Four Fierce Poets Who Grew Up in Foster Care
May is National Foster Care Month, a time to recognize and learn about the stories of children and families in the foster care system. Currently, an estimated 407,000 children and young adults rely on foster care, a number that’s been steadily growing.
While foster care has helped people navigate nontraditional paths to parenthood, as well as formed many strong, loving families, it’s not without its challenges—namely, chronic underfunding and a large population of children aging out of the system without access to crucial resources and employment. The system has also been criticized for disproportionately separating families of color. These poets who experienced foster care firsthand write about it with depth and nuance, providing valuable representation and allowing readers to gain understanding.
Nikki Grimes—who has won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award—writes poetry, picture books, and fiction for kids, which makes her focus on depicting children in foster care even more important. The instability throughout Grimes’ childhood, which often led to her moving around, meant writing served as a comforting constant.
Later, Grimes’ experiences influenced The Road to Paris, a chapter book in which the main character gets placed with a new foster family. “Poems” by Grimes, published in Poetry Magazine, also alludes to developing resilience and finding hope in spite of a challenging adolescence. “I drag [my memories] across the page / and when one cuts into the white, / leaves a trail of blood, / no matter how narrow the stream, / then I know / I’ve found the real thing,” she writes. “The diamond / one of the priceless gems / my pain produced. / ‘There! There,’ I say, / ‘is a memory worth keeping.’”
Lisa Marie Basile
Lisa Marie Basile, a writer and poet who also founded Luna Luna Magazine, writes both nonfiction pieces and vivid poetry about her experiences growing up in foster care. In an op-ed for Huffington Post titled “Foster Care Youth: We Are Everyone & No One’s Responsibility,” Basile writes candidly about aging out of the foster care system and makes an impassioned argument about how to support those facing the same situation. She’s also written about the intersection of foster care and addiction for The New York Times.
In her prose poem “Now You Know I Am An Orphan,” published in Entropy, Basile flickers between scenes of her life at different ages, reflecting on how her past shaped her present. “Because I had come from a dank place, I had only known small apartments and no one home and old bread, and I had only kissed men too early and I had stolen things, lived out of big blue bags,” writes Basile. “In the file there was a photograph of me. I wear dark hair. I wear the silence. I wear of sillage of hope, but only just so. I can still smell the paper. It carried me, that girl, the same face today, from there to here to here and to here. And here.”
Terry Wolverton is a writing professor at the University of Antioch and a founder of Writers at Work, where she teaches multigenre writing workshops. As a writer of both nonfiction and poetry, Wolverton has won the Judy Grahn Award for lesbian nonfiction, and her collection Embers, a novel in verse, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in lesbian poetry. Wolverton’s queer identity, studies in feminism, and upbringing in foster care all significantly inform her work. Her writing often features women stepping out of societal scripts as a means of protest and resistance.
In the aptly titled “Foster Care,” published in Poetry Magazine, Wolverton uses specific, arresting, and multisensory imagery to bring awareness to the poor living conditions children often face under the foster care system: “Each house smells of strangers: / cabbage boiling on the stove, / harsh soap at the rim of the sink, / starched sheets that scrape / against the skin in bed, / hard pillows shaped, / by someone else’s head, / rotting bananas, sweaty feet and dust.”
Lemn Sissay discovered his real name and birth certificate only upon aging out of the foster care system, a journey that Sissay’s play Something Dark and a BBC documentary titled Internal Flight. Unearthing the truth about his birthplace, ethnicity, and mother drove Sissay to write plays and poems that reckon with the concepts of identity. In 2019, he won the PEN Penter Prize for his more than a dozen award-winning works. He’s also published a memoir called My Name Is Why, which delves deeper into his fascinating, emotional life story, his triumphs, and his search for answers.