The audience at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza sat spellbound as David Parke Epstein shared his poem recounting a horrific Thanksgiving in 1962 “when my father strangled me at noon as my stepmother shrieked, ‘Your son’s a queer!’”
Epstein was one of 16 LGBT seniors who shared their deeply personal writings at the My Life is Poetry reading on October 26 which was the culmination of an eight-week workshop at the Center.
“We’re talking about queer seniors—people who are not strangers to discrimination, to violence, to trauma,” says Steven Reigns, the poet laureate of West Hollywood from 2014 to 2016 who helped the seniors develop their autobiographical poetry. “These are people who were growing up and forming their identity at a very oppressive and restrictive time. They were continually being given messages that their life, their loves, and their desires were not of value. I think this workshop is a great opportunity for them to find the value in their loves, their lives, and in those things that have been denied.”
Reigns has been teaching the workshop for 14 years at the Center. The first of its kind in the country, the class is supported by a grant from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
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.
“Because we’re sharing such tender places, we are vulnerable,” says longtime student Cassandra Christenson (pictured, above). “But we know each other, there’s a connection, and we support each other. We just feel a kinship with each other. It’s a wonderful place for people to come to.”
Fellow student Clarence R. Williams observes: “Some people have really found a stream to actually release some things that they had not really faced before. We’ve had some moments that were so profound and moving that you simply did not know how to respond. But you don’t have to share your work if you don’t want to. There’s no criticism or judgment. There’s only constructive comments about the words.”
By the end of the workshop, students emerged with at least 2-3 poems that many chose to share publicly at the reading.
Catherine Gewertz wrote about of the final days of her brother’s life which coincided with the first days of her newborn daughter’s: “The virus made us carry your gleaming black casket on Christmas day. You were 30. My first daughter was nine days. Now each of her birthdays is a celebration and then a silent marking of your goneness.”
Williams wrote an untitled poem in which he shares his grief over current U.S. immigration policy: “I no longer know how to love America. Lady Liberty is postured in the harbor forbidden to welcome the tired and poor.”
He also wrote of decades ago “cruising” for men on Christopher Street in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan: “My mind says, ‘Keep walking.’ My body says, ‘Why not?’”
Christenson has taken the poetry class from the beginning. She remembers sitting with lesbian friends at Christmas party inside a restaurant in 2004 when Reigns approached their table and told the women about a poetry class he was starting.
“My life has been changed with this class,” she says. “It’s provided me with a feeling inside that I’m worthy, that I have something to give. Some people drop out because they might not be ready to open up, but they may gain the seeds to do so in the future.”
Another student, Harry Gipson, has taken the class at least eight times. Each time around, he says he emerges inspired and renewed.
“It’s just a very good, nurturing experience for me and I’ll take it as long as it’s offered,” Gipson says. “I love reading and writing poetry and find that I’ve written some of my best poetry in this class. I’ve also met some really nice people and made friends.”
For Reigns, the two months he spends with the seniors are among the most gratifying of his entire year.
“It’s nice that I’m helping people document their lives,” he says. “It’s a document of their lives to be shared with others. They could choose to publish the work or just share it with the people in their lives.”
“I think when we write, we get to know ourselves at a different level,” Reigns adds. “It’s a way of making sense of, and understanding, our past experiences. There’s a real gift in that.”
The Center’s Senior Services offers more than 100 different activities and events each month including support groups, health and fitness classes, and various cultural workshops. To learn more, including upcoming activities and workshops, visit lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.