Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
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.

Jun 19
The Satsifaction of Making Something Real

by Alex Russell

I started the Sacramento Poetry Center’s Real Poets program in 2013, about two years after my last session as a Pongo mentor in Juvenile Detention. For this ten-week term ending April 16, 2015, we met every Thursdays at Turning Point Community Programs in south Sacramento. Our anthology for the term represents ten of the youth who wrote with us. They were as young as six years old up to nineteen. Each of them wrote honest poems, and each poem shows the incredible complexity of the poet’s thoughts, heart and life.

A common thread among our writers is how each of them struggles with intense conflict in their lives. That conflict often has to do with the reality of their situation and feelings and needs they cannot control. This conflict comes up in many of these poems, whether it is centered on real love for an abusive parent or a struggle to maintain a sense of control and inner strength when life is completely out of control and overwhelming.

This is where expressive writing can help, and where the form of the poem can be ideal for an immediate increase in self-awareness, a chance to understand a little better the parts of life that can be so confusing. Writing a poem can shift the hurt from being something indescribable, maybe shameful, into something concrete like a desert island, a dust bunny or a neon outfit. To name something is to start to take control over it. But this is only part of what a poem offers. It also offers the satisfaction of having made something real, something that can be shared with others if the poet decides to. An honest poem is always something to be proud of.

Real Poets is not a literacy program, though literacy is a natural outcome of reading and writing, which is at the core of what we do. But when we explain to our young writers the strengths of using image and metaphor in a poem, we are providing tools to name the haze of hurt inside. But even with these tools, the honesty this requires takes courage, which is something all of our writers show no matter what their past or current situation might be.
Real Poets owes everything to Richard Gold and the Pongo Teen Writing Project. We still use Pongo exercises to begin each writing session with our children and teens. Our success with youth is proof of the strong foundation Pongo has established doing this kind of work.

In particular, this approach has made a difference for Me-Yaw, a poet who came to us two years ago when she was eight years old. At ten years old now, her life is still a challenge but she did not miss a single session these ten weeks. Her are two of her shorter poems. The first is the title poem of this term’s anthology:
Batting an eye is like wearing a neon outfit
So bright that many people can see
you a mile up in space.
People can see doves inside your body
like blood in you.
People don’t even bat an eye to know
you’re there. See what is within you.
Loved in good.
Loved in bad.
You never know the future.
You always know the past.
Loved in abuse.
Loved by family.
Read more poems at www.realpoets.org

Alex Russell is a writing professional and former lecturer at UC Davis.  He has taught grades K-12 in the state of California and volunteered with Pongo at King County Juvenile Detention in 2010. 


Jun 05
Professional Art & Pongo

By Emily Holt, Project Leader at Juvenile Detention


Writing one poem a week shouldn’t seem a foreign or overly difficult task for someone who is a poet and in an MFA in Creative Writing program. Yet, because I write slowly and hesitantly, such regular production can seem daunting.

 But, each week, I’ve come to accept that whatever came out by Tuesday morning, I will share it with my team of mentors in King Co. Juvenile Detention. The poems I share with the team may not the most technically skilled; they are almost always first drafts. Over time, however, I have begun to see something in them that I hadn’t seen in my other writing—a wideness.

It wasn’t merely that I sat down, and thought, Okay, it’s Pongo, I can put any emotional thought in this poem (which I could have), but something about the method made it okay for me to include anything in a poem, to take a line anywhere, to go from yellow suburbs to a hotel minibar to a news story about rape and torture. Other poets may have been able to do this from the outset; for those poets, perhaps Pongo could offer an opportunity to go inward, to go to a more personal place.

Pongo provides different things for different people, which is part of its beauty. Wherever you are, artistically, I believe there’s a way Pongo can benefit your work. That may be quite a claim, because we do focus our work on youth who have never written before, especially youth who may feel fragmented, self-conscious, who may not be literate.

Yet Pongo strives to remove all barriers to writing a poem, and barriers exist for all writers, regardless of technical skill. I see a time when Pongo methods could benefit youth who are comfortable with writing and self-expression but who want to learn about revision, performance or creating a body of work.

