A Good Trip on This Paper – The Alzheimer’s Poets

Intro from Jay Allison: There’s the piece itself, and there’s how it was made. The premise for this piece intrigued us for radio. It happens in the mind. In the terrain between rational thought and imagination. As for the making… this is another one from a first-timer. Amy Silverman had never done this before. Feel free to ask her about that. She did it using borrowed gear, bothering friends, and making it up as she went along. No single part of making a radio piece is that hard, but doing all the parts—interviewing, cutting, scripting, writing, reading, mixing—all for the FIRST TIME and making it good enough for lots of people to listen to and critique, is no cinch. Plenty of broadcast vets can’t manage all the parts alone. We do get a break from the forgivingly bad audio quality on the ‘net, but you may detect the cheap mic and hard room that the narration is done in, or some of the rougher mixes. You’ll get the idea though. It needs a little cutting and polishing before someone adopts it for broadcast, and it will benefit from your critique.

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Listen to “A Good Trip on This Paper – The Alzheimer’s Poets”

Phoenix-based journalist Amy Silverman usually writes about politics. But when she heard that Arizona State University was sending creative writing students into nursing homes to write poetry with Alzheimer’s patients, she was intrigued.

That’s partly because she had a family member with Alzheimer’s. While Amy’s grandmother-in-law was folding paper napkins — her loving but befuddled family’s only way of occupying Grandma’s faltering mind — the nursing home residents were looking at Dali prints, singing songs, talking about dinosaurs. And on a good day, a poem would come out of the patients’ observations. Accidental poetry, to be sure. But does it really matter?

Mary, Amy's Grandmother-in-law
Mary, Amy’s Grandmother-in-law

This is Amy Silverman’s first radio piece. She did it all herself, with a little help at the end from some technical friends. Amy is a public radio fan, but she’d never held a microphone, cut a story, written and read narration, etc. She happened to be hosting a book reading in Phoenix for Neal Pollack when she met Jonathan Menjivar on his Odyssey producing his first piece for Transom.org “Neal Pollack Takes on America.” Jonathan passed on his Transom tape recorder to Amy and she got busy. She can tell you more in the Discussion Board Topic about this piece.

The Poetry

CLOVES

A little girl thin year
with some grass amid the house
and dark vegetables getting
further away in the year
for a green thought.
In the spare time,
in the house next
to the spruce and the wheat.

In the urgent house,
the house of cleaning,
the house in the trees
in the time of the heart
amid the fish.

In that place is
a good trip
on this paper.

–Alice

AN EYE IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND

It would see the curves in your fingers,
It would see the wrinkles in your hand
And the rings on your fingers.

It would tell you, maybe, how long you’re
married.

It would see the scar you got when
You were in the first grade and had
permission

To go through the neighbor’s yard to get
to your yard
Where the lady had a bunch of cats
And the cats were turned loose
And would come into your yard
Usually if you had something in your yard
That they could eat.

No, the cat didn’t scratch me.
The lady died a long time ago
And it seemed to me
They’d already written the story about it.

–Ida

HORNETS

Hornets are like red and purple,
pale purple and white
yellow to bring out the motherly qualities
of it —

lemon moon hats of gold,
hornets look like winter’s meteors,
kites, clouds and snow.

(UNSIGNED)

UNTITLED

I am seeing pink
louvered windows and baskets
of plants hanging from
wrought iron, slow fans and
the dim yellow light on bodies
drawn with sweat.

I think how watery it is
to work with them . . . so many
loose connections, loping
around, catching at one
another in my head . . . to
describe being with them
alters it and that is what
it is like to be with them
To get altered, fluid leaping
loosing threads, leaping and
loosing until the very notion
of loss is altered. It is
What is.

I think I have fallen
in love with that crotchety
old coot.

