From Poets & Writers, Inc.

POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization that puts money directly into the hands of writers who give readings and lead workshops in museums, prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, and senior centers. Your subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine supports the all-important work of cultivating literary activity in urban and rural communities throughout the United States.

The Last Thing They’ll Write

Last year Naomi Hirahara, author, most recently, of the mystery novel Blood Hina (Minotaur Books, 2010), led two ten-week, bilingual workshops for seniors at the Keiro Senior HealthCare Center in Los Angeles. We asked Hirahara to share some of her experiences in the workshops, which were funded by Poets & Writers, Inc., with the support of a Creativity and Aging in America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Numbers Behind
Our Support in
July 1, 2009,
to June 30, 2010
Dollars paid to writers
who gave readings and
held workshops: 71,250
Number of writers
funded: 392
Number of organizations
that hosted
literary events: 147
Number of events
that took place: 767
Number of
audience members
who attended
events: 53,150

They entered the room slowly, some with the aid of metal canes and walkers. Most were women, and, based on seat selection and behavior, they had clearly separated themselves into cliques. I shuffled my papers. I wasn't sure how this workshop would go. Not only would I be teaching my students in English, but also in Japanese, a language that I was emotionally connected to, but one in which I had limited fluency.

Certain students were already experienced and skilled writers. A woman named Kats wrote about her childhood home in Japan during hurricane season: "Since our house was located less than a block from the seashore, we could see the huge waves lashing against the seashore. The winds howled loudly, rattling the glass sliding doors along the east and south sides of the house."

Another, Tomi, found stories in her everyday life in the retirement home: "I found a daddy longlegs in my bathtub. I hear they are very useful bugs, so I should pick them up carefully and take them outside. Touching this one, however, gave me the creeps so I just took a piece of toilet paper and squashed its little body and flushed it down the toilet. I still feel like saying EEK!!!"

All had experienced World War II, but in different ways. Toshio wrote bitterly about the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast: "Shortly thereafter anyone of Japanese ancestry was told to get off the island. What were they to do?"

Kotoko wrote in Japanese about her early experiences in Dalian, a former Japanese-occupied territory in China that came under Russian rule in 1945: "Whenever the Russian officer went out for some business, the young soldier came down to the first floor and played with us. He was a very nice young man, born in Ukraine, then only nineteen years old. His name was Ivan."

As these women and men shared their personal stories over the course of the workshops, rifts that existed between some of the residents began to erode. A widowed man tearfully mourned the still-fresh loss of his wife. A Hawaii-born participant complimented the Japanese students on their deft descriptions and effective use of rhythm. One woman, who had been born in the United States but spent her teen years in Japan, began to write more and more in Japanese.

The last class for each session ended with a happyokai, a reading in the center's auditorium. I had to make adjustments to the program—I had forgotten that walking up and down even a couple of stairs would be an arduous and even dangerous task for my students, so we did our reading seated in a line across the stage.

Kats, the veteran writer, was not onstage. She had suffered a sudden aneurysm. Several weeks after our reading, she passed away. I inserted a copy of her last essay in my condolence card to the family. It was then that the mission of these workshops became perfectly clear.

I wasn't there to insist that students craft the perfect sentence. Other than our makeshift chapbook, no further opportunities for publication would be likely, but that wasn't these students' goal. I was there to help them write and record some poetic swatches of memory—the aftermath of a hurricane, the scary attic in a house in the 1930s, the love for a life-size stuffed dog in a retirement home. They weren't always earth-shattering; sometimes they were extremely mundane. But they were quite possibly the last things my students would ever write. 

Beginnings are wonderful and exciting, full of expectation, but endings are also important. Thanks to this opportunity from Poets & Writers, I was honored to be able to witness just how important they are.