Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 19
The Satsifaction of Making Something Real

by Alex Russell

I started the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Real Poets program in 2013, about two years after my last session as a Pongo mentor in Juvenile Detention. For this ten-week term ending April 16, 2015, we met every Thursdays at Turning Point Community Programs in south Sacramento. Our anthology for the term represents ten of the youth who wrote with us. They were as young as six years old up to nineteen. Each of them wrote honest poems, and each poem shows the incredible complexity of the poet’s thoughts, heart and life.

A common thread among our writers is how each of them struggles with intense conflict in their lives. That conflict often has to do with the reality of their situation and feelings and needs they cannot control. This conflict comes up in many of these poems, whether it is centered on real love for an abusive parent or a struggle to maintain a sense of control and inner strength when life is completely out of control and overwhelming.

This is where expressive writing can help, and where the form of the poem can be ideal for an immediate increase in self-awareness, a chance to understand a little better the parts of life that can be so confusing. Writing a poem can shift the hurt from being something indescribable, maybe shameful, into something concrete like a desert island, a dust bunny or a neon outfit. To name something is to start to take control over it. But this is only part of what a poem offers. It also offers the satisfaction of having made something real, something that can be shared with others if the poet decides to. An honest poem is always something to be proud of.

Real Poets is not a literacy program, though literacy is a natural outcome of reading and writing, which is at the core of what we do. But when we explain to our young writers the strengths of using image and metaphor in a poem, we are providing tools to name the haze of hurt inside. But even with these tools, the honesty this requires takes courage, which is something all of our writers show no matter what their past or current situation might be.
Real Poets owes everything to Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project. We still use Pongo exercises to begin each writing session with our children and teens. Our success with youth is proof of the strong foundation Pongo has established doing this kind of work.

In particular, this approach has made a difference for Me-Yaw, a poet who came to us two years ago when she was eight years old. At ten years old now, her life is still a challenge but she did not miss a single session these ten weeks. Her are two of her shorter poems. The first is the title poem of this term’s anthology:
Batting an eye is like wearing a neon outfit
So bright that many people can see
you a mile up in space.
People can see doves inside your body
like blood in you.
People don’t even bat an eye to know
you’re there. See what is within you.
Loved in good.
Loved in bad.
You never know the future.
You always know the past.
Loved in abuse.
Loved by family.
Read more poems at www.realpoets.org

Alex Russell is a writing professional and former lecturer at UC Davis.  He has taught grades K-12 in the state of California and volunteered with Pongo at King County Juvenile Detention in 2010.