Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
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.

Violated
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:
http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/Violated.html
http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/Masks-and-Colors.html
http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/Letter-After-a-Time--2.html
http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/I-Just-Thought-You-Should-Know.html

 

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.


Grizzly-LifeJacket-Tornado-Dandelion
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


Lonely
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!”

May 18
Loss: A Shape-Shifter

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

by Adrienne Johanson

In my role as a writing mentor with Pongo Teen Writing, and in my psychotherapy practice, loss is a common denominator in most stories I have heard.  I think this is because loss is a shape shifter, appearing as one emotion (shock, sadness, etc.), then suddenly changing into something else (guilt, anger, etc.), shifting in a multitude of ways over and over again.  Literally and metaphorically loss is a death, a dismemberment that often surges with moments of confusion and moments of clarity.  Loss compels us to write because it naturally develops questions that can rattle the core of who we believe ourselves to be. Who am I without that thing I lost?  How has my life story changed forever?

I’ve mentored teen poets in shelters, detention centers, and through the Pongo website where we have writing activities like Questions for an Empty Sky and This Is What You Meant to Me that provide a format for teens to create poetry about loss.

Activities can help jumpstart creativity, but writing from the heart is structure enough.  At Pongo we routinely say that the only thing needed to write a good poem is honesty.  Two poems submitted to Pongo Teen Writing that are good examples of loss and the power of honesty are “Black” and “Drowning.”  In “Black” a girl talks about her battle with substance addiction and the parts of herself and her community that she loses in that battle.  In “Drowning” a boy talks about the drowning deaths that have plagued his family and the despair one feels when loss is expected.  As you read these poems, I hope you think about the shape-shifting quality of loss and the courage it takes to share all those important thoughts and emotions with such honesty.


Black
by a young woman, age 17

The One Pleasure pulses through my veins,
I sigh in relief and look up at my friends:
The ones I care for, the ones I love,
Slowly going mad as they lose everything to the black —
Money, home, cars, life,
Wasting away as they wait and search for that “last hit,”
Letting go of everything around them.
Replacing it with a tiny space full of cockroaches
They call “home.”

“Please,” I plead, “When will you quit?”

We all scream this inside,
But all we care about is the black —
Nurturing it, feeding it.
They all are scared of losing it, getting sick,
So the black pulls them back further
Into the single-mind of addiction.

Losing everything is not worth this.
Crying and screaming every night is not worth this.
Giving up friends and family is not worth this.
Watching close ones choose death is not worth this.

So I pray that you never make this mistake,
That you never give way —
for it will swallow you
for it will become you


Drowning
by a young man, age 18

We have had three consecutive years,
Same day each year,
Where someone in my family drowns.

First year, my cousin’s grandma,
She was drinking water.
Her husband found her.

Second year, my cousin on his fifteenth birthday,
He fell off a waterfall.
They found his body three days later.

Third year, my brother drowned
In our big, backyard swimming pool.
My sister stepped on him, in the pool.
The chlorine water was foggy.
It took the ambulance fifteen minutes to get there.
That was four years ago.

I’ve been to more than four funerals this year.
All of them, family.
When it happens, I think,
“Here we go again,”
Like it’s something that’s just gotta happen.
I needed something to forget about it.

I’ve been smoking crystal meth for the last three years.
It’s killing my brain.
I see myself getting slower.
I’m not emotional anymore.
I used to preach as a missionary all over the country.
Now, it’s like I’m drowning.


As we say at Pongo, “Keep writing!”

Feb 23
Being Pretty on the Inside

Sometimes we struggle to both be ourselves and also please other people. We’re confused by the vulnerability we feel, especially when our vulnerability has been used against us, to hurt us deeply.

This blog shares great poems on these themes -- the latest winners of the Pongo Poetry Prize.

In “If My Fist Could Speak” (January 2013) a young woman, age 13, speaks intensely and courageously to a bully. She writes: “You should eat diamonds so you can be pretty on the inside.” The three poems that received honorable mention for January 2013 are also on the theme of bullying (links below).

In “If God Were Looking at My Life” (October 2012), a young woman, age 14, writes: “If God opened a new door for me…I’d change who I was, and I would try to find the real me. The me who isn’t afraid. The me who is me." The poems that received honorable mention are also terrific (links below).

