Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Nov 16
There Is Just Us

“There is Just Us”— Poets Finding Themselves Out of the Ashes

by Shaun McMichael

This spring (April-June 2015)’s collection of poems submitted to Pongo built upon the past winter’s themes of finding solidarity within the self in response to trauma, neglect and conflict with family—things all of us can relate to on some level. Many of these young authors chose this past spring to face and embrace themselves. They did so fully, courageously admitting their contribution to their own difficulties and outlining the vital role they play in their own recovery. Their forthrightness deserves our admiration, their words our analysis.

Let’s start with this quarter’s winner:

by a young woman, age 16

When I was small,
I would listen to fairy tales and wish I was a princess.
I would dress up in a dress,
put on makeup and a crown,
and feel as if my prince was on his way.
He never came.

As I grew,
I wanted a superhero to save me from my demons.
Someone to come down,
pick me up and fly me away.
Far, far away.
He never came.
Now, I want a villain.
Someone to blame
for everything I get mad for.
To blame for my hardships, my bad times, and the deaths.
He never came.
There is no prince
waiting to sweep you off your feet.
There is no superhero
waiting to save us.
There is no super villain
waiting to cause terror.
There is just us.
We make worlds and dream of fantasies.
But that's all they are.
I wish I got saved by my superhero,
got my prince,
defeated my villain.
But no.
I didn't get rescued.
No prince is on their way,
and no villain is here to blame.

Only me.
My prince is me.
My hero is me.
My villain is me.
I am the protagonist.
I am the antagonist.
I am my story.
But I'm just me.
I can't fly.
I can't throw mountains.
I can't shoot lasers out of my eyes.
The odds are against me.
Not in my favor.
But that's my story.
The story of me.
The story of the non-special me.

I don't have powers.
I don't have anything special.
But i have me.
And that's all I need.
The prince probably met someone else.
My hero probably saved someone else.
My villain probably terrorized someone else.
But that's fine.
Because I can make my own story
With only me.

This is a coming of age story in a few short stanzas. The poem’s beginning tracks the author’s craving for some external force—even a malign one—to intervene in their life. But none do, leading the author to the existential conclusion “there’s just us.” This is a frustrating reality for many of us—this feeling of aloneness. But rather than live in frustration, the author’s locus shifts from external to internal: “I am the protagonist. I am the antagonist. I am my story”.

These short declaratives are packed with insight and grant the author some freedom. “…I have me. And that’s all I need…I can make my own story.”

Might we all repeat these words and reminder ourselves of our own sentience in the narrative arc of our lives.

But it’s not always so easy being the author of our own story. We sometimes have to make hard decisions about certain things we have to cut out of our lives. Our first honorable mention reminds us of this:


by a young woman, age 18

The truth about recovery?
It’s a process meant to break you.
Recovery is a demanding bitch.
A shadow of what you are
beating you senseless into what you are striving to be
Pulling you up by your withered wrists.
And robbing you of every inch of the skin that you’re comfortable in.

Because comfort was not part of the agreement.
But having a powder blue glove shoved heavy and cold into your gut is.
Pulling out pills and broken wreckage.
Chipping the decaying hate from the fleshy walls of your stomach.
Placing compliance in your mouth
because if it doesn't hurt then you don't really want it.

Taking your eyes and pulling them out because they're both dry glassy and haunted.
Giving the drums to your ears a different base
Because everything you shoved down those raw and rubbed canals was dank garbage.
Taking out razor blades and dusty pill bottles because depression and anxiety
Forced you to forget what grieving in moderation is.

Another powdered glove spots a forgotten fuck up.
Or as you knew her,
A skeleton of a girl with her head still bowed for thin.
Recovering is pain and damaging truthfulness
Meant to mold you into a new you
But leave enough scars
So you never forget the process
From which you rose from black ashes
Like a cautious but strong phoenix.

The final image of the phoenix is hard earned and beautiful. The poet has spared none of the details (as no poet should) describing the ash they’re rising from. But the poem isn’t trying to dissuade us from the road of recovery. It’s bracing us for the ironic pain of getting better. “It doesn’t hurt when you don’t really want it,” the poet writes. The detox process that feels like it’s going to kill us, is the same thing that lets us fly free.

This also poem admits that part of the perceived noxiousness of the recovery process is allowing others to help.

But it’s worth it. Our next poem reminds us all why:


by a young woman, age 14

I don't know who I am
I don't know what, do you?
Where am I? Where am I?
I don't know, do you?
I try to remember everything that happened
I just can’t seem to remember
I look around the room and I see nothing but white
I can barely see a thing. What happened to my sight?
I look down at my arms and all I see are bandages.
Blood bleeds through.
I haven't felt this way in ages,
I don't know what happened and I'm the only one here.

I don't see my mom. I don't even know if she is here.
What the hell is going on? I hate feeling this way.
Can someone tell me? I can no longer stay.

Before you know it, the room gets dark.
I open my eyes and I hear my dog bark.
It was all just a dream. Thank god I'm okay.
Wait, never mind. That used to be me every day.
Not anymore.

I've been five months clean.
If I can do it, you can do it too. Trust me.
It’s not a fun scene.
I've been so strong. I'm so proud of myself.
When I look in the mirror today, I say ‘wow, you’re a star!
You did it yourself.’
So don't give up, no matter what you do
because if I got through then you can go through it too.

This poem comes to us from a voice a little further over the hump of recovery. Yet, hospitalization is recent enough to be remembered as a palpable nightmare.
But the poet has lived through it. Because of this, they’re able to not only tell themselves they can do it; they can convincingly inspire others to do the same.