–Tracy Trefethen, one of the ASU poets who ran a workshop

Tech Notes

I recorded the interviews and poetry workshops on a Sony TC-D5M with a Beyer M-58 microphone, then listened to the tapes and made a list of potential quotes and sounds. Drew Chavez with The Media Guys (a Tempe-based political consulting/strategy/polling firm) used Cool Edit software to make the cuts, then I listened to them (again and again and again) at home and incorporated some of the cuts into my script. After long-distance consultations and practice readings with Jay, it was back to The Media Guys to record the narration with Bob Grossfeld. Again, he used Cool Edit, and, in Bob’s words, an Electro-Voice 635a mike — “not the greatest for studio work, but a good all around mike that can also be used as a hammer.” I then played backseat driver as Bob mixed the narration with quotes, songs and background sound.

[Note from The Transom Team: We evened out a few mixes, levels and EQ, but the piece is basically uploaded as we got it. For broadcast, it could use a better narration recording and a few other fixes, but, hey, streaming audio covers a multitude of sins, and we need a few imperfections to talk about anyhow, don’t we?]

Hearing Voices This piece was created with help from HearingVoices.

Amy Silverman

About
Amy Silverman

Amy Silverman is firm in the belief that she was kidnapped as an infant from a vibrant urban center by some very nice people named the Silvermans (to whom she bears an uncanny physical resemblance) and brought to live in Phoenix, Arizona. She escaped many times -- to Washington, D.C., New York City, and the Inland Empire of San Bernardino, California -- but ultimately returned home to write long sentences for the alternative weekly Phoenix New Times and fall in love with a guy from Queens. Amy's work has also appeared in salon.com, George, Playboy and The New York Times Magazine, but this is her first experience with radio since a one-day seminar at the Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism a decade ago.

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  • Jay Allison

    4.05.01

    Reply
    A Good Trip On This Paper

    There’s the piece itself, and there’s how it was made.

    The premise for this piece intrigued us for radio. It happens in the mind. In the terrain between rational thought and imagination.

    As for the making… this is another one from a first-timer. Amy Silverman had never done this before. Feel free to ask her about that. She did it using borrowed gear, bothering friends, and making it up as she went along.

    No single part of making a radio piece is that hard, but doing all the parts—interviewing, cutting, scripting, writing, reading, mixing—all for the FIRST TIME and making it good enough for lots of people to listen to and critique, is no cinch. Plenty of broadcast vets can’t manage all the parts alone.

    We do get a break from the forgivingly bad audio quality on the ‘net, but you may detect the cheap mic and hard room that the narration is done in, or some of the rougher mixes. You’ll get the idea though. It needs a little cutting and polishing before someone adopts it for broadcast, and it will benefit from your critique.

  • bill mckibben

    4.05.01

    Reply

    I thought this was a wonderful piece, with at least two great ideas: that poetry has a lot in common with the gappiness of dementia, and that pleasure in the absolute moment of creation is a great thing (maybe greater in its way than the looking-forward/looking-back that accompanies so much art-making. In a way I wanted these to stand out more, and wonder if perhaps the narrative re: the mother in law might not get in the way of the story, particularly since it doesn’t really have a payoff in the end. I know it was the motivation for getting started with the story, but I wonder if the story didn’t develop in a deeper direction without it. Also, telling the story of the mother-in-law at the start took a good long time, before we got around to poetry. I can almost hear the piece beginning with the poetry reading, or something like it.
    What a wonderful job, and an inspiration to the rest of us tyros

    Bill McKibben

  • stephen smith

    4.08.01

    Reply
    Pacing and voice

    Nice work Amy. I hope you do more for radio.

    I encourage you to let your audio (interviews/sound) help you carry the weight of storytelling and draw your listener into both your narrative and your characters. It’s a good rule of thumb to get to the tape quickly. I think your introduction is too long, and that the vital info there could be spread out in the piece.

    As you listen back to the piece, imagine how it would sound if the voice/tone/rhythm you use here was the same voice you would use in conversation. My guess is you’re more dynamic when yaking with friends. It’s hard to sound like yourself on the radio (most of us don’t) — takes a lot of acting. But it’s essential to the successful use of your words and recordings.

