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What the Green Poets of Venice reveal when they meet each Tuesday

The Green Poets of Venice appreciate the power in a pause.

They save space in their lives to contemplate. They write. Each week they meet to share the carefully chosen words they've distilled from their thoughts and experiences.

Now in its 14th year, their poetry workshop started in an adult education class at Santa Monica College. The students, while learning about great poems, were encouraged to write their own. Since it was new to them, instructor Bill Robertson labeled them “green.”

When the class was cut, Robertson continued guiding his poets for free. When he retired to Florida, they kept at it without him.

A few of the originals are among those who gather each Tuesday at the old Venice City Hall — in the bookstore of Beyond Baroque, a literary and arts center on Venice Boulevard. Newcomers are welcome too. The age range spans more than 50 years.

As the poets arrived one recent morning, flowers swayed in the fog-wet ocean breeze. Gary Spain, one of the workshop members, stood under an arch on the red front steps, wearing a beret and tapping a foot to the Irish tunes he played on his violin.

Steve Goldman, wearing shorts and a shiny gold cardboard crown, was on his way inside when he paused to jump in on the harmonica.

Most of the Green Poets see one another just one time a week.

But they've grown close as they've put voice to the private and dredged-up long-buried memories. In discussing line breaks and meters, they've often shared much more.

They've reflected on, and tried to make sense of, their ever-changing worlds.

“It's become my second family. It's very important to me,” said Selma Benjamin, a former librarian who at 96 is the group's oldest regular member.

She and her late husband, Alfred, had joined together about a decade ago. Sometimes in the workshop they'd read love poems they'd written to each other, said Laurel Gord, 63. The Benjamins and the group's other nonagenarians have been an inspiration to her.

“It's so reassuring when I think, as I often do now, about aging,” Gord said.

On this morning, 18 people gathered around a long wooden table. Greg Bell, 68, was presiding, gently guiding the flow.

A “recovering actor” and archery coach who used to play Shakespeare at the Renaissance Faire, Bell said he got serious about writing after a brush with death six years ago.

A raging staph infection, misdiagnosed, had landed him in the intensive-care unit, “hanging by a frayed thread.” When a nurse who sang Barry Manilow as he worked told a recovering Bell that he'd been given a second life, he began thinking seriously about what to do with it.

Bell said he'd tried numerous poetry workshops before finding the Green Poets. Some were heavy on judgment and critique. That the Green Poets in their very name announced themselves as learners, not experts, seemed to signify an openness of heart.

After each person reads, Bell always leads the group in applause. Most comments are positive and constructive. He tries to keep those that aren't contained.

“What makes it special for me is that we make room for every voice,” Bell said. On this Tuesday, as always, the voices were many and varied.

Claire Acerno offered hope to the daughter of a friend, a young woman who cuts herself: “in real time / scars fade / blend in old skin,” Acerno reads. “look over the edges / into the sky / the circles are wider / you can see / above the rim now.”

Goldman hopped in and out of early memories — when he painted a picture of a house and a family in kindergarten, when he learned to read, when he got in a fight in a blizzard at age 8: “I am in mourning forever / For the benign and lovely / Child I was.”

One poem took on a childhood nightmare and the loss involved in a technology-driven world.

Another imagined how monkeys must have felt when they were strapped into rocket ships and sent off to test the effects of space travel.

Although not all the poems were so serious — retired aerospace engineer Bob Boucher wrote of a root canal, “Tooth why are you so mean? / so much pain I want to scream” — many were a coming to terms with difficult moments and loss.

“I went home the other day / and it had gone away...” Chris Kay Northrup read, “there was the same / ground and sky but everyone / was absent now.”

Benjamin's voice trembled as she started in on “Abba,” a poem about her father, “who hoped for a firstborn son.”

“The red dress you gave me / For my fourth birthday / Compensates me / For countless harsh words,” she read in an elegant voice that bears traces of the Germany she fled under Nazi rule.

As the poem edged from hurt and anger to acceptance and forgiveness, sighs were audible, eyes welled up.

“Most of us don't give our parents justice when they're alive,” Spain said.

When it comes to his own father, Goldman said, he's struggling. “I'm just starting to work on it. I'm only 76. Why rush into anything?”

Around the table, as copies of the next poem were passed out, people nodded their heads and wiped their eyes. 

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimescitybeat

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 20, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Green Poets keep feeding the meter - Meeting weekly in Venice, they bond over life reflections." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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