Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 25
I Am Not From Nowhere


I’m from a town of death, drugs and storms

I’m from a street where a color can get your skin punctured like a thorn does your thumb

Sound of violence leaves your heart numb

So you grow up protecting yourself with a gun

I’m from a street where when you see the cops you hide or run

If you sell drugs you should buy a gun

If you are scared to put in work

You should go to church

Because in these streets if you are soft you will get really hurt

It makes you cry and wonder when you see your homie dead with 30 bullet holes in his shirt

So if you wanna survive turn your life over to god and go to church

And when people ask do you wanna bag or sling say no

So you don’t end up on a shirt

JR* is a young man with gravitas beyond his years. While we wrote he was quiet and focused; the lines of his poem emerged with facility. He wrote with confidence and clear-eyed sincerity. He knows of what he speaks. The last line of his poem gives me a visceral reaction. It's simultaneously prosaic and profound. (*a pseudonym)

— Kathleen, Mentor at Detention Project

Feb 23


by a young man at Child and Study Treatment Center

Tired sad hungry depressed fucked



This is how I’ve been feeling lately

Life just ain’t going the way I want it to


Every day someone knows to mention her

Exactly what I want to forget

But I can’t forget her


When you’re in it you don’t want to go to sleep

Because you want to be with her

When you’re out of it you don’t want to go to sleep

Because you’ll dream of her

Also I had my wisdom tooth pulled

Pressure, pain that leads to everywhere

Pain that sinks in

But love is so much worse

Leads to scars, broken bones, reckless behaviors

Puts you in a facility called

Sacred Heart.

Shitty, nice, more shitty, depressed

I want a taco, a burrito, a grill and a truck

I want to get in my truck and go

When I worked with the teen who wrote this poem, we had already seen him once or twice this year in Pongo. I admired the way he came into the group. You could tell he was carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he also seemed, under the jaded and sometimes angry exterior, excited to be taking this small window of time to do poetry. After being asked to share a poem he liked from a pile of provided poetry books, he acted momentarily shy, kind of “I’m not into this.” But then he shared a poem, smiled a side grin, and talked honestly about what it was that inspired him. When I moved to work 1:1 with this student, I asked him how he was doing that day. The first line of the poem is how he responded, and we went from there. As we talked, he revealed a strong self-awareness as he spoke about his hurt around a broken love relationship. I sensed that he wanted to explore this more in his writing. I had to hold back from jumping out of my chair when, in the middle of explaining his heartbreak, he mentioned seemingly out of left field that he had recently had his wisdom tooth pulled. This was, I thought, a brilliant connection to make about what heartbreak feels like physically. The added twist of how, when heartbreak is so bad it leads to deep behavior troubles, you get sent to a psychiatric facility named Sacred Heart, was very affecting. I love how at the end, the writer responded to all this hard, hard stuff with a very universal reaction, one also every teen has had at one time or another: to grab your wheels and just take off, to get away from it all. The fact that he made sure not to leave out his yearning for a grill and favorite foods was like that side smile he shared early in our group session—a wink, and a ray of hope, for his readers and himself.

— Natalie, mentor at CSTC

Feb 17



By a man living at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program



Eight years old

living in Forks

my dad left my mom

for another woman

then Mom had depression

and left us kids.


Nine of us

I'm the oldest

we survived finding beer bottles

trading them in for change.


All my siblings

down back roads

side roads

finding the bottles 

trading them in

buying a box of cereal

and some milk.


Then the sheriff showed up


Where's your Mom?


I said

I don't know.


He returned with

shopping bags of food

then three days later

showed up

found mom in the backseat

near the reservation

passed out with everyone else. 


Now I have fortitude

haven't been through the worst

but had my share.


And I am a stronger person. 




After a long bus ride from Everett to downtown Seattle on a Thursday morning, I immediately head for my cup of Pike Place roast and the Starbucks facilities, one of few facilities near 1811 Eastlake that remain unlocked for customers.  Relieved and revived, I leave the morning rush in the Metropolitan office building and think about how it would feel knowing that restaurants and office buildings locked their restrooms to keep me out—not me in particular, but me as a certain type of person.  The phrase “homeless person” does not describe a specific person at all.  It is a generic label our culture applies to people we assume do not truly belong anywhere and therefore cannot be validated in their particularity.  When a human being’s particularity is not validated, human needs are easily dismissed.      


In less than two minutes I round the corner of Eastlake, resisting the urge to lower my gaze, assume a hurried, determined air, or pretend I don’t see the faces of people who have created a temporary refuge under the overpass.  Slow down.  Don’t check out.  I notice a woman with beautiful long black hair moving leisurely down the sidewalk in a wheelchair near the DESC building.  Does she live at 1811, or not?  Is this even relevant?  I slow down and decide it feels more awkward to walk too close behind her than to go around her.  In spite of my default assumption that people do not want to be bothered, I force myself to turn and say hello as I walk by.  Apparently it is the woman’s birthday.  She asks me how I am, so I try to be honest.  We share the same birthday month and are about the same age.  In those few minutes of conversation she is remarkably open, though she knows nothing about me.  We discover we are headed for the same place.  I learn she is a resident at 1811, and she learns I am with the Pongo poetry project.  She tells me she enjoys writing and hopes to work with us eventually.  A week later she flags down our Pongo team while we are waiting for the elevator and gives us a copy of a poem she wrote about her birthday, a poem she eventually shares with other residents at the celebration of our first eight weeks there.  I have never written a poem with the woman I met that morning, but our encounter was one among many memorable encounters I have had with residents 1811.  This community continues to teach me that we cannot underestimate the power of any human encounter, however brief or insignificant it may seem. 

