Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Oct 29
Where I Come From

What do we mean when we talk about “Where I Come From”? 

“Where I Come From” is often about more than a place, it’s about something deep in us, the world of our childhood and family. But more than that, it’s about love, the lessons of love, and sometimes our disappointments with love. It’s about the legacy of love in us, from the time when love defined us. “Where I Come From” is about who we are. 

And when the legacy of love is imperfect, it doesn’t define us less. If anything it defines us more. We carry the scars and tenderness from imperfect love. We might have a sublime but misunderstood sensitivity. And poets use that sensitivity to write with insight about a complicated world. 

It’s my pleasure in this blog to share the last two winners of the Pongo Poetry Prize, the poems “Where I Come From” (July 2012) and “I’m Non-Replaceable” (April 2012). I’ve also included links to the three poems from each quarter that received awards of Honorable Mention. The Pongo web site has a writing activity to help anyone write a “Where I Come From” poem. Check it out!

Where I Come From
by a young man, age 16

I'm from a street where evil is its fate. There is no hope, but could we have one last chance?

I'm from faith in where God sees me.

I'm from a long line of people who are just the same every day. We pass and we don’t see the things that people, that can’t see, see.

I'm from confusion about my dad not being there for me, and not taking time to be with me.

I'm from laughter over my friends, my friend M, and the things we used to do together.

I come from a family that don’t care about school and do drugs, and I choose not to do the same.

I'm from love, and I know that because they take care of me, and I really miss my dad, and I can’t see him, but I am not mad at him because of what he did.

I'm from fear, especially when I think about all the memories that were bad, and then screams fill the room.

I come from a long line of folks who have died.

I come from experiences like evil everywhere, and look around and see nothing but crying.

I come from bad cities and bad places. There is nothing I can do, but if there was, I would stop it if I could.

And I wish my life would become a name for fame, I have no pain.

That's where I'd like to be from.

I’m Non-Replaceable
by a young woman, age 14 

I'm non-replaceable
At least I think
I'm more than a person
could be gone in 3 blinks

There's things I could be
100 things i'm not
If i love a boy
I'd give all i got

I suck at rhyming
But it’s what i love to do
I could be solving a problem
And forget without a clue

I'm in love with the thought of love
But I grew up with hate
When my dad was messed up
I'm the one who paid for his mistakes 

When my world crashed down
And when my mother tried to beat her monsters
There i would be by her side
I practically lived in that hospital 

So, i made mistakes
And they probably weren't  the best
But i'd cut through thick and thin
To get out of this mess.

Honorable Mention, July 2012
If My Fist Could Speak
This Is Who You Are to Me
The Way You Sang

Honorable Mention, April 2012
Where I Come From (#3)
Empty Body
This Is Who You Are to Me

Feb 26
Dear Mom

When I first starting working with distressed teens, and they wrote about disappointments with their parents -- like having a dad who cared more about alcohol than his children, like having a mom who stayed with a boyfriend who beat her -- I was surprised when the teens dedicated their poems to the parents. I actually thought, at first, that the teens were being ironic.

Of course, this was absolutely not true. There was nothing about the youth that was calculating or adult when it came to expressing a child's love. The teens loved their parents deeply, very deeply, maybe even more deeply than others love, because of their disappointment.

I started to think about all the good reasons for this. Children understand their parents' brokenness, and they want to take care of their parents -- to be a parent to the parent. Also, it's natural for us as children to love deeply in order to earn the love we desire. And when our lives feel flawed, it's natural for us as children to raise our determination to love -- to circumscribe with love a safer and better world.

The two poems below are by young women who are writing to their moms. The first was written in juvenile detention by Davina (a pseudonym). The second was written on Pongo's web site by a young woman on the East Coast, and is the latest winner of our web site's Pongo Poetry Prize, for the period ending January 1st. The Pongo Prize winner is followed by links to three wonderful poems that earned Honorable Mention. Please enjoy!

Dear Mom 
by a Davina, age 16 

I just thought you should know that life is hard -- I've seen a lot: 
murders, love like grandma's peanut butter pancakes, hate like my parents' addiction and absence, my siblings tormenting me because I have a different dad
(theirs sent money, mine disappeared)

I'm loud, but it's a mask
On the inside I'm quiet
But I'm making sure I'm seen and heard

I just thought you should know that your actions make me hate you, everything you made me see -- It made me think you didn't care:
taking me to drug houses, letting people do what they wanted to me so you could score

I'm going to be more than you were
I'm going to make you proud of me

I just thought you should know that I love you and that the pain that you caused taught me a lesson -- about how to treat my children:
I'll never do to them what you did to me

I'm going to help them succeed

I Will Always Love You
by a young woman, age 16 

Dear Mom,

I just thought you should know what I'm doing now.
I am a strong, happy, Young Lady,
who spends a lot of time thinking about you and how you are doing.

