For Judy Michaels, poetry is anything but tame. To illustrate her point, Michaels, a professional poet, led a group of New Community seniors in adding body motions to a poem by Langston Hughes called “My People.”
By the third and fourth recitations, dozens of arms swayed as Michaels demonstrated lyrical movements for the words “stars,” “sun” and “souls.”
“The moment I started doing the movements, I started to remember” the words, she said.
About 35 seniors attended the Poetry in Medicine Workshop hosted at New Community Commons Senior and organized by staff from Health and Social Services in collaboration with Michaels and Dr. Diane Kaufman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and faculty member at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Michaels, a multiple-time cancer survivor, has been a writer-in-residence at the Princeton Day School since 1974 and is also a poet in New Jersey schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
Michaels read poems by legendary writers like Maya Angelou and drew laughs and cheers as she read Lucille Clifton’s famous poem titled “Homage “These hips are magic hips. I have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top,” she read dramatically.
Several residents shared verses they had memorized, including Bible scripture and nursery rhymes. “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips,” said Isaiae Woods, a resident of New Community Associates Senior, reciting the opening lines of Psalm 34.
Claudette Carr, 62, said she still remembers a dinnertime poem that she learned at age 5.
“I must not throw upon the floor a crust I cannot eat for many a little hungry ones would think it quite a treat,” she said, reciting a well-known poem that she was taught by her maternal grandmother, Jemima Gordon, who died in 1978.
“She was teaching us you don’t throw away stuff,” Carr said of her grandmother’s lesson. Bernadine Fillmore, a resident of New Community Gardens Senior, shared original work.
“If people fell like stars and meant no harm, this world would be a better place,” Fillmore, 58, said.
Michaels, who wrote many poems during her years of recurrence and remission, said that poems have a curious way of staying in our long-term memory. Best of all, she said of committing poems to memory, “You can pull them out of your heart to share with anyone.”