I first heard about Pongo while writing a paper for graduate school.  At the time, I assumed the healing power of the Pongo method was located in the creative process itself.  Creative writing had long been my primary means of coping with depression and anxiety over the years, particularly in adolescence.  When I applied to be a Pongo mentor last summer I had been journaling more often due to a difficult phase in my life.  I knew mentors were expected to write a weekly poem and share their poetry with other mentors as part of their commitment.  Writing poems on vulnerability, shame, change, feeling invisible, beauty, new beginnings, and healing during a time of personal struggle has not only helped me to take care of myself emotionally, but has strengthened my connection with the members of the 1811 community. 

One resident, who is passionate about the project and hopes to see more residents participate, believes poetry and other art forms can help people process trauma and grief.   What is most important to him, however, is the power of truly being heard and understood by another human being.  Just a few days ago he wrote about the growing loss of human connection he has observed, both at 1811 and in the larger society.  On buses and elevators, he told me, “everyone just stands looking forward; they don't even acknowledge anybody.”  The poetry we write with residents can give shape to emotions, thoughts, and ideas many find difficult or painful to articulate and share with others.  Whether or not we write together, every encounter is a gift.  I have talked with people who don’t want to write, wonder why we are there, and do not believe there is poetry in the suffering and tragedy they witness regularly in their community.  Some residents will not write, but are willing to talk with us and be themselves, whether they are feeling angry, despondent, grateful, energetic, or cynical.  I have worked with a woman who posts her poetry throughout the building to bring courage and hope to her neighbors.  I have written with people who desperately want to stop drinking and are determined to keep trying in spite of the hell of detox and the discouragement of setbacks.  I have written with people who have known excruciating loss, abuse, physical challenges, and trauma, often from a very young age.  What I will always remember about the residents at 1811 is their refusal to allow their sufferings to define them.  They play the drums, piano, guitar, and harmonica.  They sing, paint, write, and reflect deeply on the issues in our world.  In each person I have met I have found a deep, lively well of creativity, compassion, humility, resourcefulness, humor, and above all love.  They have loved deeply and continue to love deeply, in spite of the temptation to detach and grow numb in the face of grief and wounds from past relationships.   


The resident who is so supportive of Pongo is right that alienation is a growing societal malady.  Pongo is not just about poetry as individual catharsis, but about restoring human connection.  In the midst of personal upheaval in my own life, I could be scribbling out my emotions in a private corner of my home, but instead my commitment to the Pongo project has required me to voice my emotions in a communal space and listen to the voices of others.  As healing as this may be, it demands an enormous amount of trust.  I understand why it takes time for the residents to be willing write personal poetry with a stranger.   With our commitment to openness, patience, compassion, and respect, Pongo poetry mentors can help diffuse the fear that keeps people trapped in isolation.  Isolation is not just a problem for chronically homeless, alcoholic adults, but plagues most of us at some point in our lives.    


-- Stephanie Ramos, mentor at 1811 Eastlake, DESC Housing Program


Feb 17

As part of a new effort to share more youth poetry, we’ll be sharing poems from our three sites—King County Juvenile Detention, the Child Study & Treatment Center, and 1811 Eastlake. Take a look!


by a young man at Child Study and Treatment Center 

My brother and I don’t get along

But someday we’ll have to forgive each other 

For all the hard times & the things we’ve done to each other

It will be hard

Hard like trying to take a pencil and penetrating a titanium wall

It’s equally difficult for us to forgive each other

Difficult like … to forget the things of the past

Like you can’t forget, but you can forgive

I would feel relief

Like the titanic being lifted from my shoulders 



I've written one on one with this youth a couple of times now and forgiveness continues to be an ongoing theme within his poetry. He mainly speaks about forgiveness towards himself and how it relates to his family. Talking about a subject like forgiveness is not an easy task for any of the youth that we work with, especially when asking them to write a poem about it. It takes great strength and honesty for someone like this young man to be open to the Pongo process and to share some of his personal struggles.


— From Ashley, Recreational Therapist and Pongo mentor at CSTC

Feb 10

As part of a new effort to share more youth poetry, we’ll be sharing poems from our three sites—King County Juvenile Detention, the Child Study & Treatment Center, and 1811 Eastlake. Take a look!


Even though it looked like I was well off, 

truly I fell off,

truly I fell off. 

Having the things you need 

but not the things you want

made me want to go and get money the wrong way.

Why are you doing the stuff you know you shouldn’t do, 

if it’s going to get you in jail? 

I ask myself. 

So I sold drugs, 

crack cocaine is what got me in here. 

These little crack rocks in my hands 

will be the downfall of my life, 


These crumbles in my hand 

will begin the crumbles of my life. 

Having the things you need

but not the things you want. 

When I was selling crack, 

I wanted people to look at me 

like I knew what I was doing –

young success is what I felt.

Even though it looked like I was well off, 

truly I fell off

truly I fell off. 

If you knew where I came from, 

then you’d know this wasn’t me. 

I had a good family behind me,

there was no need for the streets. 

When I stepped on the block, 

I left so much behind me. 

Oftentimes the sight of fiends would remind me.

Shit, I left everything behind me. 

The way the money was coming 

I thought I’d never go back home. 

With the APB out on me, shit was hectic.

My parents were posting missing posters of me.

They knew I wasn’t missing, 

knew I was selling drugs in the streets. 

Your parents are looking for you, 

they’d say. 

The fiends were telling me this, 

and I had the pockets that they’d pay. 

These words I don’t know how they made me feel.

But I knew eventually that I’d return home 

and be back on that football field. 

