Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 17

As cops with 70 years of service between them, Pete and Don know who they are. They can joke about needing to sit in the last row at the conference, with their backs to the wall, as they check out the other participants. They can express how hard it is to trust anyone who isn’t a cop.

I met Pete and Don at a conference on treating survivors after a sudden, violent death. The conference site was a Christian retreat center in Memphis.

Pete and Don know who they are in another way, a profound way. They know that repeated exposure in their careers to traumas of violence and death has been very damaging to them and to their fellow officers. They know that some of the values of their officer community, including stoic silence, have contributed to the hurt. Pete and Don want to help their brother and sister cops, and they know that as members of the police subculture they are in the best position to do that.

And another thing that Pete and Don know, and share, is that their own inability to process trauma brought them to terrible low points in their lives. To give me context, they talked about the fact that every 55 hours one cop is killed and three commit suicide. They talked about the fact that officer suicide rates are comparable to those of Marines. They said that police have twice the national average of divorce. They said that police officers suffer diseases of adaptation, such as diabetes, digestive illnesses, and skin disorders. They said that 30% of cops have diagnosable PTSD.

Pete and Don say that the need to contain feelings leaves cops frustrated and angry – an anger that masks sorrow, guilt, and vulnerability. Cops can become cold, “a talking uniform,” or hyper-vigilant. Naturally, there is a price that officers’ families pay. Pete tells a story of an officer’s wife who was overheard telling her son, “Now don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises when your father gets home.”

As survivors of this emotional pain, Pete and Don describe themselves as being among “the fortunate few.” And Pete says, “I fell in the sewer and came out a plumber.”

Pete told me the story of a cop who was called to the SIDS death of an infant – an infant that was the same age as the officer's own child. The officer tried unsuccessfully to revive the baby and later accompanied the ambulance with the body to the hospital. Then, immediately afterward, the officer had to contain his grief to deal with a false alarm and an irate homeowner.

Don, who was a federal marshal, could talk about responding to the shooting at Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and September 11. About Oklahoma City he says, “It damn near destroyed me.”

Pete and Don are cops with 70 years of service between them. They have learned to value emotions, including tears, to deal with traumatic death. They have the exceptional goal to share this knowledge with their brother and sister officers.

Peter Cove, formerly of South Boston, is training director at Tennessee Public Safety Network, which supports officers after a critical incident. Donald Benson is Assistant Chief of Internal Affairs and Training in the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tennessee.

Jun 08

Writing and poetry can help people heal from traumatic grief, which is the difficult grief one experiences after a sudden, violent death. “Restorative Retelling” is a therapy developed by my friend and Pongo colleague Dr. Ted Rynearson, Director of the Violent Death Bereavement Society. In a few days I am speaking at a “Restorative Retelling” conference in Memphis. Dr. Rynearson and I collaborated on several projects that produced the Pongo books "I Lost My Sense of Protection" and "I Can't Imagine Myself Any Other Place."

Today’s blog is about Thea (a pseudonym), a young widow who has used writing to deal with grief and isolation, but also to record moments of surprising and transcendent joy. Writing, and especially poetry, has been a discovery for Thea at this time. In Pongo’s first guest blog, I have included a poem and essay by Thea, who lost her husband in an accident in 2007.

Here is Thea’s poem…

Empty Space
by Thea 

Alone at the cabin
peering into
the closet
looks strange
the empty space
where his clothes
had lived.

So suddenly
he departed
I was left
an aching void
that pulsated
a primal agony.

The passage
of time
builds strength -
does heal.

Now the space
within me
is sometimes
when I dance
it whirls

And here is Thea’s essay…

“Writing has been part of my journey of healing since I lost my husband in an accident three years ago.  A former colleague of mine suggested that I start keeping a journal.  Her sister had been widowed young and journal-writing had helped her maintain her sanity.  On a couple of occasions I have felt inspired to write poetry to capture some of the moments of peace and insight that I have experienced.

“Although I haven’t maintained a daily journal writing practice, writing in my journal has been a wonderful way to record my thoughts, feelings, experiences in a way that honors both the unique and universal experiences of the bereavement/grief process.  I usually find the experience cathartic.  I write in my journal when I have intense thoughts or feelings that need to be expressed and/or recorded on paper in order to release them.  Sometimes I simply write when I have extra time; for instance, a popular time for writing is on a ferry ride.

“Writing about any feelings of sadness allows me to express and often release them in a safe way.  Since it’s been almost three years since my husband’s death, most people assume that the acceptable time period for experiencing (or at least expressing) grief has passed.  Some friends and family members have made it clear that they aren’t interested in hearing about any residual feelings of grief that I may have.  In general, I’ve found that heart-felt expressions concerning emotional pain are unwelcome except with certain friends or in specific situations (such as a grief support group).  In my journal I am free to share intimate details about my memories of my husband and feelings of pain and longing without regard for possible judgment.

