As Alyce Ritti sat in the recliner in her bedroom, Camille-Yvette Welsch shared a poem she wrote inspired by Ritti’s life (see poem below).
Welsch met Ritti 15 years earlier, when she was writing an article about Ritti’s art. Poems from Life brought them back together.
“Oh, I have tears of joy,” Ritti cried after hearing Welsch’s poem.
Welsch laughed. “I’m glad. I’m glad.”
Poems from Life, a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Center for the Book and Juniper Village at Brookline Senior Living, paired residents at Juniper with area poets. After getting to know the residents they’d been paired with, poets were tasked with telling that person’s story in a one-page poem.
When it came time to choose which resident she’d like to be paired with, Welsch immediately recognized Ritti’s name. She was familiar with Ritti’s artistic work in collage and knew she wanted to write about her--this time, in a poem instead of an article.
“It was interesting working with Alyce because she’s been telling her story in really interesting ways throughout her whole life,” Welsch said. “And I thought, OK, it’d be interesting to kind of see what could I bring to that, someone who has selected creative expression as such a central part of her life.”
As a tribute to Ritti’s art, Welsch tried to incorporate the idea of collage into her poem. She blended her words with the words of Ritti and authors Ritti was fond of. Even the title of her poem, “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman,” is a nod to James Joyce.
Katie Kensinger, senior director of community relations for Juniper Village at Brookline, came up with the idea for Poems from Life after reviewing information Juniper had collected about each resident’s life history.
“I was just struck by the power of the lives that these people have led,” Kensinger said. “It was just incredible, and you would never know it unless you would dig a little deeper.”
She knew she wanted to tell these people’s stories, but she wasn’t sure how. Ellysa Cahoy, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, suggested using poetry. Why?
“Poetry has this amazing capacity to just capture in very few words something very large and emotional and impactful,” Cahoy explained.
Nicole Miyashiro, editor at the Pennsylvania Center for the Book and a poet herself, suggested the project and used her connections in the poetry community to help Kensinger and Cahoy bring the project to life.
On Tuesday, Juniper Village will host an event where poets share the poems they’ve written with the residents, their families, and members of the community. This is the event’s second year. The event is a celebration of the residents’ lives, and it’s an outgrowth of this collaboration--one that Kensinger says Juniper cherishes.
“I think for Juniper it was just such an exciting collaboration to have these really first-class poets come to our community and give life to the memories and experiences of the people living in our community,” Kensinger said. “It’s just such a special, beautiful, heartwarming evening.”
And what do the residents think about Poems from Life? Ritti shared what touched her most about Welsch’s poem.
“That she understood me,” Ritti said. “That I communicated.”
You can hear these poems Tuesday, April 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Juniper Village on Cliffside Drive in State College. The event is free and open to the public.
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
for Alyce Ritti
Here you are again, the smartest girl
in the class, the jewel in the paper crown,
voices of books still ringing in your head. Omissions
are not accidents, you, artist and technician
of fragment—foot, mouth, eye—you speak to some whole,
but only whisper of totality. I know what
this is, remnant. Fragment as fetish, as focus. Your lost
world this room, these slanting spines, unframed
photos, burble of jazz. You might have cut yourself
out, the Syrian queen, bobbing in her shuddersome circle.
I begi(a)n in a heap of chaos, now this compressed scene.
Eight by ten feet, inches. Shall I declaim, you ask. Shall I declaim
this poem? Another self in your throat, broad collage
of theatre and listener, language and sigh, your hand raised
to the imagined other. You and Ashbery are talking. Paint it
into blooms, slice it from the page, paste it onto the foam
board, declaim it—have you read ‘Disorder and Light’? Proust? Yes,
Remembrance of...No, no. In Search of Lost Time, if you please.
Imagine the brain as riverbed and tributary, the red dust of clay,
and the sudden shot of synapse firing, electric stream running,
pulsing again at 50, then 83. First color—Danube blue, then, the pure
pleasure of intellect, that darting bird. I learned to see things
from a distance. Valhalla, the circles of Hell, the gold of heaven,
those familiar songs and your curiosity, always there, like knowing.