Pongo Project JournalSharing stories of our work with teens
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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
THE LAST TIME
I remember the first time,
I came to Seattle,
Riding freight trains.
Whatever would take me somewhere.
I finally landed here,
Think I hitchhiked in,
Made a home.
Wound up in Pioneer Square,
Sleeping in the park.
Couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Bounced around town for awhile,
Finally got tired of sleeping in the sleep off,
The drunk tank.
Ended up over here.
Been 11 years.
The shit I’ve seen.
Have your old lady die on your lap.
In her apartment,
Right down the hall.
Not one of my fondest memories.
I remember the last time,
I had a beer.
Wasn’t soon enough for me.
The first time I stepped into 1811 Eastlake, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d worked with people experiencing homelessness in my day-job, helping connect them to food assistance programs and health benefits, but I knew this would be different. We’d make art together, write poetry and give a voice to life on the street for a chronic alcoholic.
After each time I sat with a resident to bring their stories to the page, even the short sessions that didn’t seem significant, I’d read back on their words and realize how real each of these people were with me. Creating a safe space, not asking anything of them but to talk about whatever they had on their mind was powerful, heart wrenching and honest. Witnessing the words come forth and hearing their unique perspectives turned into poetry has been life changing, certainly for me and hopefully for the people of 1811.
In those times of quiet writing in the Art Room or the corner of the Community Room, within the chaos of their daily search for the next drink, we talked of memories that usually stayed deep and were seldom spoken. I worked with two different authors (on the same day) who each watched people die in their arms. I learned how when times get really tough, some will turn to hand sanitizer to ‘get well’. I also heard uplifting stories of kindness on the streets, twenty-dollar bills dropped in guitar cases for singing Patsy Cline, the etiquette of holding a sign on the corner and who gets first dibs on the best spots to panhandle. I found that there are many musicians, some who still play guitar, piano and harmonica and others who pawned their gear long ago.
When we finished the first eight-week session, we held a reading so the 1811 authors would have a chance to share their words. In between sporadic interruptions from inebriated residents, we heard some of the most open, heartfelt and tragic words one could imagine. We were also told that Pongo, “changed the ecology of this place.” We gave people a space to be creative, open and calm. Listening and writing with the authors at 1811 is inspiring and knowing that we are giving a voice and documenting small parts of their incredibly interesting lives is a true honor.
(The poem at the beginning of this post is by a resident who passed away shortly after we wrote together. Before working with me, he had never written poetry in his life. This blog post is dedicated to him. May he rest in peace.)
— Jefferson Rose, Mentor at Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake Housing
I’M NOT FROM NOWHERE
I’m from a town of death, drugs and storms
I’m from a street where a color can get your skin punctured like a thorn does your thumb
Sound of violence leaves your heart numb
So you grow up protecting yourself with a gun
I’m from a street where when you see the cops you hide or run
If you sell drugs you should buy a gun
If you are scared to put in work
You should go to church
Because in these streets if you are soft you will get really hurt
It makes you cry and wonder when you see your homie dead with 30 bullet holes in his shirt
So if you wanna survive turn your life over to god and go to church
And when people ask do you wanna bag or sling say no
So you don’t end up on a shirt
JR* is a young man with gravitas beyond his years. While we wrote he was quiet and focused; the lines of his poem emerged with facility. He wrote with confidence and clear-eyed sincerity. He knows of what he speaks. The last line of his poem gives me a visceral reaction. It's simultaneously prosaic and profound. (*a pseudonym)
— Kathleen, Mentor at Detention Project
by a young man at Child and Study Treatment Center
Tired sad hungry depressed fucked
This is how I’ve been feeling lately
Life just ain’t going the way I want it to
Every day someone knows to mention her
Exactly what I want to forget
But I can’t forget her
When you’re in it you don’t want to go to sleep
Because you want to be with her
When you’re out of it you don’t want to go to sleep
Because you’ll dream of her
Also I had my wisdom tooth pulled
Pressure, pain that leads to everywhere
Pain that sinks in
But love is so much worse
Leads to scars, broken bones, reckless behaviors
Puts you in a facility called
Shitty, nice, more shitty, depressed
