Mark Johnson

What years have you volunteered as a Pongo Poetry Mentor at CFJC (formerly King County Juvenile Detention)?

2013-14, 2014-15, Spring of 2019, and 2020-2021

What do you do professionally?

I am an environmental consultant, working primarily on assessment of impacts from large infrastructure projects.

What drew you to Pongo's work?

A renewed interest in poetry, after many years of writing very little, led me to a conversation with Richard Gold, Pongo's founder and a friend from a yoga class. Richard asked me if I would have an interest in Pongo. I had been thinking about doing some work with teens.  I had a difficult period in my teen years and am very grateful for some adults who helped me get on a better track. The combination of helping youth and expanding my exploration of poetry seemed a good fit.

What do you find most challenging about Pongo's work?

I have inner doubts working with youth whose life difficulties in many ways make mine pale in comparison. I want them to go deep, because I know that can be good for them, but I also know that what I am asking them to do is incredibly frightening, to tell the hardest parts of their story, parts they have kept secret because they want to protect themselves. To get past my own fears about what I am asking of them, I just trust them to go as far as they want to and let that be enough.

What has been a highlight of your work with Pongo thus far? 

I have witnessed many of these young people go from feeling like “not knowing” what to say, to seeing their own words in print and hearing them or even reading them aloud themselves, and seeing their peers, and everyone present, moved. For me, this experience is encapsulated in my memory if one young man who started out slow, but ended up writing a poetic autobiography, never having met his father; his mother, an addict who had disappeared, family that passed him around from state to state; a bullet wound. After we had filled the page, he went back through and changed the word “dead” to “old”.  To watch a young person open the door and see this is something they can do, say exactly what’s in their heart, and then find people who are eager to hear - that is the highlight.

What keeps you coming back each week?

It makes me sad to think that there may always be a place like CFJC filled with youth who are struggling against steep odds to find a way to live that is safe, free, and loving. It seems to me a great place to apply the privilege I enjoy, to give them what support I can offer to help them get through. As I mentioned, I had the help of some really good people when I was a teen runaway, doing some of the same kinds of things these youth have been incarcerated for. I feel an obligation to pay it forward.