The Pongo Poetry Prize is a quarterly prize for poems submitted on the Pongo web site. They come in from young people all over the country. FYI, both of these winning poems were written using writing activities on the Pongo site. Maybe you know someone who would like to write an If My Fist Could Speak or If God Were Looking at My Life poem!
*****


If My Fist Could Speak #4
by a young woman, age 13


If my fist could speak, it would tell you how much i hate you,
how i've always wanted to hit you and watch you cry
how i've never thought you were once nice
how it has watched you hurt me again and again

If my feet could speak, they would recall how many times i had wanted to run
how i wanted to walk away from the fight that you caused
how many times i would have kicked you and laughed
how i have always wanted to run and never come back to the bullying you cause

If my eyes could speak, they would tell you about how ugly you are inside
how you should eat diamonds so you can be pretty on the inside
how you’re ugly on both sides, inside and out
how the blood should be flowing from your nose as i punch you


If my pounding heart could speak, it would say how scared it is to slow down
how you cause it to speed up in horror of the next horrid line you will speak
how i am worried that my heart will beat out my chest
how you’re horrid in the heart, even at the bottom of it

If my hair could speak, it would explain how it wishes you would stop pulling it
how it will fall out if you carry on your wicked ways
how you should stop before it turns around and bites you
how i am going to hit you if you pull my hair once more

If my ears could speak, they would share how horrid your voice sounds
how your voice is a burning fire and it stings
how you call me so many names they echo in my head
how your voice shall forever be stored in the hate part of my mind

If my body could speak, it would tell you about how much it wishes to kill you
how it hates you so much it burns inside
how you beat it till it bleeds
how you should leave me alone and never say anything mean about me again

If my brain could deal with everything, it would want to ask -- why did you say those things?
why are you so mean to me and other innocent souls?
why do you hate the sound of happiness and laughter?
why is your voice so mean and angry?

never be a bully
never be mean again
being a bully is horrid and everyone agrees!
*****


If God Were Looking at My Life #3
by a young woman, age 14


If God were looking at my life...

He’ wonder why i chose to live life in this way rather than take the right path.

He’d understand that life to me has been cruel and difficult, but it’s because of my actions, because i chose it that way.

He’d know the way things had gone for me – They’ve gone terrible.   I've cried for what i thought i needed and didn’t have.   I've behaved like someone i wasn't.   I say words i thought were right, but didn't mean.   I hurt people who i never thought were so important to me in my life, until i lost them.   I changed my appearance for people that talked behind my back, and i acted like a jerk to my parents and close friends.   Yet, now that i'm alone, i want to be me, but I’m afraid.

He’d remember how things went when I was very little, like when i had to take care of my sisters while my mother was in the hospital taking chemotherapy treatment, and i had a difficult time trying to cheer my father up so he wouldn't fall apart on us and so he would have the strength to keep us informed about our mother.

He’d know that i was who i was, but i changed who i was for what people wanted me to be.

He’d know that I’m trying to change certain things, like how i look, how i act, how i dress, and hide the real me.

He’d know how hard it is to change because he has seen me.   He has seen my process and the solution at the end, and by the solution he knows i didn't succeed, just made things worst.

He’d want me to understand that life is how it is, and i decide how to live it.


If God opened a new door for me...

It would lead me to going back and retrace my steps.   Apologize to those i hurt and become someone new. I'd change who i was, and i would try to find the real me. The me who isn't afraid. The me who is me.

Then I could start over with my life.
*****


[The poems below also address bullying and themes of seeking acceptance.]

Honorable Mention, January 2013
Girl with the Scars #3
Running #2
Offend You?


Honorable Mention, October 2012
Cry My Stress-Tears at Night
To Be Me
That First Apple

Oct 29
Where I Come From

What do we mean when we talk about “Where I Come From”? 

“Where I Come From” is often about more than a place, it’s about something deep in us, the world of our childhood and family. But more than that, it’s about love, the lessons of love, and sometimes our disappointments with love. It’s about the legacy of love in us, from the time when love defined us. “Where I Come From” is about who we are. 

And when the legacy of love is imperfect, it doesn’t define us less. If anything it defines us more. We carry the scars and tenderness from imperfect love. We might have a sublime but misunderstood sensitivity. And poets use that sensitivity to write with insight about a complicated world. 

It’s my pleasure in this blog to share the last two winners of the Pongo Poetry Prize, the poems “Where I Come From” (July 2012) and “I’m Non-Replaceable” (April 2012). I’ve also included links to the three poems from each quarter that received awards of Honorable Mention. The Pongo web site has a writing activity to help anyone write a “Where I Come From” poem. Check it out!
*****


Where I Come From
by a young man, age 16

I'm from a street where evil is its fate. There is no hope, but could we have one last chance?