I want a taco, a burrito, a grill and a truck
I want to get in my truck and go
When I worked with the teen who wrote this poem, we had already seen him once or twice this year in Pongo. I admired the way he came into the group. You could tell he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he also seemed, under the jaded and sometimes angry exterior, excited to be taking this small window of time to do poetry. After being asked to share a poem he liked from a pile of provided poetry books, he acted momentarily shy, kind of “I’m not into this.” But then he shared a poem, smiled a side grin, and talked honestly about what it was that inspired him. When I moved to work 1:1 with this student, I asked him how he was doing that day. The first line of the poem is how he responded, and we went from there. As we talked, he revealed a strong self-awareness as he spoke about his hurt around a broken love relationship. I sensed that he wanted to explore this more in his writing. I had to hold back from jumping out of my chair when, in the middle of explaining his heartbreak, he mentioned seemingly out of left field that he had recently had his wisdom tooth pulled. This was, I thought, a brilliant connection to make about what heartbreak feels like physically. The added twist of how, when heartbreak is so bad it leads to deep behavior troubles, you get sent to a psychiatric facility named Sacred Heart, was very affecting. I love how at the end, the writer responded to all this hard, hard stuff with a very universal reaction, one also every teen has had at one time or another: to grab your wheels and just take off, to get away from it all. The fact that he made sure not to leave out his yearning for a grill and favorite foods was like that side smile he shared early in our group session—a wink, and a ray of hope, for his readers and himself.
— Natalie, mentor at CSTC
By a man living at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program
Eight years old
living in Forks
my dad left my mom
for another woman
then Mom had depression
and left us kids.
Nine of us
I'm the oldest
we survived finding beer bottles
trading them in for change.
All my siblings
down back roads
finding the bottles
trading them in
buying a box of cereal
and some milk.
Then the sheriff showed up
Where's your Mom?
I don't know.
He returned with
shopping bags of food
then three days later
found mom in the backseat
near the reservation
passed out with everyone else.
Now I have fortitude
haven't been through the worst
but had my share.
And I am a stronger person.
After a long bus ride from Everett to downtown Seattle on a Thursday morning, I immediately head for my cup of Pike Place roast and the Starbucks facilities, one of few facilities near 1811 Eastlake that remain unlocked for customers. Relieved and revived, I leave the morning rush in the Metropolitan office building and think about how it would feel knowing that restaurants and office buildings locked their restrooms to keep me out—not me in particular, but me as a certain type of person. The phrase “homeless person” does not describe a specific person at all. It is a generic label our culture applies to people we assume do not truly belong anywhere and therefore cannot be validated in their particularity. When a human being’s particularity is not validated, human needs are easily dismissed.
In less than two minutes I round the corner of Eastlake, resisting the urge to lower my gaze, assume a hurried, determined air, or pretend I don’t see the faces of people who have created a temporary refuge under the overpass. Slow down. Don’t check out. I notice a woman with beautiful long black hair moving leisurely down the sidewalk in a wheelchair near the DESC building. Does she live at 1811, or not? Is this even relevant? I slow down and decide it feels more awkward to walk too close behind her than to go around her. In spite of my default assumption that people do not want to be bothered, I force myself to turn and say hello as I walk by. Apparently it is the woman’s birthday. She asks me how I am, so I try to be honest. We share the same birthday month and are about the same age. In those few minutes of conversation she is remarkably open, though she knows nothing about me. We discover we are headed for the same place. I learn she is a resident at 1811, and she learns I am with the Pongo poetry project. She tells me she enjoys writing and hopes to work with us eventually. A week later she flags down our Pongo team while we are waiting for the elevator and gives us a copy of a poem she wrote about her birthday, a poem she eventually shares with other residents at the celebration of our first eight weeks there. I have never written a poem with the woman I met that morning, but our encounter was one among many memorable encounters I have had with residents 1811. This community continues to teach me that we cannot underestimate the power of any human encounter, however brief or insignificant it may seem.
