TODCO Poets Occupy Aging

in Culture, Entertainment, Neighbors

“I don’t know how much time I have left. I don’t want to write a book; I may not be able to finish it,” Sandra Gail muses. “In poetry, though, I can wrap it up.” Sandra, age 69, is a member of the TODCO poets, residents of the TODCO Group senior housing projects. The group meets once a week to discuss life, love, death and everything in between through writing and reading poetry. Though Sandra reflects on aging and the realities associated with the process, she and the other TODCO poets are continually inspired by the motto of Maria King Tan, age 91 and long-standing member of the group, who believes that “It’s never too late.” Though their diverse backgrounds and histories clearly affect their work, the 15-20 members of the TODCO poets focus mainly on the beauty of the present. The poets will share some of this work at this year’s Yerba Buena Night on October 13 at 7 p.m. in Yerba Buena Gardens.

Nancy Deutsch, the founder and Director of the TODCO poets, is responsible for these weekly gatherings. Nancy considers it both a rarity and a pleasure to work for an organization such as TODCO, which has funded the group for almost 25 years. As Nancy explains, it is sometimes difficult for senior housing projects to branch out “beyond bingo” and fund arts programs that bring meaning as well as entertainment to the residents. The members of TODCO poets, in turn, are extremely grateful for Nancy’s guidance and dedication. They enthusiastically describe what they do as “poetry theater…as well crafted as a three act play.” They take pride in operating in an “environment of kindness,” where they are provided constructive criticism and encouraging feedback.  Every week Nancy provides the group with a different theme, so that while their unique voices are heard, there is a cohesive vision for their performances. The poets write both individual works and group poems, where all members contribute a few lines. The most well-known of these poems, “Dare We Dream in Concrete,” can be found engraved in granite at the entrance to the Yerba Buena Gardens.

The poets behind this poem and other works come to poetry from many different places. David Gregory, age 66 and a member of the group for three years, attended a TODCO poets Christmas party and was inspired to work with the group. A vast knowledge of history and a youth spent in Hong Kong often feature prominently in his work. Genya Ehrlich, age 85, said her talent was revealed to her by a fortune teller. Though Genya was not entirely convinced that she could write, her neighbor convinced her to join the group almost 21 years ago. Genya writes on her upbringing in the former Soviet Union to enlighten others on her unique experience. Maria King Tan, who grew up in the Philippines, uses what she refers to as her “upside-down English” to ruminate on beauty and seizing the present moment. Poetry, she feels, is “like a medicine to share with all humanity.” Maria, too, initially expressed hesitation about her ability to write, yet, almost 15 years after joining the group, she carries a pen and paper with her everywhere she goes. She often sleeps with a pen in her robe. As all of the poets express, inspiration can come at any moment.

What the TODCO poets may not be entirely aware of, however, is their ability to inspire others. The group performs often; though, as they emphasize, a good performer is not always aware of the audience’s reaction when consumed with the performance. Several of the poets have been recognized outside of events, even having their lines quoted to them. Nancy sees the TODCO poets’ success as an opportunity to showcase a voice that is often underrepresented in society. The current theme of “Occupy Art; Occupy Aging,” is an umbrella for a more complex topics. Worries such as the impermanency of social security and subsidized healthcare plans combine with ageless concerns, such as how to make friends or begin a romance.

Romance though, is a sticky subject, full of bittersweet heartache and humor. As three of the poets finish rehearsing a group poem entitled “A Senior Moment” at the end of Monday’s class, Nancy asks, “Should it end with the Viagra line?” They unanimously agree: Yes, it should.

The TODCO Poets will open Yerba Buena Night on Saturday, October 13, at 7 p.m. on the Main Dance Stage. They can also be seen on September 25 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Jessie Square as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.