Part of healing is differentiating ourselves from the wrongs others have done to us. Our final honorable mention is an example:

by a young woman, age 15

I just thought you should know what I'm doing now.
I am a very sad and lonely person
who spends a lot of time online
because I don't have anything better to do or anyone to talk to.

I just thought you should know how I'm feeling.  
I am depressed
because you have put me down nearly my entire life, always criticizing me.
I just thought you should know what I've been through.

Since the last time I saw the real you, I have suffered so much.  
The time that you claimed I was arrogant and stupid was especially damaging to me.
 I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.

I hope that you can grow up and be a better person instead of bringing me down.
I just thought you should know what I won't miss about you.
I am glad I won't have to worry about your constant reminding me of my imperfections.
I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way we used to get along and laugh and smile as children.
I just thought you should know that I miss the old you,
and I hope that person reappears while you're away.

Unlike the first poem in this blog, sometimes there is someone to blame, at least in part, for how we feel about our lives. People have sent us messages that we’ve internalized. This author teaches us the first part of purging these messages from our self-concept is naming the wrongs done to us—particularly by someone who was as dear as the brother in this poem.

The poem also reminds us that we are all at different stages in our healing. For this poet, the wounds are still fresh and the path to moving beyond the hurt is uncertain.  Acknowledging where we are can help us aim for where we want to go.

One thing is certain however: poetry continues to be a venue for us to express ourselves wherever we’re coming from. We want to thank our authors for reminding us of that.

We also want to thank all the poets who submitted work to Pongo in the 2014- 2015 academic year. Keep writing authors and keep reading readers. Expression is hope!

Oct 30
What Makes You, You

What Makes You You—Turning to Self-Acceptance through Poetry

by Shaun McMichael

The collection of poems submitted to Pongo from January to March were full of the intense emotions of authors dealing with themselves—sometimes self-destructively. This is not an uncommon problem. Whenever we undergo traumatic experiences, we often convert the experience into negative feelings towards ourselves.  This is done perhaps to try to regain some sense of control. But instead of hurting themselves, these authors choose a healthy form of control by writing. There’s much we can learn from their words.

One example is found in our winner for the quarter:

by a young woman, age 18

Did any of them ever hear?
Did they hear the screams from the girl thrown against the porcelain sink?
Did they see her run down the stairs,
barefoot and dancing around the puddles
in nothing but a tank top and jeans?
the ones without rips in the knees, I think…
Did they hear her scream at windowpanes
or beat her heel against the door frame?

Well, they must have seen her when the Law came.
The vase smashed across the front porch,
the metal screen whinnying in the cool Washington breeze
like a dehydrated horse
the yells for hair to be released
the harsh slap of those wicked palms
the forced stomping of the pair of aggravated feet.

Did they see?
Did they see her leave in cuffs
until authority called the bluffs?
See her returned to the steps,
march up like a soldier and tell them it was just ‘family stuff’
and second guess when they left?
Do they know she tried to fight
or that the secrets kept
ruined her life?
Do they know she’s even gone,
that no one cared to help the broken one
until she began to lose control?
Until the yells became bellows
and she shook when she needed to hit?

But they never have.
They never did believe the broken kid.

Do they know she told the truth
and it never was the same?
That the situation solved nothing
and she nearly went insane.
That they said if she was better,
if she would just keep secrets,
then she wouldn’t be to blame.
I know neighbors saw me
but I was just another damaged face
without a solid name.

The poem—a series of rhetorical questions—uncovers a core problem many of us experience: the feeling of not being heard, seen or aided by our families, neighbors and communities. Potential Good Samaritans become bystanders who suggest the author keep silent for the sake of appearances. As the author alludes to, many of their later behaviors stem from this frustration of injustice and repression. “They never did believe the broken kid”; the line evokes both empathy and understanding for those of us who do things that are hard to understand. There’s always a reason and this poet chronicles theirs with incredible honesty.

Our first honorable mention also deals with intense emotions around the self and their circumstances:

by a young woman, age 14

Anger is a way for you to blame what you did wrong on someone else.
Anger is a beast that devours you, head first and heart last.
Anger is a waterfall of molten rock, and you have no way to stop it.

Angry because I have no clue how to fix the problems everyone else has with me.
Angry because no one else cares enough to care, or at least doesn’t show it.
Angry because I just don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to, anyway.

Maybe anger won’t always rule my life, my head.
Maybe there is a new day for me when I won’t want to scream.
Maybe anger is here to help us learn, help us change.

But I don’t know how to fix it,
I don’t know how to stop it,
I don’t know what to do,
And I have no idea how.

This author articulates the utter confusion and helplessness they feel in response to their intense emotions. Though the writer may say they’re not sure what to do to cope with their emotions, they’ve found one thing to do: write. And by doing so, they teach us how we too might handle the ineffable storm of feelings inside us.


In their writing, authors have important messages about how to deal with their ambivalence toward who they are. Our last two honorable mentions for the January-March 2015 quarter provide nice examples.

by a young woman, age 13

When I was really little, I ran away from strangers
and the people in bizarre costumes at birthday parties.
I was afraid of the dark.
At the time, I ran towards my dad because he was big enough to hide behind.

I dreamed about being Beyonce and flying with Disney princesses.

When I got a little older, I ran away from the truth.
When I ran, I expected that it would hurt less if I didn’t hear it
but the constant wondering ate me alive.

At the time, I ran toward music. I could put in my earphones
and enter a whole new world
a world that gave me what I wanted.
When I ran, I hoped for a change.
I hoped that I didn’t have to face the facts and deal with it.
But the truth was always behind me, breathing on my neck.
No matter how fast I ran or which way I went.

Today when I run, I run away from myself.
I don’t want to identify who I really am
because I know that she’s not who I dreamed of as a child.
More than anything I wish I could run from my surroundings.
I never feel safe or like it’s where I’m supposed to be.

