Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 11
Dreaming Big This Black History Month

Dreaming Big This Black History Month

Langston Hughes's poem "The Dream Keeper" , got the Pongo team thinking about the big dreams and hopes of Black youth poets now and through the ages. Inspired, Poetry Mentors at CFJC (King County Juvenile Detention), led a group exercise using 2 refrains from this poem (Bring me all your...So I can...) to structure a co-created poem:


by CFJC Youth Residents & Adult Poetry Mentors

Bring me all your happiness, anger and tears
Bring me your emotions—your tattered
rain-soaked worries, your cold, cramping fears
Bring me all your joy, pain, and wisdom
Bring me your hates—your skin crawling
chalkboard-scratching dislikes
Bring me your broken dreams

So that I can understand your life
and I will relate on your faults
So you are not alone in your world of hatred and greed
So that I can understand your pain
and understand the weight of who you are
I will hold your emotions—not as who you are,
not even as the many-facetted diamond of who you are,
but I will hold them as feathers—light leavings
of flight that I blow away
with a kiss

A special thank you to Tamara Keefe at Seattle Parks Department for sparking this idea through her column in the Parks' February Newsletter, 2021.

Feb 09
Letter to My Nephew

Letter to My Nephew

For 2021's Valentine's Day, Pongo wants to share this poem, which reminds us that even after enduring terrible hurts, even in their daily effort to make new lives for themselves in the fallout of core relationships, young people find the energy and heart to care for one another. Much love to all Pongo Poets & Readers --the Pongo Team

Letter to My Nephew, Happy Birthday
by Kalah, submitted on Pongo's website

I’m trying my best
I really am and I suppose that it's not going to be good enough
I hate how disappointing I am to those around me
I wish I was better for everyone

I wish I could give you a hug and tell you
“I am always going to be here for you, baby”
I miss you guys so much, and I wish I could see you all
You guys were my little monsters
I loved you more than I loved myself

You turned another year today, Jr.
and I am so proud of you, Papas
You are so great and wholesome
You care a lot about how others are feeling

and you worry a lot about your family
No one at your age should have to be worried about anything
I know that things have been tough without me around
I just hope that one day you will understand why I am where I am

I really miss you and love you so much,
I hope you had a great day today, Jr.
Just know that your tia loves you so much
and she can't wait to see you again
and let's hope that it's soon, my papas


Your Tia

Feb 01
"Stepping Up to Be a Queen"

"Stepping Up to Be a Queen"

In honor of Black History month, 2021, Pongo would like to share a poem by one of our authors. Like so many of the poems written by Pongo youth poets and like Black History itself--especially in the U.S., this poem is filled with resilience in the face of severe abuse. Read this author's realtime process of putting themselves back together--a process that for this poet is reminiscent of Audre Lorde's quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

by an African American student writing with Pongo

I was hurt

I don’t know what to do
I can feel it in my soul
God, I can feel it through you
There’s this battle
that I’m fighting
This is exactly why I’m writing

I was misunderstood
I was misused
I was hurt
I was abused
I was beaten till I was black and blue
Nobody ever understood
what I was going through

I feel that’s all I really cared about
Was just not being someone’s toy
Not being someone that could always be hurt
Not knowing who I am

is what affects me now

I gotta step up to be a queen
and put on my crown
It’s a thorn crown
That’s why God died on the cross
because he knew that people in his nation
would be lost

I don’t know what to say
At times, I don’t know what to feel

I love writing
I love being myself
I love being a queen
and it’s not all about wealth
You don’t have to have money to care
You have to have a heart to be who you are
This is why I’ve gotten so far
This is why I’m cared for
and that is where this ends

Dedicated to my brothers

Jan 20
A Poem for Inauguration Day, 2021

A Poem for Inauguration Day, 2021

As the U.S. celebrates the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, we at Pongo look forward to a more hope-filled and compassionate tone in national leadership to inspire Pongo's work listening to and providing platforms for, the voices of youth often unheard or misrepresented in our society. Here's one such example:

by a young man at CFJC (King County Juvenile Detention)

When there’s change in the air, smelling like fresh cut lawn
or grandma’s fresh cooking,
I think it might be time for a revolution.

A revolution for myself would look like a young man
spreading his knowledge
with others who need it most.

Thinking about change like this, reminds me
of the time when Barack Obama got out the White House
cuz there was no role model—nobody.
All we had was a president who only cares about himself.
So we had to make a change ourselves
by stepping up, loving one another and accepting who we are.

