“Dear America: Telling the World We Lived,” is a new initiative that the Ventura County Poetry Project is working on, based on a grant from CA Humanities. It provides an incredible insight to many stories from the community. This project is made to preserve and learn from powerful voices of older people. Due to the pandemic, we’ve all experienced a devastating loss. It feels like there has not been enough time to stop and grieve over the losses we have experienced over the last year. Death rates, especially in seniors, have increased immensely due to the pandemic.

“Dear America: Telling the World We Lived” was created to record significant experiences in poems and stories from elder writers and pass them on to the younger generation. Several people have come together to share their past experiences through poetry. I got the opportunity to hear a few stories and I got to learn so much. It was a great experience to hear Jean Colonomos, Anita S. Pulier, Florence Weinberger, and Sojourner Kincaid Rolle share some amazing diverse stories about their lives. 

Jean’s poem was about body image in the 50s and 60s as a dancer. What is incredible about her story is that nothing has really changed since then. From what I know, ballerina’s still have to have a certain body type. It’s true that beauty standards are always changing throughout the years but in certain sports, such as ballet or gymnastics, women and men are always being held up to a higher standard. I am sure that most people growing up have had to deal with body image issues. Jean’s states in her poem, “she knew me when I tried to hide the shame of my protruding body parts.” It is incredibly unfortunate that this is still a problem and I don’t really see it going away in our society. There will always be people who harshly judge others by the way they look. Me, the people my age, and even people who have lived on this earth longer than I have, can all relate to this feeling of being insecure. It does bring me some comfort to know that I am not the only one who has trouble trying to accept the way my body looks. 

Anita’s poem was powerful and encouraging for women. She talks about how wearing pants in a courtroom, if you were a woman, was considered highly unprofessional. I know that a lot of women today would be highly upset. The courtroom seemed incredibly unprofessional instead of focusing on justice. Thankfully for Anita, she had a support system to push her through. Her poem, “Contempt of Court,” is about the time she stood up to the judge after being called out for wearing sneakers in the courtroom. She told the judge, “We are here as a matter of right not at your invitation.” I think that Anita has some admirable traits. Her confidence really shines in her poem. I am sure that the younger generation can look up to her as a role model.
Florence shared an incredible story about her husband. He was sent to a concentration camp and survived. It is so rare to meet someone or know someone that survived the Holocaust. It was such an experience to hear Florence remembering her husband and all the challenges he has overcome. You can really learn a lot from a single story. In one of her poems she says, “I married a man with a flat stomach and an unrequited hunger.” That was because people in the camps were starved. Her husband had great difficulty talking about what he’d gone through and she was able to show her love by cooking and, now, sharing those poems about food. One of my favorite lines is, “my heart gets fat” when she sees her husband eating “the wisdom liquid” (soup). 

Sojourner Kincaid Rolle shared how she added “Sojourner” to her name. Sojourner Truth was a women’s rights activist. Sojourner Kincaid Rolle talked about culture and how it impacted her life and made her the person she is today. I think that cultural poems/stories really help people feel less alone and create a community where you can be able to share similar stories. Her poem addresses racist attitudes toward Harlem, her community. My favorite line from the poem is “I was a child of the sun and a sister in the black liberation army.” It really just shows how empowering of a person Sojourner Kincaid Rolle is. Black Street is what she calls it,  “The shrine of the black madonna.” A place rich with culture, history, and change. 

I really believe that this grant will retain, teach, and pass on stories from the past so that they never die. Nowadays, we are so caught up in the present that we need a little time to remember what the human race has been through and how we continue to grow as a society.