Today when I run, I run toward my future
because I know that when I’m older
I’ll be somewhere that makes me safe, warm and happy.
I’ll have a wonderful career with a beautiful husband and family.
I’ll travel the world and breathe the air of every country there is.

More than anything I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be.
The girl that I portray my future as
because that girl has nothing
but the good in front of her.

This poem, which began with a Pongo fill-in-the-blank, comes into its own through the author’s honest chronicle of their approach to themselves, which largely includes turning away from who they are to other things. Though they express disillusionment with how they’ve turned out, the future promises a meeting with reality and expectation. “I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be”, the writer says, indicating their desire to accept a positive outcome for their future.

All of us have aspects of ourselves we don’t like. We’re all unlike who we’d thought we’d be. But this author models for us how to cope with this feeling, anticipating our future self by embracing who we are in the present.

In our last honorable mention, the poet gives themselves some more immediate advice:

by a young woman, age 13

I see your face, that look in your eyes.
I know you can’t get over what you see on that scale.
But a pound or two isn’t gonna change you.
You’re still the one who makes people smile.
You’re still gonna be able
to see your favorite bands once in a while.
That number is not gonna change you.
It’s not gonna be easy
and it’s not gonna be fun
but I know it can be done.
Stop watching the others
and looking down on yourself.
It’s not fair to you.
Stop thinking about what you don’t deserve
and start thinking what makes you, you.

Whether this message is meant for themselves or someone else, the poem captures the author talking through the problem of a negative self-image. In using the second person point of view, the poet encourages the beholder to accept, finally, what they see in the mirror—a challenging task for all of us. Maybe we’re not tantalized by numbers on a weigh scale, but maybe we turn to the figure on a pay check or the digits of a GPA to define ourselves. This poet teaches us to move away from the quantitative message reported by the scale and towards acceptance of the quality of one’s own personhood. By sharing these insights this author, like all the authors here, becomes an active agent in their own healing and a source of wisdom for all of us seeking to heal as well.

Sep 08
Firelight in the Dark Corners of Memory

 by Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor and youth advocate


Writers who submitted poetry between October and December of last year (2014) wrote about loss. One poet wrote about the loss of oneself in an abusive relationship, another about the loss of a friend, another about the confusion inherent in the memories of losing someone. But our authors also, in turning to writing, found a safe place to reflect, remember and recover a part of themselves. In doing so, they’re a model for not only other youth but for everyone out there dealing with trauma.

Let’s start with this quarter’s winner.

I am not yet sure I am ready to forgive you.
You ripped me to pieces so small,
I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore.
Your words cut me deeper than
any blade ever could.
You burned my skin;
gave me 3rd degree wounds.
For over a year,
I dealt with the blame.
I dealt with the threats of suicide when I said no.
I dealt with screams, the shoves,
the “I’m-sorry, I-love-you”s.
The “It-won’t-happen-again”s, the “take-me-back”s
I dealt with the pain.
As if all the showers
could scrub away
the filthiness I’ve felt.
Almost 3 years later,
and I’m still unlearning
what I was taught to be sorry for.
But almost 3 years later
and I can tell myself that I deserve better.
I can look at my scars now,
and see that that
is no longer me.
I can be happy
with someone else.
I can look at myself now
and not feel ashamed.
This is to myself.
This is for me.
I don’t forgive you,
but I forgive me.


This relationship tore the author into pieces so small they almost lost themselves (“I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore”). Yet this poem is the author putting themselves back together. They are able to look at themselves and their scars now, the poet writes, without shame. The poet forgives themselves, we can suppose, for letting someone else treat them so badly. Though some readers might wonder if there’s anything the author needs to forgive themselves for, the poem is the author’s act of mercy to themselves and, I would argue, a way of gradual self-reclamation. The author’s willingness to share it with us is a testament to this long and painful process that is the beginning of moving on.
Our first honorable mention for the October-December 2014 quarter, has similar themes.

No one knew but you.
No one seemed to care but you.
When I first saw you, I knew I could say things and I’d be alright
Because no one but you would know.
I would tell you my hurts, my fears
and all those things he did to me that I didn’t understand.

You didn’t tell me to stop talking
or to go away
or that you were too busy to listen.

You sat beside me with eyes full of welcome and let me talk.
In the shade of the chicken coops
we would sit in the space you had created where we would be safe.
You would lean in and listen—the mere presence of one who cared was like rain on parched earth.
I drank it in.

But those days were soon cut short—
those days made way for other things.

So many years have passed.
I think I glimpse you at a park or a crowded avenue
but I quickly realize it’s not you
and it never can be.

I greatly miss you, my beloved friend.
I sometimes wonder if there are dogs in heaven.


There’s double loss in this poem: the loss of the child’s equilibrium in response to sexual abuse and, of course, the loss of the dog, the child’s only confidant.
Still though, in the act of writing this poem, the author’s silence on their abuse has ended and a strength found. The author demonstrates courage in trusting an invisible web audience as a new kind of confidant. It’s no substitute for the author’s childhood friend, but the author, with their words, has taken a measure of control that they did not have as a child.
Sometimes losses and our memories of loss create a confusion that’s difficult to put into words. The next author captures this well.

Oh, she was hopeless, oh, she was hopeless.
She didn’t mean to say goodbye.

Certain memories linger deep beneath your skin,
go no further than your fingertips, move your feet through their steps,
stumble and they’re departed, departed, departed.

Certain rushes drag off you like cigarette smoke
some glass bottles shattering down, down, down,
dispersing out, around, all over,
till the whole world’s brimming with the screaming of your thrills.