Your parents are looking for you, 

they’d say. 

The fiends were telling me this, 

but my pockets were the ones that they paid?  

(Dedicated to kids lost in the sauce)


Nathan* began writing this poem with me with lively energy to tell his story. He remarked that he hadn’t written much before but eagerly leaped into my question: “is anything on your mind today?” He started talking about selling drugs to get money, making a precise distinction between our needs and our wants and how our wants can twist our decisions. He writes about “young success” later in the poem: achievement, stability, image, and the navigation between those complexities. The idea recurs throughout this poem with the refrain that Nathan played with and adjusted and moved around throughout the poem to create flow: “Even though it looked like I was well off/ truly I fell off, / truly I fell off.” What stood out to me the most in the poem and what felt most poetic to me and to Nathan emerges in the fourth stanza:

These little crack rocks in my hands 

will be the downfall of my life, 


These crumbles in my hand 

 will begin the crumbles of my life.  

These lines ring of honesty, profundity, and bravery, and Nathan delicately assembled how the word “crumbles” would repeat. Nathan was incredibly proud of this beginning effort at poetry, as he should be; it is stunning work for a brand new poet. Many young people choose to have the mentors read their poems aloud to the group; Nathan stood confidently in the center of the room to read his words and to tell his story.

--from Emily Caris, Pongo Assistant Project Lead at King Co. Juvenile Detention

*a pseudonym


Feb 09
To Love Life

As part of a new effort to share more youth poetry, we’ll be sharing poems from our three sites—King County Juvenile Detention, the Child Study & Treatment Center, and 1811 Eastlake. Take a look!

Group Poem, Child Study & Treatment Center

Even when your throat is filled with ice, you have to keep the fire in your gut.
Power through, stay with your goals. Thaw your frigid esophagus, take a fresh
breath.Even when your throat is filled with matted dryer lint, with a stack
of wet leaves, with swallowed expectations. Even when your throat is filled
with hatred—you want to kill, you want to be killed, you don’t believe life
is worth living, how can you? You remember all the people who cared,
and forget those who didn’t. It can only go up from there.
Even when your throat feels like a belching bullfrog, when your throat
is filled with lava, with red raging, furious fire, with hot sticky tar,
ants that are biting. To love life, even when your throat is filled
with unspoken words, jagged and rusty as the tangled wreckage at edges
of railyards, the coppery flavor mixes with the grit of jumbled words, packed
as poorly as a midnight flight suitcase. To love life, despite this traffic jam
of the unsaid waiting in long-since dead vehicles, skeleton fingers wrapped
around the crooked wheels, you need the skeleton key to unlock a scream
that would clear your throat, caught in somebody’s ballpoint pen, somewhere.
To love life, even when its hardness sits like a broken-down car
in your driveway that no one can afford to fix, when its hardness sits
like a Volkswagen bus on your chest, sits like the Titanic on your shoulders,
like a million-pound cat on your neck on four needle-like legs, skewering you
to the floor, like a Boeing 747 has sliced through you. To love life.

To warm up, in our poetry circle at Child Study Treatment Center, we write group poems that relate to our theme of the day. This day’s theme was Grief, and inspired by the Ellen Bass poem “The Thing Is.” Bass’s poem opens with “To love life, to love it even/when you have no stomach for it/and everything you’ve held dear/crumbles like burnt paper in your hands…/” It’s hard to talk about liking life, no less loving it, when your minutes, hours, and days are infused with a complexity that may be many decibels higher than most of us experience. But it wasn’t hard for the youth to paint images that were crisp and original… “when your throat is filled with ice, matted dryer lint, a stack of wet leaves, the tangled wreckage at edges of railyards.” And it is never hard for them to express through poetry, their honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability. When they share their work, there is a pride, camaraderie, and a sigh of relief, as they realize, oh, you feel like this too.
—from Child Study & Treatment Center Site Lead Ann Teplick  

Nov 16
There Is Just Us

“There is Just Us”— Poets Finding Themselves Out of the Ashes

by Shaun McMichael

This spring (April-June 2015)’s collection of poems submitted to Pongo built upon the past winter’s themes of finding solidarity within the self in response to trauma, neglect and conflict with family—things all of us can relate to on some level. Many of these young authors chose this past spring to face and embrace themselves. They did so fully, courageously admitting their contribution to their own difficulties and outlining the vital role they play in their own recovery. Their forthrightness deserves our admiration, their words our analysis.

Let’s start with this quarter’s winner:

by a young woman, age 16

When I was small,
I would listen to fairy tales and wish I was a princess.
I would dress up in a dress,
put on makeup and a crown,
and feel as if my prince was on his way.
He never came.

As I grew,
I wanted a superhero to save me from my demons.
Someone to come down,
pick me up and fly me away.
Far, far away.
He never came.
Now, I want a villain.
Someone to blame
for everything I get mad for.
To blame for my hardships, my bad times, and the deaths.
He never came.
There is no prince
waiting to sweep you off your feet.
There is no superhero
waiting to save us.
There is no super villain
waiting to cause terror.
There is just us.
We make worlds and dream of fantasies.
But that's all they are.
I wish I got saved by my superhero,
got my prince,
defeated my villain.
But no.
I didn't get rescued.
No prince is on their way,
and no villain is here to blame.

Only me.
My prince is me.
My hero is me.
My villain is me.
I am the protagonist.
I am the antagonist.
I am my story.
But I'm just me.
I can't fly.
I can't throw mountains.
I can't shoot lasers out of my eyes.
The odds are against me.
Not in my favor.
But that's my story.
The story of me.
The story of the non-special me.

