Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 01
"The Heart is Us"

"The Heart is Us"

As the first week of Pride Month coincides with Pongo wrapping up our programs for the academic year of 20-21, it's an ideal time to celebrate the people who have helped us love ourselves.

Recently, I had the privilege to mentor poetry with a young man who told me about his experience coming out at an early age. This young man identified a key ingredient that made his coming out experience a joyful process: an open and affirming teacher.

"He was helpful," the young man wrote in a narrative poem. "He (the teacher) explained what I might be going through./ That I might be part of the LGBTQ community./That was the first I heard of it."

The young poet then wrote this poem reflecting on the importance of safe spaces in which we can be ourselves:

Your Self
by a student at CSTC, age 17

This is the place that showed me the way.
Equality is All.
The size of your chest, the curves of the body,
the ridges, the roughness—do not tell
or define who you are.
You may see others and think I want their looks!
I want to be them.
Why do you want the looks of someone you are not?
Keep your life. Live your life! Life is beautiful.
You are beautiful and looks aren’t us.
The heart is us. The deep emotions others don’t have.
The strength of our will to be us. Use it! Love it. Love you.
You are you. Don’t be ashamed.
Be yourself. Love your self, then others will follow.
Others will love you too.
This place is within your heart.
This place is the place of you.
Life! Keep hold and live.

Dedicated to my teacher

To all members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community, we hope you'll love on yourselves and those in your life this Pride month! As this poet and his teacher models for us, creating a loving space for others to be themselves can start by loving yourself.

Mar 29
Blessed are Women

Blessed are Women

In these final days of Women's Month, March 2021, this poem reminds me why every month should be women's month!

Blessed are Women
by Anjuli Nunn

The cleft of my bosom
Is showing signs
Of wear and tear
From the years of abuse
I endured.
I had excuses to not leave,
Believed that I loved him,
Mistakenly gave to him
My all.
But my calling
Was far greater
Than I could have known.

The cleft of my bosom
Wants you to know
That she is proud to show
Her deep brown, crimson skin,
Glowing in the aftermath
Of healing,
In harmony with herself
At last.

I am aghast
At all of the crimes
Committed against women,
In this very city.
Covid-19 quarantines
In with the abusers,
The users of women;
There is no excuse
For rape.
Draping veils
Along fine lines
Of broken masculinity
Does not cut it for me.
There is no excuse
For abuse, and bruises
And broken bones.

But I am past that now.
I bow to the warrior women
Who have been through it too.
Who knew
There were so many of us,
Soaring admit the dust
Of the unforgotten years,
The forsaken years,
The better years.

Bow your head
To the women in your life,
For they have shed
Too many tears.
Toxic masculinity
Is being sanctioned
So let’s anchor our femininity
And not to the exclusivity
Of others.

All are welcome
To worship women
Of history,
Of colour,
In honour of this day
Of giving,
For every day should be
A day of giving.
Give thanks to the one
Who birthed you
Into this blessed earth
And kiss the ground
Which we stand on.

© Anjuli Nunn 2021

Mar 21
In the Wake of Anti-Asian Violence, Wishing for Peace

In the Wake of Anti-Asian Violence, Wishing for Peace

Amidst the news of anti-Asian bullying and hate crimes, Pongo Poetry Project stands in solidarity with our Asian sisters, brothers, and siblings in humanity and condemns acts of domestic, racialized terrorism.

Hearing the awfulness of anti-Asian sentiment is dramatically contrasted by the hopeful, generative, and altruistic sensibilities of our authors, like this young poet who offers us a poem for our times:

When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Hero
by a student at CSTC, age 12

I can’t wait to be an adult.
I’m going to be like my heroes—like MLK.
I’m going to do peaceful protests, make speeches
and visit places in hard times.

I’ll write letters to the president,
win the Nobel Peace prize,
and if I get to, I’ll thank my grandma, my teacher
and of course, Pongo.

If I had to die for a good cause,
it would be to stop trafficking.
Maybe people would stop being sexists
and homophobic
and trafficking and assaulting women,
because it is wrong.

When I watch the news and hear about people protesting
trafficking and school shootings,
that makes me want to help.

I want to yell, I hate violence.
I wish there was world peace
but that won’t happen.

I cry when people and friends get hurt or killed
like when my best friend’s dad got shot
when someone wanted his money for drugs.

I will fight for peace
but not with violence—
I will fight peacefully.

Dedicated to my grandmas

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.

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