But oh, she was hopeless, she was just hopeless
and she didn’t mean to say goodbye.


Through repetition and alliteration, this poet creates a frantic sense of descent. This poem’s exact meaning is illusive, but it has an essential strangeness that the best poems have. The “she was hopeless” line sounds borrowed from an authoritative third party—a parent, a family member—either about the author or someone they knew. It’s a phrase that was used to label someone and exacerbate their alienation. The two middle stanzas expound upon this and articulate a sense of powerlessness as something is removed from you. Whether this poem is about the loss of a friend or about the loss of self through the “thrills” of self-destruction, the poem captures the dizzying helplessness inherent in trauma.

No matter how strange the experience or how painful the memory, a poem can become a vessel to contain it and share it with others. Poetry may not take away the pain of an experience, but it can substitute the feeling of powerlessness with articulation via creation.

The next poet writes about a bonfire that brings a “false but comfortable” sense of belonging:


A glance around flames that cough out smoke and memories
and, as it crackles to mother nature’s tune,
the flames stretch up higher like lost but graceful limbs.
They take wind into their burning embrace
and together they dance.
Warmth found within pine-cones sticks and loose paper.
The secrets and pastime lusts jump out.
Around the fire, eyes have no difference because
the reflection of dangerous comfort
flickers inside of each iris.
A longing look across the pit,
a shoulder bumped, a marshmallow burnt,
two hot dogs slipped.
But all is good in the now.

Around the fire
bored with truth and no energy to spare for lies.
A game in the trees without the help of bulbs or moonlight.
Crickets howl. Footsteps that do not belong to you
Or another human
remind you that you are never alone in the night.
A squeal, running feet, the unmistakable crunch of gravel
beneath feet in a happy panic.

Around the fire in the trees on the gravel
time lost.
Forgotten sleep.
Around my fire,
my fire that built a false but comfortable safety.


This poet’s diction and penchant for sensory detail create a vivid experience that has both the mellow enjoyment and the anxiety (“happy panic”) of being in the woods at night. The safety is “false” because the wild animals—and our lives—lurk just outside. But for the moment “all is good in the now”.

Poetry can be that centering experience—for writers and those who read their work. When the poet says “my fire” they could literally mean the bonfire or, more likely, their poem that has become symbolic for the fire. Though perhaps “false” in the sense that it’s not a literal fire, the poetic fire re-creates an experience that out-burns the literal one.


Poems are bonfires for the imagination. For our authors who have experienced trauma and loss, poems can be places of safety where their reflections bring light to the dark corners of memory. And in these acts of creation, these young poets regain a sense of control over the losses their poems may reflect. In doing so, they inspire their readers to do the same and we at Pongo are sincerely grateful for their writing efforts.

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.

Jul 03
Safety in the Stranger: Episodic Epiphanies in Pongo

 by Shaun McMichael

When I talk to people about the work that Pongo does, people wonder how we’re able to get kids to open up to us. We’re total strangers and the kids have immense trust issues as a result of their trauma. Oh yeah, and we only have an hour. We might only write with a kid once. But youth in institutionalized circumstances feel isolated and welcome connection of any kind. We present ourselves as safe adults who ask only for honesty. A third ingredient makes the mix magic: anonymity.  

When I was writing with Pongo back in 2008-2010 at Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), most youth received me with relief. I was a safe stranger with whom they’d write a poem or two. I would know only what they felt comfortable me knowing and we wouldn’t have to share the burden of the daily ups and downs inherent in the treatment process.

This was a relief for me as well. During this time, I was working at another treatment center (Seattle Children’s Home, McGraw Inpatient) as a Residential Counselor (RC) with youth having very similar issues. The experience of going from staff person to poetry mentor was dizzying. As a staff person, I had to provide structure in the form of rules and routines, rewards and consequences. Not surprisingly, as most of them had come from chaotic environments, conflicts arose as youth reacted against structure.  As a Pongo mentor, however, I didn’t have to enforce rules or routine. In fact, CSTC kids were given the option to write with Pongo as a part of their Language Arts class.  

In my case, Pongo was a literary escape for both youth and mentor. And the interactions I had with each youth gave me insight into their condition. These insights clarified my day job at McGraw and are still helping me clarify my work with youth.

Many youth wrote about the arc of their treatment experience. Such was the case with Minnie—a youth with a round face, Chesire cat colored stockings and beaded bracelets of neon green. She wrote the following—much of it without prompting.


I don’t like them. They lie to me.
They told me I was going home
And I’m not. They just make me mad.
They force me to do stuff.
Everything’s against my will.
If it was my choice, I wouldn’t be here.

I would be home and living with my home again.
Things were okay at first
but then they got really bad
And I overdosed.

At home, I had freedom. A life.
I was getting along with my mom
and saw what I had to live for.
Not so much anymore. It’s this place.
They’ve taken away my freedom.

I have to control myself more.
I have to handle my urges. It’s going to be hard.
I’ve been acting out my whole life.
It’s a contradiction, it’s aggravating
It’s depressing. It’s the pathway back home.

The poem starts with anger and suspicion towards the professionals treating her. Rather than challenge Minnie, I just acknowledged this feeling of frustration.

The poem becomes confessional (‘I overdosed’, ‘I’ve been acting out my whole life’). Many of the poems contained confessions. Often in Pongo, I felt more priest than poet.

Minnie’s poem goes on to acknowledge the inner struggle she faces (‘I have to handle my urges’) and gives an appraisal of the future (‘it’s going to be hard’). The final lines show Minnie’s ambivalence that seems to be moving towards acceptance of treatment.  

