Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
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.