Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
May 18
Loss: A Shape-Shifter

This is the first of four blogs by Pongoite Adrienne Johanson for the Seattle Public Library teen blog ("Push to Talk ") during April, Poetry Month.

by Adrienne Johanson

In my role as a writing mentor with Pongo Teen Writing, and in my psychotherapy practice, loss is a common denominator in most stories I have heard.  I think this is because loss is a shape shifter, appearing as one emotion (shock, sadness, etc.), then suddenly changing into something else (guilt, anger, etc.), shifting in a multitude of ways over and over again.  Literally and metaphorically loss is a death, a dismemberment that often surges with moments of confusion and moments of clarity.  Loss compels us to write because it naturally develops questions that can rattle the core of who we believe ourselves to be. Who am I without that thing I lost?  How has my life story changed forever?

I’ve mentored teen poets in shelters, detention centers, and through the Pongo website where we have writing activities like Questions for an Empty Sky and This Is What You Meant to Me that provide a format for teens to create poetry about loss.

Activities can help jumpstart creativity, but writing from the heart is structure enough.  At Pongo we routinely say that the only thing needed to write a good poem is honesty.  Two poems submitted to Pongo Teen Writing that are good examples of loss and the power of honesty are “Black” and “Drowning.”  In “Black” a girl talks about her battle with substance addiction and the parts of herself and her community that she loses in that battle.  In “Drowning” a boy talks about the drowning deaths that have plagued his family and the despair one feels when loss is expected.  As you read these poems, I hope you think about the shape-shifting quality of loss and the courage it takes to share all those important thoughts and emotions with such honesty.

by a young woman, age 17

The One Pleasure pulses through my veins,
I sigh in relief and look up at my friends:
The ones I care for, the ones I love,
Slowly going mad as they lose everything to the black —
Money, home, cars, life,
Wasting away as they wait and search for that “last hit,”
Letting go of everything around them.
Replacing it with a tiny space full of cockroaches
They call “home.”

“Please,” I plead, “When will you quit?”

We all scream this inside,
But all we care about is the black —
Nurturing it, feeding it.
They all are scared of losing it, getting sick,
So the black pulls them back further
Into the single-mind of addiction.

Losing everything is not worth this.
Crying and screaming every night is not worth this.
Giving up friends and family is not worth this.
Watching close ones choose death is not worth this.

So I pray that you never make this mistake,
That you never give way —
for it will swallow you
for it will become you

by a young man, age 18

We have had three consecutive years,
Same day each year,
Where someone in my family drowns.

First year, my cousin’s grandma,
She was drinking water.
Her husband found her.

Second year, my cousin on his fifteenth birthday,
He fell off a waterfall.
They found his body three days later.

Third year, my brother drowned
In our big, backyard swimming pool.
My sister stepped on him, in the pool.
The chlorine water was foggy.
It took the ambulance fifteen minutes to get there.
That was four years ago.

I’ve been to more than four funerals this year.
All of them, family.
When it happens, I think,
“Here we go again,”
Like it’s something that’s just gotta happen.
I needed something to forget about it.

I’ve been smoking crystal meth for the last three years.
It’s killing my brain.
I see myself getting slower.
I’m not emotional anymore.
I used to preach as a missionary all over the country.
Now, it’s like I’m drowning.

As we say at Pongo, “Keep writing!”

Feb 27
Hearts Out Loud

At Friends of the Children, King County, the young people come to their writing program with so much enthusiasm and commitment to openness that they tell the adults, “I’M GOING TO MAKE YOU CRY TONIGHT!”

And they do.

Recently, one young man’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend. The boy wrote about it. Then the other young people wrote about murders in their lives. And importantly, this writing and discussion opened the door not just for other similar experiences, but for the kids to write about grief and loss, from violence in the community, to death of loved ones, to estrangement from parents, siblings. Many of the kids talked about it being the first time they had the opportunity to commemorate, grieve, process, and hold these people in mind. This continues to be a strong theme in the writing and is incredibly therapeutic and empowering.

At the same time, in the manner of Pongo, as the young people write about difficult experiences, they also write with purpose and gratitude. After writing about tragedy, the kids will say that “a ton of bricks is off my back.” And the kids have taken charge of their writing program, which they named “Hearts Out Loud.” They planned the first public reading of their work.

For the adult mentors and volunteers who participate, they say that supporting this writing group, even working late one evening, is the highlight of their week. The kids open up. The mentors can’t get them to leave the building. The kids continue the conversations with their mentors on the ride home.

This writing group was created on the Pongo model. Friends of the Children is a mentoring program for children who are growing up in difficult circumstances. It provides consistent and caring companionship for these kids. The program accepts children in kindergarten or first grade and then commits to providing a paid mentor for each child for 12 years.

The writing group was started because of Robin Brownstein. Robin is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who is also an unpaid consultant to FOTC. She approached me at a conference, where I was presenting my work on how writing can be a therapy for survivors of trauma. Robin is passionate about supporting the resilience of youth.

Later, I met with Robin and FOTC program director Edgar Masmela. They and some FOTC adult mentors and community volunteers attended the first Pongo workshop on our teaching techniques. I advised them on how to run their writing group. But, frankly, their writing group is successful today because Robin, Edgar, and the other adults have the hearts and minds to listen and hold the kids’ powerful words.

By the way, Robin informs me that the FOTC writing group knows me and Pongo. The kids have committed to “Richard’s rules”:

  • You write what’s in your heart.
  • This is a safe space.
  • You can write about anything, and no one will judge you.

How lucky am I! I hope some of you who are reading this blog will eventually start your own writing groups on the Pongo model!

I’ve included a few of the FOTC children’s poems on the Pongo site, including one poem below.

by a child in the Friends program

When I see flowers
I think of how pretty and beautiful they look to me
I like the beautiful colors and the nice smell
when I get close to it
and smell it.

When I see them and I'm mad
and I try and break one
because I'm mad about something at home,

I can break it
but then I realize that it's just like
breaking someone's finger
and pulling the stem that connects to the flower.

And then I think about how its life
is the same as mine
if you die you can't come back.

The flower's life depends on us

Because you kill a flower and it's just like pulling
their finger
it hurts you and the flower.

I protect the flower by not killing or pulling it
I protect the flower just like I protect myself.