Moonlight pours in through the windows of Grant sophomore Phoebe Kearney’s room. It’s a quiet night and she smells a hint of cigarette smoke, which intensifies within the next few minutes. She opens the foggy window and looks outside. Disappointed to catch her father smoking, Kearney slams the window shut and throws herself onto her bed.
Kearney grabs her fuschia notebook and a pink ballpoint pen. In the silence of the night, all that can be heard is furious scratching against the paper as Kearney records her emotions coming to her. She begins to write:
“‘I promise I’ll quit smoking.’
Papa, papa, do you like this personality that grips?
You didn’t fancy makeup, so I put bold, red words upon my lips.”
For many, writing poetry is simply a hobby. But for Kearney, it is a coping mechanism. Her love for poetry stems from an early fascination with drawing and writing stories. But what originated as just a fun pastime soon turned into her passion. “I was very quiet before I started writing poetry,” says Kearney. “It just gave me a voice.”
As she continued through school, Kearney discovered the emotional aspect of poetry and realized she could inject her feelings into her writing. “It gives me emotional clarity. It can be like a reflection, but it can also just sort of be a release of an emotion,” she says.
Kearney uses this to process her feelings of anger and disappointment surrounding issues with her father’s cigarette and alcohol addiction, and her distant relationship with her family as a whole.
. . .
Kearney was born January 10, 2002 to Sarah Shea and Jack Kearney. When Kearney was 3, her twin siblings, John and Daphne, were born.
Initially, she was excited to be a big sister, but the twins began taking up a lot of her parents’ attention. She felt they never had time for her, and when they did, she was reluctant to burden them. She knew her parents already had their hands full with her siblings. “I just took myself out of the picture to relieve stress, and tried to help with the kids as much as I could,” says Kearney.
From a young age, Kearney was intrigued by art, immersing herself in every possible medium.
She sang constantly, joined theater classes and was especially interested in drawing. Shea recalls Kearney’s first day at Heartwood Preschool: “She was at the easel and we had to take her cheeks and turn her head and kiss her and say goodbye to her.”
As Kearney continued preschool, her teachers became aware of her love for art, and recommended she enroll at Buckman — an arts-integrated elementary school — the following year.
At Buckman, Kearney began creating picture books featuring detailed drawings. By the time she reached the fifth grade, she had produced almost 40 books. She was initially drawn to the visual element, but soon realized she enjoyed the writing aspect as well. As she got older, she became interested in manipulating the words that accompanied her stories. She started pulling phrases and sentences from stories she already had, and put them together to create her first poems.
Kearney had already been introduced to poetry by her father. She was particularly intrigued by how he would use words that had double meanings. Her writing style turned into poetic phrases as she discovered the power of words and began playing with double meanings, similar to her father. “My dad, he writes poetry and I sort of got into it because he liked it so much,” says Kearney.
At the same time, Kearney began to notice that her father was acting differently. He usually had a glossy look in his eyes, and would often ramble, then forget what he was saying. “I would think he was just extra funny and happy,” says Kearney. “My mom would see me with him, and start yelling at him.”
Despite these issues with her family, Kearney has many fond memories from her early childhood. She enjoyed school, and was given an abundance of opportunities to express herself. In class, she spent her time drawing life size penguins, sketching bridges and performing in a ‘70s-inspired hula hoop dance to “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees.
When Kearney finished elementary school at Buckman, she decided to attend da Vinci Arts Middle School to continue her art education. Kearny and her parents thought a creative learning environment like da Vinci would be the best place to further develop her skills.
While attending da Vinci, Kearney began to explore poetry more seriously after one of her teachers introduced a slam poetry unit. She realized then that poetry could be angry, an emotion she had never touched on in her writing. “I’m not a very angry person,” she says. “Slam doesn’t always have to be angry, but I’d never written angry before and so it was a cool emotion to explore within writing.”
However, poetry didn’t become an emotional outlet for her until the death of a close friend’s father. “I hated seeing (my friend) sad, and I couldn’t do anything about it, so I started writing about it,” Kearney says.
She gave her friend the poem she wrote, and recalls her friend’s emotional reaction. When she saw how her poetry had an impact on her friend, she discovered that it was a powerful way to work through her own emotions. “The poem I wrote her made her smile, so that made me happy. After I finished it, (I felt) not closure, but more together,” says Kearney.
Kearney began writing nearly every day for all of eighth grade. She felt that her emotional pieces were more powerful and substantial. This also helped Kearney to alleviate the continuing stress she was experiencing at home. “I spent more time on (my poetry) because I was emotionally invested,” says Kearney.
The seperation Kearney felt from her parents continued to grow in middle school. At home, her interactions with her family were limited to brief conversations, often at dinner. When her father drank heavily, he would be absent from family life, becoming inaccessible and furthering the distance in their relationship. “My dad (would hide) in the basement for most of the day,” says Kearney.
She found her own ways to separate herself from her family. When she started middle school and her parents allowed her to take the bus around Portland, she began spending less and less time at home. She often chose to bus to friends’ houses and frequently slept over, even on weeknights.
When she was unable to escape to a friend’s house, Kearney found comfort in her room. Kearney’s room is completely separate from the rest of her house, taking up the entire third floor. She spent hours there, far from distractions, in order to find sanctuary in her writing.
Kearney recalls one night in particular when she realized her father had a problem. “I remember one Super Bowl, we had to walk home together from our friend’s house two miles away because he was too drunk to drive,” Kearney says. “I was like, ‘Wow, you’re not a functioning human right now.’”
During the worst of her father’s drinking, Kearney could go a week at a time without seeing him while he would be out with friends or passed out in the basement. Her mother traveled frequently for work, and Kearney ended up taking care of her brother and sister. She would make meals for them, buy groceries and make sure they went to bed and got to school on time.
Kearney was shocked that at such a young age she could be performing at a higher level than her own father. “Sometimes, he’d be in charge of me, other times it’d be the other way around,” Kearney says.
Although her father’s drinking significantly disrupted Kearney’s home life, it was his cigarette addiction that pushed her over the edge. Kearney’s father told her multiple times that he would quit, but frequently broke the promise and continued his habit. Kearney felt betrayed. She processed her anger and harnessed it into poetry, similar to the slam poems she had learned how to write earlier that year.
“It Started with Five Words,” a poem about her father’s problems with addiction, derived from these experiences. “She expresses herself through art,” says Kearney’s mother. “It seems like she has something inside of her that needs to get out.”
After writing, Kearney’s emotions became clearer to her. She funneled all of her pent-up anger into this poem. Although she was still angry, writing had allowed her to have control over this anger. “It just feels really good,” says Kearney. “There’s definitely an element of closure to it. (I) can sort of come to peace.”
She continued to work on “It Started with Five Words” as new feelings arose. “(Poetry) allows you to make something that kinda sucks, pretty … and she uses that a lot,” says Kearney’s close friend, Emily Fox, a sophomore at Cleveland High School. Kearney used her poetry to not only cope with her feelings but also to understand how she was feeling, and why.
Kearney’s family life has since improved. Her father has quit smoking, and mostly drinks at social events only. However, Kearney’s experience at Grant has been an adjustment.
Opportunities to create art are no longer given to her; she has had to make them for herself. At first, she struggled trying to fit everything in and stopped writing as much. “Because I stopped writing for a while, I think I started to not know myself as well,” she says. “I sort of lost myself because I didn’t write.”
The few times that Kearney has shared her work with others, she has received support and encouragement from the community. Her freshman English teacher, Dylan Leeman, was moved by how emotionally honest Kearney’s poetry is. “It’s so powerful and beautiful and it hurts,” he says. “It does what is the goal of so much art which is to evoke the feelings of the artist really powerfully. I really hope that she finds ways to share it with a broader audience. She has stuff that other people need to see.”
He urged her to join the school-wide slam poetry contest, but Kearney declined. “I think poetry … while I would like to share it, is sort of for me. To resolve things within my own head,” she says.
Kearney is interested in pursuing a career involving poetry, although she is unsure of the practicality of it. She was intrigued by a booth at her freshman career fair featuring an organization that helps disadvantaged youth with writing. Kearney was able to see herself doing something similar to this; “That way I wouldn’t have to share my writing so much as share my process,” Kearney says.
Until then, Kearney will continue to write new pieces and edit her old ones. “I’m always changing, so my poetry – it’s such a reflection of me, it’s gotta change with me,” says Kearney. “I think it definitely means that if I keep editing all of them, then all of them are still relevant. All of them are still part of me and alive and I think that’s really important.”
Back in her room, Kearney pulls out her pink ballpoint pen and her pink notebook and adds to “It Started with Five Words”:
“Here’s to your palette changing soon.
To it being 12 steps from my door to yours.
To raising hopes, not daughters.”