Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Oct 06
Benefits of Writing Poetry

I'm very grateful -- I'm under contract to write a book about Pongo's teaching approach and methods for Rowman & Littlefield Education. Please look for it in early 2014. It's a happy process to be thinking about our work.

Writing poetry is a way to grow emotionally and intellectually, as language articulates and frames experience symbolically. Writing poetry is also a natural process, serving people’s innate need to explain themselves and their lives in the world (a desire that is particularly strong during adolescence). Writing poetry produces a concrete product that is a source of pride and that can be recognized. Writing poetry is a vehicle for expressing altruistic values and philosophical explorations about life’s meaning. And writing poetry is a free and available resource that can be used for self-exploration, gratification, and healing for a lifetime. Here is a fuller list of 16 benefits of writing poetry:

  • Poetry provides a cultural context and expressive model that supports openness and emotional honesty.

  • People who write poetry feel listened to and not judged.

  • People who write poetry exercise insight and sensitivity, sometimes in profound and illuminating ways.
  • The act of creating poetry reinforces ego strengths, including realizations about who I am, what I think, what my life has been like, what I want, and what I can accomplish.

  • Writing poetry is a natural process for people in pain.

  • Writing poetry is a natural process for people who are developing an identity and/or seeking understanding.

  • Poetry provides a safe and private experience, with individual control over the outcome.

  • Poetry provides a basis for greater interpersonal communication about personal issues and for stronger relationships.

  • People who write poetry use a variety of cognitive skills.

  • In an appropriately structured program, poetry can be used by individuals with severe emotional difficulties and/or poor cognitive skills.

  • Writing a poem is a concrete accomplishment.

  • A person’s purpose in writing a poem can be altruistic, educational, inspirational, etc.

  • The accomplishment of a poem can be publicly recognized by saving, sharing, reading, posting, publishing, etc.

  • The act of creating poetry is joyful and self-reinforcing, even when the content is about a sad or traumatic event.

  • People who write poetry can become more in touch with larger issues of life’s meaning and connectedness, developing a spiritual appreciation of life.

  • The act of writing a poem is a skill that people can use to help themselves over and over again throughout a lifetime.
Mar 20
Poetry, Demons, and Dragons

We called the 12-year-old boy out of class to invite him to write poetry with Pongo. Kris (a pseudonym) was new to the psych hospital and here he sat among five adults, strangers, while we waited for other youth to join our poetry workshop. I thought he was very brave and patient to be with us. His dark eyes darted, looking at us and around the school room while we chatted with him. His smile was constant and awkward.

Another teen arrived and we began discussing poetry – with a prompt about what we see when we look inside ourselves. Kris didn’t want to talk, and he explained why: When he looked inside himself, he saw a demon.

One of the Pongo volunteers, Shaun, who was sitting next to Kris, took a piece of paper and a pencil, and in a very quiet and comforting way, asked Kris questions and wrote down his words to create a poem together. Kris’s words were disjointed, but they contained a poetic sense that Shaun captured – Kris looked inside himself and saw a brain, and it was also like a foot, and if you moved your pencil Kris’s eyes could follow that pencil, and Kris’s hands could grab someone else’s water bottle, and Kris’s hands could cover his face, and Kris could look in the mirror.

Here is the poem that Shaun helped Kris create…


If you could look inside of me
You’d find a brain. My brain is like
A foot because it is a foot. It controls a foot.
My brain is like an eye because it is an eye.
Move your pen up and down—see
My eyes follow it.

If you could look inside of me
You’d find a brain that is light
As a feather floating
Into spikes
Then into the water.

If you could look inside of me
You could find a brain
That controls my flatulence
And my fingers
That reach out to grab
A water bottle
My face
To see on a mirror.

To me, Kris’s poem is a wonderful illustration of the special appropriateness of poetry in healing. The deepest and most complicated meaning is often symbolic and associative. Perhaps that’s our best approach to truth at certain times in our lives, perhaps that’s a necessary approach to truth at any time.

I don’t know Kris beyond this encounter. My own reading of his poem is that it’s about control. What can the brain control? It can control feet and eyes, maybe. Can it really control flatulence? Can it control thoughts that seem like spikes? Maybe there’s a part of you that you don’t like and that is beyond your control. Can you look in the mirror without putting your hand over your face?

After Shaun worked with Kris, the group broke up to work individually, each with a Pongo mentor. The young people chose lots, and Kris was paired with Pongo volunteer Eli. Without missing a beat in Kris’s emotional and artistic evolution, Eli helped Kris to write a poem about dragons – there is a heart dragon in Kris that battles his demon. Kris is being hurt in this fight. He understands that for the battle to end, Kris has to go inside himself to become more aware.

Kris’s second poem is included below. I admire the work of Pongo’s volunteers Shaun and Eli. I admire Kris’s development as a poet. I thank Kris for permission to publish his poems, and I thank Kris’s mom for her support.

Fight to the Death 

There are multiple dragons in me
One dragon is my heart, my soul
He is somebody I lean to
When I cry, when I dread

Dragons used to exist
They found a perfectly preserved carcass
High in the Himalayan Mountains
Another chamber of the cave held the mother and the child

My heart dragon protects me from people that are bad:
Murderers, traitors, and serial killers

In a past life, I was a soldier and a dragon connected his heart to mine
There is also a demon in me
When I get mad, my heart dragon protects me by trying to stop me
I have two souls: one is a dragon, the other is a demon
They are damaging my inner heart in their fight
I can feel the sharp pains in my chest

Neither one has triumphed
Until I go inside of myself and try figuring this out
They won’t stop

They are trying to kill each other
I want the dragon to triumph

Mar 13

For four years Mike Hickey has been a recovering alcoholic. He is also Seattle’s Poet Populist and the faculty president at South Seattle Community College. He also has a wonderful young family that is responsible for his recovery effort.