Another writer, Hailey, gives another perspective:

I’ve been here a year
And it’s getting a lot easier for me.
When I first came here,
I didn’t see
that people were just trying
To help me.
I didn’t care what people thought.
I was more focused on hurting myself
And hurting others.
But now, I try and be gentle
With everybody and give
Them all chances.

In an even more overt way, Hailey traces the course of her therapy. She goes from fighting staff and hurting herself to making the inner decision of allowing others to help her.

It was a course I was becoming more and more familiar with. During my time as an RC, I would watch youth come in kicking and screaming—enraged by their treatment assignment which seemed too akin to incarceration for comfort. But with time and consistent nurturing, I’d watch the youth make a tentative alliance with us. This would turn into a bond in which healing could occur.

It’s a course that youth like Hailey and Minnie may have to undergo several more times throughout their lives. As my work and study of mental illness has conveyed to me, mental illness is not a linear path to health, but a cycle—the swings of which we can only hope become less severe as sufferers learn to trust themselves and providers’ attempt to care for them.

Pongo has a place in this process for both youth and staff. The episodic nature of the writing encounter gives youth a kind of sounding board (or confessional booth) in which they can vent their understandable frustrations with the cyclical nature of illness and imperfect providers. But it also allows staff like myself a chance to see the individual apart from the clinical impetus for improvement. Youth are angry, wise, confused, brilliant, powerful and extremely vulnerable. These are facts I found myself forgetting in the conflict ridden shifts at McGraw, where youth were more reluctant to be so directly honest with me, the staff member to whom they were accountable. I remember being at McGraw and thirsting for my weekly CSTC visit so I could once again dialogue with youth without the power dynamic.

Ted was an angry kid at CSTC. He was displaying his rage in confusing and hurtful ways. He was small in stature with heavy cheeks, freckles, spiky hair and a baffled innocence to his hazel eyes, as if continually surprised at the reality his daily life brought him. When he sat down to write with me, I suggested a fill-in-the-blank activity I’d created to ‘jump start his creative flow’ as we say in Pongo lingo. He used the prompts to write the following:

If my fist could speak it would say let’s hit him.
If it’s a girl, don’t. If it’s a guy, go get him
Because he was being mean. It makes me feel bad.
It reminds me of throwing rocks at my mom
And cops got called
And it sounded of dreadful sorrow.

If my tightened jaw could open, it would say
‘F- you, I’m sensitive
About everything—
My mom
And my family.’

If my eyes could speak, they would say,
‘I don’t want to see that. I shouldn’t have done that.’
Because my eyes are connected to my brain
And my brain is connected to my choices.

If my pounding heart could speak,
It would say ‘I’m beating too fast.
I’m going to have a heart attack.’

If my fist could ask you a question, it would ask
‘Why did I do that?’

If my jaw could open, it would ask you
‘Why am I doing this?’ and ‘Why are you pissing me off’
And ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ (If I didn’t).

If my eyes could speak, they would ask
‘Why do I have to see this stuff?’

If my pounding heart could speak, it would say
‘Could you please slow down?’

With each conditional anaphora, the boy is interpreting, maybe for the first time, the messages that are behind his anger. His sensitivity comes out in this moment—an oasis of thought in a young life characterized by the act-react binary. Through writing he’s able to reflect rather than react.

As a poetry mentor, the safe stranger, I was able to forget about the reward-consequence continuum and simply honor this boy’s legitimate, if misplaced, anger. The posture of holding the youth’s anger became a useful one for my work at McGraw and the work that was to come.

In addition to holding youth’s anger, the Pongo process provided an opportunity to hold each youth’s humanity—wherever they were in their therapy. This is most true in a poem I wrote with Alley. When I met Alley she was in CSTC’s Close Attention Program (CAP)—a self-contained unit for the most disturbed and self-destructive youth in Washington State. Youth in this program had often been too difficult for other treatment programs—including McGraw—to handle. Whatever Alley had been through, by the time I met her she was emaciated and pale. Her blue eyes shown with a fierceness offset by her quiet smile. Like most of them, when we sat down to write, I sensed she was glad I didn’t know the whole story. It might have gotten in the way of her telling me this:

I am human.
I have values and I have choices.
It doesn’t mean
That I make all the right choices all the time
Or that I don’t hurt other people’s feelings.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have character and I have imagination.
It doesn’t mean
That I don’t have bad or hurtful thoughts
And it doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt people.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have love and I have compassion.
It doesn’t mean
that I’m not ever rude to people
or even my loved ones.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have resilience and strength in me.
It doesn’t mean
that I don’t ever hurt or feel alone.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have patience and I have time
but it doesn’t mean I don’t ever
get angry or feel like giving up at times.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

And that’s okay. I don’t expect perfection.
I just expect acceptance of me
from myself and others.

The coordinating conjunctions kick off the couplets that re-assert Alley’s tempered view of herself. The line “I have resilience and strength in me” is also incredible. She wrote this surrounded by thick panes of Plexiglas scuffed by fists, decade old furniture bolted to the floor, and dented walls with faded, baby blue paint lending to the low-stim. feel of contained crises. She wrote this far from family or home and she wrote it with an uncertain future. The presence of the word ‘resilient’ also shows that some of the language Alley was receiving in therapy was slowly osmosing, becoming her own language. Yet if I had been a staff member she might not have wanted to admit that: it would have felt too much like giving in. Being a staff member by day, I knew that someone like Alley was probably very difficult to work with. But as a poetry mentor, I had the discrete privilege of admiring her words, validating her feelings and recording them for her to remember in the times ahead.

This incidental meeting of two strangers was restorative to both our beliefs in humanity. It allowed us both to continue on our separate roads: hers to heal, mine to help heal.