I'm from faith in where God sees me.

I'm from a long line of people who are just the same every day. We pass and we don’t see the things that people, that can’t see, see.

I'm from confusion about my dad not being there for me, and not taking time to be with me.

I'm from laughter over my friends, my friend M, and the things we used to do together.

I come from a family that don’t care about school and do drugs, and I choose not to do the same.

I'm from love, and I know that because they take care of me, and I really miss my dad, and I can’t see him, but I am not mad at him because of what he did.

I'm from fear, especially when I think about all the memories that were bad, and then screams fill the room.

I come from a long line of folks who have died.

I come from experiences like evil everywhere, and look around and see nothing but crying.

I come from bad cities and bad places. There is nothing I can do, but if there was, I would stop it if I could.

And I wish my life would become a name for fame, I have no pain.

That's where I'd like to be from.
*****


I’m Non-Replaceable
by a young woman, age 14 

I'm non-replaceable
At least I think
I'm more than a person
could be gone in 3 blinks

There's things I could be
100 things i'm not
If i love a boy
I'd give all i got

I suck at rhyming
But it’s what i love to do
I could be solving a problem
And forget without a clue

I'm in love with the thought of love
But I grew up with hate
When my dad was messed up
I'm the one who paid for his mistakes 

When my world crashed down
And when my mother tried to beat her monsters
There i would be by her side
I practically lived in that hospital 

So, i made mistakes
And they probably weren't  the best
But i'd cut through thick and thin
To get out of this mess.
*****


Honorable Mention, July 2012
If My Fist Could Speak
This Is Who You Are to Me
The Way You Sang


Honorable Mention, April 2012
Where I Come From (#3)
Empty Body
This Is Who You Are to Me

Oct 06
Benefits of Writing Poetry

I'm very grateful -- I'm under contract to write a book about Pongo's teaching approach and methods for Rowman & Littlefield Education. Please look for it in early 2014. It's a happy process to be thinking about our work.

Writing poetry is a way to grow emotionally and intellectually, as language articulates and frames experience symbolically. Writing poetry is also a natural process, serving people’s innate need to explain themselves and their lives in the world (a desire that is particularly strong during adolescence). Writing poetry produces a concrete product that is a source of pride and that can be recognized. Writing poetry is a vehicle for expressing altruistic values and philosophical explorations about life’s meaning. And writing poetry is a free and available resource that can be used for self-exploration, gratification, and healing for a lifetime. Here is a fuller list of 16 benefits of writing poetry:
     

  • Poetry provides a cultural context and expressive model that supports openness and emotional honesty.

  • People who write poetry feel listened to and not judged.

  • People who write poetry exercise insight and sensitivity, sometimes in profound and illuminating ways.
  • The act of creating poetry reinforces ego strengths, including realizations about who I am, what I think, what my life has been like, what I want, and what I can accomplish.

  • Writing poetry is a natural process for people in pain.

  • Writing poetry is a natural process for people who are developing an identity and/or seeking understanding.

  • Poetry provides a safe and private experience, with individual control over the outcome.

  • Poetry provides a basis for greater interpersonal communication about personal issues and for stronger relationships.

  • People who write poetry use a variety of cognitive skills.

  • In an appropriately structured program, poetry can be used by individuals with severe emotional difficulties and/or poor cognitive skills.

  • Writing a poem is a concrete accomplishment.

  • A person’s purpose in writing a poem can be altruistic, educational, inspirational, etc.

  • The accomplishment of a poem can be publicly recognized by saving, sharing, reading, posting, publishing, etc.

  • The act of creating poetry is joyful and self-reinforcing, even when the content is about a sad or traumatic event.

  • People who write poetry can become more in touch with larger issues of life’s meaning and connectedness, developing a spiritual appreciation of life.

  • The act of writing a poem is a skill that people can use to help themselves over and over again throughout a lifetime.
Aug 30
The Colors of Their Lives

by Vanessa Hooper

[Vanessa was a Pongo mentor and Assistant Project Leader in juvenile detention.]

The moments, in the chill of the cement walls of detention, have been the most powerful, heart­breaking, challenging, and inspiring moments of my life. I have been with Pongo Teen Writing for the last two years. Each Tuesday morning I felt a complexity of anxiousness and excitement wash over me. Unsure of how the voices in detention would color my life, I walked cautiously through the halls, aware of my own sound and energy.