I first heard about Pongo while writing a paper for graduate school. At the time, I assumed the healing power of the Pongo method was located in the creative process itself. Creative writing had long been my primary means of coping with depression and anxiety over the years, particularly in adolescence. When I applied to be a Pongo mentor last summer I had been journaling more often due to a difficult phase in my life. I knew mentors were expected to write a weekly poem and share their poetry with other mentors as part of their commitment. Writing poems on vulnerability, shame, change, feeling invisible, beauty, new beginnings, and healing during a time of personal struggle has not only helped me to take care of myself emotionally, but has strengthened my connection with the members of the 1811 community.
One resident, who is passionate about the project and hopes to see more residents participate, believes poetry and other art forms can help people process trauma and grief. What is most important to him, however, is the power of truly being heard and understood by another human being. Just a few days ago he wrote about the growing loss of human connection he has observed, both at 1811 and in the larger society. On buses and elevators, he told me, “everyone just stands looking forward; they don't even acknowledge anybody.” The poetry we write with residents can give shape to emotions, thoughts, and ideas many find difficult or painful to articulate and share with others. Whether or not we write together, every encounter is a gift. I have talked with people who don’t want to write, wonder why we are there, and do not believe there is poetry in the suffering and tragedy they witness regularly in their community. Some residents will not write, but are willing to talk with us and be themselves, whether they are feeling angry, despondent, grateful, energetic, or cynical. I have worked with a woman who posts her poetry throughout the building to bring courage and hope to her neighbors. I have written with people who desperately want to stop drinking and are determined to keep trying in spite of the hell of detox and the discouragement of setbacks. I have written with people who have known excruciating loss, abuse, physical challenges, and trauma, often from a very young age. What I will always remember about the residents at 1811 is their refusal to allow their sufferings to define them. They play the drums, piano, guitar, and harmonica. They sing, paint, write, and reflect deeply on the issues in our world. In each person I have met I have found a deep, lively well of creativity, compassion, humility, resourcefulness, humor, and above all love. They have loved deeply and continue to love deeply, in spite of the temptation to detach and grow numb in the face of grief and wounds from past relationships.
The resident who is so supportive of Pongo is right that alienation is a growing societal malady. Pongo is not just about poetry as individual catharsis, but about restoring human connection. In the midst of personal upheaval in my own life, I could be scribbling out my emotions in a private corner of my home, but instead my commitment to the Pongo project has required me to voice my emotions in a communal space and listen to the voices of others. As healing as this may be, it demands an enormous amount of trust. I understand why it takes time for the residents to be willing write personal poetry with a stranger. With our commitment to openness, patience, compassion, and respect, Pongo poetry mentors can help diffuse the fear that keeps people trapped in isolation. Isolation is not just a problem for chronically homeless, alcoholic adults, but plagues most of us at some point in our lives.
-- Stephanie Ramos, mentor at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program
As part of a new effort to share more youth poetry, we’ll be sharing poems from our three sites—King County Juvenile Detention, the Child Study & Treatment Center, and 1811 Eastlake. Take a look!
by a young man at Child Study and Treatment Center
My brother and I don’t get along
But someday we’ll have to forgive each other
For all the hard times & the things we’ve done to each other
It will be hard
Hard like trying to take a pencil and penetrating a titanium wall
It’s equally difficult for us to forgive each other
Difficult like … to forget the things of the past
Like you can’t forget, but you can forgive
I would feel relief
Like the titanic being lifted from my shoulders
I've written one on one with this youth a couple of times now and forgiveness continues to be an ongoing theme within his poetry. He mainly speaks about forgiveness towards himself and how it relates to his family. Talking about a subject like forgiveness is not an easy task for any of the youth that we work with, especially when asking them to write a poem about it. It takes great strength and honesty for someone like this young man to be open to the Pongo process and to share some of his personal struggles.
— From Ashley, Recreational Therapist and Pongo mentor at CSTC