“Journal writing isn’t only about expressions of pain.  Another feature of journal-writing that I love is that I can record pleasant memories or some of the serendipitous, sometimes mystical experiences that have touched my life since my husband’s death.  There have been moments when I have clearly felt and experience my husband’s presence in delightful and unexpected ways.  I have also felt that there have been instances of divine intervention in which unseen forces have intervened on my behalf to provide support or assistance with the resolution of some sort of challenging situation.  Writing about these moments allows me to honor them and preserve them in a way that they can be revisited in the future.  Memories can fade but journal entries can be re-read and re-experienced over and over.  In my journal I can also explore my feelings of hope for a new life without my husband- a life that is still very much a work in progress.

“The journal writing has also opened up a space for more freedom of expression.  I have written a few poems during quiet ferry trips, reflecting some of the solitary insights that I’ve experienced.  In the past, the inner critic usually held me back from writing poetry.  I was concerned that my poetry would be judged as silly or non-relevant and not be valued by others.   In my bereavement process I’ve learned a lot about taking care of myself and honoring my unique life experience.  Now I write for myself and the satisfaction that it gives me; it doesn’t matter whether others read or like my poetry.

“As the third anniversary of my husband’s death approaches I feel a greater sense of peace and confidence.  The first two anniversaries were extremely difficult for me.  Writing has definitely helped me to come to terms with this tremendous loss.   My Buddhist teachers have often explained that the realm of human experience is characterized by both pleasure and pain, loss and gain, as well as joy and sorrow.  It’s clear to me that the writing process can help us to explore the very experiences that make us human.”

May 21
Thanks for the Rose

This essay is about the rewards of Pongo’s work. I hope more of you will help people to heal through self-expression. When you climb that mountain with someone, through a fog of pain to a clearer summit, there’s pride in the achievement, and closeness in the transformative moment you share.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog, choreographer Pat Graney has been creating performances in women’s prisons, with dance, writing, and art, for 15 years, as long as I’ve been working with youth in juvenile detention. I had the privilege of contributing to the writing component of Pat’s “Keeping the Faith” (KTF) this spring at Mission Creek Corrections Center.

There were two performances of KTF on Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8. That Friday, the performance was scheduled for 7:00 pm. At 5:00, Pat was still immersed in her creative process, making changes to the dances, waiting on costumes, and sorting through a one-foot stack of paper to choose final edited writing for the women to read. The women, who had never participated in a creative project before, much less an intensive personal and public experience like this, were walking around in shock.

Then at 7:00 the performance began. The audience was divided into two groups, one of family members and Pat’s guests and the other of fellow prisoners. The women danced and in between read their painful personal stories (many written with former prisoner Shannon Pena) and their poetry. The women cried, they addressed their families, the guests cried, the fellow prisoners cheered.

And afterward the women said that their lives had been changed.

The weekend was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I was a very proud contributor. I wrote a poem and shared it with the women over an ice cream cake at our cast party a few days later.

Thanks for the Rose

by Richard Gold 

To the women of Mission Creek Corrections Center 

Thanks for giving me a rose
after your Saturday performance.
I was happy to help you with your writing.

You know this,
but when the audience cried and applauded you,
it was not because of the painful subjects of your writing,
about being betrayed by incestuous fathers,
or about being brought low by drugs,
or about your shame at letting down your children.
When the audience cried and applauded you,
it was because you were honest
at a level that exposed the deepest part of yourselves,
the deepest hurt that includes the deepest love.

Thanks for giving me a rose.
You gave me much more.

I was so overwhelmed by your performance
that I asked Pat if I could follow her
on the drive home.

I was so affected
that after I followed Pat to the highway,
instead of continuing home,
I followed her
when she drove off to get gas.

Thanks for giving me a rose.

This is what I want to tell you
as my good-bye.

I was so overwhelmed by your performance
that I was careless with the rose.
I threw my jacket over it in the back of the car.

When I remembered it on Sunday night,
I thought the rose was ruined.
It was bent over and the leaves were distorted.
But I trimmed the stem and put the rose
in water.

When I woke up on Monday morning,
the rose was beautiful,
and the first thing I thought of
was you.

May 14

I met with Shaun recently in a café near the beach in West Seattle. When I walked in, he was sitting at an empty table with his bible open in front of him. I could see that the text was filled with post-it notes and annotations, lines were underlined and highlighted, and several worn pages were ripped. Shaun and I placed our orders and soon surrounded his bible with coffee and cinnamon rolls.

Shaun McMichael has been with Pongo for three years, from his final years at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university, to his first full-time job, working as a counselor at a residential psychiatric facility for adolescents.

