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Poems from Life with Juniper Village: Literature Links Communities

March 20, 2019

Literary art is powerful. As an editor & writer for the Pennsylvania (PA) Center for the Book at Penn State University Libraries who supports programs such as the PA Letters About Literature Writing Contest—in which an oft bullied 5th grade winner in 2018 realized, “I can be brave, and change the way people view me… I can change the way I think of myself,” after reading Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, for example—I’ve seen the transformative power of literature firsthand.

So when PA Center for the Book Assistant Director, Ellysa Stern Cahoy and Senior Director of Community Relations at Juniper Village Senior Living at Brookline, Katie Kensinger approached me for ideas on how to link Juniper residents with the local community through poetry, I jumped at the opportunity.

With similar poetry-centered community efforts already at work in the area—such as Being Heard, a writing program taught in low-income nursing homes that grew into the Ridgelines Language Arts nonprofit founded by Abby Minor, and the Free-Range Poetry of Hannah Inglesby, who writes on-the-spot poems for people in public places (both skilled, Poems from Life poets)—I knew I wanted to offer a new approach.

Katie was passionate about developing a project that would celebrate the uniqueness of each of her participating resident’s lives, with the goal of sharing their stories, not just with family and friends who would delight in learning something new and, perhaps, unexpected about their loved ones, but also with the general public to build community connections.

As a form, poetry lends itself to mining personal experience and emotional depth and to reflecting on life, both internally and externally, making it ideal for community projects. Being Heard guides participants in writing their own poetry and Hannah’s Free-Range poems are written in the moment, for example. In considering Katie’s hopes for her residents, I suggested an approach that pairs poets and residents one-on-one for personal discussions that then inspire the poet’s creation of a poem that celebrates the resident’s life.

Poet, Alison Jaenicke (L) and Juniper resident, Lois Price (R) at the inaugural
2017 Poems from Life event.

In line with Juniper’s mission of “nurturing the spirit of life,” the project was named Poems from Life with Juniper Village. Now in its third consecutive year, Poems from Life yields shared stories and new friendships that foster community ties. Two of this year’s 18 participants: Joe Bueter and Dick Backastow, discovered common ground in their childhood experiences with Boy Scouts, referenced in Joe’s poem for Dick— to be unveiled Tuesday, April 9.

Poems from Life culminates in a celebratory event hosted by Juniper where poets reveal their work to residents in a reading, accompanied by poetry posters and chapbooks, among family, friends, and community members.

Steven Herb, Emeritus Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, says:

“I was moved at each poem, which perfectly married literature with story, and in this case, the story of some very interesting older people. We all do live unique lives and the poetry shared those ultimately transcendent experiences beyond the walls of their rooms or houses or memories. I was quite moved, as was the entire audience.”

The project team holds 2018 Poems from Life poetry chapbooks at last year’s event (L to R): Jill McKenrick (Connections Director, Juniper Village), Katie Kensinger, James McCready (Info. Resources and Services Specialist, PA Center for the Book), Nicole Miyashiro, and Ellysa Stern Cahoy.

The 2019 Poems from Life with Juniper Village event will be held at 6:30pm on Tuesday, April 9, and is free and open to the public—join us!

Event Details:

Poems from Life with Juniper Village – Celebration & Reading (Free)
Drinks & Appetizers

6:30pm Tue, Apr 9
Willows Dining Hall
Juniper Village Senior Living at Brookline
1950 Cliffside Drive
State College, PA 16801
Facebook Invite

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book—sponsored by Barbara I. Dewey, dean of University Libraries and Scholarly Communications, and Penn State State University Libraries—is an affiliate of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. It encourages Pennsylvania’s citizens and residents to study, honor, celebrate and promote books, reading, libraries and literacy.

For more information about the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s Poems from Life with Juniper Village project, please email Nicole Miyashiro at nmm16@psu.edu, or visit https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/poems-life, where videos from its previous years’ celebratory readings can also be found.

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