Real Poets Writing Project

Real Poets is a project on the Pongo model, a Pongo duckling project. In this article the founder of Real Poets, Alex Russell, describes the project and an important moment in its early history.

by Alex Russell

The Real Poets Writing Project in Sacramento would not exist without Pongo. In 2010 I volunteered for Pongo in Seattle's juvenile detention, and later planned to start a project of my own in California when I settled into my graduate creative writing program at UC Davis. The project began two years later when I met our dedicated supporters, Sacramento Poetry Center and 916 Ink. Real Poets is six weeks into our second ten-week term at Turning Point Community Programs, where we have written over 120 poems with more than 20 at-risk youth, which would not have been possible without Pongo-founder Richard Gold's encouragement and mentorship, and of course his writing methods.

At the end of our first term, we celebrated our young poets with a published anthology and book release party. The five young writers who attended brought so many family members and friends that the Turning Point therapists and administrators had to stand in the back of the room. Our writers that term were all young women, and ranged in age from just 9 years old to 20. In their poems they spared nothing. They wrote about abuse. They wrote about the hard realities of their neighborhoods. They wrote about not having parents around because of alcohol and drugs. They wrote about what hurt them most, and these facts are not what relatives want to hear their children say, especially in public, even anonymously in a book.

I was nervous about how the parents, grandparents, and guardians would respond to the poems. For the reading I asked each young writer to read three of another writer's poems, and also to pick which three from the book they would like to read. Considering the room, I thought they would pick the easier ones. I was surprised when instead they picked the hardest ones, the ones that said the most.

When it was time for the reading to begin, I talked a little bit about the project, and then one-by-one each of the young poets stood in front of everyone and read the poems their peers had written. In the audience, each young writer made sure everyone they had brought knew which poems were theirs. They each did a great job, and I know all the applause in the room made them feel it.

Afterward, the grandmother of one of our 9-year-olds told me she has read every poem her granddaughter brings home after writing with us. She said that even though it is hard for her to read them, they are beautiful. Another grandmother told me her granddaughter's poems were incredibly difficult because they were so honest, describing all she had been through. It turned out that the girl's poems had become something they came to share together, and were another way the grandmother could be proud of her granddaughter.

The Pongo methods are intended to help heal trauma. They helped me in founding Real Poets Writing Project. And on this day I saw firsthand how they can also bring families together.