The moment called for more than praise.
There in the Bellefonte Senior Center on a rainy morning, Kitty Lou Hackenberg had just read her very first poem out loud. Abby Minor was delighted. She stood up, crossed the circle and gave her student a high-five befitting two cheering sports fans.
“Kitty, we should give you a shower of hugs!” Minor said. “That was fabulous.”
Hackenberg had been heard — exactly what Minor hopes from her workshops.
Minor, a local poet, runs the Being Heard series of storytelling and creative writing classes for senior citizens. Supported by the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and the Centre Foundation’s M.W. and Margaret S. Schreffler Fund, she started the free program five years ago in Spring Mills, extending it to Bellefonte last spring.
Two sessions into her fall Bellefonte schedule, she continues tapping into rich wellsprings of experience to awaken expression and create art. Her aim is to “honor the voices and imaginations of Centre County’s elders.”
“Do you enjoy telling stories and using your imagination?” her fliers ask. “Do you enjoy laughing and learning with others? Would you like to turn your own stories into poems?”
Five women and one man did last week at the senior center.
Joined by Vicky Confer, the center’s director, the group first discussed what constitutes a list poem. At the first workshop, they had compiled a list of blue things: both common objects and items from personal pasts, such as “dark blue falling apart brief case,” “Blue Depression glass bought with Green Stamps” and “I knitted my first sweater in elementary school — it was blue.”
From their list came a poem. Over the course of an hour, the group linked together nature, music, clothing, household goods, travel and feelings — all tied to blue — into six evocative stanzas, as though a solitary figure were reflecting on a winding life.
“We’re also telling a story,” Minor said to the group. “You feel a certain time and place.”
Throughout the brainstorming, she served both as the scribe, writing the stanzas on a whiteboard as they evolved, and the ringleader, eliciting ideas and prompting conversations.
By the end, she had more than “Memories in Shades of Blue” to show for the morning.
Six fledgling poets possessed newfound confidence and inspiration.
“It encourages people to think of themselves as creative makers, and as people with important stories to tell and important imaginations to share,” Minor said.
A curious mind is the only prerequisite, nothing more. Hackenberg has loved reading poetry her whole life but always thought it was beyond her. Poems had to rhyme, to fit into certain forms. She couldn’t write one.
Now she knows differently on all counts.
“Abby has made me realize that poetry isn’t necessarily rhyming, that there’s all kinds,” she said. “She’s showing us how many kinds there are, which I never knew.”
Russel Chamberlin, the lone man at the recent workshop, never read or wrote much over a lifetime as a highway flagman, farm handyman and carnival worker. But he brought a poet’s soul to the spring sessions, drawing on his experiences for one of his two contributions to a program anthology.
“I smell the tar from the fresh pavement/I hear the honking of the horns at the crossroads,” he wrote in “Life’s Work.” “I am always working under the hot sun/I am thirsty; my throat is as dry as the desert.”
He returned this fall for more camaraderie and collaboration, more chances to craft stories together. Others take pleasure in exercising their intellects.
“I haven’t done this kind of thinking in a long time,” Jeanine Gonyea said.
Minor sees a “real spiritual health to using your imagination,” but the workshops have brightened lives in other ways. Hackenberg now shares a connection with a granddaughter who writes poetry. Another woman told Minor she writes better letters because of the workshops.
But Minor’s greatest measure of success comes when students, who initially contended they weren’t poets, share heartfelt poetry written at home.
“I love just seeing people feel more confident in themselves as having something to say,” she said.
Recently, she read about the American poet Eileen Myles saying she writes poetry as a way of making maps of her world. That resonated with Minor.
“I do think it serves that purpose for everyone, especially in these groups,” she said. “We’re making a map of the world we’ve seen and lived in, and continue to experience.”
Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, events and issues. Send story ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast .net.
If you go
What: The Being Heard creative writing and storytelling workshops
When: 9:45-11:15 a.m. Oct. 6, Nov. 10, Nov. 17, Dec. 1, Dec. 8, Dec. 22
Where: Bellefonte Senior Center, 110 N. Spring St.
Who: The workshops are open to senior citizens, no prior knowledge or participation necessary. Newcomers should call the center at 355-6720 before attending.