In addition, Mike is a Pongo volunteer, part of a Pongo team in juvenile detention that helps youth write about difficult experiences in their lives.

I’m discussing Mike here not because he is more talented than the other Pongo volunteers. I am discussing Mike because of his public presentation, as Poet Populist, of his own life, his struggles, and the role of poetry in his personal transformation. It makes me think about the nature and value of personal poetry in the public discourse.

When Mike talks about his life, I think of someone in a storm at sea, alone in a sailboat, and surviving. His life is exposed like that – there are childhood issues with his adoption, his dad’s anger, his mom’s early death. There is his alcoholism. I feel more vulnerable and storm-tossed listening to him.

At the same time, Mike’s sailboat is poetry, a tool for staying above water and for moving toward a goal, even if the platform is rocky, even if part of the time the boat is tacking or merely riding out the storm.

Mike is at the helm of that sailboat, and we can see him there, at work.

It’s not a bad thing to be publicly exposed to the storm of feeling through art. It helps us heal ourselves and our community. The alternative is to feel that we are each locked in the cabin of our own boat, with the portholes covered, pretending that nothing is happening at all, while the storm rages outside. Enclosed, we are still tossed, but without control. Enclosed, we struggle with our fear.

When Mike works with Pongo in juvenile detention, he says that he can see himself sitting in the student’s chair. He says that he knows what it means to be in crisis. He says that there’s a loneliness in crisis, a lack of community, a sense that it’s you against the world. He says that a person in crisis can feel a self-loathing that contributes to self-sabotage and fear of success.

On the other hand, like the other Pongo volunteers, Mike’s openness to his own difficulties has sensitized him to others. That openness and sensitization is the public nature of art. Mike and the other volunteers are able to listen with empathy, to entice youth from the cabin to the helm of their lives.

Young people in juvenile detention talk to Mike, as they talk to all of the Pongo volunteers, not because the listeners can change anything for the youth materially. With encouragement the young people emerge to face the storm, and that’s transformative.

All of the Pongo volunteers write poetry as part of their participation. I have included below two of Mike’s poems. One was inspired by an experience of listening at juvenile detention, the other by an experience of listening at the college where he teaches.

Ten Years
by Michael G. Hickey
(for F.)

you are a dragon, you are a green dragon with a long tail
you are a three-year-old green dragon with a long tail
a long tail with big green spikes on Halloween
you walk up to the first house, but do not knock on the door
do not say trick-or-treat or open your bag but instead step right inside
the homeowner screams - someone is breaking & entering!
a three-year-old dragon roams her living room
this is worth a large handful of candy corn

ten years later
you’re reppin’ the hood, bangin’ down on the boulevard
slangin’ ice in the streets, giving oral sex
to a fat 40-year-old in a blue shirt
with crazy eyes and when you’re finished
he holds a .357 magnum to the soft blonde hair at your left temple
he wants his $60 back
his voice sounds like a parrot’s
he makes you walk backwards, away from the car
so you won’t see his license plate

you go home & step inside without knocking
tell your mother that an hour a go a john held a gun to your head
your mother does not scream or give you candy
she says she thought you weren’t doing that anymore
& her eyes never leave the TV
she is watching something too important to miss
her favorite movie from a decade ago
she is engrossed in the characters, the plot
maybe it will end differently this time,
not like the last time or the time before that
& she will not notice you leave the house
nor will she hear the screen door slam
or the wind rattle the thin armor of its fragile threshold

I Want to Give You My Hat
by Michael G. Hickey

I’ll never forget that day after poetry class
when the ghost inside your shadow decided to confide your grandmother had died
& your boyfriend moved to Oklahoma to be with his ailing mother.
What would you do without him?
I’ll never forget the soft chocolate color of brown in your eyes
when you asked if I thought you were still a virgin
even though, technically,
your father stole that from you every night for a month.
I asked if your boyfriend knew - maybe you should tell him
‘cause wouldn’t you want him to tell you?
Whether or not your father is really your stepfather I don’t know
but the more you hate him, the more you let him keep your power
& maybe you should forgive him, not because he deserves it,
but because you do.

I know you were wondering why you were telling me all this
more or less a stranger with nothing more than a red pen
so now I’m going to explain it to you.
Poetry opens these viaducts & tear ducts & trap doors.
It’s more dependable than people making promises.
It changes like the weather but like the weather, it never goes away.

The world is in constant need of love & consolation.
We can’t change the way we think to change the way we live,
we have to change the way we live to change the way we think.
I want to give you my hat to protect the dreams in your head
from all the people who have recklessly wasted their own
& will only feel better when they can kill yours.
I want to give you a sacrosanct cloud to float on.
I want to give you relief from the gathering storm.

After we talked that day after poetry class
I went to a faculty meeting & I don’t have the vaguest idea what any of them said
because I couldn’t stop thinking about why the world is so fucked up sometimes
& I wish I didn’t have to write this poem but I do
to save my own life even if I can’t help save yours.