Isolation does not always foster loneliness. During the lockdown of 2020-21 that kept some people close and others apart, the poets of Family Focus looked inward – together.
Meeting together regularly via Zoom, three different groups of poets contributed to the project: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, JoAnn Avery’s Dream Team of 8-to11-year-olds, and young teen after-school group.
An even larger ad-hoc event, the Family Focus Writing Circle, met once, and Beth Jacobs, who has facilitated poetry workshops at Family Focus for 15 years, says she hopes that will continue.
In 2020, Senior Staff Program Coordinator Ms. Avery, Family Focus Evanston Executive Director Colette Allen, Teen Room Director Deb Reynolds moved everything online and structured things somewhat differently to accommodate the enforced remoteness. “We learned to play some poem games on Zoom like rhyming contests and a ‘riddle me rhyme’ game. But otherwise, it was similar with writing time, asking questions on chat and then sharing on Zoom,” she said.
Current events and daily life were fodder for many of the poems. So were questions such as “What is different in your life from what you expected a few months ago?” and,” What has been lost and what found in the changes?”
“We worked from a Hopi prayer poem to write the “hold on” poems and we read a quote about standing on shoulders from John Lewis to write the poems about whose shoulders do you stand on. We wrote about how we felt about the election and how poems could change the world after the murder of George Floyd. We made a poetry time capsule of 2020 and wrote the lock down blues using some blues rhymes and rules,” Ms. Jacobs said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic raged and ebbed, the poets met. They laughed. They read their poems to each other. And they came up with a name for their effort, which became the title of their second book of poetry: Family Focus Faces 2020 With Poetry.
Plans were in the works for NorthLight Theatre to collaborate with the group to make a play. “COVID shut that down, so they took on the role of helping us produce the book party and help with the video trailer. Christina Lepri and Kaiser Ahmed were our wonderful contacts. They coached and did the filmings on Zoom and put it all together for the party,” Ms. Jacobs said.
A grant from the City’s Cultural Arts Foundation paid for a book designer and part of the expense of making a video trailer for the book.
The book “is a product of the resilience of the Family Focus community,” said Ms. Jacobs. “Early last year, when we got locked down, a lot of things that we took for granted were taken away from us. But in that creative space, we found this arena for sharing our expressions together.
“Thanks to Miss Colette [Allen, Family Focus Evanston Executive Director] and Miss JoAnn [Avery, Senior Staff Program Coordinator] all of the Family Focus programs went online, and that included the writing groups. And at first, we were really worried that everyone would be very distracted and all the momentum for writing would get lost. But what we started to find out is that exactly the opposite happened, all of our writing really deepened and got richer as we started really processing all of the things that were happening last year, all of the losses, all of the difficult awakenings. And all of the pressures, we just found that, over time, the writing was taking on more and more of a role to help us process digest and express how we felt.”
On May 18, most of the poets tuned in to watch the trailer for the book on YouTube and support their colleagues via chat.
“Oh, my goodness,” said Ms. Avery in introducing the trailer, “you’re going to love it.”
After months of Zoom back-and-forth, reading their poems with seriousness and aplomb was a snap.
Three Poems and Some Snippets
By Payton Thompson, age 9
We are all a family
US whites US black
US small US big
US racist US not racist
US smart US dumb
US mean US nice
US tall US short
it doesn’t matter
the point Is we are family
Weather I Am Depressed
By Nia Lewis-Kimmons, age 11
People don’t care about my feelings
and when that happens I feel like a snowball.
Just thrown and controlled
which makes me feel struck by just lightning.
If I defend myself I am the bad guy
and then I feel unappreciated and
that is where I become a storm.
I can’t control my feeling
just how I can’t control the weather.
I feel like there is this great hail storm
and there is a master
and the hail is its little puppets
on a string being controlled
and that is a lot against one person
without an umbrella for protection.
That is where it is competition
and I defend myself
by becoming my storm
and guess what always
happens in the end.
They are in my head
like the rain on the after effect.
Then the tornado arrives
in are all my thoughts surround me
I can’t take no more
I am a blizzard now.
2020 Time Capsule
By Barbara Wilson, age 63
In 2020 I saw a pandemic explode
In 2020 I felt I would burst
In 2020 I realized that life takes
one down such an unpredictable road
In 2020 I learned to be grateful
for everything and take nothing for granted;
and that somehow despite our individual differences
we had all been give the same life changing load
In 2020 we all learned survival
defined by a different code