Poetry finds a superpower in the ordinary, everyday things of pandemic family life

An inter-generational project at Draíocht in Blanchardstown during lockdown tapped a nerve

One of the best memories that Claire Liu holds from the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 was sitting on her bed with her husband and 4 children, all dressed in pyjamas, writing a poem with Lucinda Jacobs on Zoom. The Liu clan, as they were named by Jacobs in a poem of the same title, had been introduced to the poet by Sarah Beirne, children and youth arts officer at Draíocht Arts Centre, Blanchardstown, who had been trying to find ways to reach audiences and artists during the long closure of the arts centre during the pandemic.

“We were trying to figure out how to create engagements that would be real and significant and interesting,” she said. “People were putting out a lot of content on YouTube etc, but we wanted to give artists an opportunity to connect with people in an immediate way, to do a project that only they could deliver, because that is where the magic happens.”

In consultation with poet Colm Keegan, Beirne settled on a poetry project that would bring together writers with families from the local area to create a collaborative document of their family life. Beirne was keen that the project would reflect the diversity of the area as well as the diversity of young people’s experiences. With this in mind, five families were selected to work with five poets.

The children involved ranged from three-year-olds to 18-year-olds, with single parent families, blended families and new immigrants in the mix. Usually, Draíocht’s youth projects would focus exclusively on the 0-18 age bracket, but with the pandemic complicating in-person meetings, the poetry project quickly became an intergenerational affair, with whole families chipping in. “That was something we wouldn’t really have considered before,” Beirne admits, “getting the whole family involved, and it was entirely made possible by the pandemic”.

Beirne gave the poets and participants freedom of approach, but they were guided by the theme of the superhero. “During the pandemic,” she explains, “we were all locked up at home, but we still had to do the ordinary things. We had to get up and do the washing and do our schoolwork at home and our jobs. So the superpower was in the everyday things we had to keep doing despite the pandemic. The idea was to represent the ordinary as a kind of superpower”. The result is a remarkable testament to the everyday trials and tribulations of family life over the last 2 years, in which mums, dads, grannies and siblings demonstrated heroic feats of kindness, love, patience and generosity, through a variety of forms, from manga mash-ups to graceful elegies about grief.

The intergenerational, multicultural aspect of the Super Power Poetry project was one of the key attractions for “supermum” Claire of the Liu clan. “I have been married to a Chinese national for 19 years,” she says, “and as a multicultural family this was a great opportunity for us to come together and think about what that means to us and what we believe in.”

“It was really good to go back to the beginning of [my] relationship [with Leo], to tell the kids about how we met and how we decided to have children, and how we would bring Chinese culture into our home.”

Along with her husband, and children Thomas (17), Sophie (15), Oliver (9) and Jessie (6), she met Jacobs online, but the family’s involvement helped to bring them closer outside of the sessions with Jacobs too. “It really opened up a big pool of conversation for us. Every dinner time, it was the topic of choice.”

“What really stuck with me,” Jacobs says, remembering their meetings, “was the little details. Sophie said Oliver chews too loud! Will they want that kind of thing put in a poem? But even if the [details] didn’t go into the poem, they helped me understand the dynamic and learn about what kind of family they were”.

It turned out that the Lius were the kind of family who were keen to be involved in the process of writing the poem. They eagerly explored the poetry resources that Jacob shared with them, including her own collection for young readers, Hopscotch in the Sky. They particularly liked Jacobs’ poem I Am, which is based on the ancient Amergin poem, thought to be the first poem in the Irish language.

“Every line starts with the words ‘I am’,” Jacobs says. “And that gives the poem an interesting structure, so we went with that, though in the end we decided ‘I am’ sounded too formal so we shortened to ‘I’m’.”

The poem is structured by the phrase, which invokes the voices of the individual family members, who set out their own personalities. “I’m the Princess superhero,” the poetic version of Jessie exclaims, her siblings joining the chorus. “I’m the goalie superhero... I’m the caring superhero… I’m the wittiest, super-word-clever comical son.”

When Covid restrictions allowed, Jacobs visited the Lius at their home and ate with the family. Claire and Leo’s wedding album came out. The album would play a significant role when Alan Nolan set about illustrating the poem for the family, a supersized version of which is on display at the Super Power Poetry exhibition, which has just opened in Draíocht.

“I loved how Lucinda and Alan really listened to us, in terms of bringing a Chinese element [into the work],” Claire says. She is currently looking to have the poem translated so they can send it to their Chinese family abroad.

The collaborative approach was different for all the parties involved. Jessica Traynor worked with Gemma Kavanagh and her 4-year-old son Feidhlim. Kavanagh was interested in making “a record” of herself and her son’s life, “something that we could keep forever”, she said.

The pair were a great match, and Traynor describes how intimate the process was, with Zoom aiding the intimacy, they both agree. “It was just gorgeous, to have a window into Gemma and Feidhlim’s life in a way you wouldn’t get if you were meeting in a cafe. We very quickly found that we had common ground in terms of experience. We both have young kids, and we shared parenting tips, and talked about how difficult it was to be at home during the lockdowns. We didn’t talk about poetry at all, and for me that’s always a good sign.”

Indeed, Traynor’s inspiration for her poem for the Kavanaghs was a conversation about parenting, where Gemma talked about Feidhlim’s fear of thunderstorms, and she explained how she calmed him down, saying “‘don’t worry, it’s just Thor versus Thanos battling up there.’ That really struck me,” she says.

“How a lot of our job as parents is creating a home for our children, creating safe spaces. If you think about the idea of the superhero, they always have a lair to go back to, a place away from danger, and that’s what family gives a child, no matter where it is. It is a calm centre where our children can feel safe.”

Illustrator Alan Nolan has created a comic book strip to honour the Marvel heroes, a brilliant tribute to Feidhlim’s much loved characters. However, for Paul Timoney’s Breaking the Fourth Wall (With a Sparkly Lazer), he had to come up with an entire Manga world to match the roller-skating, mask-making, manga-loving imagination of nine-year-old Joanne O’Gorman (aka Yuki Yamazaki).

It is a large-scale strip that Beirne is delighted to place at the centre of the large upstairs exhibition space at the Blanchardstown arts centre, another accidental post-Covid boon. “We thought we would just do something small, downstairs, but with all the shifting schedules, as projects got derailed and postponed and cancelled, it turned out the main gallery was free, so we get to put this brilliant poets and families work front and centre.”

Super Power Poetry runs in Draíocht Arts Centre, Blanchardstown until October 1st.

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer