Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Oct 12
The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train

by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate

Writers from around the country submit to Pongo Teen Writing every day. And every quarter, a Pongo editor has the difficult job of picking four poems to share with our online readers. This task proved particularly challenging for this last quarter, April-June 2016 because the corpus of poems submitted were of such fine quality.
The balmy spring weather with its blossoming ebullience must have influenced our writers because this quarter’s collection seemed defined by optimism: acceptance for the moment and hope for the future. This is exemplified in this quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize.
___

I HOPE

I hope the end of every year
Will be followed by happiness.
I hope the weakest dog will find a family
 Of five people and one more dog, so the dog isn’t lonely.
The second dog is big, very fluffy and playful.
They will become really good friends.

I hope the fiercest storms bring rainbows
To part the storm:
A never-ending rainbow
I hope every empty room will eventually have
A lamp that can brighten
A lamp with flowers on it.

 I hope gunfire in the distance is just thunder
Striking the tree
An evergreen tree
An evergreen tree that is 24 years old.

 I hope when life passes there is a new life for me to call home.
The first thing I would do in a new life is get a dog
A Pomeranian
Named Pom-Pom.

 I hope the angriest person in me will learn to find calmness.
 Calm like a white butterfly
 In a sea of bees.

 I hope the loneliest person in me will discover a friend.
 Imaginary or real It doesn’t matter.

 I hope the most lighthearted person in me will find some structure.
 Structure like a sturdy bridge
From fear to hope.

I hope I will someday be able to walk that bridge.
I would not look down.
I would look straight forward.
I might even bring my dog.

___

The author connects feelings of hope with images: the crossing of a bridge, a butterfly, a rainbow, lamp and, of course, the image of the dog that opens and closes the lid on the little treasure box that is this poem. It’s a gift to read and speak aloud to ourselves.

Hope in a better future of course implies that there are things about our present and possibly our origins that may not be as sterling as we would have liked them to be. Yet, part of moving forward is accepting our roots. “Where I Come” from, our first honorable mention, models this for us in an important way.

___

WHERE I COME FROM

I'm from a place where kids hold guns bigger than them.
I'm from faith inside myself. No God.
I'm from a long line of people who work hard and try to do the best with their situation.
I'm from confusion about when people say "I love you."
I'm from laughter over everything.
I come from a place so dark, ain't nobody thought of lights.
I'm from love, and I know my people are still with me through this crucial time.
I'm from fear, especially when I think about not seeing my family again.
I come from a long line of slavery, both mentally and physically.
I come from the streets where killers and ballers dwell.
I come from a loving family.
I wish my life would become more destined and less hectic.
That's where I'd like to be from.

___

Part of this poem’s specialness comes from its unflinching inclusiveness of details. Their home front contains both a loving family and streets where “kids carry guns bigger than them”, an inheritance of historical trauma and good-humored perseverance. The poet seems to have taken the best from their surroundings, having learned the importance of hard work, loyalty and grit. “I’m from faith inside myself”, the poet writes. Though the place of their origin seemed so dark “ain’t nobody thought of lights”, there’s clearly a light within this writer and a hope for a future that’s “more destined and less hectic”. The “more destined” line pounds on our hearts and ears as we read, many of us living at frenetic paces without reflection.

Good thing we have poetry.

The next poem also depicts a complex experience of place and does so with memorable élan.
___

THE CTY THAT NEVER SLEEPS
1. new york
these cities that
we definitely own
so many people
but still completely alone

2. graffiti
leaving your mark
meant leaving yourself
hoping to spark interest
in someone else
but darling,
you have forgotten
only the broken-hearted
look out the subway window

3. sidewalk
stretching endlessly
into horizons
side by side;
not
necessarily
together

4. caffeine
running, going, gone,
avenues too long
hair unruly, unrested
silence detested
hands always jittering,
coffee hangovers anew
will the story ever progress
when you’re stuck on page two?

5. alley
deviants,
addictions,
shortcuts,
& sex.

6. broadway
pointed toes, jazz hands
broken dreams
from the stands
open hearts, wide eyes
seeking acceptance
‘one more time’.

7. taxi
whiplash can never
replace the time
we crashed hearts
and bumped thighs

8. homeless
awnings are blessings
spare change, please?
still a dreamer
wandering,
but not lost
without a house,
without clean clothes
but still
rich

9. club
hard liquor
the monster
which makes
the music louder,
the dancing quicker,
the hands slip lower,
the eyes to fall
shut.

10. traffic
inching,
crawling,
forwards,
halt
wrong turn,
switch lanes,
swerved,
stop
broken glass,
airbags,
imploded doors,
orphanage,
shell-shock,
never-more.

11. strangers
bumped into each other
not anymore
four years later
he’s out the door
we tend to forget
it always starts
and ends
the same

12. rooftop dinner
big city view
big city price
big city diamonds
(he must really
like you)

13. empire state building
top floor
low esteem
don’t look;
you might
want
to fly

14. pigeon
rats with wings
seeking french fries,
messages,
and dreams

15. street performer
kennedy center sleeping
central station dreaming
case open, hats off
counting change for
a better corner

16. apartment
needing more rooms
even if
you can only be in
one at a time

17. barre, bar
both your warm-up
and your mental state
depend on it

18. central park
escapist? realist?
the safety bubble
around the chaos
we sleep with

19. homesick
moving away from the
tornadoes
only leaves them within

20. rainstorm
trekking alone in this rain
will leave you more comfortable
than walking in the sunshine
by her side
they should start naming these storms
after people

21. birthday
welcome to the next chapter:
your romantic impulse
surges,
your heart
races,
your mind
flourishes,
and dissatisfaction
persists
"you're too
young to
hate so much"
___

This poem’s well-wrought lines (only the broken-hearted look out the subway window) crackle and surprise like Ginsberg. The poet’s lyricism can create snapshots of a rambling urban experience that can seem both sweet and troubling, as in stanza 20. In this is an inherent acceptance in the moment. It also speaks to the brilliance and promise inside people society may view as wayward or down-and-out. The poem’s end is abrupt, yet lifelike. We get the sense of an ongoing journey that will continue with the poet’s life. “Welcome to the next chapter” one of the closing lines states. Reading these 21 chapters made me feel alive and look forward to reading the 22nd, 23rd and so on.
___

Poetry has the power to reframe perspectives and, as Blake said, cleanse the doors of perceptions. Poems from this quarter work to cleanse a bleak view of the future, revealing infinite potential.  This last poem is one such example:
___

THINK ABOUT A LIFE WITHOUT SADNESS
 At first this sounds like an immaculate theory,  
To forever have nothing to do with sadness,
Sorrowful, grief-filled, heartbroken, depressed,
Hopeless, inconsolable, and disconnected feelings,
Not having that burden weighing down on you
But without these negative emotions you would not be that person you love today
or if you don't love yourself right now without sadness
where would your motivation be for changing?
There is a light at the end of the tunnel which is not a train.
____

Thanks to this poet for reminding us of this truth and thanks to all our poets and readers. Expression is hope!

Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.

Oct 12
Letters Out of Darkness

by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate

Between January and March 2016 hundreds of writers submitted powerful poems of overcoming grief and trauma. Four poems in particular stood out that captured the healing potential of the writing process.    

The quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize was one such example.

___

E.

This is a letter to someone important to me who died.
E.
I know it’s been awhile since you’ve been gone
And so much has changed, baby boy.
So many flowers of gloom have begun to bloom.

Your mother is still a light,
But she can no longer be mine.
I’m sorry I let you down,
But so much has changed, baby boy.

Your mother is about to be a wife
And your baby sister is on the way.
And me, I’m just trying to find my way.

E,
You still are the light of my world,
The first son of sons I will have
And the first heartbreak of heartbreaks I will feel.

It’s been a long time—four years if you want to be real
And though I don’t write to you as often as before,
The pain and the anger are still so very real.

Watch over your mother ‘cause I can no longer.
Watch over your sister ‘cause I won’t be able.
Make sure they stay strong because someone has too.

May God bless your soul,
Little angel of mine.

___

  
This poem captures the grief of its author while making an important statement: writing brings light to the dark corners of who we are, of what we’ve been through. In the poem, the child is the image of light revealing the author’s difficult feelings that need to be voiced. Though the author’s life may still be full of the flowers of gloom, their poem suggests that the naming and sharing of the hurt is a part of finding their way.
But finding the way is a long process when the pain runs so deep.


___

 

I JUST THOUGHT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Dear ex-boyfriend:
I just thought you should know what I’m doing now.
I am a happy person
Who spends a lot of time with our child and my family.

I just thought you should know how I’m feeling.
I am depressed
Because our daughter is one now and you don’t even know her.
 I just thought you should know what I’ve been through.
Since the last time I saw you, I have changed so much.
The time that I gave birth to our child was especially important to me.

I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that our daughter will get to know you.

I just thought you should know what I don’t miss about you.
I am glad I don’t have to worry about being alone anymore.

I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way you used to be a part of my life.

I just thought you should know that I hope you can be a part of our daughter’s life.


___

 

I admire the grace in the poet’s voice. Even though the father of the child has fallen short—even if only in his absence—the poet hopes for a future relationship between the father and daughter—a selfless wish as the poem implies the romance between the poet and the father has ended. The poet’s honesty also defines the poem. The poet admits missing the father still, though she is glad she doesn’t “have to worry about being alone anymore”. This indicates that the poet has found solidarity in themselves and/or found sufficiency in the togetherness they have with their daughter. Either way, the letter that may never be answered reveals the author’s strength as a parent and an individual.
    This theme of letters of loss continues with the next author who takes a unique approach. This author chooses to imagine the perspective of the one they’ve lost as a way to speak comfort to themselves.


___

 

LETTER OUT OF DARKNESS
I want to imagine the voice of him
To share any and all feelings with me
Since time apart now has made it all dim and I need this letter to help me see:

My Darling,
I want you to know that I think about
You, especially when in times like now;
Your fragile heart leads to feelings of doubt,
And in peace, your mind just will not allow.
It is difficult for me to write this
To you, because I am depending on
The words you may choose and those you may miss.
I trust you know me still, words not foregone.
I see how your life has been since I left
And I want to tell you so many things.
I sense all your happiness bereft
So remember what good thoughts of me brings.
I wish for you to understand something
Else about me, that I have truly loved once
And before her I had felt but nothing.
Yes, her name was yours! Then we became us.
If I could, I would never change our time
Together. I am sure you will also agree
That this be the most regrettable crime:
We gave each other a love which was free.
If you find no one who will listen to
Your troubles, please speak aloud. Call my name.
I will listen for you, hear you, help you.
What you meant to me there is here the same.
I love you,
J.    


___

 

The poet, through their lover’s voice, reminds themselves of their own value as an individual and speaks words of encouragement that they can believe—an act which takes imagination in grief, when nothing seems as real as the feeling of loss.
    After profound loss—of those we love, of our sense of self after trauma—we have to do what the next poet describes in our final poem of this quarter:

___

RELEARNING
I’m learning how to walk again.
Not necessarily because I didn’t do it right.
More because of the fact that I never knew how to change my pace.
My steps were too light.
The opinions on acidic fingertips
Were what I was most concerned about.
And the confessions from bittersweet mouths.

I’m learning how to consume again,
Always ready with parted lips
Thoughtless and thirsty underneath
The belly of my rusted faucet
Forgetting how to stomach favor
Whenever it manages to come out.

I’m learning how to wait again,
Sitting tight with a furnace in my womb,
Responsibility soon to sprout nails and skim my stretched pink surface.

I’m learning how to bleed again.
With the absence of blood though.
Draining the suicide from the underside of my tongue not nearly as thick
as that copper scented crimson
but just as even of a flow.

I’m learning how to destruct without destroying.
Taking aim at my temples.
My index fingers loaded with accusations and forgotten splinters.
Sliding another insult into the flesh covered chamber.

I’m learning how to sleep again with a mind wide open.
Dreaming of insomnia.
Tracing lullabies on my bed sheets.

I’m learning how to kneel again.
Without ever really bending my knees.
Overthinking asking for forgiveness.
Then remembering that I forget what praying is.

I’m learning how to write again.
Turns out it hardly involves the movement of a pen.
The tap of a key, the swipe of a screen.
It’s just my head, my heart and me.
We can’t do much
But at least we know what we’ve managed to achieve.

___

    And what an achievement indeed: lyrical, profound expression. This author’s learning and relearning makes for great poetry and an important reminder and model for all of us as we attempt to heal and as we write letters for ourselves and others in similar situations. A thanks to this poet and all poets for inspiring the continuation of this process of writing our way out of the darkness.

Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.

Oct 12
I Did Not Ask to be Different


By Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor & Youth Advocate


   

Out of all the amazing poems submitted in the October through December 2015 quarter, several poems stood out. We’ll open with the winner of the Pongo Prize:

___


DIDN’T ASK
Everyone wants to be different,
But not like this.
The struggle, the pain, the guilt.
The feeling that no one understands.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

I try to remember to do my best every day because the next day might be worse.
I want to run a 5k.
I want to be on the honor roll.
I want to be a teacher.
But what if it gets too bad?
Will I ever finish college?
Will I ever hold a job?
Will I ever get to hold my own newborn child?
Or will I sit alone unable to move from the fear of getting worse?

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

But what if this difference can make me stronger?
What if I can be the voice for the people who are sitting alone?
What if I can be the teacher who understands?

What if I can prove that being different made me better?
I can
And I will.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.
But I’m glad.

___

 

This poet’s questions about their potential echo the questions we all have before we begin something—even if it’s getting out of bed to start the day. But this poet is honest enough to ask these questions aloud, admitting that our potential for success or failure are equal parts hope and fear. Yet the poem is essentially the poet talking themselves into their own promise. The poet’s honest grappling is carried forward with the refrain I didn’t ask…The volta in the second to last stanza shows the poet answering their own question with assurance of victory (I can and I will) The final refrain resolves on I’m glad, symbolic of the poet accepting themselves and we have visions of this writer being that teacher who’s there, being that mom who cares.

Like “Didn’t Ask”, several other poems from this quarter embodied the voices of young people embracing who they are. “Strength” is one such example.

___


STRENGTH
 I can be as strong as a black goddess,
Ready to show the world that I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be.

I can be as strong as the brick walls of my home.
Pay attention to my mighty rocks of broken plaster.
I will hush anyone that comes to judge the way I feel about myself.

I can be strong in ways you don’t expect.
I can be as strong as a family,
Able to protect you from the harm of life in the real world.

My strength can be gentle
And strong as a bathtub,
Ready to wash away all your sorrows and worries.

I can be strong and change the world.
I can change your heart for good.
I can make you know that I am true.

___

Beginning with one of Pongo’s forms, this poet finds their voice, making unique comparisons for their inner strength (a black goddess, a bathtub). The poet also promises to rise above others’ low expectations for them (I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be). Perhaps not all of us feel we can project the confidence in “Strength”. Maybe self-acceptance at times looks like admitting what we can and can’t commit to.

___

I CAN’T
I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy when I’m not.
It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy for the sake of their wellbeing.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

I feel my sanity slipping every time I put on that mask.
Every day I just slip closer and closer to the edge.
Every day I watch as I lean over the edge to look at my death.
I can feel the urge to jump every time I think about putting on that mask.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.
I can’t wear the smile they need me to so that their worlds don’t seem so bad.
I can’t be optimistic every time their lives turn bad when I’m a pessimist at heart.
I can’t be their rock when being their rock is slowly killing me.
I can’t keep going because it’s not natural for me.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not me.
I can’t.


____

 

This poet leans towards authenticity in their refusal to wear “that mask” which feels akin to a death. Anyone who’s felt a loss when they’ve adopted a falsehood can empathize with this poem.

Of course, the alternative—knowing and loving ourselves—can be a challenge when our external circumstances seem to be telling us there’s something wrong with who we are or when there are parts of ourselves we want to change. Readers in such a situation can be inspired by these poets’ ability to love themselves even with unknowns and the ambivalence of others. This is modeled excellently for us by the honest words of our final featured poet:

___

UNTITLED
I’m too scared. Too scared to speak my mind, too scared to say ‘hi’.
I’m not like others.
I’m a person with struggles.

Home isn’t a place for me.
There’s too much pain and stress that has me weeping.

I just wasn’t cool like the kids at my school.
I’ve learned that trying to fit in isn’t a good thing to do.

But I’m learning, I’m trying,
Always breaking down and crying.
Times are hard. I’m going to restart
Hopefully this will fix it all.

Every night I lie in bed thinking about my life.
What’s the meaning?
How can I live in the moment with life?
Staying strong, standing tall.

School has been going faster.
More homework, less sleep.
Every weekend isn’t always fine.
I carry pain everywhere I go, hiding it all inside
Wanting to let go.

I may be strong. I may know how to fight,
But every time, my soft spot comes out to save my life.

Times are hard, walking and feeling alone.
Keeping myself in long distance
So people don’t get annoyed.
What’s the meaning of love?
Why does it seem so mean?
I’m trying to become better,
Pushing negativity aside to have my days seem a bit brighter.

It’s hard to understand me. I know you can’t understand.
But open up your mind and look at where I stand.
I go through a lot. It’s hard to control.
You may think it’s easy, but I’m not strong enough to fight this battle alone.

I don’t want attention. I don’t need a pity party.
I’m fine by myself, standing here alone.
If you ask me what’s wrong, don’t expect me to tell the truth.
I’ll lie and smile at you.
You’ll believe it because you want to.

This is my story and I don’t want you to worry.
I’m fine, but just need space and time to gain my strength.

___

Throughout the blues poetry of this author’s narration, we get the sense that despite their loneliness and pain, they have solidarity within themselves (I’m fine by myself, standing here alone). The poet even has the consideration at the end to assure us they’ll be fine, knowing we might not ever be able to fully understand. Perhaps not, but we can’t help but be inspired by reading these words. 


A closing ‘thank you’ from the Pongo team to this poet and all poets who submitted this quarter. Thank you for inspiring us to love ourselves, to read and to write.

Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.



Aug 09
We Kiss Our Pens to Paper: Pongo Poetry Prize October 2015

 

 

 

We Kiss Our Pens to Paper
By Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate


July through September 2015’s collection of poems submitted to Pongo show poets using art as a means of mending from wounds inflicted from the outside: by neighbors, parents, society. In art-making, these poets find their way of protesting while proliferating empathy. In this season’s cache of sincere genius, web readers and writers will find solace for times they’ve felt misunderstood or alienated from others by secrets only a notebook could keep safe.

___

I KISS MY PEN TO PAPER


I kiss my pen to my paper
With the tears
Of a fifteen-year-old.
I look up at the sky scrapers
Watching the way they tilt over me
And hold me down.
I love the way their eyes touched
Like they were meant for
Something greater than themselves.
I listen to the people
Reading their hearts
That they have thrown onto a piece of paper.

I understood the reason why my parents got divorced
And the way that they loved each other
But how they don’t anymore.
What I don’t understand
Is how they can love
One another
But silently tell me that
They’re against me being not gay, but not straight.
I am bisexual
And the fact that I can’t bring home a girl
And get the same happy smile as I would if I brought home a boy
scares me.
Why would my mom care who I loved?
Because if I loved a her or a him
she only cares about the gender, not the smile that I have
When I talk about them.
How do I tell her?

How come I feel the weight of hate more from my mother
than the society that is so “hateful”?
Tell me how come I don’t want to go to church anymore
Because I can’t be in a place like that
When I know they’ll all hate me
When MY god says ‘Love your neighbor’?
Yeah, He’s my god.

Or, I don’t know.
What do I say to that?
Tell me how come
My depression makes my chest deflate
And feel like it will never rise again.
How come my eyes bleed the tears
That my mother swiped away?
How come I don’t cry anymore?
How come I don’t cry to my mother anymore?
How come I feel safer around strangers
Than my own family?
How come I’ve never told my mother
That I am not straight?
How come I can’t answer these questions that my head comes up with?

___

 

   In these questions, the poet tries to untangle to mysterious morays of institutions and the values of those closest to her, both of which hurt and confuse. The answers may not have come with the writing of this poem, but in kissing that pen to paper this author serves as a model for us as to how to let our biggest questions echo as we search for acceptance.
    It can be a long search.

___

WALK ONE MILE IN MY SHOES


I want you to walk one mile,
Just one, in my shoes.
I want you to see how you can hurt me,
I want you to see what goes on behind my masks.

