The Poetry of Family

Photo by Sarah Whiting

I am a queer, single parent by choice. My child has many loving adults in her life, and the responsibility of raising her is shared. When the pandemic first began, I lost all other adult support. Our home was pared down to her and me, planting our garden and making each day work, one day at a time. Then George Floyd was murdered less than a mile from our house. The pain of single parenting became almost intolerable. I had to stay healthy because I was the only person able to take care of my daughter.

I have been committed to racial justice work my whole life. I could not believe I was potty training and stirring mac ’n’ cheese while the revolution played out in the streets outside our door. I was unsettled, longing to do more for my beloved community.

This year has been a time of contradictions, of nuance, and of many things being true at the same time. It can be difficult to find language to describe the complexity of our stories. People are appreciating their families on a new level, while realizing how much those who are gone or inaccessible mean to them. I felt compelled to offer poetry as a way to listen, connect, and hold up a mirror for people to see their vulnerability and their power.

In April 2020, I received a small grant from Forecast Public Art to do “Shelter in Poetry.” I spoke with artists, healers, and leaders over the phone about a person they were missing or loving and wrote poems inspired by our conversations. Now I am working with Spark & Stitch Institute to focus on how the pandemic has affected parents. I schedule phone calls with families and we talk for 20 minutes. Afterwards, I type the poem that emerges from our conversation on my typewriter, read it aloud, and later send it in the mail.

I am so honored to listen. Sometimes it can be easier for people to open up to a stranger. Often people cry as they get in touch with the depth of their love and heartache. My conversations start with a simple instruction: tell me about your family. I know I am ready to write when details of their daily lives emerge. Often the poems are inspired by what people say about who makes lunch, what makes them laugh, or the places that have become sacred.

A family that I recently spoke to had their third child in the last year. In quarantine, they have gotten pregnant, carried a baby to term, and given birth. The mother said that she struggled with how exhausted she was during her first trimester. She felt guilty for how little she was able to parent her other kids. Her partner kept reassuring her that he loved showing up for their two kids to let her rest. He kept saying to her, “This is what I can do for you.” I loved that phrase, and it became a repeated line in their poem, culminating with:

this is what I can do for you;

love you
which everyday
I do

I do.

Diver Van Avery (she/they) is a writer, educator, and public artist based out of Minneapolis. She has partnered with Mississippi River Connection, Northern Lights, the Community Planning and Economic Department of Minneapolis, Shakopee Women’s Prison, public libraries, the Public Works department, and City of Lakes Community Land Trust. Van Avery received an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University and is pursuing a master’s in counseling.