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.