I don't have powers.
I don't have anything special.
But i have me.
And that's all I need.
The prince probably met someone else.
My hero probably saved someone else.
My villain probably terrorized someone else.
But that's fine.
Because I can make my own story
With only me.

This is a coming of age story in a few short stanzas. The poem’s beginning tracks the author’s craving for some external force—even a malign one—to intervene in their life. But none do, leading the author to the existential conclusion “there’s just us.” This is a frustrating reality for many of us—this feeling of aloneness. But rather than live in frustration, the author’s locus shifts from external to internal: “I am the protagonist. I am the antagonist. I am my story”.

These short declaratives are packed with insight and grant the author some freedom. “…I have me. And that’s all I need…I can make my own story.”

Might we all repeat these words and reminder ourselves of our own sentience in the narrative arc of our lives.

But it’s not always so easy being the author of our own story. We sometimes have to make hard decisions about certain things we have to cut out of our lives. Our first honorable mention reminds us of this:


by a young woman, age 18

The truth about recovery?
It’s a process meant to break you.
Recovery is a demanding bitch.
A shadow of what you are
beating you senseless into what you are striving to be
Pulling you up by your withered wrists.
And robbing you of every inch of the skin that you’re comfortable in.

Because comfort was not part of the agreement.
But having a powder blue glove shoved heavy and cold into your gut is.
Pulling out pills and broken wreckage.
Chipping the decaying hate from the fleshy walls of your stomach.
Placing compliance in your mouth
because if it doesn't hurt then you don't really want it.

Taking your eyes and pulling them out because they're both dry glassy and haunted.
Giving the drums to your ears a different base
Because everything you shoved down those raw and rubbed canals was dank garbage.
Taking out razor blades and dusty pill bottles because depression and anxiety
Forced you to forget what grieving in moderation is.

Another powdered glove spots a forgotten fuck up.
Or as you knew her,
A skeleton of a girl with her head still bowed for thin.
Recovering is pain and damaging truthfulness
Meant to mold you into a new you
But leave enough scars
So you never forget the process
From which you rose from black ashes
Like a cautious but strong phoenix.

The final image of the phoenix is hard earned and beautiful. The poet has spared none of the details (as no poet should) describing the ash they’re rising from. But the poem isn’t trying to dissuade us from the road of recovery. It’s bracing us for the ironic pain of getting better. “It doesn’t hurt when you don’t really want it,” the poet writes. The detox process that feels like it’s going to kill us, is the same thing that lets us fly free.

This also poem admits that part of the perceived noxiousness of the recovery process is allowing others to help.

But it’s worth it. Our next poem reminds us all why:


by a young woman, age 14

I don't know who I am
I don't know what, do you?
Where am I? Where am I?
I don't know, do you?
I try to remember everything that happened
I just can’t seem to remember
I look around the room and I see nothing but white
I can barely see a thing. What happened to my sight?
I look down at my arms and all I see are bandages.
Blood bleeds through.
I haven't felt this way in ages,
I don't know what happened and I'm the only one here.

I don't see my mom. I don't even know if she is here.
What the hell is going on? I hate feeling this way.
Can someone tell me? I can no longer stay.

Before you know it, the room gets dark.
I open my eyes and I hear my dog bark.
It was all just a dream. Thank god I'm okay.
Wait, never mind. That used to be me every day.
Not anymore.

I've been five months clean.
If I can do it, you can do it too. Trust me.
It’s not a fun scene.
I've been so strong. I'm so proud of myself.
When I look in the mirror today, I say ‘wow, you’re a star!
You did it yourself.’
So don't give up, no matter what you do
because if I got through then you can go through it too.

This poem comes to us from a voice a little further over the hump of recovery. Yet, hospitalization is recent enough to be remembered as a palpable nightmare.
But the poet has lived through it. Because of this, they’re able to not only tell themselves they can do it; they can convincingly inspire others to do the same.


Part of healing is differentiating ourselves from the wrongs others have done to us. Our final honorable mention is an example:

by a young woman, age 15

I just thought you should know what I'm doing now.
I am a very sad and lonely person
who spends a lot of time online
because I don't have anything better to do or anyone to talk to.

I just thought you should know how I'm feeling.  
I am depressed
because you have put me down nearly my entire life, always criticizing me.
I just thought you should know what I've been through.

Since the last time I saw the real you, I have suffered so much.  
The time that you claimed I was arrogant and stupid was especially damaging to me.
 I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.

I hope that you can grow up and be a better person instead of bringing me down.
I just thought you should know what I won't miss about you.
I am glad I won't have to worry about your constant reminding me of my imperfections.
I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way we used to get along and laugh and smile as children.
I just thought you should know that I miss the old you,
and I hope that person reappears while you're away.

Unlike the first poem in this blog, sometimes there is someone to blame, at least in part, for how we feel about our lives. People have sent us messages that we’ve internalized. This author teaches us the first part of purging these messages from our self-concept is naming the wrongs done to us—particularly by someone who was as dear as the brother in this poem.

The poem also reminds us that we are all at different stages in our healing. For this poet, the wounds are still fresh and the path to moving beyond the hurt is uncertain.  Acknowledging where we are can help us aim for where we want to go.

One thing is certain however: poetry continues to be a venue for us to express ourselves wherever we’re coming from. We want to thank our authors for reminding us of that.

We also want to thank all the poets who submitted work to Pongo in the 2014- 2015 academic year. Keep writing authors and keep reading readers. Expression is hope!