I have tried Pongo with youth in foster care, the children of men and women fleeing ethnic violence, with adults with disabilities who have experienced trauma, with friends my own age, with straight A students, with youth in locked facilities.

And it works with all these audiences because, at its heart, turning to the Pongo method is turning to a kind of profoundly radical listening. In the end, I am not sure that it’s about poetry so much as bearing witness. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry is essential. It is the more objective third-party witness to a story. As founder Richard Gold says, (I’m paraphrasing), It’s neither you nor me but it can exist between us and help us out when we don’t want to talk.



I love going to Seattle Arts & Lectures literary series, and I love that they now have a young person read before a professional such as Cheryl Strayed, Colm Tóibín or George Saunders comes on. The young people, who are mentored by a professional in Writers in the Schools, sometimes get a more audible reaction than the professional about to come onstage. While the young person reads, I often hear murmurs of delight in the adults around me when the reader embodies a character, creates an image or uses music in surprising ways. There is evidence of craft, of technical skill.

Yet I can’t avoid wishing, however impractically, that the young people I work with in juvenile detention could also be on stage. I know their work would elicit the same murmuring—perhaps even a louder reaction.

Unlike the artists in Writers in the Schools—people I greatly admire—Pongo mentors have a slightly different agenda; ours is not one focused fully on craft but exists in a place somewhere between artistic mentor and counselor.

Unfortunately, for writers focused on craft and publication, can be easy to read a poem about trauma and dismiss the poem as only therapy or only catharsis.

Yet why are the options such polar opposites?

Our Pongo leader Ann Teplick proves they needn’t be; a WITS artist and an experienced Pongo mentor, Ann embodies what it means for a mentor to be informed by craft, by long and rich poetic traditions and also to be open to the less-crafted chaos that is inside of all of us.

One of my own mentors noted that working with a young person to find their voice isn’t always about writing a perfect poem from the start; it’s about learning to use language. Especially for youth in juvenile detention, many of whom have had little success in being heard or understood or who don’t believe they bear responsibility for either. Why bear that responsibility when no one listens?

Former site lead Vanessa Hooper once said that we write with youth in order to show to our communities that youth inside are every bit as complex, diverse and nuanced as anyone outside. Pongo is about blurring those lines between in and out; not dismissing the hard realities of life in a locked facility, but seeing what’s human, what’s lived on both sides.

Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at http://www.emilyholtwriter.com


Apr 07
Yes, Joy & Yes, Doubt.

by Emily Holt, Pongo Project Leader

It’s hard to explain to others the kind of joy I witness in places like juvenile detention and inpatient psychiatric units. Often, the moments are fleeting, but they are there. And, often, they exist—both in me and in a young person—from that young person realizing they can create something to be proud of.

I find it an extreme privilege to be invited to sit down each week with youth who really have no ostensible reason to tell me anything; young women who dream of jumping off bridges, young men about to become a father, children without parents, children with addictions, children who are learning that love doesn’t always have to ruin you.

In any position in which an adult works with a young person, doubt can be a healthy, and I think essential, way to ensure the adult continues to do right by themselves and the young person—doubt about their own skills, about the impact they’re having, about the broader systemic issues they may not seem to be able to touch. I don’t find doubt an indication of failure but a sign of constant self-reflection.

But each time I’ve experienced doubt in regards to Pongo, I am reminded that somehow, this poetry method enables the youth I mention above to sit down across from me, and within a few minutes, to share some of their most difficult experiences.

When I first began using Pongo five years ago, I felt I was bringing something unique to the writing experience, and while I still am, in a way, the focus—and thus the anxiety—is less and less about me. For how many jobs or volunteer positions today rely solely on an interpersonal interaction that, in many ways, won’t naturally happen, one which is free of deadlines and strict outcomes? How many give you weekly doses of joy existing alongside doubt?


You might think, How hard is it to get a kid to confess? Confessional memoirs are all the rage today. The youth we work with don’t come from places where confessing, where airing one’s laundry, where admitting that one’s family is not perfect, is okay. Really, how many of us have no reservations about sharing the things that we fear the most? About hurting those we love by telling a story that presents them in more than one hue?

