Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jan 09
How Do You Talk About Violence?

Last night a group of Seattle performance poets read Pongo poetry on themes of trauma and violence. Most of the poetry had been written in Pongo projects in juvenile detention. The performance included poems about child sexual abuse (“The Guy with the Green Eyes”), addiction and abuse at home (“Without a Family”), parental abandonment (“The Other Piece of Me, My Father”), and rape (“Running Away”).
The performance was the vision and execution of Pongo volunteer Eli Hastings and Seattle poet Roberto Ascalon. It took place at Youth Theatre Northwest on Mercer Island. And the performance was the product of many months of thought and several false starts. What made this performance so difficult to create?
The WHY of such a performance was an easier consideration than the HOW. The Pongo poetry can make people cry. It illustrates the profoundly hurtful and earth-shaking traumas that often precede teen behaviors that eventually lead to incarceration and psychiatric care. The Pongo poetry can facilitate understanding and a constructive response to youth violence. But HOW do you talk about such traumas without evoking and creating more trauma and destructive behavior?
Pongo has had the privilege over 14 years of working with, and learning from, youth in crisis. We have worked in collaboration with many insightful professionals, such as Dr. Ted Rynearson, founder of the Homicide Project, and Dr. Mick Storck, a psychiatrist at Child Study and Treatment Center. So we have learned to appreciate the great hurt inflicted by trauma, a hurt that can leave a person feeling preoccupied, damaged, guilty, worthless. We have also seen that these same hurt people can show another complicated reaction to trauma in which they seem uncaring or are drawn to recreating traumatic events.
Our solution to the HOW, when it comes to talking about violence, was to focus in this way – the effects of violence on the individual, as expressed in poetry, and the benefits of poetry for resilience.
In other words, we chose not to talk about violence as a concept or a sociological study. The seeming neutrality of such a discussion might only reinforce a person’s sense of damage and helplessness. Instead we chose to talk about trauma and violence in terms of how the individual feels in poetry. And how we feel in reading and hearing the work.
This approach was also important, I think, for the majority of the audience, those who have been less directly affected by trauma and violence in their lives. After all, how often in our social dialogue do we respectfully open up to feelings about something so overwhelming? Isn’t it more common for us to shut down emotionally or to express anger instead?
At the end of a great evening, that included performance and discussion with performers and audience, Roberto said, “This was so easy, why couldn’t we have made this happen sooner?” The answer of course is that talking about trauma and violence isn’t easy at all.