Image Credit: Taunton Lake, New Jersey by Elisabeth
Through a project working with communities which recognize that many of their young people deserve better education and life outcomes, I met Elisabeth, a 20-year-old poet and advocate. While Elisabeth always loved school and even called it a “safe haven,” negative educational experiences while in foster care, group homes, and secure facilities made her grow distant from formal schooling. Poetry is where her curiosity for language and expression have continued—in fact, she’s been previously published in a book of original writing and art by youth in foster care.
Elisabeth’s writing is a powerful artifact of working through the crises and curve balls that life throws at her, as adults fail to listen or give compassion, and as systems offer stigma instead of solace.
In this conversation, I speak to Elisabeth about some of her earliest experiences with poetry and why she believes that writing in raw ways serves as a form of resistance. Four poems are included at the end of the conversation.
*For Elisabeth’s privacy and safety, we are only using her first name.
You’ve mentioned that your grandfather was a poet. How did he react when he discovered you were interested in poetry?
He took me up to his study and showed me his binders. And when I tell you we have binders, they date back to the late 1980s up until he died, with hundreds of thousands of poems. There’s maybe about 100 to 200 in each binder. He even has some that aren’t printed that are in his notepads. He wrote at least 10 poems a month, I swear. It made me in awe of him. He never went anywhere without a printed and signed copy of a poem. Whenever we would go to the doctor’s office or just to dinner, he always had poems and he would give them out. I loved how he could always put a smile on someone’s face just by giving them one of his talents.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
The first one I have dates back to 2013, I think. I don’t remember if that was exactly my first poem, but basically I was learning about war in school. And I just didn’t like how war never really ended in anything good and always divided us. I was feeling isolated and wasn’t being heard or understood in foster care and group homes. It felt like I was in a constant war, and I wound up writing a poem about war.
Yes, I noticed images and words about battle appearing in your poems. Who is the battle or the war between in these poems?
It’s between me, the group homes, DCS [Department of Children’s Services], the doctors, everybody. A lot of the time, it relates to the battle raging inside me. Do I want to act out, lash out, scream at the top of my lungs, or tell them how I really felt? If I tell them how I really feel, they’ll think I am dramatic and exaggerating and that I’m just a drama queen. Or maybe if I tell them, they’ll understand. I wind up sinking deeper into myself.
A lot of the time, I battle with DCS because they write things about you that aren’t true. A lot of people believe the files that they write about you more than they actually take the time to get to know you and understand you. I’m still learning things that were said about me to this day. I can’t tell you the amount of times DCS said I am combative and stubborn and strong willed and have an attitude and I don’t follow directions. And yes, I do have my stubborn times, but it’s because I’m opinionated. And I know what’s right and what’s wrong. I have to battle to be seen above my paperwork, to be seen differently than what DCS, foster parents, program directors, my family, or doctors see me as.
Can you think of a recent example of this ongoing war?
It’s a constant battle with doctors not listening to me. I still have that problem at 20 years old. I still have the problem of “oh, you’re just doing it for attention, you’re foster care.” And it hurts. It really does. Like I went months seeing different doctors because of my lower back problems. And all of them basically said: “You’re fine, you’re just doing it for attention. You’re a 20-year-old, young woman who shouldn’t have these issues.” I finally went to two doctors who said you have a herniated disc and a pinched nerve. You’re going to have it for a while because of how badly damaged it is and how long it went untreated.
DCS tears your life up, and it lasts longer than just when you’re in their custody. It’s a battle even after you’re done to be seen and to stop questioning yourself. I have this bad habit of saying sorry after everything, and I know I do. It’s so hard to break because DCS made me feel like I am a burden, a problem, a worthless person, a scum of the earth basically. There are so many different battles and wars being waged at once. DCS is always winning.
It’s interesting that you reflect on saying sorry a lot because I don’t think I saw a single “sorry” in your poems.
Because I’m not sorry. There are times where I’m speaking to my higher ups, like people that are older than me, that have authority over me, people who can put you on these prescriptions or lock you up or fire you. I cave in on myself, I go into myself, I get nervous, I get scared, I get upset. If they have power or authority above me, I get nervous because I’m like, okay, what are they going to do now?
In your poem called “Ship wrecked,” why did you choose water metaphors?
A lot of my poems talk about drifting and water and floating because I connect a lot with the ocean. There’s so much about the ocean that we don’t know. It’s so vast and dark but also not dark. It’s huge. Not much is known about it. I really relate to that. You can easily get lost at sea. Your ship can easily get destroyed at sea and no one will know. A lot happens at sea that no one knows about. I’ve read so many ghost stories about ships going missing. Eerily, I can really relate to the ocean.
I know mermaids aren’t real, but I can relate to the mythical side of the ocean. A lot of times, DCS will slap a label on you. They’ll say “this person is bipolar or has ADHD or anger issues” so they can put you in a group home. I relate to the mythical side a lot because you’re put in a position where something isn’t real, it’s fake. Mermaids were created for stories.
I notice I write whenever I feel like I can’t use my voice or I’m not being heard. When I feel boxed in and like I can’t get out, like I’m suffocating, I’m being suppressed by other people and by my surroundings and everything is caving in on me—that’s how I normally write.