Shaun is one of a fantastic group of Pongo volunteers. And because I’m interested in ideas, I set up this meeting to ask him how his beliefs, different from my own, have informed his work with Pongo. Through Pongo, Shaun has facilitated poetry about trauma from youth in foster care and in the state psychiatric hospital. Here’s a poem that Shaun facilitated with a youth in transition out of foster care. Shaun later put the poem to music to sing at the young man’s poetry assembly.

Afraid of Being Inside the House with Strangers
by a young man transitioning out of foster care, age 17

I’m in a crowd.
It’s confusing to tell who’s who;
They look like strangers.
I don’t know how to feel
With that many people in one room —
Scared, unsure of what
To do except hide.
They look at me
Like I did something suspicious,
Like I blew up a house.
I want to take
My skateboard and ride as far
As I can
And hope nobody sees me.

I do it.
Once I leave, I feel free —
Happy, not afraid.
The roads are dark,
And rainy
And open.
There are people,
But it’s not as crammed
As in that house.
Riding a skateboard
Down a hill —
It’s like a first time
Riding a bike,
That rush of wind
Feels so good
But not as crammed
As in that house
Where there’s no wind.

At the coffee shop I learned that, relevant to his work with Pongo, Shaun’s Christian faith is expressed through love, imagination, and revelation…

For Shaun, love means comforting the poor in spirit, and is well expressed by listening to suffering kids, within a safe and caring relationship. As someone who has worked with adolescents in a therapeutic setting, Shaun understands that love is also a complicated gift that may require adult skills of patience, encouragement, and limit-setting.

Imagination enables Shaun to understand the metaphors of religious teaching. Imagination also helps Shaun to teach metaphor to suffering kids, as a resource for their creative insight. For example, Shaun describes a young author who wrote about Pokemon, and who eventually expressed a wish to use Pokemon powers to bring back the mother who had abandoned him. Like love, imagination can be a challenge as well, where a caregiver is challenged to imagine that a struggling individual is only a blink away from a breakthrough in her healing.

Shaun thinks of revelation in the broad sense of an unveiling. Revelation is the capacity to expose a truth that is elusive, difficult, or even painfully obvious. In this sense, revelation is a natural outcome of honest creative expression, and is the goal of Shaun’s personal writing. For Pongo’s authors, revelation through writing is a step on their path to healing.

I came away from our conversation appreciating that Christianity is a solid and unwavering framework for Shaun’s life, and that within that framework Shaun challenges himself actively and with humility. He looks within his own heart as he explores and commits to religious teaching. Shaun’s principles are unified by a desire to do good through service and to creatively seek the truth. He aspires to live his principles in every aspect of his life, while he is not comfortable, complacent, or self-satisfied. I’m grateful that he brought this effort to Pongo.

May 07
Good for You!

Though Pongo is completely focused on the youth in our program, there have been a few surprising times when the teens have taken care of me. I appreciate it, but I also think it shows a talent in them.

I remember working with a young man in juvenile detention who was gang involved. He wrote about feeling forced to be a man, in the gang way, by carrying a gun on the streets and dealing drugs. He wrote about not knowing any other life. On a deeper level, he wrote about not having a dad, about struggles with loneliness.  He had been suspicious of the writing at first, and we talked for a long time before we began. But when we were done, as he was leaving, he turned to me and said, “It’s very nice of you, sir, to take your time to help young people.”

Once I was leading a poetry workshop with a large group of youth at the state psychiatric hospital. After a nice beginning, they wanted to move on from the writing activities that I had brought. They wanted to write on their own, about issues that were very much on their minds. They worked quietly. And as they finished I would call individuals forward to read. While each person read, the other youth would pause, listen, and applaud, and then continue with their own work. Though I rarely become emotional while working with kids, the writing in this session was so poignant, dealing with suicidal feelings, that I started to cry. The group was calm and quiet, and one teen walked to the back of the room to get me a box of tissues. And we carried on.

It’s stating the obvious to talk about distressed teens and their ability to care. I don’t want my words to have the opposite effect from what I intend, by implying that this caring is special. A very powerful theme in the writing of abused and neglected teens, for example, is the suffering of their siblings. It’s just that, amidst the distractions that can occur in relationships between adults and youth, I find it useful to remind myself sometimes that teens’ ability to care is a source of their resilience and a foundation for good dialogue.

I remember six years ago in juvenile detention when I was introducing Pongo to a group. A young man who had previously worked with Pongo was enthusiastically describing his own writing skill and his expectation of becoming a rich and successful poet. I tried to explain that people don’t get rich from poetry, that poetry is a great way to help yourself and others. The young man insisted he would become famous, and rich. I was in some kind of mood that day, and I humorlessly persisted in saying no. I persisted. Finally I explained, as an illustration, that poetry had always been important to me, but that I had just published my first book of poetry, and I was 55.