Oct 30
What Makes You, You

What Makes You You—Turning to Self-Acceptance through Poetry

by Shaun McMichael

The collection of poems submitted to Pongo from January to March were full of the intense emotions of authors dealing with themselves—sometimes self-destructively. This is not an uncommon problem. Whenever we undergo traumatic experiences, we often convert the experience into negative feelings towards ourselves.  This is done perhaps to try to regain some sense of control. But instead of hurting themselves, these authors choose a healthy form of control by writing. There’s much we can learn from their words.

One example is found in our winner for the quarter:

by a young woman, age 18

Did any of them ever hear?
Did they hear the screams from the girl thrown against the porcelain sink?
Did they see her run down the stairs,
barefoot and dancing around the puddles
in nothing but a tank top and jeans?
the ones without rips in the knees, I think…
Did they hear her scream at windowpanes
or beat her heel against the door frame?

Well, they must have seen her when the Law came.
The vase smashed across the front porch,
the metal screen whinnying in the cool Washington breeze
like a dehydrated horse
the yells for hair to be released
the harsh slap of those wicked palms
the forced stomping of the pair of aggravated feet.

Did they see?
Did they see her leave in cuffs
until authority called the bluffs?
See her returned to the steps,
march up like a soldier and tell them it was just ‘family stuff’
and second guess when they left?
Do they know she tried to fight
or that the secrets kept
ruined her life?
Do they know she’s even gone,
that no one cared to help the broken one
until she began to lose control?
Until the yells became bellows
and she shook when she needed to hit?

But they never have.
They never did believe the broken kid.

Do they know she told the truth
and it never was the same?
That the situation solved nothing
and she nearly went insane.
That they said if she was better,
if she would just keep secrets,
then she wouldn’t be to blame.
I know neighbors saw me
but I was just another damaged face
without a solid name.

The poem—a series of rhetorical questions—uncovers a core problem many of us experience: the feeling of not being heard, seen or aided by our families, neighbors and communities. Potential Good Samaritans become bystanders who suggest the author keep silent for the sake of appearances. As the author alludes to, many of their later behaviors stem from this frustration of injustice and repression. “They never did believe the broken kid”; the line evokes both empathy and understanding for those of us who do things that are hard to understand. There’s always a reason and this poet chronicles theirs with incredible honesty.

Our first honorable mention also deals with intense emotions around the self and their circumstances:

by a young woman, age 14

Anger is a way for you to blame what you did wrong on someone else.
Anger is a beast that devours you, head first and heart last.
Anger is a waterfall of molten rock, and you have no way to stop it.

Angry because I have no clue how to fix the problems everyone else has with me.
Angry because no one else cares enough to care, or at least doesn’t show it.
Angry because I just don’t know what to do anymore, I don’t know how to, anyway.

Maybe anger won’t always rule my life, my head.
Maybe there is a new day for me when I won’t want to scream.
Maybe anger is here to help us learn, help us change.

But I don’t know how to fix it,
I don’t know how to stop it,
I don’t know what to do,
And I have no idea how.

This author articulates the utter confusion and helplessness they feel in response to their intense emotions. Though the writer may say they’re not sure what to do to cope with their emotions, they’ve found one thing to do: write. And by doing so, they teach us how we too might handle the ineffable storm of feelings inside us.


In their writing, authors have important messages about how to deal with their ambivalence toward who they are. Our last two honorable mentions for the January-March 2015 quarter provide nice examples.

by a young woman, age 13

When I was really little, I ran away from strangers
and the people in bizarre costumes at birthday parties.
I was afraid of the dark.
At the time, I ran towards my dad because he was big enough to hide behind.

I dreamed about being Beyonce and flying with Disney princesses.

When I got a little older, I ran away from the truth.
When I ran, I expected that it would hurt less if I didn’t hear it
but the constant wondering ate me alive.

At the time, I ran toward music. I could put in my earphones
and enter a whole new world
a world that gave me what I wanted.
When I ran, I hoped for a change.
I hoped that I didn’t have to face the facts and deal with it.
But the truth was always behind me, breathing on my neck.
No matter how fast I ran or which way I went.

Today when I run, I run away from myself.
I don’t want to identify who I really am
because I know that she’s not who I dreamed of as a child.
More than anything I wish I could run from my surroundings.
I never feel safe or like it’s where I’m supposed to be.

Today when I run, I run toward my future
because I know that when I’m older
I’ll be somewhere that makes me safe, warm and happy.
I’ll have a wonderful career with a beautiful husband and family.
I’ll travel the world and breathe the air of every country there is.

More than anything I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be.
The girl that I portray my future as
because that girl has nothing
but the good in front of her.

This poem, which began with a Pongo fill-in-the-blank, comes into its own through the author’s honest chronicle of their approach to themselves, which largely includes turning away from who they are to other things. Though they express disillusionment with how they’ve turned out, the future promises a meeting with reality and expectation. “I wish I could run to the girl I hope to be”, the writer says, indicating their desire to accept a positive outcome for their future.

All of us have aspects of ourselves we don’t like. We’re all unlike who we’d thought we’d be. But this author models for us how to cope with this feeling, anticipating our future self by embracing who we are in the present.

In our last honorable mention, the poet gives themselves some more immediate advice:

by a young woman, age 13

I see your face, that look in your eyes.
I know you can’t get over what you see on that scale.
But a pound or two isn’t gonna change you.
You’re still the one who makes people smile.
You’re still gonna be able
to see your favorite bands once in a while.
That number is not gonna change you.
It’s not gonna be easy
and it’s not gonna be fun
but I know it can be done.
Stop watching the others
and looking down on yourself.
It’s not fair to you.
Stop thinking about what you don’t deserve
and start thinking what makes you, you.