I want you to know what it’s like
When a person is forgotten
When a person is cast aside like rotten food.

I want you to know how I feel
When I’m treated like a contagious disease
when I’m thought of as a lesser form of a human being.

I want you to understand my pain
When people think it’s funny to call me a “faggot”
When people are so ignorant that they think
That a side-effect of being gay is also being deaf
Thinking I can’t hear the insults thrown at me from behind.

I want you to walk one mile,
Just one, in my shoes.
I want you to see what happens
When I pick myself up.
I want you to see the beauty in my life.

I want you to know how I express myself.
I express myself as confident, caring, kind and opinionated.
My words are like advocates for those who don’t have the help I have.
These words are like the lightning during a storm: bright and mighty.

I want you to know what I am capable of.
My strength is like that of one who speaks out in the midst of conformity,
Like that of one fighting for what he believes in,
Like one who truly believes that change can happen.

I want you to know my heart.
My love is important to me and others.
My love is no different than that of a heterosexual.
My love is like any other love there is: beautiful and strong,
Which cannot be contained.

I want you to walk one mile,
Just one in my shoes.

___

The poet uses a Pongo activity here as lightening rod for his powerful expression. Despite the painful realities of hatred that have inspired its inception, this poem isn’t written to evoke pity. “I want you to see the beauty in my life”, the poet writes, wanting regard from his reader as to his humanity and strength. Despite what they’ve suffered, the poet remains open to expressing themselves with confidence, advocating for others and changing hearts as they write.
    Our final Honorable Mention for the Pongo Prize of this quarter writes a poem that further speaks to poets’ power as change-agents and overcomers:

___

WE ARE
We are poets. Our voices vibrant and loud,
Truth projecting out of our experience mouths,
Bitch-slapping virgin cheeks with meaning,
Gutting out clogged pupils,
Forcing in this growing movement.

Poetry. It’s not a word to be taken lightly,
Whether I’m speaking with words that will comfort
Or I scream out all the things I’ve seen. We’ve seen.
Screaming that this twisted trick, this silent movement,
Hushed voices in the bloody, blurry backgrounds of solitary confinement,
This age of ultra-violence, bloody outlines
On our gums marking true defiance.

The most vulgar moments will be the ones to define us.
Stepping out of the comfort zones placed as a so-called option around us.
They say to break the barriers now
Only for you to find out that one slow step and anxious finger
Is all it takes for you to be shut down.

Some may riot and that some, may sometimes be me.
But right now, I’m coming straight out with poetry:
A child from a broken home, or designated pavement,
I don’t need weapons to get this point across.
I could resort to arson, but I know what is really feared.
It’s the chance that a simply educated, proper-tongued
Stiff-backed, calm, collected, controlled,
Black, Native, Latino, Asian, White,
whatever color-in-the-damned-rainbow individual
can tell you what’s really wrong and change this dirty nation’s song.

We are poets. Our voices will break through
Your sternum like bullets have broken through thick flesh
And durable craniums.
Our syllables wrap around your lungs, invade the dusty corners
That are unoccupied in your brain.
Nothing but letters but the power we pack
Behind each description of disdain, neglect and hate
Is enough to drain you completely…
We are poets
And we have something to say.


___


This poem boldly captures a collective belief in the power of the individual to give social critique and “change this dirty nation’s song” one honest word at a time.
And no word is more honest than the poem that comes next. The winner of this quarter’s Pongo Prize speaks also to the power of the individual as an agent for change and hope. This poem finds its controlling metaphor for fighting back in creating art—drawing a picture. This poet’s craft is fearless as they unpack the trauma inflicted upon them and the inner strength they have despite it all.
Before turning it over to this important piece, I’ll close with a shout out to all the writers who submitted work and their amazing courage in writing this quarter, as well as our readers. Thank you for reading, a process which also takes courage. Remember as you read the heartbreaking truth in this poem that one of the final lines is “she is resilient”.

___



HOW TO DRAW A PICTURE


Grandma taught me,
when you draw a picture,
 don't draw the figures,
 draw the shapes:
 block them out
simple forms.

Grandma was a product
of the housewife generation.
Picket fence,
pretty property,
pebbled path,
promised privacy.
She taught me to want it,
draw it like a dream.

Step 1: Draw a triangle.
Second grade-
a lesson on safe touches.
Mrs. Terry said "imagine a triangle"
soft legs met each other,
up to each side of
your
petite chest.
Your triangle.
Not theirs.
Tell the bad man who offers candy out of a van while you walk home by
yourself "NO."
Tell the creepy neighbor with the sequined sexy slip who babysits you when
your family is out "NO"
and when someone comes up behind you on the street, yell and scream until
someone comes to help.
Teach them
you have a voice.

Grandma taught me to draw a house.
Step one draw your triangle.
Step two draw a box:
Now, I was never good at
listening
to instructions;
I played Picasso
and put the box around the triangle
and didn't know
it was meant to sit on top.
The box trapped my little triangle,
surrounding it in solid lines of slithering snakes who sneak so softly.