A revolution to my friends and family
would have to be a peaceful marching,
peaceful gathering, a peaceful speech
that tells the whole world
about the ones that been hurt the most
and been held back
by the justice system—a bulldozer
for our hopes, and our children’s guidance.

A revolution for this country
would have to mean a bigger picture—non-violence,
spreading the love, spreading knowledge,
helping feed one another, heal one another.

A revolution for us could be positive
if we all have the right mindset, with no irrational mind.
Rather a wise mind than weak one
with somebody that’s not afraid to speak
when they’re told not to.
or the revolution could go bad
if we’re all just angry and upset about the past.
But I know, in this revolution, I’ll be a better man.

Like this poem? Email programmanager@pongoteenwriting.org for a Word doc Fill-in-the-blank activity on this theme!

Dec 24
Takeaway Wishes On the Eve of 2020

Takeaway Wishes on the Eve of 2020

During 2020's holiday season at CFJC , youth wrote on the theme of wishes. The poems taught our team of mentors that wishes are close cousins of regret. But the poems reminded us that wishes are of stronger stock, as they can help a person formulate a vision for the future. Here's a Wish Poem by one young person that captures the dignity and strength these students are worthy of.

by a young person at CFJC

When I was young, I used to wish I could take away
all my family’s problems, like my mom’s struggle
to get the bills paid on time, her coming home late
and needing to fix a meal,
my grandma having to take care of her mom.

Today I wish I didn’t add on to the problem,
getting in trouble a lot.
Instead of getting in trouble,
helping out with things.

Everyday I wish to make my family smile
when they see my face.

My wish is the color of light sky blue--
the color that reminds me of happiness
and freedom.

It is the sound of a warm summer breeze
and the ocean hitting the shore,
like when we used to go to Canon Beach.

My wish feels like that warm tingling sensation
when you’re going down a roller coaster.

My wish is always involving my family and those I love.

My wish is never for self-gain.

My wish is a piece of me,
the piece that is loving
to those I deem

A special thank you to Poetry Mentor, Mark Johnson for facilitating this poem and for noticing the theme that so many of these young people are keenly, painfully preoccupied with-- protecting their families and friends. Given the losses so many have sustained in 2020, perhaps this preoccupation pangs in the minds of more of us than in previous years. Perhaps our dreams of 2021 share a similar hue--the freedom and happiness of an open sky.

Happy Holidays and a Happier 2021 to all CFJC youth and staff and to the Pongo community all over the world.

Nov 26
Feelings of Gratitude in Fall, 2020

Feelings of Gratitude in Fall, 2020

The clearest way for Pongo to express our gratitude this year is to share a group poem written over Zoom last night (11/25/2020) with youth at CFJC. Enjoy!

by a group of youth residents at CFJC

I am truly grateful for my supportive family
like my mom, my lil’ brothers, and my older brothers.
I am truly grateful for another year
of life.
I am truly grateful for my family.

It's easy to be grateful when I’m in a good mood

and feeling good— being happy
and goofin’ off with my brothers

when everything goes good
when I wake up and I know
that it’s one day more and one day less
of being here.

It’s easy to be grateful
when everyone else abandons you
because then you realize

people’s true colors.
You’re alone
and that makes you stronger
because you realize
you can do it.

But it's harder to be grateful if
you expect it
or your family isn’t doing
or feeling okay.
It’s going to be hard
to be grateful
if I spend a third year in jail.

Through being grateful, I have learned
how much I rely on you.
Through being grateful,
I’ve learned blood
isn’t always thicker than water.
Through being grateful, I have learned
to just take life as it is.

Thank you to the youth, CFJC staff, our volunteer Pongo Poetry Mentors, and all our supporters around the world!

Oct 12
The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train

by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate

Writers from around the country submit to Pongo Teen Writing every day. And every quarter, a Pongo editor has the difficult job of picking four poems to share with our online readers. This task proved particularly challenging for this last quarter, April-June 2016 because the corpus of poems submitted were of such fine quality.
The balmy spring weather with its blossoming ebullience must have influenced our writers because this quarter’s collection seemed defined by optimism: acceptance for the moment and hope for the future. This is exemplified in this quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize.


