her at

An ear for an eye on the world…

I am a writer…

And as far as I know, no one is offering a bounty for one of my ears. Not so for Akram Aylisli, a highly regarded writer, poet and scriptwriter from Azerbaijan who once received that country’s most prestigious literary prize. However, the leader of the Modern Musavat party has announced that he would pay a bounty equivalent to $12,700 to anyone who cuts off Aylisli’s ear.

The impetus for this threat is Aylisli’s novel, Stone Dreams, which provides a sympathetic view of Armenians in Azerbaijan’s ongoing ethnic disputes. Aylisli is accused of describing only Azeri abuses against Armenians, and not addressing attacks by Armenians on Azeris. Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s president stripped Aylisli of the title of “People’s Writer.” And although the Minister of the Interior has announced that calls for violence are unacceptable, the threat to Aylisli remains. At 75, Aylisli is contemplating seeking asylum abroad with his family.

A writer, he says, has the right to express thoughts without being a considered a traitor.

Yet, government officials in Azerbaijan have labeled Aylisli’s book as treasonous.

Is this because the events depicted in Stone Dreams are not considered accurate by some? Aylisli says the story is based on real life, but it is a novel after all. And anyone who thinks novels should stick to the facts might want to try biographies or historical fiction. (No, wait…don’t believe everything you read in, say, The Other Boleyn Girl.)

The situation, as I see it, is suppression of a perspective that does not support the nationalist stance on the Azerbaijani/Armenian conflict. And that is called censorship, even though, in Azerbaijan as in the U.S., authors ostensibly have a constitutional right to write what they want without pressure or government interference.

Book bans and book burnings notwithstanding, our constitutional rights here in the U.S. are faring better than those in Azerbaijan.

Do we in the United States have nationalist viewpoints? Yes, we do, and it’s taken much of our 200+-year history to give voice to differing perspectives about events surrounding Native Americans, slavery, immigration, child labor, internment camps, McCarthyism, Kent State, Iran Contras, waterboarding, WikiLeaks, extraordinary rendition, and others.

I write about many of these same topics.

I write in support of our troops and our nation, a nation for which both my mother and father served in World War II. And I also write about, and for, peace, and about our Constitution that guarantees our First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press.

So in our country, no matter what I write, how I write it, or who I please or offend with my writing, I’m assured of keeping both my ears. And if that should ever change, we all have a much larger problem.

I do have advice for any entity of our government that tries to censor my words.

As Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously wrote in 1839—and as systematic oppression against writers has proved since antiquity—“the pen is mightier than the sword.” Plus, if I may paraphrase Russian-based bestselling author Boris Akunin’s comments from his recent blog post about Akram Aylisli, “Don’t you know that the state cannot win in a war with a writer?”

I couldn’t agree more.

The power of history is in a speechwriter’s hands…

I’ve always thought it would be cool…

…to be a political speechwriter. To tug on people’s heartstrings, push their buttons, and, sometimes, play fast and loose with the facts. And to have the power of history in my hands.

I was reminded of this aspiration while watching a ceremony this week at the White House to honor the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award recipients. The award’s name, of course, comes from the description of Americans serving each other as “a thousand points of light,” from President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Republican nomination acceptance speech.

A kinder, gentler soundbite…

Bush is often remembered, as well, for the expression “a kinder, gentler nation,” another memorable catchphrase coined by presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Noonan calls speechwriting an odd profession, part policy-explainer, part hack, part innocent. A speech, says Noonan, is a combination of theater and political declaration, a paradox of both great power and great delicacy.

I find Noonan’s presidential words worthy of the history books because, well, they are in the history books. And because Noonan reminds us that speeches are not significant simply because we have the technology to broadcast them to the world, but because they are one of the “great constants” of politics, the ocean on which politicians sail…or in which they sink.

These words matter…

Consider, for example, “Give me liberty or give me death!” or “Ask not what your country can do for you.” The iconic 10-sentence Gettysburg Address—in which President Abraham Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, in just over two minutes—survives through hand-written transcripts. Regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history, it was penned by Lincoln himself.

I believe that President Obama won the 2008 presidential election right here in Denver. On a beautiful Colorado evening in August, then-senator Obama, with his characteristic charisma, delivered his Democratic presidential nomination speech at Mile High Stadium, telling Americans that “this is one of those moments,” a defining moment upon which he built his campaign. The phrase still resonates.

A brilliant diversity…

Last week (without partisan bias, in my opinion), President Obama welcomed President Bush and Barbara Bush to the White House to recognize a retired couple from Iowa, who have created a nonprofit organization to feed hungry children, as the recipients of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award. That’s a lot of light.

Noonan doesn’t claim that the phrase “a thousand points of light” has never been uttered before—variations appear in works such as a C.S. Lewis sci-fi novel and a speech by a turn-of-the-century engineer in Venice. Instead, Noonan describes its impact in Bush’s speech as its context: “a brilliant diversity spread like stars…in a broad and peaceful sky.”

The power of such words is indeed in their contexts, in their memorability, in their places in history. When President Obama recognized President Bush for the Point of Light volunteerism effort that he spearheaded more than two decades ago, Obama said: “We are surely a kinder, gentler nation because of you.”

I don’t know about you, but my heart is singing: “America, this is one of those moments.”



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