Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Aug 09
We Kiss Our Pens to Paper: Pongo Poetry Prize October 2015




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

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



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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on top of her,
heavily humping the humid air
out of her lungs.
That’s someone else.
the same girl who washes each morning, eats breakfast across from him,
and leaves for a school with a plastic mask that reads:
"I'm just tired, didn't get much sleep."
She weaves the lies
that she believes
drew the picture.
She dreamt it,
she drew it,
the triangle,
the box,
the house,
the man.
But he
was an
artist too,
and clever
with his lines,
turning a square into a box,
a box into a cage,
and a little girl into an empty outline of a young woman who tells herself
she caused it, clinging to the concept of clear-cut control.
Because if she's the guilty one
she still has a say
in what's done to her,
and she still
has a dad
who cares
about her,
who loves
who didn't abandon her
like the first.

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

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

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

Mar 21
My Loved Ones

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


My God-brother died a year ago.

He was fourteen.

He died by one of his friends

Who accidentally pulled the trigger of a gun.

I was as sad as coal.

My grandpa died seven or eight years ago

Of natural causes. He was ninety two.

He was in WWII.

I didn’t know him very well.

I was only four or five when he died.

After he passed away, my sister

Lived in his house.

One day, she forgot to shut the oven down.

My sister and her boyfriend went to work

And my nephew and niece went to school

And the house burnt down to the cement basement.

I will see them again one day.


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


--Ann, Project Lead, CSTC


Mar 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*a pseudonym

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

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

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

Mar 03
I Remember the One Time

I Remember the One Time

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


I remember the one time,

I walked from San Larenzo California

All the way through the rain,

South 50 miles, 14 years old.


One night I sat on a toilet,

To stay dry.

Shit, I was so cold, wet.


Went to the police station,

Told them I’m a runaway.

Ran me through the system.

Confirmed it.


Can’t take you home,

But can take you to Oakland.

I was under arrest,

Took me to juvi,

Then up the hill to Las Ceros Boys Home.


My mom found me there,

Asked if I was ready to come home.

I said, ‘yeah mom.’


Thought I’d get punished,

But she was just happy to see me.

Asked why I left.


I said,

I just read Huckleberry Fin,

And I wanted to hit the road.




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


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


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


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


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


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


--Vanessa, Project Lead at 1811

Mar 03
Guns Wash Away Your Life

by a young man in King Co. Juvenile Detention

Guns are like an earthquake
they cause a lot of damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Emily, Site Lead at Detention Project



Mar 02
I Am Thinking


By a young man at CSTC


Friends are on my mind

I’m worried about them

They’re in a bad place

She wasn’t doing too well

She was having a rough time

She’s been having a rough life

Her anger gets out of whack like a

Hot boiling pot of water

It makes me feel blue                                         

There’s nothing I can do

Makes me down like I’m

Drowning in my own depression

Then I feel weak

I start to crumble like a cookie

I can’t shake it

It makes me not want to talk to people


Hidden away in a dark corner

I think about things getting better

My mind clear of all my problems

I’d want to go outside and swing and think

Think that things do get better


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

-- Natalie, mentor at CSTC






Feb 25
The Last Time


I remember the first time,

I came to Seattle,


Riding freight trains.

Whatever would take me somewhere.

I finally landed here,

Think I hitchhiked in,

Made a home.

Wound up in Pioneer Square,

Sleeping in the park.

I remember,

Couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Bounced around town for awhile,

Sleeping here,

Sleeping there.

Finally got tired of sleeping in the sleep off,

The drunk tank.

Ended up over here.

Been 11 years.

The shit I’ve seen.

Have your old lady die on your lap.

In her apartment,

Right down the hall.

Not one of my fondest memories.

I remember the last time,

I had a beer.

Wasn’t soon enough for me.

The first time I stepped into 1811 Eastlake, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d worked with people experiencing homelessness in my day-job, helping connect them to food assistance programs and health benefits, but I knew this would be different.  We’d make art together, write poetry and give a voice to life on the street for a chronic alcoholic.

After each time I sat with a resident to bring their stories to the page, even the short sessions that didn’t seem significant, I’d read back on their words and realize how real each of these people were with me.  Creating a safe space, not asking anything of them but to talk about whatever they had on their mind was powerful, heart wrenching and honest.  Witnessing the words come forth and hearing their unique perspectives turned into poetry has been life changing, certainly for me and hopefully for the people of 1811.