I hope the end of every year
Will be followed by happiness.
I hope the weakest dog will find a family
 Of five people and one more dog, so the dog isn’t lonely.
The second dog is big, very fluffy and playful.
They will become really good friends.

I hope the fiercest storms bring rainbows
To part the storm:
A never-ending rainbow
I hope every empty room will eventually have
A lamp that can brighten
A lamp with flowers on it.

 I hope gunfire in the distance is just thunder
Striking the tree
An evergreen tree
An evergreen tree that is 24 years old.

 I hope when life passes there is a new life for me to call home.
The first thing I would do in a new life is get a dog
A Pomeranian
Named Pom-Pom.

 I hope the angriest person in me will learn to find calmness.
 Calm like a white butterfly
 In a sea of bees.

 I hope the loneliest person in me will discover a friend.
 Imaginary or real It doesn’t matter.

 I hope the most lighthearted person in me will find some structure.
 Structure like a sturdy bridge
From fear to hope.

I hope I will someday be able to walk that bridge.
I would not look down.
I would look straight forward.
I might even bring my dog.


The author connects feelings of hope with images: the crossing of a bridge, a butterfly, a rainbow, lamp and, of course, the image of the dog that opens and closes the lid on the little treasure box that is this poem. It’s a gift to read and speak aloud to ourselves.

Hope in a better future of course implies that there are things about our present and possibly our origins that may not be as sterling as we would have liked them to be. Yet, part of moving forward is accepting our roots. “Where I Come” from, our first honorable mention, models this for us in an important way.



I'm from a place where kids hold guns bigger than them.
I'm from faith inside myself. No God.
I'm from a long line of people who work hard and try to do the best with their situation.
I'm from confusion about when people say "I love you."
I'm from laughter over everything.
I come from a place so dark, ain't nobody thought of lights.
I'm from love, and I know my people are still with me through this crucial time.
I'm from fear, especially when I think about not seeing my family again.
I come from a long line of slavery, both mentally and physically.
I come from the streets where killers and ballers dwell.
I come from a loving family.
I wish my life would become more destined and less hectic.
That's where I'd like to be from.


Part of this poem’s specialness comes from its unflinching inclusiveness of details. Their home front contains both a loving family and streets where “kids carry guns bigger than them”, an inheritance of historical trauma and good-humored perseverance. The poet seems to have taken the best from their surroundings, having learned the importance of hard work, loyalty and grit. “I’m from faith inside myself”, the poet writes. Though the place of their origin seemed so dark “ain’t nobody thought of lights”, there’s clearly a light within this writer and a hope for a future that’s “more destined and less hectic”. The “more destined” line pounds on our hearts and ears as we read, many of us living at frenetic paces without reflection.

Good thing we have poetry.

The next poem also depicts a complex experience of place and does so with memorable élan.

1. new york
these cities that
we definitely own
so many people
but still completely alone

2. graffiti
leaving your mark
meant leaving yourself
hoping to spark interest
in someone else
but darling,
you have forgotten
only the broken-hearted
look out the subway window

3. sidewalk
stretching endlessly
into horizons
side by side;

4. caffeine
running, going, gone,
avenues too long
hair unruly, unrested
silence detested
hands always jittering,
coffee hangovers anew
will the story ever progress
when you’re stuck on page two?

5. alley
& sex.

6. broadway
pointed toes, jazz hands
broken dreams
from the stands
open hearts, wide eyes
seeking acceptance
‘one more time’.

7. taxi
whiplash can never
replace the time
we crashed hearts
and bumped thighs

8. homeless
awnings are blessings
spare change, please?
still a dreamer
but not lost
without a house,
without clean clothes
but still

9. club
hard liquor
the monster
which makes
the music louder,
the dancing quicker,
the hands slip lower,
the eyes to fall

10. traffic
wrong turn,
switch lanes,
broken glass,
imploded doors,

11. strangers
bumped into each other
not anymore
four years later
he’s out the door
we tend to forget
it always starts
and ends
the same

12. rooftop dinner
big city view
big city price
big city diamonds
(he must really
like you)

13. empire state building
top floor
low esteem
don’t look;
you might
to fly

14. pigeon
rats with wings
seeking french fries,
and dreams

15. street performer
kennedy center sleeping
central station dreaming
case open, hats off
counting change for
a better corner

16. apartment
needing more rooms
even if
you can only be in
one at a time

17. barre, bar
both your warm-up
and your mental state
depend on it

18. central park
escapist? realist?
the safety bubble
around the chaos
we sleep with