    Keep going!

  • Jay Allison

    4.08.01

    Reply
    Long opening

    Both Bill and Stephen sensibly point out the possible weakness of the long opening. Amy and I wrestled with this. It is certainly not the customary approach for a piece with tape, but that is one reason it was chosen.

    Perhaps we made a mistake in the setup. What if we had not told you that it was about Alzheimer’s poetry? What if you had thought it was a personal commentary that suddenly morphed into something else? That was our idea. To make a kind of hybridized essay/reporter piece.

    Your comments are completely fair critiques, but they also raise questions about what we’re ACCUSTOMED to hearing and how, even though we are searching for new approaches, we get uncomfortable when the usual mode is defied.

    I feel that way too. When we finished this piece, I thought, "the opening is way too long before we get to tape". So we cut a little. It still felt long. But we wanted to leave it in this shape to see what you thought, and why. And here you are, telling us.

  • Andy Knight

    4.09.01

    Reply
    Long Opening

    What a great job, Amy! I have to disagree with Stephen. I loved Amy’s narration and would have preferred more of it and less of the interviews. IMHO Amy could pull off a Scott Carrier style- "The Friendly Man", "Swimming Lesson", "Running With Antelopes"- heavily narrated piece. The ambient noise and clips of Alzheimer’s patients were great.

    The only things I didn’t like were the clips of Carla Elling(sp?). She seemed to be performing/acting or stuck in a speech pattern that she is used to using with the patients. Her voice really just made me cringe.

    I will certainly be looking forward to Amy’s next story.

  • Viki Merrick

    4.10.01

    Reply
    Long opening

    This was a remarkable effort, ESPECIALLY, for a first time – really, it is stunning that Amy took it all on. 3 cheers for dogged determination and drive!

    as a listener – I’m pretty much game for anything and your proposal of:
    " ….not told you that it was about Alzheimer’s poetry? What if you had thought it was a personal commentary that suddenly morphed into something else? That was our idea. To make a kind of hybridized essay/reporter piece."

    sounded pretty interesting except maybe I felt duped since I ˆthought it was going to be a story about the mother-in-law and as a regular old humanist I kept worrying about her and wondering. It kept distracting me. I think I will go back to listen and ignore the mother-in-law . back later on that.

    I am perked up about the idea of listening to something "new" or with new ears. None of us want old ears. How do we get rid of them?

    Thinking about new modes makes me wonder if Stravinsky and his like mixed "usual modes" with unfamiliar ones and if it was that very mixing that threw people off…meaning Alzheimer Poets begins in the familiar way of an intimate invitation into a life/story and suddenly sprouts hybrid-like on the mother stalk. If this were simply on the radio and me riding in my car or shelling peas, I wouldn’t be able to go back and decide. age-old radio question.

  • Brennan Collins

    4.11.01

    Reply

    Amazing work. I thought the grandmother narrative worked well, though as others have suggested perhaps the intro could have been shortened. For me, Mary’s story made Amy’s involvement with the piece more intimate and provided a tragic contrast with the alzheimer’s poets. It was far from distracting. I agree with Smith’s advice. The narrative voice sounded a bit too NPRish, though I guess there isn’t anything too terribly much wrong with that.

    Once again, amazing work. I rarely listen to entire programs on the internet.

  • Amy Silverman

    4.11.01

    Reply
    old v. new

    Thank you, everyone, for the kind and wise words! I can’t emphasize enough what a great experience this has been — from the start — for a first-timer. Nurturing and constructive, but critical, too, which of course is the point.

    True confession: My goal here was not necessarily to push the radio envelope, but rather to create a solid piece that people would eventually hear and respond to — hopefully something meaningful. That’s not to say that I don’t ever want to do something different, but I don’t flatter myself by thinking I can waltz into radio and do something avant garde. The basics are tough enough, even with fabulous help from someone like Jay.