Grandma taught me to draw a house.
Step 1: draw a triangle.
Step two: draw a box.
step three:

trees, a fence-
tall to keep gossiping neighbors’ wandering eyes away.
The rich sought privacy,
sought freedom from nosy onlookers,
everything neat on the outside
they can’t see the dark interior.
But we weren't rich,
and when the man with the long
fingers
and a quiet
step
finds solace in the walls of the
little girl's
room,
it’s not
a tree or
a fence
or a privilege.
It’s a cage,
a padded cell,
each perfectly polished tile trying to convince you you're crazy.
It’s all in your head and
nothing out of the ordinary has taken place.

I grew up in a house
of a triangle in a square,
with tall trees,
curtains
that shrouded his careful caress.
Bedrooms with thick walls,
purple bathrooms,
closed windows,
silent doors.
No, not silent.
Small creaks,
hesitant but steady in the little room with fragile butterfly wallpaper.
He enters, every morning before the sun's filter taints the
soft pink walls a sudden red, and the trees hide the windows from
view, and nobody can see the man in the little girl’s room.
Nobody saw her
bent box or broken triangle.

Grandma taught me to draw a house.
Step one: Draw a triangle.
Step two: a square.
Step three: trees, porch, fence, stone path.
Dream it,
design it,
define it:
the perfect elusive home.
You spend so long staring
at the house and living in the little room that you start to imagine the
power of the story lies in your hands if you only work at it.
But instead of fruit,
my labors grew nightmares inside my small belly like the spider plants
in Ms. Stevens health classroom:
Room 211,
Sex ed-
closet sized room,
immature teenagers,
power point
after power point
after power point.
Abstinence only,
gonorrhea, herpes, hiv,
thuggish men in dark alleys-
how to hold your keys like a dagger
walking home alone.
Never walk
home
alone.
Never at night.
but then
home is safe right?

From our horny classmates we learned 69, and from the power points we
learned the number 2.
69 and 2.
Every two minutes
someone is raped
in the US.
So we need to be careful on the streets.
but sex ed never taught us 84.
Eighty-four percent
of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
Sex ed didn't teach us
that he wasn't always
a bulky or beady eyed threatening man with a knife.
That there might not be a dark alley,
no fighting
or threatening with a gun.
No.
I never reached
for my pepper spray,
didn't yell
"NO"
because mom was already home,
and didn't imagine that
he
could be the lanky artist
who called her baby
and my
house
"home."
Didn't know what to do
when he was polite.
They don't tell you how it feels
when he is made of sugar hands that wrap kindness too tightly around your
throat, massaging sandpaper over your raw back, or how you lie still, not
trying to fight back,
not when he loves your mother
and their shared
subtle smiles
carve your heart out on the floor.
Not when he didn't hit you,
didn't yell,
didn't throw anything,
and there are no bruises for the police.
No, the textbook didn't include it--
maybe it’s an over-reaction.
It’s a
loving
touch.
You reason
and you sort it
out
in
your head,
collecting logic
within soft sad stains in your shrunken sheets, until one day, you're not
in that bed.
Not
the girl in the bed
with the man

on top of her,
heavily humping the humid air
out of her lungs.
No,
That’s someone else.
Not
the same girl who washes each morning, eats breakfast across from him,
and leaves for a school with a plastic mask that reads:
"I'm just tired, didn't get much sleep."
She weaves the lies
so
intricately
that she believes
she
drew the picture.
She dreamt it,
she drew it,
the triangle,
the box,
the house,
the man.
But he
was an
artist too,
and clever
with his lines,
turning a square into a box,
a box into a cage,
and a little girl into an empty outline of a young woman who tells herself
she caused it, clinging to the concept of clear-cut control.
Because if she's the guilty one
she still has a say
in what's done to her,
and she still
has a dad
who cares
about her,
who loves
her,
who didn't abandon her
like the first.

But at
16,
she sat in the office
of an Ohio child services sexual abuse counselor, facing the fact of her
futile attempts to find control.
Surrounded
by paper cutouts of
rainbow
stick figures that read,
"playing with my best friend,"
 "going to the park,"
"wearing my favorite pair of jeans,"
covering
every
centimeter
 of each
office
wall,
she listened to the counselor.
"Would you like to make a cut
out for my wall?"
The sesame st. sing song voice
asked,
and I came to learn
that each and every colored construction paper figure was made by another
child, forced to grow up far too fast.

At child services, they told me to draw it out.
Step one:
Draw an outline of the figure. A shell.
Step two:
Write on it. The things that make you happy.
make you
special
the things he couldn't
 touch,
even with his greedy vulture
hands.
I started to fill in
my shell that day, and we sent him to jail, but sometimes I still find
myself hoarding my feelings, emotions, away like the aging cheese in our
fridge he insisted on saving.
When you force them down so long
It’s hard
to break their inevitable path of
self-destruction,
of decay,
of rot.
But I’m
trying
to learn; I
am.
And i see now that we,
as survivors,
are not snakes.
We
cannot shed
our old skins or scars,
and sometimes i can’t
shake off that
little girl
i was-
she
reaches
out for my
hand
and calls
me back.
But I can’t afford
to stay unchanged
in that little body who wore my name
like street-corner piss,
ripped stockings,
or the compost in the garage,
its decomposing sweet stench.
I've given up
trying to destroy her with blades or wine.
She is
resilient,
but
so
am I.
I draw her
a hug
and a future
filled with
promise and hope,
that with time, the two of us may become a stronger singular one.



Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. Currently, he teaches ESL to adults but is also pursuing a Masters in Teaching after many years working and writing with young people.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Petrichor Machine, Existere, The Milo Review, Carrier Pigeon, and other literary magazines.

Mar 21
My Loved Ones

By an eleven-year old boy at Child Study and Treatment Center

 

My God-brother died a year ago.

He was fourteen.

He died by one of his friends

Who accidentally pulled the trigger of a gun.

I was as sad as coal.

My grandpa died seven or eight years ago

Of natural causes. He was ninety two.

He was in WWII.

I didn’t know him very well.

I was only four or five when he died.

After he passed away, my sister

Lived in his house.

One day, she forgot to shut the oven down.

My sister and her boyfriend went to work

And my nephew and niece went to school

And the house burnt down to the cement basement.

I will see them again one day.

 

The day this eleven-year old and I wrote together, was the one-year anniversary of the death of his God-brother. This sadness evoked the writing of other memories that were sad. He was determined to name his grief, and in the order it had occurred. I appreciate the originality of his expression “as sad as coal.” It is visual and tangible, and really, a beautiful simile.

 

--Ann, Project Lead, CSTC

 

Mar 11
Strengths
STRENGTHS

I can be stronger than an addiction,
ready to say:
no I can’t surround myself with you.

I can be as strong as the fast winds blowing on a rainy day.
Pay attention to my determination.
If I’m gonna stop,
I’m gonna stop and not do it again.

I’m addicted to people around me.
Sometimes, you know, you gotta let people go
because they’re not bettering your future.
I will say no to them.

I can be strong in ways you don’t expect.

It’s hard to let people go, you know.
My co-defendants,
got three in here.
I got associates
and then I got people I call my brothers and sisters.
They want me to change.
My associates –
They encourage me:
Fight, fight, fight.

Sometimes, you know, you gotta let family go
because they’re not doing their job.
If you’re family,
you’re supposed to be encouraging me to do better.
I have family that’s…
You know how they say blood is thicker than water.
Sometimes water is thicker than blood.
I have blood that’s not family,
and I got family that’s not blood.

It’s hard to let go, you know.
Say stealing.
I can do it again and again and again.
The more times you do something,
more times you can get caught.
You get away with something,
You get away with something,
You get away with something,
Then you get caught.

I can be stronger than letting a mother’s kids go
and getting off drugs.
I can be stronger than my mom.
It’s been so long.
Sometimes, you know, you gotta let mom go.
But not forever,     
just until she gets clean.


I am always attracted to rhythm, repetition, and flow in poetry, and often if executed expertly, they converge to a momentous moment, revelation, or a deeply personal truth. These features can hit us readers like a current, swirling and swirling, that ultimately ascend to a riptide. *Nayana’s poem precisely navigates rhythm, repetition, and this momentum.

I remember when I began working with this writer she didn’t want to begin, almost immediately asking “can I go back to class?” My gentle suggestions for her to just try it resulted in a powerful expression of her strengths and the often troubling results of family that, as she quotes, “aren’t doing their job.” Nayana tries to let go in this poem: letting go of associates, family that’s “more like water” as she suggests, and ultimately even her mom, until she gets clean.

I am always moved by a writer who transcends through the healing process as the writing process continues, revealing what she may have been holding back with a zenith riptide of expression at the end of the poem.
—Emily C, Mentor, Detention Project

*a pseudonym





Mar 08
Waiting to Slip
WAITING TO SLIP
by a young person at Child Study & Treatment Center

Rough serrated razors on my skin
sitting, waiting for me
to slip, for me to apply
the pressure
so I do.
I don’t feel the pain at first,
I just watch the blood,
running down my arm,
I hope no one notices
because they all assume
I do it for the attention
However, I wish no one had to see,
my little sister worries,
just as much as mom.
They walk into the room
just to see me on the floor.

This poet had written the lines “rough serrated razors on my skin” as a response to the prompt what texture of struggle feels like. When we sat down to write a poem, I mentioned that I really thought that line would make an amazing opening line for their piece. With that direction, the poet wrote the poem with little to no direction. The emotional rawness of this poem is sacred and it is valuable that they took the risk to make this piece of art.
--Katelyn, mentor at CSTC

Mar 03
I Remember the One Time

I Remember the One Time

By a man living at 1811 Eastlake, Downtown Emergency Service Center Housing

 

I remember the one time,

I walked from San Larenzo California

All the way through the rain,

South 50 miles, 14 years old.

 

One night I sat on a toilet,

To stay dry.

Shit, I was so cold, wet.

 

Went to the police station,

Told them I’m a runaway.

Ran me through the system.

Confirmed it.

 

Can’t take you home,

But can take you to Oakland.

I was under arrest,

Took me to juvi,

Then up the hill to Las Ceros Boys Home.

 

My mom found me there,

Asked if I was ready to come home.

I said, ‘yeah mom.’

 

Thought I’d get punished,

But she was just happy to see me.

Asked why I left.

 

I said,

I just read Huckleberry Fin,

And I wanted to hit the road.

