The Alzheimer’s Poetry Slam

The best poetry slam I’ve been to this year was in a room full of Alzheimer’s patients at the East 80th Street Residence in New York City.

I sat in a circle with more than twenty senior citizens, all of them suffering from moderate to severe memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s or Alzheimer’s-related disease, watching spoken-word poet and author Gary Mex Glazner work the crowd. Before beginning, he walked the circle, looking deeply into the eyes of each attendee and clasping their hands. Then he started in with the poems — all of them classics, designed to burrow deep in the memories of the bemused listeners, who responded at surprising moments.

“Tyger, Tyger –” Glazner began.

Burning bright“, a man in the back shouted out. They remember William Blake at the Assisted Living Care center on the Upper East Side, and they also remember William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That’s really the whole concept: victims of Alzheimer’s disease might not remember what they’ve done four hours ago, but they remember classic poetry, and anybody who doubts how much this might mean to them only has to sit in this circle and watch each person’s eager, satisfied response.

Maybe I’d come here because I remember my Grandma Jeannette‘s painful struggles with Alzheimer’s-related syndrome. When Glazner (a longtime friend of LitKicks who can otherwise be found hosting shows at the Bowery Poetry Club or writing books for Soft Skull about living the poet’s life) told me about his latest activity, I had to go see a session for myself.

Like any good slam poet, Glazner doesn’t work in isolation; he’d brought a gang of eager young poets from Study Abroad on Bowery’s “Summer Institute of Social Justice and Applied Poetics” to work this room with him, turning the session into an encounter between multiple generations. The visiting poets read some of their own work and helped keep the “call and response” going, encouraging the sometimes confused patients to repeat, respond to and cherish each individual line they heard. Cherish they did.

At the end of the 45-minute session, Glazner said we would all write our own group poem, then asked each attendee to name “the most beautiful thing you can think of”. “My child’s face” won by a longshot, and we never even got to hear the assembled group poem, but it didn’t matter.

The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a growing movement — you can find more information about it here.

9 Responses

  1. APP is a very worthwhile
    APP is a very worthwhile endeavor.

    My wife’s stepfather’s mother has advanced Alzheimer’s. One day, because her name is Peggy, I started singing Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” to her. To my surprise, she started singing along. Then, to everyone’s amazement, she started singing the Beatles, “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”
    That may not seem amazing to anyone who isn’t familiar with her condition, but believe me, we did not expect it.

  2. Man, what an awesome idea. It
    Man, what an awesome idea. It just makes so much immediate sense. I’ve always been interested in the connection between poetry and memory, so for me the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project is a case study that is valuable in itself, but is also an opportunity to do public good.

    Poetry exists in breath. It tends to remain, as they say, on the tip of the tongue. For millennia, that is how it has stuck around, especially before, but also after, the advent of written language. The APP’s obvious success is another kind of proof of the idea that poems are easier to remember than most other things.

  3. Wow! That is the most moving
    Wow! That is the most moving and creative example of philanthropy that I have ever heard of. Just the simplicity of it…the beauty of one spirit reaching out to another. So effortless yet so utterly magnificant.

  4. Bill, the healing qualities
    Bill, the healing qualities of music and poetry are infinite in their expression.
    Art is good medicine for everybody.

  5. Dr. Oliver Sacks’ newest
    Dr. Oliver Sacks’ newest book, Musicophilia Knopf 2008, explains why cognitive deficits expected in Alzheimers patients do not extend into musical memories. Music and musical rhythm (as in poetry) are not lost, but remain to be bring joy. The use of music is becoming professionalized as a form of therapy.

  6. I really enjoyed this
    I really enjoyed this article. What a dynamic way to reach out. I am happy knowing that this is happening.

  7. When music and poetry get
    When music and poetry get into the “hard drive”
    of your brain, they stay with you for life.
    More power to this program of poetry and lyrical
    therapy. “Musicophilia” sounds like a great
    book to read about this proven therapy. The
    additional benefit: music and poetry bring joy
    to the soul.

  8. Poetry does make for good
    Poetry does make for good medicine. My mom had published my Dad’s peotry awhile ago and it what an awesome book. My Dad had passed away with A.D. but before he had, he had written poems which actually related to how he was feeling as he fought with A.D.
    Music and exercise were the two which he used as a friend in this battle with A.D. You can contact my mum (Donna Taylor) at (902)582-3755 and she would be very greatful to send you a book. The cost is only $12/book but I can certainly tell you, I honestly have not got past the second poem yet. “It is a must” that you read these poems as they will put you into their minds, how their feeling as they and their families fight thought this gut wrenching desease.

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