Hilary Tham's first poem was a high school assignment about rain.
She said that poem taught her how to think.
"My thinking was clarified as I wrote," said the 47-year-old poet-in-residence with the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. "The writing process made me think."
Friday, Ms. Tham read several of her poems at the 17th annual Older American's Day Luncheon at the Florence Bain Senior Center.
More than 300 senior citizens attended the affair, which featured the Goldenaires, a 26-member senior citizen band, county Councilman Darrel Drown and various officials from the Office on Aging, Department of Citizen Services and the senior center.
Ms. Tham's varied ethnic background is the basis for much of her humorous and unsentimental poetry.
Born in Kelang, Malaysia, Ms. Tham grew up in a Chinese household that practiced Buddhism. But when she began attending a school run by Irish nuns, she converted to Catholicism. She became an Orthodox Jew when she met her husband, a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. She spent a summer in Israel learning how to recite prayers, keep a kosher household, and prepare kosher foods, among other duties.
Ms. Tham's poetry encompasses social and political turmoil as well as universal rites of passages: birth, death, love, and life.
"I write about things that are exotic but also ordinary," Ms. Tham said.
The Arlington, Va. resident said she writes to share knowledge and pleasure with the average person.
"Poetry should be for everybody," said Ms. Tham who said many academic poets write esoteric poetry that readers cannot understand. "They're writing different poetry, and the ordinary person can't get it on the first reading and don't understand what's the point."
Ellen Conroy Kennedy, president and a founding member of the society, known as HoCoPoLitSo, said the group chose Ms. Tham to be their poet-in-residence because of her insightful and humorous poetry.
"Her poems are very often stories with a commentary, and they're very informative," Ms. Kennedy said.
Ms. Tham said she hopes readers enjoy her verse and learn something.
"The first thing poetry should give readers is pleasure," Ms. Tham said. "Second, people should learn something else, even if it's someone else's point of view.
Ms. Tham has learned that throughout the world, "People are people, basically," she said. "Under the skin, we're all the same. The same things hurt us, the same things make us laugh."