Emotions Run Deep for Seniors at “My Life is Poetry” Reading

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By Greg Hernandez

Barry Bishop struggled to get through his poem Waiting about his visit to the AIDS Memorial Quilt when it was on full display on the National Mall.

I am full to overflowing with their memories. I see their ghosts in every mirror that I pass. 

They haunt the dark and empty spaces of my life –spaces that should have been filled with their laughter, their love and their light.

Bishop’s voice broke and tears fell, but he seemed determined to forge ahead with a spellbound virtual audience watching on Zoom for the My Life is Poetry reading. The August 9th event was the culmination of a six-week workshop offered annually by the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

His powerful and deeply emotional reading had viewers wiping away tears and sending messages of support.

“That was the first time I read it aloud from start to finish. I’m blown away by the reaction,” said the 57-year-old Bishop (pictured). “It was not an easy poem to write and not easy to perform. It was a process. I was depressed about it—thought about not participating. But, my partner said, ‘Of course, you’re going to do it.’”

For the past 16 years, the My Life is Poetry workshop has been taught by Steven Reigns, the poet laureate of West Hollywood from 2014 to 2016. First of its kind in the country, the workshop is supported by a grant from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and offered through the Center’s Senior Services.

“I think some of the most valuable writing being done right now is by the seniors in this class,” Reigns observed. “It’s really a bold act to share your stories. This is the kind of poetry that we don’t hear enough of in the world.”

The poems are developed in what Reigns describes as a supportive and safe environment, both creatively and emotionally. Students are taught how to excavate past experiences and turn them into poetry.

“Every time I start a workshop with Steven, it reminds me of how very important the memories are that we are writing about,” said Margaret Jenson, who took the workshop for the fifth time.

She shared her poem My Kitchen Table on the night of the reading:

The last kitchen table in my memory was my brother Bill’s.
It was the final game of Scotch Bridge before he got too sick and passed away.
It’s a telling game where old jokes and rivalries played out among the cards.
My sister had shared privately that the old childhood teasing and jokes were triggers for my brother’s anger so I did not indulge.
My brother urged me to tell why I wouldn’t play that game.

Jenson, 83, was only able to participate this summer because the class was held virtually. It was bittersweet, too, because it was the first time she took part without her close friend, Margo, who died in March.

“Margo is how I learned about the poetry workshops at the beginning,” Jenson shared. “She had been to a reading and was raving about it. I decided that would be something interesting to do. Margo and I did several of the workshops together until her health began to fail.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made meeting in person impossible for the past two years so the group has been meeting virtually to share and critique each other’s works in progress.

Reigns begins each class by sharing a poem from a published author and suggests the seniors to use it as a trigger in their own memory to write their own poem.

The workshop’s creative and safe environment helped Bishop to delve deep into his everlasting feelings of grief and loss connected to the AIDS epidemic.

“I feel like I have been processing it my whole life,” he shared.  “There’s a crowd of people who I am missing who should be here, and it’s been particularly hard with COVID. This is my second time at the pandemic rodeo and, now, everyone can see what it is like. I wish to God they didn’t have to.”

Below is Bishop’s poem Waiting in its entirety:

I’m waiting at table for the last dish to come. 
The dinner has been a hit-or-miss affair so far, 
but the final course is in the offing 
and I imagine it will be a fitting end to this long, quiet meal – 
a bittersweet confection of shadow and bone.
I’ve waited a lifetime for my friends to arrive.
but their silver and china sit untouched 
upon a crisp, white linen landscape.
It drapes and enfolds the table like a ghost in a winding shroud.

I met them all so long ago,
and yet it seems like only yesterday
that I wandered through that quilted, patchwork desert –
lost among the ruins of so many lives undone. 

 I remember breaking down in a stranger’s arms
weeping as each name was read aloud.
They were forever stitched upon my heart that day,
bound to my memory with needle and thread.

And even after all these years,
I still yearn for the embrace of those I’ve never met.
They were my lovers, my brothers, my sisters,
my parents, my children, my friends…

And time has since unspooled them from my hands
like so many tangled skeins of thread.
Their memory slowly unraveled by the years
into a loose tapestry of love and loss.

I am full to overflowing with their memories.
I see their ghosts in every mirror that I pass.
They haunt the dark and empty spaces of my life –
spaces that should have been filled
with their laughter, their love and their light.

I search in vain through crowded streets
for a glimpse of those I’ve missed the most –
but just like my own,
their faces have begun to fade.

 I miss these people with all my heart.
And the sound of their unsung songs
still holds me in their thrall.
Their stilled voices have left my own at a loss.

So time has finally made a quiet man of me.
I’ve grown from a wild and weary youth
to a somber, solemn sage.
And I welcome this change of season.

For all the years I’ve sailed these lonely seas,
I’ve been anchored by a million and one threads.
Each a tether to my heart –
holding me fast as I rose and fell
time and time again with the tide.

I sit alone now, at peace with the memories
of those who might have been,
the lives they might have led,
and all the loves I surely lost.

 I wait content in the knowledge
that I’ve lived a life that was big enough for us all.
And though none of them were ever cured,
I know in my heart that they’ve all been healed.

 And so I am waiting…waiting at table for my dark host to come.

 

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