Yet the Pongo method enables a young person to sit down across from me and take control of their story. Pongo is not about the volunteers; more than any organization I’ve ever worked with, I feel supported by Pongo, but I do not feel like the focus of Pongo. Moreover, the work we do is not  marketing catch-phrase. It’s in our hands as we type, in our bodies as we chose to sit still, to hear stories of rape, of suicide, of addiction. And, first, really, it’s in the youth who write with us.


Emily Holt is a mentor, writer and editor.  She has been with Pongo for several years, and now is the Project Lead at King County Juvenile Detention.  She is a prolific poet and working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  Visit her at www.emilyholtwriter.com 

Nov 02
What Youth Say About Writing

Though our web site, Pongo receives poems from all over the country, and we periodically recognize a few with the Pongo Poetry Prize. (Many poems are worthy!) Here are some authors’ thoughts about what writing means to them, followed by links to their award-winning poems.

“Writing has always been an escape for me. Pongo allowed me a chance to share with others what I never had the courage to share before. Everyone should have this kind of thing, where they don't have to hide how they feel, or what they think. This is a sort of sanctuary that releases many from their everyday struggles.” – a young woman 15, received Honorable Mention

"I discovered Pongo while searching for someplace, anyplace, that would allow me to share my poems, and with them, a piece of myself. Writing is my life, my passion, my love, and my core, and without writing I don't know where I'd be. It helps me express who I am, what I'm thinking, and anything else about me, since I don't share my thoughts verbally. Every teen should be able to express themselves in a safe, familiar, comfortable way. Writing just happened to be mine." – a young woman 17, received Honorable Mention

"What writing means to me... Whenever I write my feelings down about my past it feels great to let it all out. If I couldn't write about the things that have happened to me, I would have to hold it in and it would be harder for my life. I like being able to tell my story and let others know that I am OK, even though bad things have happened to me. I wish my birth mom could know how angry I am. Maybe someday I will tell her in a story." – a young woman 14, received Honorable Mention

And here is the 12th winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize, the poem “Violated,” that speaks to the lingering effects of abuse.

by a young woman, age 14

I was sitting in the dark
all left alone in isolation
hiding from any more doom
and away from this situation

Those sickening eyes keep on staring
with dis-pleasuring thoughts behind
hands who keep on roaming
violating me in every way they can find

It was a past I just kept remembering
a part of my life I'll always carry
with great pain in every sting
stuck in a place that's nothing but scary

The poems:


Oct 08
To Watch Their Faces

As you know, the heart of Pongo's work with distressed youth is to listen to their voices, be present for their often painful stories, and provide structured support for their joyful poetic expression.

I'm happy to say that many of you are realizing wonderful outcomes by using the information and resources on the Pongo site. Here is a letter we recently received...

Dear Mr. Gold and The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project,

I am a substitute teacher for Lewiston Independent School District No. 1 in Lewiston, Idaho. I am currently working a long-term assignment at our Region II Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). As with any JDC, our students are here for varying lengths of time, with different ages, towns, learning abilities, and offenses. Their common denominator is their "break your heart" backgrounds and the choices they have made as a result. At times it is difficult to teach a language arts lesson that is fluid and applies to all ages and keeps the students engaged. I discovered Pongo through another teaching forum and decided to give it a whirl.

I am pleased to say that it has become very popular with my students. I introduced them to your project by airing the KING5 TV segment, then read a few of your other students' poems.

To watch their faces while their poem is read aloud and to hear the group compliment one another and discuss the topics is a sight to behold. They are engaged, open to talking about their feelings, and more receptive to other language arts lessons. In this position, where success is measured by each hour of accomplishment, this has been very rewarding to the students and me.

Thank you for your project and enabling others to participate in their own way, through your great site!

Chanda K.
September 30, 2013

Please check out the Teaching Resources section and Start Your Project section of the Pongo site!

Jun 18
Family: A Hand-Woven Tapestry of Memories

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

by Adrienne Johanson

I am a writing mentor with the Pongo Teen Writing Project, and also a psychotherapist. Often young people write with Pongo about their family, in a way that reminds me of a complicated tapestry -- a tapestry that includes remembered and unremembered experiences, all of which can affect a person's current feelings and questions about life.