19. homesick
moving away from the
only leaves them within

20. rainstorm
trekking alone in this rain
will leave you more comfortable
than walking in the sunshine
by her side
they should start naming these storms
after people

21. birthday
welcome to the next chapter:
your romantic impulse
your heart
your mind
and dissatisfaction
"you're too
young to
hate so much"

This poem’s well-wrought lines (only the broken-hearted look out the subway window) crackle and surprise like Ginsberg. The poet’s lyricism can create snapshots of a rambling urban experience that can seem both sweet and troubling, as in stanza 20. In this is an inherent acceptance in the moment. It also speaks to the brilliance and promise inside people society may view as wayward or down-and-out. The poem’s end is abrupt, yet lifelike. We get the sense of an ongoing journey that will continue with the poet’s life. “Welcome to the next chapter” one of the closing lines states. Reading these 21 chapters made me feel alive and look forward to reading the 22nd, 23rd and so on.

Poetry has the power to reframe perspectives and, as Blake said, cleanse the doors of perceptions. Poems from this quarter work to cleanse a bleak view of the future, revealing infinite potential.  This last poem is one such example:

 At first this sounds like an immaculate theory,  
To forever have nothing to do with sadness,
Sorrowful, grief-filled, heartbroken, depressed,
Hopeless, inconsolable, and disconnected feelings,
Not having that burden weighing down on you
But without these negative emotions you would not be that person you love today
or if you don't love yourself right now without sadness
where would your motivation be for changing?
There is a light at the end of the tunnel which is not a train.

Thanks to this poet for reminding us of this truth and thanks to all our poets and readers. Expression is hope!

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.

Oct 12
Letters Out of Darkness

by Shaun McMichael, Pongo mentor and youth advocate

Between January and March 2016 hundreds of writers submitted powerful poems of overcoming grief and trauma. Four poems in particular stood out that captured the healing potential of the writing process.    

The quarter’s winner of the Pongo Prize was one such example.



This is a letter to someone important to me who died.
I know it’s been awhile since you’ve been gone
And so much has changed, baby boy.
So many flowers of gloom have begun to bloom.

Your mother is still a light,
But she can no longer be mine.
I’m sorry I let you down,
But so much has changed, baby boy.

Your mother is about to be a wife
And your baby sister is on the way.
And me, I’m just trying to find my way.

You still are the light of my world,
The first son of sons I will have
And the first heartbreak of heartbreaks I will feel.

It’s been a long time—four years if you want to be real
And though I don’t write to you as often as before,
The pain and the anger are still so very real.

Watch over your mother ‘cause I can no longer.
Watch over your sister ‘cause I won’t be able.
Make sure they stay strong because someone has too.

May God bless your soul,
Little angel of mine.


This poem captures the grief of its author while making an important statement: writing brings light to the dark corners of who we are, of what we’ve been through. In the poem, the child is the image of light revealing the author’s difficult feelings that need to be voiced. Though the author’s life may still be full of the flowers of gloom, their poem suggests that the naming and sharing of the hurt is a part of finding their way.
But finding the way is a long process when the pain runs so deep.



Dear ex-boyfriend:
I just thought you should know what I’m doing now.
I am a happy person
Who spends a lot of time with our child and my family.

I just thought you should know how I’m feeling.
I am depressed
Because our daughter is one now and you don’t even know her.
 I just thought you should know what I’ve been through.
Since the last time I saw you, I have changed so much.
The time that I gave birth to our child was especially important to me.

I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that our daughter will get to know you.

I just thought you should know what I don’t miss about you.
I am glad I don’t have to worry about being alone anymore.

I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way you used to be a part of my life.

I just thought you should know that I hope you can be a part of our daughter’s life.



I admire the grace in the poet’s voice. Even though the father of the child has fallen short—even if only in his absence—the poet hopes for a future relationship between the father and daughter—a selfless wish as the poem implies the romance between the poet and the father has ended. The poet’s honesty also defines the poem. The poet admits missing the father still, though she is glad she doesn’t “have to worry about being alone anymore”. This indicates that the poet has found solidarity in themselves and/or found sufficiency in the togetherness they have with their daughter. Either way, the letter that may never be answered reveals the author’s strength as a parent and an individual.
    This theme of letters of loss continues with the next author who takes a unique approach. This author chooses to imagine the perspective of the one they’ve lost as a way to speak comfort to themselves.