 

 

 

In a place filled with people the world has thrown away, I find a sense of hope. Two blocks away from R.E.I., Seattleites’ sacred ground, there is an overpass that leads to the matrix of 1811 Eastlake. It is a different world, they call it the Denny Triangle, a place like the Bermuda, where a person can get lost in the concrete jungle. Street kids sit at the entrance, keeping warm on cardboard boxes pulled from recycling bins and blankets they have collected from highway passes and street corners.

 

Walking through the doors of 1811 it is difficult to know what to expect. One resident often sits near the front desk singing Diana Ross, waiting patiently for his morning beer. Each Thursday morning, “I don’t want to lose you,” is the soundtrack to my experience at 1811, fitting as seven people have passed away in the first fourteen weeks of our project.

 

Hauling coffee and muffins to entice residents to write poetry, we hold our morning meeting in the community room, speaking softly as our own poetry carries the weight of the emotional stories these walls have seen. Working one-on-one the visible inebriation, scarring and bruising from drunken falls, bodies weak from the years of alcoholism, slurred words tell stories of loss and pain. Loved ones who died in their arms, children who have also fallen victim to addiction, memories from a time before the alcohol began to strangle their existence.

 

To the world around these walls, many seem to think, “why can’t they just….?” Just be normal, just get a job, just disappear. Their lives have been tormented from the battlefields of Vietnam, nightmares of taking lives to protect a country who stole their identity, their culture and their hearts. Memories of coming home from school to find a mother dead on the kitchen floor. Alcohol has been a small bandage to cover the massiveness of their open wounds.

 

Compared to my experience working in detention, hope looks very different at 1811. While the pain and abuse so many of the children we work with haunt me, there is hope for change, a second chance, a way to build a life they are proud to lead. Detention is sometimes a short chapter in a lifetime to come, but in 1811, for many, this is the end of the road.

 

Hope is being one of the lucky ones with walls and a bed to keep them warm, a space where they can leave this world with the dignity of having a place to call home. Hope is waking up in the morning, hearing a simple hello from a familiar face, people to care whether you leave your room today. Hope is not having to sleep outside amidst the trash built up on the sides of the freeway, a spot where discarded orange peels and plastic bottles have come to call home. Hope is having someone to care, someone to talk to, someone to remember you, someone to provide humanness and the release of putting their words to paper. Hope is having the opportunity to hear a person say, “Thank you for listening to my story.”

 

--Vanessa, Project Lead at 1811

Mar 03
Guns Wash Away Your Life

GUNS WASH AWAY YOUR LIFE
by a young man in King Co. Juvenile Detention

Guns are like an earthquake
they cause a lot of damage

I’ve seen a lot of shootings
I know from experience

Having a gun is like being addicted to drugs
because all you want to do is get in a lot of shootings

Having a gun is like having a roof over your head
because it’s like protection

I wish I never shot a gun
because it lands you in jail
and messes up your future

Guns mess up your life 
like a tsunami messes up the earth



There is a straight-forwardness to this poem that makes me return to it again and again, a subtle veil for its complex insight, insight epitomized in the line, ”Having a gun is like having a roof over your head.”  

Metaphor can be a difficult tool to manage, yet it’s essential to how we explain moments of confusion, how we share intimate thoughts and questions, and how we write poetry. The title of this poem expertly combines the concrete image of a gun with the implicit image of water, or sound—-anything that washes over us in waves, that can save or destroy. 

Protection and destruction are the key concerns of this poem, concerns which I saw Richard Gold, Pongo’s founder, expertly draw out while working with the author. It is always a joy to see Richard in his element, writing with a young person, guiding them as they find new ways of explaining themselves, of seeing themselves. As a site lead, I find his presence a steady reminder that when we’re uncertain of what to write about, when tensions are high in detention, the very process of writing itself is enough to hold the many confusions faced any time a Pongo mentor enters a place where people are in crisis.

—Emily, Site Lead at Detention Project

 

 

Mar 02
I Am Thinking

I’M THINKING

By a young man at CSTC

 

Friends are on my mind

I’m worried about them

They’re in a bad place

She wasn’t doing too well

She was having a rough time

She’s been having a rough life

Her anger gets out of whack like a

Hot boiling pot of water

It makes me feel blue                                         

There’s nothing I can do

Makes me down like I’m

Drowning in my own depression

Then I feel weak

I start to crumble like a cookie

I can’t shake it

It makes me not want to talk to people

Reclusive

Hidden away in a dark corner

I think about things getting better

My mind clear of all my problems

I’d want to go outside and swing and think

Think that things do get better

 

This poem is a result of a session I experienced with a youth who had first come into our Pongo class several weeks earlier. That first day, he joined the group session for a few minutes (with his headphones in, pretending he wasn’t into it) but then had become agitated over something unrelated to our class and had left the group angry and acting out. When he came back to Pongo a few weeks later, smiling and ready to try writing poetry, I was really happy that we could give it another shot. We began as he spoke about his concern for his friends in general, then about a particular friend. As he moved through his thoughts, he began to surface his own feelings. I was so proud of him when he offered the line, “I start to crumble like a cookie” — this big, tough-acting boy was being so bravely vulnerable. After he wrote and read this poem, he said he felt good and proud of himself. I felt so proud of him, too.

-- Natalie, mentor at CSTC

 

 

 

 

 

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