In those times of quiet writing in the Art Room or the corner of the Community Room, within the chaos of their daily search for the next drink, we talked of memories that usually stayed deep and were seldom spoken.  I worked with two different authors (on the same day) who each watched people die in their arms.  I learned how when times get really tough, some will turn to hand sanitizer to ‘get well’.   I also heard uplifting stories of kindness on the streets, twenty-dollar bills dropped in guitar cases for singing Patsy Cline, the etiquette of holding a sign on the corner and who gets first dibs on the best spots to panhandle.  I found that there are many musicians, some who still play guitar, piano and harmonica and others who pawned their gear long ago.

When we finished the first eight-week session, we held a reading so the 1811 authors would have a chance to share their words.  In between sporadic interruptions from inebriated residents, we heard some of the most open, heartfelt and tragic words one could imagine.   We were also told that Pongo, “changed the ecology of this place.” We gave people a space to be creative, open and calm.  Listening and writing with the authors at 1811 is inspiring and knowing that we are giving a voice and documenting small parts of their incredibly interesting lives is a true honor. 

(The poem at the beginning of this post is by a resident who passed away shortly after we wrote together.  Before working with me, he had never written poetry in his life.  This blog post is dedicated to him.  May he rest in peace.)   


— Jefferson Rose, Mentor at Downtown Emergency Service Center’s 1811 Eastlake Housing

Feb 25
I Am Not From Nowhere


I’m from a town of death, drugs and storms

I’m from a street where a color can get your skin punctured like a thorn does your thumb

Sound of violence leaves your heart numb

So you grow up protecting yourself with a gun

I’m from a street where when you see the cops you hide or run

If you sell drugs you should buy a gun

If you are scared to put in work

You should go to church

Because in these streets if you are soft you will get really hurt

It makes you cry and wonder when you see your homie dead with 30 bullet holes in his shirt

So if you wanna survive turn your life over to god and go to church

And when people ask do you wanna bag or sling say no

So you don’t end up on a shirt

JR* is a young man with gravitas beyond his years. While we wrote he was quiet and focused; the lines of his poem emerged with facility. He wrote with confidence and clear-eyed sincerity. He knows of what he speaks. The last line of his poem gives me a visceral reaction. It's simultaneously prosaic and profound. (*a pseudonym)

— Kathleen, Mentor at Detention Project

Feb 23


by a young man at Child and Study Treatment Center

Tired sad hungry depressed fucked



This is how I’ve been feeling lately

Life just ain’t going the way I want it to


Every day someone knows to mention her

Exactly what I want to forget

But I can’t forget her


When you’re in it you don’t want to go to sleep

Because you want to be with her

When you’re out of it you don’t want to go to sleep

Because you’ll dream of her

Also I had my wisdom tooth pulled

Pressure, pain that leads to everywhere

Pain that sinks in

But love is so much worse

Leads to scars, broken bones, reckless behaviors

Puts you in a facility called

Sacred Heart.

Shitty, nice, more shitty, depressed

I want a taco, a burrito, a grill and a truck

I want to get in my truck and go

When I worked with the teen who wrote this poem, we had already seen him once or twice this year in Pongo. I admired the way he came into the group. You could tell he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he also seemed, under the jaded and sometimes angry exterior, excited to be taking this small window of time to do poetry. After being asked to share a poem he liked from a pile of provided poetry books, he acted momentarily shy, kind of “I’m not into this.” But then he shared a poem, smiled a side grin, and talked honestly about what it was that inspired him. When I moved to work 1:1 with this student, I asked him how he was doing that day. The first line of the poem is how he responded, and we went from there. As we talked, he revealed a strong self-awareness as he spoke about his hurt around a broken love relationship. I sensed that he wanted to explore this more in his writing. I had to hold back from jumping out of my chair when, in the middle of explaining his heartbreak, he mentioned seemingly out of left field that he had recently had his wisdom tooth pulled. This was, I thought, a brilliant connection to make about what heartbreak feels like physically. The added twist of how, when heartbreak is so bad it leads to deep behavior troubles, you get sent to a psychiatric facility named Sacred Heart, was very affecting. I love how at the end, the writer responded to all this hard, hard stuff with a very universal reaction, one also every teen has had at one time or another: to grab your wheels and just take off, to get away from it all. The fact that he made sure not to leave out his yearning for a grill and favorite foods was like that side smile he shared early in our group session—a wink, and a ray of hope, for his readers and himself.

— Natalie, mentor at CSTC

 1 23