I want to imagine the voice of him
To share any and all feelings with me
Since time apart now has made it all dim and I need this letter to help me see:

My Darling,
I want you to know that I think about
You, especially when in times like now;
Your fragile heart leads to feelings of doubt,
And in peace, your mind just will not allow.
It is difficult for me to write this
To you, because I am depending on
The words you may choose and those you may miss.
I trust you know me still, words not foregone.
I see how your life has been since I left
And I want to tell you so many things.
I sense all your happiness bereft
So remember what good thoughts of me brings.
I wish for you to understand something
Else about me, that I have truly loved once
And before her I had felt but nothing.
Yes, her name was yours! Then we became us.
If I could, I would never change our time
Together. I am sure you will also agree
That this be the most regrettable crime:
We gave each other a love which was free.
If you find no one who will listen to
Your troubles, please speak aloud. Call my name.
I will listen for you, hear you, help you.
What you meant to me there is here the same.
I love you,



The poet, through their lover’s voice, reminds themselves of their own value as an individual and speaks words of encouragement that they can believe—an act which takes imagination in grief, when nothing seems as real as the feeling of loss.
    After profound loss—of those we love, of our sense of self after trauma—we have to do what the next poet describes in our final poem of this quarter:


I’m learning how to walk again.
Not necessarily because I didn’t do it right.
More because of the fact that I never knew how to change my pace.
My steps were too light.
The opinions on acidic fingertips
Were what I was most concerned about.
And the confessions from bittersweet mouths.

I’m learning how to consume again,
Always ready with parted lips
Thoughtless and thirsty underneath
The belly of my rusted faucet
Forgetting how to stomach favor
Whenever it manages to come out.

I’m learning how to wait again,
Sitting tight with a furnace in my womb,
Responsibility soon to sprout nails and skim my stretched pink surface.

I’m learning how to bleed again.
With the absence of blood though.
Draining the suicide from the underside of my tongue not nearly as thick
as that copper scented crimson
but just as even of a flow.

I’m learning how to destruct without destroying.
Taking aim at my temples.
My index fingers loaded with accusations and forgotten splinters.
Sliding another insult into the flesh covered chamber.

I’m learning how to sleep again with a mind wide open.
Dreaming of insomnia.
Tracing lullabies on my bed sheets.

I’m learning how to kneel again.
Without ever really bending my knees.
Overthinking asking for forgiveness.
Then remembering that I forget what praying is.

I’m learning how to write again.
Turns out it hardly involves the movement of a pen.
The tap of a key, the swipe of a screen.
It’s just my head, my heart and me.
We can’t do much
But at least we know what we’ve managed to achieve.


    And what an achievement indeed: lyrical, profound expression. This author’s learning and relearning makes for great poetry and an important reminder and model for all of us as we attempt to heal and as we write letters for ourselves and others in similar situations. A thanks to this poet and all poets for inspiring the continuation of this process of writing our way out of the darkness.

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.

Oct 12
I Did Not Ask to be Different

By Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor & Youth Advocate


Out of all the amazing poems submitted in the October through December 2015 quarter, several poems stood out. We’ll open with the winner of the Pongo Prize:


Everyone wants to be different,
But not like this.
The struggle, the pain, the guilt.
The feeling that no one understands.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

I try to remember to do my best every day because the next day might be worse.
I want to run a 5k.
I want to be on the honor roll.
I want to be a teacher.
But what if it gets too bad?
Will I ever finish college?
Will I ever hold a job?
Will I ever get to hold my own newborn child?
Or will I sit alone unable to move from the fear of getting worse?

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.

But what if this difference can make me stronger?
What if I can be the voice for the people who are sitting alone?
What if I can be the teacher who understands?

What if I can prove that being different made me better?
I can
And I will.

I didn’t ask to be different.
I didn’t ask to be special.
But I’m glad.



This poet’s questions about their potential echo the questions we all have before we begin something—even if it’s getting out of bed to start the day. But this poet is honest enough to ask these questions aloud, admitting that our potential for success or failure are equal parts hope and fear. Yet the poem is essentially the poet talking themselves into their own promise. The poet’s honest grappling is carried forward with the refrain I didn’t ask…The volta in the second to last stanza shows the poet answering their own question with assurance of victory (I can and I will) The final refrain resolves on I’m glad, symbolic of the poet accepting themselves and we have visions of this writer being that teacher who’s there, being that mom who cares.