Whether this message is meant for themselves or someone else, the poem captures the author talking through the problem of a negative self-image. In using the second person point of view, the poet encourages the beholder to accept, finally, what they see in the mirror—a challenging task for all of us. Maybe we’re not tantalized by numbers on a weigh scale, but maybe we turn to the figure on a pay check or the digits of a GPA to define ourselves. This poet teaches us to move away from the quantitative message reported by the scale and towards acceptance of the quality of one’s own personhood. By sharing these insights this author, like all the authors here, becomes an active agent in their own healing and a source of wisdom for all of us seeking to heal as well.

Sep 08
Firelight in the Dark Corners of Memory

 by Shaun McMichael, Pongo Mentor and youth advocate


Writers who submitted poetry between October and December of last year (2014) wrote about loss. One poet wrote about the loss of oneself in an abusive relationship, another about the loss of a friend, another about the confusion inherent in the memories of losing someone. But our authors also, in turning to writing, found a safe place to reflect, remember and recover a part of themselves. In doing so, they’re a model for not only other youth but for everyone out there dealing with trauma.

Let’s start with this quarter’s winner.

I am not yet sure I am ready to forgive you.
You ripped me to pieces so small,
I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore.
Your words cut me deeper than
any blade ever could.
You burned my skin;
gave me 3rd degree wounds.
For over a year,
I dealt with the blame.
I dealt with the threats of suicide when I said no.
I dealt with screams, the shoves,
the “I’m-sorry, I-love-you”s.
The “It-won’t-happen-again”s, the “take-me-back”s
I dealt with the pain.
As if all the showers
could scrub away
the filthiness I’ve felt.
Almost 3 years later,
and I’m still unlearning
what I was taught to be sorry for.
But almost 3 years later
and I can tell myself that I deserve better.
I can look at my scars now,
and see that that
is no longer me.
I can be happy
with someone else.
I can look at myself now
and not feel ashamed.
This is to myself.
This is for me.
I don’t forgive you,
but I forgive me.


This relationship tore the author into pieces so small they almost lost themselves (“I wasn’t even sure I was there anymore”). Yet this poem is the author putting themselves back together. They are able to look at themselves and their scars now, the poet writes, without shame. The poet forgives themselves, we can suppose, for letting someone else treat them so badly. Though some readers might wonder if there’s anything the author needs to forgive themselves for, the poem is the author’s act of mercy to themselves and, I would argue, a way of gradual self-reclamation. The author’s willingness to share it with us is a testament to this long and painful process that is the beginning of moving on.
Our first honorable mention for the October-December 2014 quarter, has similar themes.

No one knew but you.
No one seemed to care but you.
When I first saw you, I knew I could say things and I’d be alright
Because no one but you would know.
I would tell you my hurts, my fears
and all those things he did to me that I didn’t understand.

You didn’t tell me to stop talking
or to go away
or that you were too busy to listen.

You sat beside me with eyes full of welcome and let me talk.
In the shade of the chicken coops
we would sit in the space you had created where we would be safe.
You would lean in and listen—the mere presence of one who cared was like rain on parched earth.
I drank it in.

But those days were soon cut short—
those days made way for other things.

So many years have passed.
I think I glimpse you at a park or a crowded avenue
but I quickly realize it’s not you
and it never can be.

I greatly miss you, my beloved friend.
I sometimes wonder if there are dogs in heaven.


There’s double loss in this poem: the loss of the child’s equilibrium in response to sexual abuse and, of course, the loss of the dog, the child’s only confidant.
Still though, in the act of writing this poem, the author’s silence on their abuse has ended and a strength found. The author demonstrates courage in trusting an invisible web audience as a new kind of confidant. It’s no substitute for the author’s childhood friend, but the author, with their words, has taken a measure of control that they did not have as a child.
Sometimes losses and our memories of loss create a confusion that’s difficult to put into words. The next author captures this well.

Oh, she was hopeless, oh, she was hopeless.
She didn’t mean to say goodbye.

Certain memories linger deep beneath your skin,
go no further than your fingertips, move your feet through their steps,
stumble and they’re departed, departed, departed.

Certain rushes drag off you like cigarette smoke
some glass bottles shattering down, down, down,
dispersing out, around, all over,
till the whole world’s brimming with the screaming of your thrills.

But oh, she was hopeless, she was just hopeless
and she didn’t mean to say goodbye.


Through repetition and alliteration, this poet creates a frantic sense of descent. This poem’s exact meaning is illusive, but it has an essential strangeness that the best poems have. The “she was hopeless” line sounds borrowed from an authoritative third party—a parent, a family member—either about the author or someone they knew. It’s a phrase that was used to label someone and exacerbate their alienation. The two middle stanzas expound upon this and articulate a sense of powerlessness as something is removed from you. Whether this poem is about the loss of a friend or about the loss of self through the “thrills” of self-destruction, the poem captures the dizzying helplessness inherent in trauma.

No matter how strange the experience or how painful the memory, a poem can become a vessel to contain it and share it with others. Poetry may not take away the pain of an experience, but it can substitute the feeling of powerlessness with articulation via creation.

The next poet writes about a bonfire that brings a “false but comfortable” sense of belonging:


A glance around flames that cough out smoke and memories
and, as it crackles to mother nature’s tune,
the flames stretch up higher like lost but graceful limbs.
They take wind into their burning embrace
and together they dance.
Warmth found within pine-cones sticks and loose paper.
The secrets and pastime lusts jump out.
Around the fire, eyes have no difference because
the reflection of dangerous comfort
flickers inside of each iris.
A longing look across the pit,
a shoulder bumped, a marshmallow burnt,
two hot dogs slipped.
But all is good in the now.