After writing with the youth at CSTC, we Pongo mentors would drive back to Seattle. Along the I-5 that year, I remember WSDOT was building a new overpass just south of Tacoma. At the time of our commute, only one section had been completed. A narrow concrete base held the isolated slab of highway up in sky. It looked like a concrete bridge to nowhere, its connection to the whole unseen, the plan of the builder unclear.

Each session writing with a kid was like this sectional: impossible to tell how the concrete units of expression that are poems would connect into a narrative. We could only hope that the parts we were helping the youth construct would eventually cohere.

But that’s the great part about poems. They aren’t stories, but incidents of expression and compassion. And these reflective moments in the youths’ lives might never take on a narrative form. But perhaps they might expand into an anthology of articulation. Words, we believe, are proofs against despair. Expression is hope.  

Shaun McMichael was a Pongo Poetry mentor from 2007-2010. Since, he’s taught creative writing to homeless youth at The Zine Project and educated youth with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) at Seattle Public Schools. Currently, he teaches ESL to immigrants and refugees at Goodwill’s Job Training and Education Center (JTE). He’s pursuing his Masters in Teaching at SPU. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Litro, Petrichor Machine, The Milo Review, Existere, Carrie Pidgeon and others.

Jun 19
The Satsifaction of Making Something Real

by Alex Russell

I started the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Real Poets program in 2013, about two years after my last session as a Pongo mentor in Juvenile Detention. For this ten-week term ending April 16, 2015, we met every Thursdays at Turning Point Community Programs in south Sacramento. Our anthology for the term represents ten of the youth who wrote with us. They were as young as six years old up to nineteen. Each of them wrote honest poems, and each poem shows the incredible complexity of the poet’s thoughts, heart and life.

A common thread among our writers is how each of them struggles with intense conflict in their lives. That conflict often has to do with the reality of their situation and feelings and needs they cannot control. This conflict comes up in many of these poems, whether it is centered on real love for an abusive parent or a struggle to maintain a sense of control and inner strength when life is completely out of control and overwhelming.

This is where expressive writing can help, and where the form of the poem can be ideal for an immediate increase in self-awareness, a chance to understand a little better the parts of life that can be so confusing. Writing a poem can shift the hurt from being something indescribable, maybe shameful, into something concrete like a desert island, a dust bunny or a neon outfit. To name something is to start to take control over it. But this is only part of what a poem offers. It also offers the satisfaction of having made something real, something that can be shared with others if the poet decides to. An honest poem is always something to be proud of.

Real Poets is not a literacy program, though literacy is a natural outcome of reading and writing, which is at the core of what we do. But when we explain to our young writers the strengths of using image and metaphor in a poem, we are providing tools to name the haze of hurt inside. But even with these tools, the honesty this requires takes courage, which is something all of our writers show no matter what their past or current situation might be.
Real Poets owes everything to Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project. We still use Pongo exercises to begin each writing session with our children and teens. Our success with youth is proof of the strong foundation Pongo has established doing this kind of work.

In particular, this approach has made a difference for Me-Yaw, a poet who came to us two years ago when she was eight years old. At ten years old now, her life is still a challenge but she did not miss a single session these ten weeks. Her are two of her shorter poems. The first is the title poem of this term’s anthology:
Batting an eye is like wearing a neon outfit
So bright that many people can see
you a mile up in space.
People can see doves inside your body
like blood in you.
People don’t even bat an eye to know
you’re there. See what is within you.
Loved in good.
Loved in bad.
You never know the future.
You always know the past.
Loved in abuse.
Loved by family.
Read more poems at www.realpoets.org

Alex Russell is a writing professional and former lecturer at UC Davis.  He has taught grades K-12 in the state of California and volunteered with Pongo at King County Juvenile Detention in 2010. 


Jun 05
Professional Art & Pongo

By Emily Holt, Project Leader at Juvenile Detention


Writing one poem a week shouldn’t seem a foreign or overly difficult task for someone who is a poet and in an MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, because I write slowly and hesitantly, such regular production can seem daunting.

 But, each week, I’ve come to accept that whatever came out by Tuesday morning, I will share it with my team of mentors in King Co. Juvenile Detention. The poems I share with the team may not the most technically skilled; they are almost always first drafts. Over time, however, I have begun to see something in them that I hadn’t seen in my other writing—a wideness.

It wasn’t merely that I sat down, and thought, Okay, it’s Pongo, I can put any emotional thought in this poem (which I could have), but something about the method made it okay for me to include anything in a poem, to take a line anywhere, to go from yellow suburbs to a hotel minibar to a news story about rape and torture. Other poets may have been able to do this from the outset; for those poets, perhaps Pongo could offer an opportunity to go inward, to go to a more personal place.

Pongo provides different things for different people, which is part of its beauty. Wherever you are, artistically, I believe there’s a way Pongo can benefit your work. That may be quite a claim, because we do focus our work on youth who have never written before, especially youth who may feel fragmented, self-conscious, who may not be literate.

Yet Pongo strives to remove all barriers to writing a poem, and barriers exist for all writers, regardless of technical skill. I see a time when Pongo methods could benefit youth who are comfortable with writing and self-expression but who want to learn about revision, performance or creating a body of work.

I have tried Pongo with youth in foster care, the children of men and women fleeing ethnic violence, with adults with disabilities who have experienced trauma, with friends my own age, with straight A students, with youth in locked facilities.

And it works with all these audiences because, at its heart, turning to the Pongo method is turning to a kind of profoundly radical listening. In the end, I am not sure that it’s about poetry so much as bearing witness. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry is essential. It is the more objective third-party witness to a story. As founder Richard Gold says, (I’m paraphrasing), It’s neither you nor me but it can exist between us and help us out when we don’t want to talk.