We are defined by many things throughout our lives, as our brain ceaselessly accumulates snapshots of people and events that influence us. We might say we "can't remember" certain things, but our brains are incredible devices, and often what we can't consciously recall is subtly encoded in us -- in our preferences (our choice of hairstyle or career aspirations), our reactions to sensory stimuli (loving the smell of Shalimar but not Patchouli), and even in our muscles (sudden shoulder tension or butterflies in our stomach). Our brains are writing all the time, whether we know it or not.

In the brain's meticulous catalog of snapshots lies the family album, things we remember about the people we call family, and things we may have a hard time remembering at times, including thoughts and feelings affiliated with them.

Because Pongo works with teens in shelters, inpatient hospitals, and detention centers, we write with poets who are temporarily or permanently separated from their families. It makes a lot of sense why the family album is often at the forefront of their minds. The writing process of poets exploring familial relationships becomes a hand-woven tapestry of both conscious and unconscious memories. And when these writers begin to dig in and explore the subtleties they ask very specific questions (e.g., Why do I cringe at mac-and-cheese? Why do I think dahlias are the flower of love and not roses?). As suggested in the previous blog on loss (Loss: A Shape-Shifter), their unique answers to these questions often create new meanings, help them define their life, and name or rename the tapestry of family.

Two Pongo writing activities that help poets write about family are I Just Thought You Should Know and Where I Come From .

Two great examples of teen writing about family are "Grizzly-LifeJacket-Tornado-Dandelion," in which a girl writes about the strength of her mother, and "Lonely," in which a girl writes about conflict in her family.

by a young woman, age 16

I hope that someday I can be as strong as my mother
My mother is as strong as a bull ramming into its next opponent

My mother is always ready to recover from the past and look forward to the future
The past has been one of a refugee, mother of seven, abandoned by her husband, no schooling – With every reason to give up, she didn’t

She has always been my backbone, always there when my world was as empty as a well

She keeps my head above the water of my own sorrows, like a life jacket 

My mom can be as strong as a tornado, sucking in everyone’s troubles and making them feel small
compared to what she went through, setting the troubles down as destroyed as
an old building

Pay attention to my mother’s lessons, she can see into the future

If I could go back I would listen to all her warnings and lectures that I didn’t think would help

My mother can be strong in ways you don’t expect

She can be as strong as a dandelion breaking through the sidewalk,
and when I talk with her she blows all my sorrows away like spores, making me believe I can also break the cement

My mother’s strength can be gentle

She can be as gentle as a grizzly bear with her young – quick to scare away predators but even quicker to comfort 

If I could change one thing, I would be the wind to the dandelion, carrying away her sorrows

by a young woman, age 14

Now my house is gloomy
there is no cable, it’s really quiet
everyday there’s arguing.
Back then, my mom had a job
and she always made sure
we had everything we needed.
She made dinner
she made sure we got out of the house
and did things.
She used to treat us really good
and equally.
But after she went to jail
she couldn’t find a job.
She’s miserable
and takes her anger out on me.
It’s her fault that I’m here
because I wouldn’t put up with
her boyfriend and their abuse anymore.
They want me to go to a group home.
I don’t understand why.
She won’t let me come back home
knowing that I’m pregnant.
It’s not really the best place to be for care.
If I had the home I want
there’d be a normal family
that’s able to overcome little things
and always make sure we know that we only
have each other at the end of the day.
But I don’t think she’s gonna leave her boyfriend
for me, so I just want to go far away
but I don’t know where to go.
She wrote on the police report
that no one in my family
wants anything to do with me.

I hope this gives you some insight on writing about family.

As we say at Pongo, “Keep writing!”

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 23
Being Pretty on the Inside

Sometimes we struggle to both be ourselves and also please other people. We’re confused by the vulnerability we feel, especially when our vulnerability has been used against us, to hurt us deeply.

This blog shares great poems on these themes -- the latest winners of the Pongo Poetry Prize.