Like “Didn’t Ask”, several other poems from this quarter embodied the voices of young people embracing who they are. “Strength” is one such example.


 I can be as strong as a black goddess,
Ready to show the world that I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be.

I can be as strong as the brick walls of my home.
Pay attention to my mighty rocks of broken plaster.
I will hush anyone that comes to judge the way I feel about myself.

I can be strong in ways you don’t expect.
I can be as strong as a family,
Able to protect you from the harm of life in the real world.

My strength can be gentle
And strong as a bathtub,
Ready to wash away all your sorrows and worries.

I can be strong and change the world.
I can change your heart for good.
I can make you know that I am true.


Beginning with one of Pongo’s forms, this poet finds their voice, making unique comparisons for their inner strength (a black goddess, a bathtub). The poet also promises to rise above others’ low expectations for them (I can be everything that everyone believes I can’t be). Perhaps not all of us feel we can project the confidence in “Strength”. Maybe self-acceptance at times looks like admitting what we can and can’t commit to.


I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy when I’m not.
It’s not natural for me to wear a smile every day.
I’m tired of pretending to be happy for the sake of their wellbeing.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

I feel my sanity slipping every time I put on that mask.
Every day I just slip closer and closer to the edge.
Every day I watch as I lean over the edge to look at my death.
I can feel the urge to jump every time I think about putting on that mask.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.
I can’t wear the smile they need me to so that their worlds don’t seem so bad.
I can’t be optimistic every time their lives turn bad when I’m a pessimist at heart.
I can’t be their rock when being their rock is slowly killing me.
I can’t keep going because it’s not natural for me.

I’ve been patient.
I’ve been kind.
I’ve been sweet.
But I just can’t any longer.

It’s not me.
I can’t.



This poet leans towards authenticity in their refusal to wear “that mask” which feels akin to a death. Anyone who’s felt a loss when they’ve adopted a falsehood can empathize with this poem.

Of course, the alternative—knowing and loving ourselves—can be a challenge when our external circumstances seem to be telling us there’s something wrong with who we are or when there are parts of ourselves we want to change. Readers in such a situation can be inspired by these poets’ ability to love themselves even with unknowns and the ambivalence of others. This is modeled excellently for us by the honest words of our final featured poet:


I’m too scared. Too scared to speak my mind, too scared to say ‘hi’.
I’m not like others.
I’m a person with struggles.

Home isn’t a place for me.
There’s too much pain and stress that has me weeping.

I just wasn’t cool like the kids at my school.
I’ve learned that trying to fit in isn’t a good thing to do.

But I’m learning, I’m trying,
Always breaking down and crying.
Times are hard. I’m going to restart
Hopefully this will fix it all.

Every night I lie in bed thinking about my life.
What’s the meaning?
How can I live in the moment with life?
Staying strong, standing tall.

School has been going faster.
More homework, less sleep.
Every weekend isn’t always fine.
I carry pain everywhere I go, hiding it all inside
Wanting to let go.

I may be strong. I may know how to fight,
But every time, my soft spot comes out to save my life.

Times are hard, walking and feeling alone.
Keeping myself in long distance
So people don’t get annoyed.
What’s the meaning of love?
Why does it seem so mean?
I’m trying to become better,
Pushing negativity aside to have my days seem a bit brighter.

It’s hard to understand me. I know you can’t understand.
But open up your mind and look at where I stand.
I go through a lot. It’s hard to control.
You may think it’s easy, but I’m not strong enough to fight this battle alone.

I don’t want attention. I don’t need a pity party.
I’m fine by myself, standing here alone.
If you ask me what’s wrong, don’t expect me to tell the truth.
I’ll lie and smile at you.
You’ll believe it because you want to.

This is my story and I don’t want you to worry.
I’m fine, but just need space and time to gain my strength.


Throughout the blues poetry of this author’s narration, we get the sense that despite their loneliness and pain, they have solidarity within themselves (I’m fine by myself, standing here alone). The poet even has the consideration at the end to assure us they’ll be fine, knowing we might not ever be able to fully understand. Perhaps not, but we can’t help but be inspired by reading these words. 

A closing ‘thank you’ from the Pongo team to this poet and all poets who submitted this quarter. Thank you for inspiring us to love ourselves, to read and to write.

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.

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.

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