I love going to Seattle Arts & Lectures literary series, and I love that they now have a young person read before a professional such as Cheryl Strayed, Colm Tóibín or George Saunders comes on. The young people, who are mentored by a professional in Writers in the Schools, sometimes get a more audible reaction than the professional about to come onstage. While the young person reads, I often hear murmurs of delight in the adults around me when the reader embodies a character, creates an image or uses music in surprising ways. There is evidence of craft, of technical skill.

Yet I can’t avoid wishing, however impractically, that the young people I work with in juvenile detention could also be on stage. I know their work would elicit the same murmuring—perhaps even a louder reaction.

Unlike the artists in Writers in the Schools—people I greatly admire—Pongo mentors have a slightly different agenda; ours is not one focused fully on craft but exists in a place somewhere between artistic mentor and counselor.

Unfortunately, for writers focused on craft and publication, can be easy to read a poem about trauma and dismiss the poem as only therapy or only catharsis.

Yet why are the options such polar opposites?

Our Pongo leader Ann Teplick proves they needn’t be; a WITS artist and an experienced Pongo mentor, Ann embodies what it means for a mentor to be informed by craft, by long and rich poetic traditions and also to be open to the less-crafted chaos that is inside of all of us.

One of my own mentors noted that working with a young person to find their voice isn’t always about writing a perfect poem from the start; it’s about learning to use language. Especially for youth in juvenile detention, many of whom have had little success in being heard or understood or who don’t believe they bear responsibility for either. Why bear that responsibility when no one listens?

Former site lead Vanessa Hooper once said that we write with youth in order to show to our communities that youth inside are every bit as complex, diverse and nuanced as anyone outside. Pongo is about blurring those lines between in and out; not dismissing the hard realities of life in a locked facility, but seeing what’s human, what’s lived on both sides.

Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at http://www.emilyholtwriter.com


Apr 07
Yes, Joy & Yes, Doubt.

by Emily Holt, Pongo Project Leader

It’s hard to explain to others the kind of joy I witness in places like juvenile detention and inpatient psychiatric units. Often, the moments are fleeting, but they are there. And, often, they exist—both in me and in a young person—from that young person realizing they can create something to be proud of.

I find it an extreme privilege to be invited to sit down each week with youth who really have no ostensible reason to tell me anything; young women who dream of jumping off bridges, young men about to become a father, children without parents, children with addictions, children who are learning that love doesn’t always have to ruin you.

In any position in which an adult works with a young person, doubt can be a healthy, and I think essential, way to ensure the adult continues to do right by themselves and the young person—doubt about their own skills, about the impact they’re having, about the broader systemic issues they may not seem to be able to touch. I don’t find doubt an indication of failure but a sign of constant self-reflection.

But each time I’ve experienced doubt in regards to Pongo, I am reminded that somehow, this poetry method enables the youth I mention above to sit down across from me, and within a few minutes, to share some of their most difficult experiences.

When I first began using Pongo five years ago, I felt I was bringing something unique to the writing experience, and while I still am, in a way, the focus—and thus the anxiety—is less and less about me. For how many jobs or volunteer positions today rely solely on an interpersonal interaction that, in many ways, won’t naturally happen, one which is free of deadlines and strict outcomes? How many give you weekly doses of joy existing alongside doubt?


You might think, How hard is it to get a kid to confess? Confessional memoirs are all the rage today. The youth we work with don’t come from places where confessing, where airing one’s laundry, where admitting that one’s family is not perfect, is okay. Really, how many of us have no reservations about sharing the things that we fear the most? About hurting those we love by telling a story that presents them in more than one hue?

Yet the Pongo method enables a young person to sit down across from me and take control of their story. Pongo is not about the volunteers; more than any organization I’ve ever worked with, I feel supported by Pongo, but I do not feel like the focus of Pongo. Moreover, the work we do is not  marketing catch-phrase. It’s in our hands as we type, in our bodies as we chose to sit still, to hear stories of rape, of suicide, of addiction. And, first, really, it’s in the youth who write with us.


Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at www.emilyholtwriter.com 

Nov 02
What Youth Say About Writing

Though our web site, Pongo receives poems from all over the country, and we periodically recognize a few with the Pongo Poetry Prize. (Many poems are worthy!) Here are some authors’ thoughts about what writing means to them, followed by links to their award-winning poems.

“Writing has always been an escape for me. Pongo allowed me a chance to share with others what I never had the courage to share before. Everyone should have this kind of thing, where they don't have to hide how they feel, or what they think. This is a sort of sanctuary that releases many from their everyday struggles.” – a young woman 15, received Honorable Mention

"I discovered Pongo while searching for someplace, anyplace, that would allow me to share my poems, and with them, a piece of myself. Writing is my life, my passion, my love, and my core, and without writing I don't know where I'd be. It helps me express who I am, what I'm thinking, and anything else about me, since I don't share my thoughts verbally. Every teen should be able to express themselves in a safe, familiar, comfortable way. Writing just happened to be mine." – a young woman 17, received Honorable Mention

"What writing means to me... Whenever I write my feelings down about my past it feels great to let it all out. If I couldn't write about the things that have happened to me, I would have to hold it in and it would be harder for my life. I like being able to tell my story and let others know that I am OK, even though bad things have happened to me. I wish my birth mom could know how angry I am. Maybe someday I will tell her in a story." – a young woman 14, received Honorable Mention

And here is the 12th winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize, the poem “Violated,” that speaks to the lingering effects of abuse.

by a young woman, age 14

I was sitting in the dark
all left alone in isolation
hiding from any more doom
and away from this situation

Those sickening eyes keep on staring
with dis-pleasuring thoughts behind
hands who keep on roaming
violating me in every way they can find

It was a past I just kept remembering
a part of my life I'll always carry
with great pain in every sting
stuck in a place that's nothing but scary

The poems:


Oct 08
To Watch Their Faces

As you know, the heart of Pongo's work with distressed youth is to listen to their voices, be present for their often painful stories, and provide structured support for their joyful poetic expression.

