By Janice De Jesus
CONCORD -- Elaine Starkman, notable poetry-maven from Walnut Creek, paused to look at a roomful of seniors.
Except that to Starkman, they're more than just older adults -- they're poets. This summer, the students in Starkman's poetry class at the Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI) at Cal State East Bay's Concord campus not only wrote poetry, but have now had some of it published.
Starkman paused in pride as she scanned the room in a class that, at one point in the past, was thought of as a possibility more than as a reality. Now, that reality has celebrated its existence in "Poems From the Muse," a book of the students' poems.
"We had doubts it would take hold on 'this side of the Caldecott Tunnel,' namely our 'burb,' a distance from one of the strongest poetry capitals in the United States -- San Francisco," Starkman wrote of the poetry class in the book's foreword. "Yet today, we have developed into lively, diverse writers who join together to form a strong nucleus of contemporary poets reading well-known poets and writing and sharing our own work with its varied themes."
The book poetry launch celebrates not only the talents of these poets but also an appreciation of where ideas for poems come from.
"I took BART to (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) this summer, where I enjoyed looking at a piece of art which inspired me to write a poem," Starkman told her class.
At the book launch this summer, Osher poetry students read poems in their newly-published collection.
Chris Horner of Lafayette started writing poetry in 1978, then wrote sporadically until she came across Starkman's class.
"I decided that writing in a vacuum wasn't fruitful," said Horner, who also took Starkman's memoir writing class. "I needed feedback from other poets and I needed to learn the craft."
Simmons said she's thrived in poetry class for a year and takes great care to tend to her poetry daily.
"It puts me in touch with other writers and all kinds of people who speak my language," she said.
Phil Anderson started writing poetry when he was a teenager and has continued writing to this day. He said his poetry is about celebrating people's lives.
"For me, it's my major creative release," said Anderson, a Walnut Creek resident. "Poetry is my art. It is an expression of my inner being."
Anderson said the poetry class motivates him and that he gets insightful feedback and ideas from his peers.
Sarah Simmons of Concord said that she dared herself to sign up for poetry class because the only poetry she wrote before was in French.
"I said I'm going to challenge myself when I attended class five years ago," Simmons said. "I was a closet poet."
Living a long life, she said, has given her enough material to write poetry.
"I like to write about nice memories, children and about nature," Simmons said. "It's empowering and very rewarding. The class provides enormous help and suggestions."
Gretchen Davis of Antioch said she enjoys writing about both the city and country and celebrating the similarities and differences in each region.
"In both places you could find surprises," Davis said. "The poetry class opened us up to a lot of people, personalities, ideas and different points of view."
Starkman said she's proud of her students' accomplishments and how they've grown just by writing poetry.
"In order to grow you have to be open-minded to critique," Starkman said. "You won't be able to develop your writing if you're not."
Even though San Francisco and Berkeley are the centers of poetry in the Bay Area, Starkman said that in her poetry class in the East Bay suburbs, great poets are born and get better with time.
"I'm amazed the book came out as beautifully as it did," she said. "Some of them have been with me since the inception of this class. I think we help each person express what he or she needed to express."