Around the fire
bored with truth and no energy to spare for lies.
A game in the trees without the help of bulbs or moonlight.
Crickets howl. Footsteps that do not belong to you
Or another human
remind you that you are never alone in the night.
A squeal, running feet, the unmistakable crunch of gravel
beneath feet in a happy panic.

Around the fire in the trees on the gravel
time lost.
Forgotten sleep.
Around my fire,
my fire that built a false but comfortable safety.


This poet’s diction and penchant for sensory detail create a vivid experience that has both the mellow enjoyment and the anxiety (“happy panic”) of being in the woods at night. The safety is “false” because the wild animals—and our lives—lurk just outside. But for the moment “all is good in the now”.

Poetry can be that centering experience—for writers and those who read their work. When the poet says “my fire” they could literally mean the bonfire or, more likely, their poem that has become symbolic for the fire. Though perhaps “false” in the sense that it’s not a literal fire, the poetic fire re-creates an experience that out-burns the literal one.


Poems are bonfires for the imagination. For our authors who have experienced trauma and loss, poems can be places of safety where their reflections bring light to the dark corners of memory. And in these acts of creation, these young poets regain a sense of control over the losses their poems may reflect. In doing so, they inspire their readers to do the same and we at Pongo are sincerely grateful for their writing efforts.

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.

Jul 03
Safety in the Stranger: Episodic Epiphanies in Pongo

 by Shaun McMichael

When I talk to people about the work that Pongo does, people wonder how we’re able to get kids to open up to us. We’re total strangers and the kids have immense trust issues as a result of their trauma. Oh yeah, and we only have an hour. We might only write with a kid once. But youth in institutionalized circumstances feel isolated and welcome connection of any kind. We present ourselves as safe adults who ask only for honesty. A third ingredient makes the mix magic: anonymity.  

When I was writing with Pongo back in 2008-2010 at Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), most youth received me with relief. I was a safe stranger with whom they’d write a poem or two. I would know only what they felt comfortable me knowing and we wouldn’t have to share the burden of the daily ups and downs inherent in the treatment process.

This was a relief for me as well. During this time, I was working at another treatment center (Seattle Children’s Home, McGraw Inpatient) as a Residential Counselor (RC) with youth having very similar issues. The experience of going from staff person to poetry mentor was dizzying. As a staff person, I had to provide structure in the form of rules and routines, rewards and consequences. Not surprisingly, as most of them had come from chaotic environments, conflicts arose as youth reacted against structure.  As a Pongo mentor, however, I didn’t have to enforce rules or routine. In fact, CSTC kids were given the option to write with Pongo as a part of their Language Arts class.  

In my case, Pongo was a literary escape for both youth and mentor. And the interactions I had with each youth gave me insight into their condition. These insights clarified my day job at McGraw and are still helping me clarify my work with youth.

Many youth wrote about the arc of their treatment experience. Such was the case with Minnie—a youth with a round face, Chesire cat colored stockings and beaded bracelets of neon green. She wrote the following—much of it without prompting.


I don’t like them. They lie to me.
They told me I was going home
And I’m not. They just make me mad.
They force me to do stuff.
Everything’s against my will.
If it was my choice, I wouldn’t be here.

I would be home and living with my home again.
Things were okay at first
but then they got really bad
And I overdosed.

At home, I had freedom. A life.
I was getting along with my mom
and saw what I had to live for.
Not so much anymore. It’s this place.
They’ve taken away my freedom.

I have to control myself more.
I have to handle my urges. It’s going to be hard.
I’ve been acting out my whole life.
It’s a contradiction, it’s aggravating
It’s depressing. It’s the pathway back home.

The poem starts with anger and suspicion towards the professionals treating her. Rather than challenge Minnie, I just acknowledged this feeling of frustration.

The poem becomes confessional (‘I overdosed’, ‘I’ve been acting out my whole life’). Many of the poems contained confessions. Often in Pongo, I felt more priest than poet.

Minnie’s poem goes on to acknowledge the inner struggle she faces (‘I have to handle my urges’) and gives an appraisal of the future (‘it’s going to be hard’). The final lines show Minnie’s ambivalence that seems to be moving towards acceptance of treatment.  

Another writer, Hailey, gives another perspective:

I’ve been here a year
And it’s getting a lot easier for me.
When I first came here,
I didn’t see
that people were just trying
To help me.
I didn’t care what people thought.
I was more focused on hurting myself
And hurting others.
But now, I try and be gentle
With everybody and give
Them all chances.

In an even more overt way, Hailey traces the course of her therapy. She goes from fighting staff and hurting herself to making the inner decision of allowing others to help her.

It was a course I was becoming more and more familiar with. During my time as an RC, I would watch youth come in kicking and screaming—enraged by their treatment assignment which seemed too akin to incarceration for comfort. But with time and consistent nurturing, I’d watch the youth make a tentative alliance with us. This would turn into a bond in which healing could occur.

It’s a course that youth like Hailey and Minnie may have to undergo several more times throughout their lives. As my work and study of mental illness has conveyed to me, mental illness is not a linear path to health, but a cycle—the swings of which we can only hope become less severe as sufferers learn to trust themselves and providers’ attempt to care for them.

Pongo has a place in this process for both youth and staff. The episodic nature of the writing encounter gives youth a kind of sounding board (or confessional booth) in which they can vent their understandable frustrations with the cyclical nature of illness and imperfect providers. But it also allows staff like myself a chance to see the individual apart from the clinical impetus for improvement. Youth are angry, wise, confused, brilliant, powerful and extremely vulnerable. These are facts I found myself forgetting in the conflict ridden shifts at McGraw, where youth were more reluctant to be so directly honest with me, the staff member to whom they were accountable. I remember being at McGraw and thirsting for my weekly CSTC visit so I could once again dialogue with youth without the power dynamic.