I just thought you should know that I'm feeling a little disappointed in you.
I am just a little upset that you're not understanding how much you affect me,
because I'm always wondering when I'll have my mom back.

I just thought you should know what I've been through.
Since the last time I saw you, I have grown and changed so much.
The time that I had with you was especially important to me. 

I just thought you should know what I wish for the future.
I hope that you can get yourself together so my judge will accept you back into my life.
I am glad I don't have to worry about you and all those men, anymore.

I just thought you should know what I miss a lot.
I miss the way we used to have fun and spend time with X.

I just thought you should know that I will ALWAYS LOVE YOU, MOM.

Honorable Mention, January 2012 
She Stalks Every Movement

Dec 06
Warm Smiles in Winter

When I planned my last writing workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, it was just before Thanksgiving, and I was feeling particularly badly for the women. With budget cutbacks the facility is losing its only two recreation staff. Meanwhile the population has doubled to around 300 women. Holidays are always a difficult time.

As many of you understand, the lives of incarcerated women have included great suffering, including childhood sexual abuse and domestic battering, including drug addiction, including regrets about having let down their children.

But I planned a writing workshop on love, especially on the complicated nature of love. The poems I brought to discuss included Bessie Smith lyrics, “Dirty No Gooder Blues.” We did the Pongo writing activity “Love, Sometimes” (created by Pongo leader Ann Teplick).

In particular, I brought a poem by Hafiz called “With That Moon Language.” In this poem Hafiz says that we’re all walking around making a silent appeal to “Love me,” afraid to say the words aloud because people might think we’re weird. But ultimately we’re left with a choice. We can walk out today and join the throng… Or we can walk out and say the words that everyone is so desperately longing to hear.

The poets and I had a good discussion and a good time in our workshop. As usual the women asked me to distribute my backup writing activities as homework. Those of you who have followed Pongo know that I have a high regard for the emotional depth of people who have led difficult lives. At the end of the session, I said to everyone, “Spread the love!”

I packed up my materials and was escorted out of the prison. Just before leaving I walked through a common area where five women were huddled around a table. One woman was sprawled across the table top to hear better. The staff person made a comment to the sprawler, and the women looked up.

It turned out the woman at the center of the group had been in my workshop. She saw me, flashed a huge smile, and said, “I’m reading them my poetry!” Then everyone smiled.

Spread the love!

Jul 15
Love Is a Useless Puppy

Sometimes we think that… We can make someone love us if only we love them enough, if only we give them more and more power over us, if only we measure our love by how much we hurt. This is the poetry of heartache. And this is my personal reading of the poetry that follows, the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. (Following the winning poem, there are links to three great poems that received Honorable Mention.)

What It Really Is
by a young woman, age 16


I am a lonely, lost pit-bull.
Confused, hurt,
And nowhere to go.
Last time I saw you, we were at the house.
All I could smell - weed.
All I could see - cocaine.
You gave me so much attention!
This gave me a sweet taste in my mouth.
Then you left and haven't come back.
It's been over three months,
I'm mad,
I have rage and anger.
I'm also alone and hurt.
The only thing you'll ever hear from me is whining.
Other than that I'm silent.
It's because I miss you.
I'm not anything without you.
I am a lonely, lost pit-bull -
Confused, hurt, and have nowhere to go.

What It Really Is

All I can hear is screaming.
That's all I can ever hear.
It never stops.
All I can see is fist and blood.
That's all I ever feel.
You threw me out,
Beat me, and made me feel useless.
You smell like sweat and cologne.
When you hit me, I taste blood.
I didn't do anything.
So why did you do this to me?

You Said

You always said you loved me
And that you would never leave me.
You said those exact words
Every day.
You said you wouldn't hurt me,
But the thing is you treated me like an animal -
That's not me!
Even though you said what you said,
You still left me.
Even if you meant what you said,
You still hurt me.
When you said you really didn't love me,
And you did what you did,
You put silence in my mind.
So now I don't have anything else to say,
You gave me away like a useless little puppy.
Now, all I can see is you.
All I can smell is you.
All I can hear is your voice.
The useless puppy is looking for you.

Honorable Mention, July 2010
Just Imagine
Romantic Rain