In honor of National Poetry Month, we are highlighting COMPAS literary artist and Knight Foundation recipient Naomi Cohn who has been teaching in the community since 2002. She receieved the award as part of the Saint Paul Knight Arts Challenge in 2015 for her work with older adults. Check out her July 2016 interview and make sure to book her for your next Artful Aging program!
Naomi, we're so glad you joined the COMPAS roster at the beginning of this month! Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. Can you tell us about your art form? What about your background?
My main creative form is words. I mostly write poetry, but as my students will tell you, I always say, poetry is a big big tent with room for all kinds of words. I’m passionate about words that work both on the printed page and as they come out of our bodies, as memories and physical sounds and expression. I’m passionate about art-making for the pure fabulousness of it. And I’m passionate about art-making that helps us—helps us work through difficult times and experiences, helps us heal, helps us change injustices, helps us build communities.
I was raised by a family of teachers and professors on the South Side of Chicago, the kind of people who convinced their children that getting to read the dictionary after dinner was a delicious kind of dessert. Alongside my own writing and art making, I’ve worked as a community organizer, encyclopedia proofreader, nonprofit consultant, freelance writer, and therapist.
When did you realize you had a talent for writing?
I don’t think about whether I have any talent for writing. Writing is like breathing, sometimes effortless, sometimes labored, essential to my life on this planet.
I love other art forms, over my life so far I’ve played classical viola and piano, I’ve played fiddle and accordion, I’ve sculpted, painted and made woodcuts and intaglio prints. But writing is the thing I can’t not do.
Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?
I feel so lucky to be able to say that I don’t remember a time when art and writing and reading were not part of my life. I’m grateful to these influences:
To Ms. Kobrin and Mrs. Davis for teaching us haiku in third grade.
To Dorothy Horton, the neighborhood pottery teacher who let me start taking lessons when I was five because all my older siblings got to go.
To my father for taking me to the library, even though he had a lot of other things to do. To the librarians, for letting me read whatever I picked up there.
To my “students” who continually teach me about writing, teaching and life.
What do you hope the older adult participants of your programs learn or come away with?
I hope they come away with these ideas or experiences:
- Poetry doesn’t have to be scary; it can be fun and open doors—to memories, to our own writing, to a shared experience with the people around us.
- Wow! I never knew Mrs. Jones next door had such an interesting life story. Maybe I’ll smile at her next time we roll past each other in the hall.
- Wow, I didn’t know I could write a whole poem like that.
- I feel so much more alive after writing together with other people.
- I’m going to keep writing.
I’m glad I got out of bed for this.
For groups that meet over longer periods of time I’ve seen older writers build a strong network of support, encourage each other as writers, and take rightful pride in sharing their work with each other and the larger community.
Want to see more...? Discover some of Naomi's work of published poetry.
What projects or programs have you been working on recently?
I’m currently working on a prose project, a collection of essays, The World in Your Hands: A Mid-Life Love Affair with Braille, about the experience of learning to live with vision loss, particularly around the experience of learning to read and write braille as a middle-aged adult.
In terms of my work as an artist in the larger community, I’ve been working on a project that looks at how arts can be a key strategy in more positive experiences of aging. I received a 2015 Knight Arts Challenge grant for Known by Heart— Writing Home, a project to look at arts and aging in my own community and to provide writing workshops.
For more information: Creative Enterprise Zone
What does it feel like to be added to the COMPAS roster?
It feels like such an honor to be chosen to join an amazing group of artists, people who make incredible work of their own and do so much to offer the lifeline of art-making in so many settings throughout Minnesota.
It also feels a little strange. I worked as a grant-writer for COMPAS years ago (1998-2001.) That was a long time ago, and many of the people who worked there have long moved on, but one thing remains the same, the people involved in COMPAS …such a vibrant, committed, and creative group of people. While I’m no longer wearing my arts administrator hat at COMPAS, I know how important “back-office” is in making the work of teaching artists possible out in the world.
Why do you think arts engagement is necessary for older adults? What are the benefits?
There are numerous studies showing arts engagement activities, especially those led by professional artists, have great benefits for older adults. These benefits include: improving social connection, reducing isolation, reducing medication use for depression.
But what makes me feel arts engagement is vital?
~because we all need something to get out of bed for.
~because I want to live in a culture where older adults are able to give voice to their experience.
~because there are amazing talented writers whose voices and words we all need to hear.
Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?
I write a lot about ice and mosquitoes…
More seriously, moving to Minnesota was a huge factor in getting to focus on my creative work as much as I do. One of the things I love about Minnesota is the many ways we make intentional choices to make art an integral part of our lives. Those are funding choices, political choices, and also personal choices.
How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
I try to write at least a little every day. I’m inspired by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who on a recent visit to the Twin Cities, encouraged writers to find 5-7 minutes a day to write, to take poet William Stafford’s advice to write a bad poem a day.
I also try to walk the walk and practice the writing invitations I give to writers I’m working with. Here’s one that I find keeps things fresh.
Pretend the place you live is a foreign country. When we travel, we often turn on our capacity for wonder and noticing. We notice the sounds and sights and smells of a new place… Pretend as you look out your window at home that you are looking out on a landscape that is new to you. Wander into the grocery store or coffee shop and really look and notice. Look and notice and write…