When you’re in that space, what happens after you write a poem?
I’ve gotten it out when I can explain how I feel. My poems are meant for people who don’t have a voice, who don’t know how to unravel all that’s going on in your head.
Whenever I do advocacy or interviews, I feel like I have to explain it in the way the public would understand. We’re just painting a picture, we’re being delicate with it, and not being full force. We felt way more than that. And we felt stronger and differently. It’s not how we feel. It’s not how we want it out there. It’s not the situation. It’s not who we are. I do care about my audience, but at the same time, if my audience isn’t willing to break the mold a little to understand, they’re not meant to hear.
When you share your experiences in the more “delicate” way, what impact does it have?
People aren’t understanding or fully comprehending how we truly feel. People are only understanding it to a small degree. I can tell you right now: I have poems that talk about how I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to eat. I don’t cry. I don’t want to smile. I have poems where I’m in the deepest, darkest depression, but I still plow and push through. I talk about how I feel like I’m going to fall over the edge and just give up. Whenever I don’t talk about that, it puts a delicacy over it that isn’t true. Foster kids go through so much, and so much of it is not spoken.
Do you think of your poetry as a form of advocacy?
It can be advocacy because it’s a raw image behind the scenes of what really goes on for a lot of kids in foster care. They feel heightened claustrophobia. They don’t tell anybody because they don’t think people will understand. They feel people will just brush them off and get something else written on their file. And now they’re going to be more judged for it. I feel like poems are raw truth in a rhythm-y fashion, the raw gruesome truth. The more “delicate” kind of advocacy is the side that DCS wants everyone to see.
What role has poetry played in your education, whether formal or informal?
I loved school. I absolutely loved it. But as soon as I did lockdown school, where you did school on the campus, I rebelled. I dreaded school. I hated it. I hated doing school in my group home because you don’t learn anything. There are students of all different levels, all grades in one room. And we had behavioral issues, so if one person freaked out, you were done for the day, you didn’t learn anything. Our books were so outdated. I absolutely hated it. So writing poems was my education, my way to learn while being in lockdown facilities.
I really like how poetry pushes me to learn new words. I try to find synonyms. In school, you have pages of different words, so instead of “say,” use she “spoke,” she “shivered.” It pushes me to learn more, to broaden my feelings, to broaden my education for understanding feelings and emotions.
POEMS BY ELISABETH
Ruined by some miles
and all those stated files
wrecked by severe pain
and all the lies coated with sugar cane
Not considered normal, but just a pawn in a game
that makes me wanna go insane
Destroyed by all that mess
I’m probably avoiding your test
the test hell is trying to wrought on nothing but space
for I have been make to again make haste
Mind at sea I float away
To where unknown
To what, I lost care
I hate I like I don’t know what I feel
Heart at bay
It wants to dock
Steady sturdy it plunges under
Soul at ocean bottom
It wants to resurface
Gurgling and rocking it tides the waves
Pruney and flimsy it begins to sink
Mayday mayday the creatures of the water swim away
No one to hear no who to rescue
SOS has come and gone it’s all fine now
I learn to crash ashore
Alone with the froth and foam
But they are nothing but flaking sand
They grain away never once there
Here and Now
I may be Broken but I still smile through the missing teeth
Torn yet I can be stitched back together
Thin yet I can still be thickened with some extra feelings
Lost yet I can still be found
Who wants to help if it’d be no one then fine so be it I still have me
I may be battered but I’m still not breaking
Tattered, worn, bruised, and bloodied but yet I’m still ramming through this war
This battle on this human field will not bust
She is stronger than she ever is
Most never knew didn’t think cuz she hid it only saw her weak points
But she is ready to show these newfound powers
shine through rubble.
If walls could talk
They’ll share your thoughts
The ones you think late at night
curled up against those solid fixtures
Your forehead pressed against their coldness
The unspoken fear truths emerge
you stare blankly at white washed surfaces
All that’s not voiced commence
those enclosures hear what is not in the air
Your doubts are brought together
No longer in your mind
But built into that physical barrier
That you have all but come too familiar with
They hold your testimonies, your notions, your
trepidations, your incertitudes, all that is held within
the deepest parts of your brain
They all make up the depths around you
That you come to feel with and from
Abandonment and neglect. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. Suicide ideation. These are subjects which are prominent in child welfare and foster care; on average, foster children remain wards of the state for two years. I asked: Why are these stories uncommon despite its longstanding presence? Why is the adage “education out of the system” the emergent path to adulthood? Why have I not found a safe space for these stories from educators, administrators, foster parents, biological parents, kinship placements, adoptees, and the fostered and unfostered?
There has to be a way to make that happen. That is what I’m looking at for this foster care series. The writings I aim to publish will take a variety of forms, including creative nonfiction, hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, visual and text-based. More importantly, they will come from voices which are undeniably unafraid to speak. If language can do that, I think we can get closer to reinventing our experiences; we’re not so different or alone at the end of the day. Send your writings on foster care to firstname.lastname@example.org. And keep speaking.