August 7, 2022

Where I come from: a poetry project preserves the memories of the elders

Bill thomas: Hi, I’m Bill Thomas from Prairie Public. When the pandemic hit us, many people rightly questioned the possibility of continuing. You can imagine that this would apply particularly to a project for the elderly, since they have been repeatedly identified as very vulnerable. But at Burleigh County Senior Center, they used an Arts for Life grant from the North Dakota Council On the Arts to do a poetry project based on a kind of model, Where I’m From. Lisa Bennett works at Burleigh County Seniors’ Centers where she completed this project. And she reads a poem produced, despite the pandemic.

Lisa Bennett: I’m from Dust, from Norma Nichols. “I come from the dust, the sealer and the comet.

I’m from the brown painted house in the heart of town, which we repair every year.

I come from the sunflower, the apple tree and the dried apples that we took out of it.

I am easter ham, and honest and trustworthy.

I’m from Edward and Bee. I come from baking oatmeal buns that would melt in your mouth, carpentry, and being on time.

I just swam half an hour after lunch, and just brooded blues music. I come from a long line of makers.

I come from New York to the Catskill and Irish descent, steak and potato mountains, going on vacation in the rain and coming home with heavy tents. Mom didn’t want to sleep in the water. Tall quilts and photos taken, and an old piece of hair hanging on the wall, a few hundred years old, looking like flowers made from the family’s hair. “April 2020

Bill thomas: It makes you want to make one yourself, doesn’t it? Alicia Underlee Nelson wrote about this project.

Alicia Underlee Nelson: The poem is inspired by the obvious Burleigh County Senior Center alumni, and they go straight to your senses. The intoxicating scent of lilacs mingles with the fresh bread of a summer kitchen. Fibber McGee and Molly play on the radio while Grandma’s clock shows the time. The quiet moments that make up a life can be just as evocative as the big milestones. The lives of 14 people are captured in a series of sensory snapshots that put the reader in the subject’s skin.

The truth of these poems is tucked away in dozens of little details that history often overlooks. It’s in the bark of the gnarled oak tree, hollowing out the backs of your knees as you hang from its branches upside down. The crumpling of a brown paper bag of Christmas trees. The tangy taste of blueberry jelly on the tongue. Seniors are served by the Burleigh County Senior Center in Bismark, live in their own residences, and come to the Center for classes, activities and meals. Social distancing measures that are slowing the spread of the coronavirus have made community building a challenge. Thus, site manager Lisa Bennett felt that the poetry project, which could be conducted remotely, was a responsible and timely way to use the Art for Life grant from the Dakota Arts Council establishment of North and deal with feelings aroused by a health crisis.

Lisa Bennett: I think everyone who wrote this poem, Where I’m From, will say it gave them time to think about what’s important in life. And I also participated. Most people grow up with depression or soon after, so they know what it’s like to give up on things. It was a great reminder to a perfect time when we were all confined to the house.

I’m from Shared Bathtub Water, John Maddock.

“I’m from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog, Lifebuoy Soap and Watkins Vanilla. I’m from a two story farmhouse with a summer kitchen, a kerosene stove filling the air with mum’s fresh bread.

I come from a vegetable patch under the barn, the lilac bush is blooming for Memorial Day. Mom’s love for flowers, geraniums, irises, surrounded by a fence.

I come from midnight masses and a patient and tolerant father of Jack Pat, Jack Matt and Stinky.

I come from 4-H and Angel’s Birthday Cake and drive our toy trucks through daddy’s arm veins as he read the newspaper.

I just did “Don’t Lick the Frost off the Steel Fence Post” and “Who Threw the Dungarees in Mrs. Murphy’s Soup”.

I just visited graves with relatives on a Sunday.

I’m from Grand Forks, ND, Irish dad and French mom, apple pies and good friday oyster stew, from being saved by an older sister after falling through ice of a storage pond. She found a pole and clung to it. The leather Davenport, where I rested and comforted myself in the photo of a young girl looking at a robin in the trees. Mom’s red garden cart nestled in our garden shed. “April 2020.

Credit North Dakota Arts Council

Alicia Underlee Nelson: The subjects called writers Matthew Musacchia and Maureen McDonald Hinz, who asked them a series of questions about their memories. After the discussion, the writers shaped their responses using the poetic model From Where I Come From, developed by George Ella Lyon. The finished poems were shared with the Elders who were encouraged to send copies to their friends and family and published in the community newsletter. The poems will soon be compiled into a book for the elders as well. Some subjects certainly needed a little conviction at the start. “I thought, oh my god, my life isn’t exciting,” latest Nancy Skerrett, describing her first reaction to the interview with McDonald Hinz, “but I found a lot to write about. I didn’t have thought about some of these things. for years. It was really fun for them, “says McDonald Hinz.” Once they started sharing the poems with their friends and family, I knew it was going to conjure up again more memories and discussions, ”said Lisa Bennett.

Lisa Bennett: That’s the value of this program and this poem is after reading about air raid sirens and ration cards, living on WPA wages, or a struggling farm profit and frozen ponds survival stories and exploding stoves and harsh winters, and most of them without reliable indoor heating plumbing. I have gained a whole new appreciation for the people I serve here at Burleigh County Senior Center. It taught me that they all lived full lives. And it also proves to me that the human race is very resilient. It was just a wonderful project, and I hope we will do it again in the near future.

Alicia UnderleeNelson: Irene Walter, a poet herself, has used the poem written about her to inspire her own work. She says, “Anyone can and should do a project like this with the people they love. Just go back and think about the way things used to be,” she advises. “I wish we had asked our grandparents more because there is so much we are wondering about now. Talk to the older ones while they are still here.”

Lisa Bennett: I come from an Irish Clogger and Dixieland Funerals, by Nancy Keating.

“I come from TV, spices and potatoes. I come from a very big house with big windows and beautiful trees, very quiet with lots of sun.

I come from lilacs, spireas and wild roses, from the Souris Mouse river. Our house, an island with four bridges all around. I come from midnight mass and no one ever says goodbye to me. From Philadelphia June. Phyllis and Clancy and Junebug.

I come from tobacco unfortunately, and dance lessons. And of all those who learn to play an instrument. I just looked up and Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman.

I come from lovely Sunday meat and potato dinners.

I am from Minot, North Dakota and Swedish, Irish, German, English. Eggs Benedict and Yorkshire Pudding. From a grandfather, the first sheriff of Renville County. Grandma is campaigning against him to prevent him from keeping the job. His nickel sheriff badge and my mother’s wedding rings kept in my living room right here. “April 2020.

Bill Thomas: It was Lisa Bennett from Burleigh County Senior Center reading one of the poems developed as part of their Arts for Life project at the North Dakota Council on the Arts. The report you heard was written by Alicia Underlee Nelson. It is part of a series called “Little Stories” at the Arts Council. They commissioned writers to tell a few little stories about how artists were reacting to these tough times and finding new ways of doing things. You can see more at or you can check out the North Dakota Council On The Arts website,
This project is supported in part by a grant from the North Dakota Council on The Arts, which receives funding from the state legislature and the National Endowment for The Arts. I am Bill Thomas.

See the Smithsonian Institution’s functionality of this project,


Credit North Dakota Arts Council


Credit North Dakota Arts Council