    But Jay and I did have discussions about doing stuff with the piece that would make it a little different. I come at this as such an Ira Glass-Scott Carrier-Sarah Vowell groupie that of course I wanted to stick music in between segments and do other things to make the piece as much of a This American Life wannabe as possible. Jay smartly advised against that. Same, as Jay mentioned earlier, with the odd narration/reporting mix. Part of that is borne of the fact that that’s what I do in real life — I write either heavily reported stories, or first-person essays. This was a hybrid of the two, which could explain why it didn’t work for some people. (And by the way, I do agree that the intro is too long, in any case!)

    And the narration — well, that’s a whole other story….

    So anyhow, all this rambling leads me to a general question: If transom.org has a two-fold (to boil it way down) purpose, which is to, by pursuing new voices in radio, 1. push the envelope style-wise, make stuff less NPR-y (PRI included) and 2. get those pieces on NPR/PRI, etc., how do you reconcile the two?

  • Joan Schuman

    4.11.01

    Reply
    reconcile

    that’s an important question, Amy. forget about what you hear out there (the idols) and sit with the inspiration for the story. think about tone and voice (my mantra, always, what’s the tone of the piece, what does the voice sound like, do i want to be intimate, confessional, distanced, story’ish, authoritative, reporatorial…).

    then, let the piece unfold. don’t worry about sounding like someone else. i think the strength of your piece was that it didn’t have the usual music beds we’re all accustomed to.

    be honest.

    i think the confusion (or hybrid nature) of your piece was a problem in tone and voice. once you decide, this is a piece about Mary or this is a piece about Alzheimer’s poetry, or, maybe this is a piece about both and this is how it’s going to sound (the tone/voice of it), then it won’t feel as confused.

    great work.

  • Carol Wasserman

    4.17.01

    Reply
    "Memory is only one thing – life is something else."

    This was a lovely piece of work, this story wrapped inside a story. I would have chopped more from the beginning, perhaps started with napkin-folding. In order to begin with a picture. Nevertheless, we are drawn in.

    We have this: a woman is set adrift, loosened from the moorings of memory and the self.

    And we have this: several women a short generation younger bring themselves and poetry to Alzheimer’s patients. In doing so we are presented with evidence that what we have believed is false. That the core of a person remains intact behind the mess of plaques and tangles. That the acting-out and disturbing personality changes which are symptoms of the disease are only that; somewhere deep inside – where language lives – the self hides out, crouching in the ruins.

    Amy Silverman does an astonishing job of interpreting the Alzheimers patients to us. "No one wants to leave the table, even when fruit-cup snacks are waiting," she tells us.

    I love being reminded of the heartbreaking usefulness of the work of teachers and nurses. Women’s work. Carol Smith, the ‘elementary school teacher turned poet’, who brings Salvador Dali prints with her. Who thinks up themes like "Things That Are Round". Can you listen to her talking with her poets and not be ashamed of the shallowness of your own job? Carla Ellings, who lost both parents to dementia, and who must continue to construct meaning for herself, regardless of what we know about genetics and inheritance. Who insists that "Memory is only one thing – life is something else". Are you astonished by her inventiveness and tenacity?

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that this piece also turns out to be about Radio. Poets and Alzheimers patients "both conjure memories and make leaps", which "subvert the communal narrative", we are told. "Poets are not necessarily easy to understand or decode." Our ‘old ears’, as Viki calls them, our Radio Ears, demand narratives which are plain and can be decoded while driving. At least that’s what I’ve been taught.

    But here we are, thanks to Amy, listening to the last transmissions from dying civilizations, whose libraries are burning.

  • jonathan menjivar

    4.20.01

    Reply
    two stories

    I feel a little intimated saying anything about this piece after Carol Wasserman’s poetic critique but I’m gonna give it a go.