With my Pongo colleagues, I waited patiently as the youth filed in, wondering how and what their days had brought to them. It was at those times I could feel the warmth and splattered paint their pain and passion conveyed against the cold colorless walls. Their words held the weight of the ocean and the lightness of a feather, full of regret and heartache, hope and courage, and confusion and enthusiasm for the future. There are painful stories that haunt me, leaving me dismal and disgusted by the malice and cruelty still breathing in this the world; while others leave me speechless from the undaunted vitality after years of trauma.

Two girls in particular, I was privileged to work with, left me paralyzed after hearing the harsh realities of their young lives. Both pregnant before fourteen, both raped more times than they could count, yet both smiled when we worked together as if they were royalty. “I was a kindergartener with dreams of being a stripper, and I know there are other girls like me,” said one girl, who grew up in the same town where I have my roots. Her poem was a letter to her son, a letter of truths and fear from a young mother who underestimated her own strength, a teenager who after homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, rape, and abuse still believed in a dream of finding happiness. The other girl came into the Pongo world quietly, expressionless. She sat with poise and beauty, a pregnant twelve-year-old. Living in foster family after foster family, she had been ripped away from her siblings after her mother disappeared. As she began to open up through her poetry, her eyes grew wide with emotion. In contrast to the unthinkable acts she had endured, she held herself like a princess being groomed to be queen.

When I helped both girls create their poems, and as I read their words aloud, I could feel their confidence grow, and the colors of their lives shine. Each one left the room with a smile, as if she had begun to shed the cracked scales of a lost childhood. In a world of bars and barbed wire, with the sounds of echoing fears and the crescendo of doors slamming, where rock bottom feels ice-cold and isolated, there is a pulsating rhythm of hopefulness in the hearts of these youth, a thirst to be more than the label around their wrist and the file that confines them. Their eyes show the innocence of a child in a world where anything is possible, they just need someone to listen, someone like Pongo to see them for so much more than the mistakes in their past. 

Jul 08
Riding in My Own Canoe to Find a Dream
by Shaun McMichael

[Shaun is a former Pongo writing mentor who now heads "The Zine Project" for street youth, a program of Catholic Community Services in Seattle. This blog is an excerpt from an article in which Shaun describes the challenges and methods of teaching writing to homeless teens, especially when many are struggling with deep distress and mental illness. The names, genders, and physical descriptions of "Thomas" and the other young people in Shaun's article have been changed. Learn more about Shaun's methods by reading his ENTIRE ARTICLE elsewhere on the Pongo site.]

When Thomas entered my program, The Zine Project for street youth, he was in the throes of schizophrenia—an illness that was quite new and disturbing to him. He was slightly built, with olive skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. Thomas would arrive to work most days an hour late, burst through the door in a scramble, demanding to know if he smelled. And asking me to look out the window to make sure no one was following him.

By the time I convinced him he was safe, he would express the following concerns: that somewhere in the world there was a famine, that his family was in danger, that he was in danger from his family, and that people were circulating indecent photos of him on the web.

He was alternately suspicious and infatuated with his peers, searching feverishly for commonality and even fabricating connections at times to cope with his loneliness.

Needless to say, Thomas missed a lot of work. He was hospitalized for several weeks during the project; but because of his intrinsic interest in writing and his faithfulness communicating with me on the phone, I kept him in the program, telling him I could give him make-up hours for any writing or artwork he did in the hospital. 

The day he was discharged, he dropped off a stack of unorganized scribbles—all on varying sizes of papers (legal, letter, note-card, post-it, etc.), intermingled with doodles. I took on the Sisyphean task of reading the writings and discovered a terse litany characterized by accusation and confusion.

I talked with a mental health therapist at our center. She acknowledged that Thomas might like writing on his own in this way, but doubted that it was helpful for him. 

“He’ll just keep spiraling in his head like this,” she told me.

The next day when Thomas came in to see what I thought, he was nervous—smelling his nails and tearing at his frayed jeans. 

My program sets up the goal that each youth form a collection of work, a collection they’re proud of, but also one that can be shared—with friends, therapists, family, and the wider community. Thomas, I think, realized that the writing he produced on his own wouldn’t work for this medium. 

He expressed this to me, “I think my writing is too… personal.”

I agreed.

I then told Thomas that I had a trick up my sleeve that could help him.

This trick was Pongo’s Dictation Method. 

Thomas agreed to try. 

I sat down at the computer, Thomas sat next to me. I wanted to start with something light—something away from family issues, famines, and psych wards. 

I’d noticed that he often doodled canoes in the margins of his writings. Sensing potential for a symbol, I asked him what canoes meant to him.

“People might kill me if they knew,” he said.