Ted was an angry kid at CSTC. He was displaying his rage in confusing and hurtful ways. He was small in stature with heavy cheeks, freckles, spiky hair and a baffled innocence to his hazel eyes, as if continually surprised at the reality his daily life brought him. When he sat down to write with me, I suggested a fill-in-the-blank activity I’d created to ‘jump start his creative flow’ as we say in Pongo lingo. He used the prompts to write the following:

If my fist could speak it would say let’s hit him.
If it’s a girl, don’t. If it’s a guy, go get him
Because he was being mean. It makes me feel bad.
It reminds me of throwing rocks at my mom
And cops got called
And it sounded of dreadful sorrow.

If my tightened jaw could open, it would say
‘F- you, I’m sensitive
About everything—
My mom
And my family.’

If my eyes could speak, they would say,
‘I don’t want to see that. I shouldn’t have done that.’
Because my eyes are connected to my brain
And my brain is connected to my choices.

If my pounding heart could speak,
It would say ‘I’m beating too fast.
I’m going to have a heart attack.’

If my fist could ask you a question, it would ask
‘Why did I do that?’

If my jaw could open, it would ask you
‘Why am I doing this?’ and ‘Why are you pissing me off’
And ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ (If I didn’t).

If my eyes could speak, they would ask
‘Why do I have to see this stuff?’

If my pounding heart could speak, it would say
‘Could you please slow down?’

With each conditional anaphora, the boy is interpreting, maybe for the first time, the messages that are behind his anger. His sensitivity comes out in this moment—an oasis of thought in a young life characterized by the act-react binary. Through writing he’s able to reflect rather than react.

As a poetry mentor, the safe stranger, I was able to forget about the reward-consequence continuum and simply honor this boy’s legitimate, if misplaced, anger. The posture of holding the youth’s anger became a useful one for my work at McGraw and the work that was to come.

In addition to holding youth’s anger, the Pongo process provided an opportunity to hold each youth’s humanity—wherever they were in their therapy. This is most true in a poem I wrote with Alley. When I met Alley she was in CSTC’s Close Attention Program (CAP)—a self-contained unit for the most disturbed and self-destructive youth in Washington State. Youth in this program had often been too difficult for other treatment programs—including McGraw—to handle. Whatever Alley had been through, by the time I met her she was emaciated and pale. Her blue eyes shown with a fierceness offset by her quiet smile. Like most of them, when we sat down to write, I sensed she was glad I didn’t know the whole story. It might have gotten in the way of her telling me this:

I am human.
I have values and I have choices.
It doesn’t mean
That I make all the right choices all the time
Or that I don’t hurt other people’s feelings.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have character and I have imagination.
It doesn’t mean
That I don’t have bad or hurtful thoughts
And it doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt people.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have love and I have compassion.
It doesn’t mean
that I’m not ever rude to people
or even my loved ones.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have resilience and strength in me.
It doesn’t mean
that I don’t ever hurt or feel alone.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

I have patience and I have time
but it doesn’t mean I don’t ever
get angry or feel like giving up at times.

But I’m still a good person because
I’m only human.

And that’s okay. I don’t expect perfection.
I just expect acceptance of me
from myself and others.

The coordinating conjunctions kick off the couplets that re-assert Alley’s tempered view of herself. The line “I have resilience and strength in me” is also incredible. She wrote this surrounded by thick panes of Plexiglas scuffed by fists, decade old furniture bolted to the floor, and dented walls with faded, baby blue paint lending to the low-stim. feel of contained crises. She wrote this far from family or home and she wrote it with an uncertain future. The presence of the word ‘resilient’ also shows that some of the language Alley was receiving in therapy was slowly osmosing, becoming her own language. Yet if I had been a staff member she might not have wanted to admit that: it would have felt too much like giving in. Being a staff member by day, I knew that someone like Alley was probably very difficult to work with. But as a poetry mentor, I had the discrete privilege of admiring her words, validating her feelings and recording them for her to remember in the times ahead.

This incidental meeting of two strangers was restorative to both our beliefs in humanity. It allowed us both to continue on our separate roads: hers to heal, mine to help heal.

After writing with the youth at CSTC, we Pongo mentors would drive back to Seattle. Along the I-5 that year, I remember WSDOT was building a new overpass just south of Tacoma. At the time of our commute, only one section had been completed. A narrow concrete base held the isolated slab of highway up in sky. It looked like a concrete bridge to nowhere, its connection to the whole unseen, the plan of the builder unclear.

Each session writing with a kid was like this sectional: impossible to tell how the concrete units of expression that are poems would connect into a narrative. We could only hope that the parts we were helping the youth construct would eventually cohere.

But that’s the great part about poems. They aren’t stories, but incidents of expression and compassion. And these reflective moments in the youths’ lives might never take on a narrative form. But perhaps they might expand into an anthology of articulation. Words, we believe, are proofs against despair. Expression is hope.  

Shaun McMichael was a Pongo Poetry mentor from 2007-2010. Since, he’s taught creative writing to homeless youth at The Zine Project and educated youth with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) at Seattle Public Schools. Currently, he teaches ESL to immigrants and refugees at Goodwill’s Job Training and Education Center (JTE). He’s pursuing his Masters in Teaching at SPU. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Litro, Petrichor Machine, The Milo Review, Existere, Carrie Pidgeon and others.

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