    Wow, Amy. I’m SO glad you cornered me at Neal’s party and pressured me for information about what I was doing with that giant microphone. It seems others are as well. You’ve done an incredible job of combining reporting about Alzheimer’s Poets and your story of Mary. They flow in and out of each other in a way that makes it hard to see them again as two separate stories.

    But I want it to flow even smoother. Some people have brought up the fact that the intro seems long, which it does if it’s conceived as an intro. I think that like Viki I felt duped when the story of Mary dropped out and the other story dropped in. Both parts of the story work extremely well, but they still feel like two separate stories at times.

    I loved your description of Mary’s progression into Alzheimer’s that opens the piece, but I wonder if for the sake of story it might work better if it was cut or came later. For me, hearing about Alzheimer’s Poets from your friend over coffee is where the story begins. From there you could backtrack and weave in and out of Mary’s story. It would illustrate with more punch why folding paper napkins sounds so much more tragic when it’s placed directly next to the activities these other patients are engaged in.

    And it would fix the other weakness I heard. It would get to that tender tape of the patients being inspired and creating poetry more quickly. When that music box sound comes in and later when we hear one of the patients reciting her poem with a little help my heart drops. I listened to your story all the way through on the internet but I think if I were in a car listening to the story on the radio and I got to my destination, I would only feel compelled to sit there and wait the story out if I had caught those great moments.

    It may say something about me…that I prefer mixed stories to commentary pieces…but why not make a piece that appeases both types of listeners. I think you have the opportunity to do it with this story. You should take advantage of that fact.

  • Nannette D.O.

    4.25.01

    Reply
    just so

    I liked it just the way it is.

    I was surprised when the intro ended and something else started, and I was annoyed by one voice, but what I took from this was: maybe I should just listen to people however they come across

    It’s a wonderful topic.

    I look forward to other versions, if you make them. But I got alot out of this one just so.

  • Nikki Silva

    5.02.01

    Reply
    "… my brain is broken…" Mom Silva

    Amy,

    Thank you for your piece – and for putting words to so many of the questions & fears that haunt me daily. My mom has Alzheimers — she’s lovely and brilliant, and funny — her one-liners are inspired — and she’s hopelessly lost in a bizarre disease that strips her of all reference points. How to find a language – how to redefine our relationship in the present tense – how to not underestimate her soul – how to make her life matter -— your piece caught these feelings and introduced some new ideas and tools and hope.

    Much has been said here at Transom about your mother-in-law — I, too, thought about Pat throughout the piece –- and I wanted to hear her voice. I think her presence could be a powerful element – it could ignite your narrative, integrate it stylistically with the larger story and strengthen your ending.

    I like the mix of personal essay and traditional report — it was surprising and it pulled me in. I was held back a bit, though, by the intros to the characters – they felt formal and distancing for such an intimate piece. One thought is to change the emphasis of the intros to integrate them more into the story – i.e. for Carla you could hold off describing her Alzheimer’s poetry credentials and intro her more personally as a friend whose parents both had Alzheimers. Then let her describe her parents and father and the birth of the poetry project. For me that would flow a little more organically with your personal story.

    Another softening, transitional technique might be easing in the sound under your narrative as you begin to turn the lens towards a new character. Or perhaps have your character say or do something before you describe them. Also, let the listener fill in for themselves the remarkable connection between Alberto Rios’ poem and the Alzheimer’s patient’s "Curtain of Trees" line – I think you could tighten up the explanation and cut more quickly to Alberto.

    These are small things — overall I think your piece is strong and I loved listening to it. I plan to play it for my dad, my family, the caregivers at the Alzheimer’s home where my mom’s just moved in, and the Alzheimer’s family council I belong to. Good work. Let’s push this thing to air.

    Nikki "Kitchen Sister" Silva

  • Char

    2.05.05

    Reply
    Right on
  • Char

    2.05.05

    Reply
    Right on

    As a provider of care to elders and younger people with cognitive disorders, I laud this work, just the making of it and putting it out there gives hope to thousands of people.

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