Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 05
Professional Art & Pongo

By Emily Holt, Project Leader at Juvenile Detention


Writing one poem a week shouldn’t seem a foreign or overly difficult task for someone who is a poet and in an MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, because I write slowly and hesitantly, such regular production can seem daunting.

 But, each week, I’ve come to accept that whatever came out by Tuesday morning, I will share it with my team of mentors in King Co. Juvenile Detention. The poems I share with the team may not the most technically skilled; they are almost always first drafts. Over time, however, I have begun to see something in them that I hadn’t seen in my other writing—a wideness.

It wasn’t merely that I sat down, and thought, Okay, it’s Pongo, I can put any emotional thought in this poem (which I could have), but something about the method made it okay for me to include anything in a poem, to take a line anywhere, to go from yellow suburbs to a hotel minibar to a news story about rape and torture. Other poets may have been able to do this from the outset; for those poets, perhaps Pongo could offer an opportunity to go inward, to go to a more personal place.

Pongo provides different things for different people, which is part of its beauty. Wherever you are, artistically, I believe there’s a way Pongo can benefit your work. That may be quite a claim, because we do focus our work on youth who have never written before, especially youth who may feel fragmented, self-conscious, who may not be literate.

Yet Pongo strives to remove all barriers to writing a poem, and barriers exist for all writers, regardless of technical skill. I see a time when Pongo methods could benefit youth who are comfortable with writing and self-expression but who want to learn about revision, performance or creating a body of work.

I have tried Pongo with youth in foster care, the children of men and women fleeing ethnic violence, with adults with disabilities who have experienced trauma, with friends my own age, with straight A students, with youth in locked facilities.

And it works with all these audiences because, at its heart, turning to the Pongo method is turning to a kind of profoundly radical listening. In the end, I am not sure that it’s about poetry so much as bearing witness. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry is essential. It is the more objective third-party witness to a story. As founder Richard Gold says, (I’m paraphrasing), It’s neither you nor me but it can exist between us and help us out when we don’t want to talk.



I love going to Seattle Arts & Lectures literary series, and I love that they now have a young person read before a professional such as Cheryl Strayed, Colm Tóibín or George Saunders comes on. The young people, who are mentored by a professional in Writers in the Schools, sometimes get a more audible reaction than the professional about to come onstage. While the young person reads, I often hear murmurs of delight in the adults around me when the reader embodies a character, creates an image or uses music in surprising ways. There is evidence of craft, of technical skill.

Yet I can’t avoid wishing, however impractically, that the young people I work with in juvenile detention could also be on stage. I know their work would elicit the same murmuring—perhaps even a louder reaction.

Unlike the artists in Writers in the Schools—people I greatly admire—Pongo mentors have a slightly different agenda; ours is not one focused fully on craft but exists in a place somewhere between artistic mentor and counselor.

Unfortunately, for writers focused on craft and publication, can be easy to read a poem about trauma and dismiss the poem as only therapy or only catharsis.

Yet why are the options such polar opposites?

Our Pongo leader Ann Teplick proves they needn’t be; a WITS artist and an experienced Pongo mentor, Ann embodies what it means for a mentor to be informed by craft, by long and rich poetic traditions and also to be open to the less-crafted chaos that is inside of all of us.

One of my own mentors noted that working with a young person to find their voice isn’t always about writing a perfect poem from the start; it’s about learning to use language. Especially for youth in juvenile detention, many of whom have had little success in being heard or understood or who don’t believe they bear responsibility for either. Why bear that responsibility when no one listens?

Former site lead Vanessa Hooper once said that we write with youth in order to show to our communities that youth inside are every bit as complex, diverse and nuanced as anyone outside. Pongo is about blurring those lines between in and out; not dismissing the hard realities of life in a locked facility, but seeing what’s human, what’s lived on both sides.

Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at http://www.emilyholtwriter.com