“Thomas, that sounds like a paranoid thought to me,” I replied, frankly.

“It’s not. People might kill me.”

“They’re not going to kill you, Thomas. That’s not true,” I said. It felt good telling him that. By doing so I wasn’t lording some universal truth over him. I was assuring him, inviting him, and freeing him. At least for a moment.

“OK.”

“What do canoes make you think of?”

They make me think of a nursery rhyme. You know, like life is but a dream,” he replied.

I started typing. “What else do you think of?”

“It makes me think of teamwork. I’m not necessarily going to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team. It’s like I’m riding my own canoe along with other people riding theirs on the same body of water.”

I continued asking questions. I wanted to know what the water was like (calm or tumultuous?); what it was like paddling alongside the others. Thomas answered my questions, elaborating in his own voice and discovering his own images. My fingers ran across the keys, capturing it all with the same gusto I would have used if the ghost of Frost or Cummings were speaking.

“We’re paddling so we can get across…” he said.

“To where?” I asked.

“To a home… Or. Uh, another country,” he paused.

“How can we finish this?” I asked, sensing we were near a conclusion. I called Thomas’ attention to the first line about how “life is but a dream” and pointed out that many times poets like to loop back to their starting place as a way of tying things together.

"Or a dream!” Thomas said and the poem was finished.

Donald Hall says that when a poem arrives at its proper close, you can hear it as clearly as a latch closing. Thomas and I found that end by working together—something not all poets experience.

Canoe
by "Thomas"

Makes me think of a nursery rhyme.
Life is but a dream.

It makes me think of teamwork.
I don’t have to be in someone else’s canoe to be part of a team.
I’m riding my own canoe
along with other people riding theirs
On the same body of water,
A lake.
It may seem competitive, but
What we’re really trying to do is just move along and just do.

The lake can be like a river because
We always have to make quick decisions
Because the lake might have tide pools or be wavy
And rocky.

We see people struggling,
to survive riding their canoes.
People paddling too slow, going the wrong ways. We might think
Someone’s going too slow,
but they’re just taking their time
Or going as fast as they can.

Other times, we see people tipping,
And we make sure they don’t drown.
Sometimes people need to be allies of the others
Riding the canoes.
So it won’t ever have to be up to one person
To be the hero of the person drowning.
So we can make it across
To the other side of the lake.
So we can find a home,
Another country,
Or a dream.

Thomas developed this canoe picture into a metaphor for an ideal community—one where the members helped each other, and accepted individual needs and struggles. A dream, yes. A source of inspiration—yes, as well. 


Jun 12
Poetry Saved My Life

Friends, in 17 years of doing Pongo's work, of helping young people write poetry after terrible childhood trauma, I have continued to learn and grow, to the point that I feel a kind of awe for the power of poetry and for the resilience in the poets. There is brilliance in the young people's accomplishments, and this is not hyperbole.

Among the things I've learned...

I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions.

I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others.

But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.

In the poem below, a young woman from the "Hearts Out Loud" group uses poetry to reframe her emotional life after years in foster care and after her brother's murder two years before.

I attended a reading last week where this poet and her colleagues read with incredible joy, pride, and purpose, in celebration of their lives.


Poetry Saved My Life
by "Bad One," a young woman, age 14

See just before fire was sent to the rain
Before I even saw a glimpse of the pain
Before the arrow was shot through my heart
Before people's words could tear me apart
There was hope! Yes, little but there was Hope.

Before deceiving lies, foster care, love in disguise
Before tears of hunger bellowed in my brother's eyes
Before cries and pleading to survive
There was a gift from God
That hadn't yet been received nor forgotten!

So here I stand with no gun, only a pencil in hand
And in that drawer no bullets, but paper in store
But still the idea in mind is murder
Not the murder of a person, but the murder of emotions
And the only casket is the notebook that binds the faces together

At last I write about the sins within me
At last I speak of the unknown terror of my life
At last the emotions that keep the devil in me are released
Finally the burden of my brother's death can
Be resurrected with only one soul knowing! ME!

All 3 of my parents have a piece of my heart
So now it's time to give the world a piece of my mind
But instead of a massacre and a life sentence
I write poetry and spit flows within me
All I can say is Poetry saved my life.


["Hearts Out Loud" is the first poetry group that was started on the Pongo model. It runs weekly at Friends of the Children, a mentoring agency in Seattle. The group was started and is led by child therapist Robin Brownstein. Here is more info, more poetry, and more credit to the volunteers and staff behind "Hearts Out Loud."]

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