I'm happy to say that many of you are realizing wonderful outcomes by using the information and resources on the Pongo site. Here is a letter we recently received...

Dear Mr. Gold and The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project,

I am a substitute teacher for Lewiston Independent School District No. 1 in Lewiston, Idaho. I am currently working a long-term assignment at our Region II Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). As with any JDC, our students are here for varying lengths of time, with different ages, towns, learning abilities, and offenses. Their common denominator is their "break your heart" backgrounds and the choices they have made as a result. At times it is difficult to teach a language arts lesson that is fluid and applies to all ages and keeps the students engaged. I discovered Pongo through another teaching forum and decided to give it a whirl.

I am pleased to say that it has become very popular with my students. I introduced them to your project by airing the KING5 TV segment, then read a few of your other students' poems.

To watch their faces while their poem is read aloud and to hear the group compliment one another and discuss the topics is a sight to behold. They are engaged, open to talking about their feelings, and more receptive to other language arts lessons. In this position, where success is measured by each hour of accomplishment, this has been very rewarding to the students and me.

Thank you for your project and enabling others to participate in their own way, through your great site!

Chanda K.
September 30, 2013

Please check out the Teaching Resources section and Start Your Project section of the Pongo site!

Jun 18
Family: A Hand-Woven Tapestry of Memories

This is the second of four blogs by Pongoite Adrienne Johanson for the Seattle Public Library teen blog ("Push to Talk ") during April, Poetry Month.

by Adrienne Johanson

I am a writing mentor with the Pongo Teen Writing Project, and also a psychotherapist. Often young people write with Pongo about their family, in a way that reminds me of a complicated tapestry -- a tapestry that includes remembered and unremembered experiences, all of which can affect a person's current feelings and questions about life.

We are defined by many things throughout our lives, as our brain ceaselessly accumulates snapshots of people and events that influence us. We might say we "can't remember" certain things, but our brains are incredible devices, and often what we can't consciously recall is subtly encoded in us -- in our preferences (our choice of hairstyle or career aspirations), our reactions to sensory stimuli (loving the smell of Shalimar but not Patchouli), and even in our muscles (sudden shoulder tension or butterflies in our stomach). Our brains are writing all the time, whether we know it or not.

In the brain's meticulous catalog of snapshots lies the family album, things we remember about the people we call family, and things we may have a hard time remembering at times, including thoughts and feelings affiliated with them.

Because Pongo works with teens in shelters, inpatient hospitals, and detention centers, we write with poets who are temporarily or permanently separated from their families. It makes a lot of sense why the family album is often at the forefront of their minds. The writing process of poets exploring familial relationships becomes a hand-woven tapestry of both conscious and unconscious memories. And when these writers begin to dig in and explore the subtleties they ask very specific questions (e.g., Why do I cringe at mac-and-cheese? Why do I think dahlias are the flower of love and not roses?). As suggested in the previous blog on loss (Loss: A Shape-Shifter), their unique answers to these questions often create new meanings, help them define their life, and name or rename the tapestry of family.

Two Pongo writing activities that help poets write about family are I Just Thought You Should Know and Where I Come From .

Two great examples of teen writing about family are "Grizzly-LifeJacket-Tornado-Dandelion," in which a girl writes about the strength of her mother, and "Lonely," in which a girl writes about conflict in her family.

by a young woman, age 16

I hope that someday I can be as strong as my mother
My mother is as strong as a bull ramming into its next opponent

My mother is always ready to recover from the past and look forward to the future
The past has been one of a refugee, mother of seven, abandoned by her husband, no schooling – With every reason to give up, she didn’t

She has always been my backbone, always there when my world was as empty as a well

She keeps my head above the water of my own sorrows, like a life jacket 

My mom can be as strong as a tornado, sucking in everyone’s troubles and making them feel small
compared to what she went through, setting the troubles down as destroyed as
an old building

Pay attention to my mother’s lessons, she can see into the future

If I could go back I would listen to all her warnings and lectures that I didn’t think would help

My mother can be strong in ways you don’t expect

She can be as strong as a dandelion breaking through the sidewalk,
and when I talk with her she blows all my sorrows away like spores, making me believe I can also break the cement

My mother’s strength can be gentle

She can be as gentle as a grizzly bear with her young – quick to scare away predators but even quicker to comfort 

If I could change one thing, I would be the wind to the dandelion, carrying away her sorrows

by a young woman, age 14

Now my house is gloomy
there is no cable, it’s really quiet
everyday there’s arguing.
Back then, my mom had a job
and she always made sure
we had everything we needed.
She made dinner
she made sure we got out of the house
and did things.
She used to treat us really good
and equally.
But after she went to jail
she couldn’t find a job.
She’s miserable
and takes her anger out on me.
It’s her fault that I’m here
because I wouldn’t put up with
her boyfriend and their abuse anymore.
They want me to go to a group home.
I don’t understand why.
She won’t let me come back home
knowing that I’m pregnant.
It’s not really the best place to be for care.
If I had the home I want
there’d be a normal family
that’s able to overcome little things
and always make sure we know that we only
have each other at the end of the day.
But I don’t think she’s gonna leave her boyfriend
for me, so I just want to go far away
but I don’t know where to go.
She wrote on the police report
that no one in my family
wants anything to do with me.

I hope this gives you some insight on writing about family.

As we say at Pongo, “Keep writing!”

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