In “If My Fist Could Speak” (January 2013) a young woman, age 13, speaks intensely and courageously to a bully. She writes: “You should eat diamonds so you can be pretty on the inside.” The three poems that received honorable mention for January 2013 are also on the theme of bullying (links below).

In “If God Were Looking at My Life” (October 2012), a young woman, age 14, writes: “If God opened a new door for me…I’d change who I was, and I would try to find the real me. The me who isn’t afraid. The me who is me." The poems that received honorable mention are also terrific (links below).

The Pongo Poetry Prize is a quarterly prize for poems submitted on the Pongo web site. They come in from young people all over the country. FYI, both of these winning poems were written using writing activities on the Pongo site. Maybe you know someone who would like to write an If My Fist Could Speak or If God Were Looking at My Life poem!

If My Fist Could Speak #4
by a young woman, age 13

If my fist could speak, it would tell you how much i hate you,
how i've always wanted to hit you and watch you cry
how i've never thought you were once nice
how it has watched you hurt me again and again

If my feet could speak, they would recall how many times i had wanted to run
how i wanted to walk away from the fight that you caused
how many times i would have kicked you and laughed
how i have always wanted to run and never come back to the bullying you cause

If my eyes could speak, they would tell you about how ugly you are inside
how you should eat diamonds so you can be pretty on the inside
how you’re ugly on both sides, inside and out
how the blood should be flowing from your nose as i punch you

If my pounding heart could speak, it would say how scared it is to slow down
how you cause it to speed up in horror of the next horrid line you will speak
how i am worried that my heart will beat out my chest
how you’re horrid in the heart, even at the bottom of it

If my hair could speak, it would explain how it wishes you would stop pulling it
how it will fall out if you carry on your wicked ways
how you should stop before it turns around and bites you
how i am going to hit you if you pull my hair once more

If my ears could speak, they would share how horrid your voice sounds
how your voice is a burning fire and it stings
how you call me so many names they echo in my head
how your voice shall forever be stored in the hate part of my mind

If my body could speak, it would tell you about how much it wishes to kill you
how it hates you so much it burns inside
how you beat it till it bleeds
how you should leave me alone and never say anything mean about me again

If my brain could deal with everything, it would want to ask -- why did you say those things?
why are you so mean to me and other innocent souls?
why do you hate the sound of happiness and laughter?
why is your voice so mean and angry?

never be a bully
never be mean again
being a bully is horrid and everyone agrees!

If God Were Looking at My Life #3
by a young woman, age 14

If God were looking at my life...

He’ wonder why i chose to live life in this way rather than take the right path.

He’d understand that life to me has been cruel and difficult, but it’s because of my actions, because i chose it that way.

He’d know the way things had gone for me – They’ve gone terrible.   I've cried for what i thought i needed and didn’t have.   I've behaved like someone i wasn't.   I say words i thought were right, but didn't mean.   I hurt people who i never thought were so important to me in my life, until i lost them.   I changed my appearance for people that talked behind my back, and i acted like a jerk to my parents and close friends.   Yet, now that i'm alone, i want to be me, but I’m afraid.

He’d remember how things went when I was very little, like when i had to take care of my sisters while my mother was in the hospital taking chemotherapy treatment, and i had a difficult time trying to cheer my father up so he wouldn't fall apart on us and so he would have the strength to keep us informed about our mother.

He’d know that i was who i was, but i changed who i was for what people wanted me to be.

He’d know that I’m trying to change certain things, like how i look, how i act, how i dress, and hide the real me.

He’d know how hard it is to change because he has seen me.   He has seen my process and the solution at the end, and by the solution he knows i didn't succeed, just made things worst.

He’d want me to understand that life is how it is, and i decide how to live it.

If God opened a new door for me...

It would lead me to going back and retrace my steps.   Apologize to those i hurt and become someone new. I'd change who i was, and i would try to find the real me. The me who isn't afraid. The me who is me.

Then I could start over with my life.

[The poems below also address bullying and themes of seeking acceptance.]

Honorable Mention, January 2013
Girl with the Scars #3
Running #2
Offend You?

Honorable Mention, October 2012
Cry My Stress-Tears at Night
To Be Me
That First Apple

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