The detention teens got excited in a way I didn’t expect. “You just published a book. Good for you!” They applauded me. “Good for you!”

Apr 24
Loss, Love, & Ambivalence

Recently a friend told me that her father had sexually abused her as a child, and later she said, “But of course I still love him.”

And it was hard for me to appreciate the inevitability of that love.

Many victims of childhood abuse maintain relationships with their abusers, as well as with the enablers of that abuse. Personally, I want to be angry at the people who have hurt me, though I can’t always. And when I don’t reject the people who have hurt me, I don’t like myself. There is a certain limbo in which some of us find ourselves, where we need connection but don’t trust, where we push away but don’t reject. And we can maintain relationships in that way, though not without a cost.

I think many of us, in addition to Pongo’s authors, get caught up in that bind.

Like Pongo’s authors, maybe we all struggle unconsciously with losses and desires that make us guarded and ambivalent. (And maybe we all struggle in a way that can make us guarded and ambivalent toward Pongo’s authors themselves.)

The thought I have is this: Even if we don’t have the extremes of suffering of Pongo authors, we still have our kernel of human sorrow that needs to be recognized. As adults, without thinking about it, don’t we yearn for the child-like ideal of support, comfort, and specialness? As adults, life challenges us to survive, develop, and assume responsibility, in obscurity. Honestly, if we relax and contemplate, isn’t it natural to feel some alienation in our adult roles? And aren’t most of us alienated by our own mortality?

On the other hand, as poetry shows us, the recognition of our shared vulnerability offers us relief, if we bravely accept our own vulnerable state.

So, Pongo’s authors are terribly important companions. Their deep suffering makes them forerunners on profound philosophical issues. They help everyone to understand essential struggles of loss, love, and ambivalence in life. Our empathy for them, and for one another, is our opportunity for healing.

I just put some poems on this web site from Pongo’s recent project in juvenile detention. Here is one of them…

Ice Cream Man
by a young woman in juvenile detention, age 16

I just thought you should know
that sometimes I’m afraid of you
I don’t mind you rep’ing the gangs
but sometimes when I look into your eyes
I see violence against me
I see violence against your grandma
and it hurts me inside

I just thought you should know
I want to work in here someday
helping kids that went through what I went through
help them understand why I ran away from home
because my parents beat me
because the stress in my life made me do something stupid
I was the girl who stopped going to school
I was the girl who stopped listening to her parents
who started drinking and smoking

I just thought you should know
that one side of me wants to be with you
                                       and one side of me does not
and the side that does not is confused
feels like a lost sheep

I just thought you should know
I see myself with a happy family
in a park, Oakland, CA, eating barbecued lamb
next to the swimming pool while dads play tennis
and moms talk and serve food
and all the Tongan people speak to the ice cream man

I just thought you should know
I’m tired of seeing what people do on the streets
and I’m tired of being a part of it

I just thought you should know
I want to say hello again to the ice cream man

Apr 03
A Prize Poem

Writing poetry can be an unexpected good. And for people in distress, isn’t it wonderful that the world contains unexpected good. When Pongo had its finale at the psych hospital on March 22, the teens were happy and excited to read their work, which was often about loss, anger, and self-destructive feelings. Yet poetry made the young people feel better.

People who have suffered the deepest losses may suffer a cascading series of tragedies, from abuse and neglect in childhood to rape, drug addiction, illness, being a survivor of a violent death. People in distress can also make poor choices that add to their losses.

But what difference does writing poetry make after life-altering tragedy? What is this unexpected good?

There are several features of the good. One feature is that poetry writing objectifies experience. There is a transformative moment in which people can see that something terrible has happened to them – but with more clarity and without an obliterating sense of shame. A second feature of this good is that writing is a communal and affecting experience. There is a transformative moment in which people recognize that their vulnerability is shared. In this second transformation, listeners participate as well as writers.

These thoughts provide the context for announcing Pongo’s first winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. It is a poem about sex addiction. I value the author’s writing and her openness on a very personal but very human topic. This poem was written on the Pongo web site using the activity Addicted.

by a young woman, age 16 

I am addicted.
I am addicted to Sex.
In my addiction, my life is filled with only thinking about sex.
In my addiction, I am glad to feel loved and needed.

I am addicted.
I am addicted to Sex.
In my addiction, I hate to think about that they don’t really love me.
In my addiction, the real me becomes hidden and ignored.

I am addicted.
I am addicted to Sex.
In my addiction, betrayals of myself come in the form of moaning and scratches.
In my addiction, I struggle to feel real.

I am addicted.
I am addicted to Sex.
In my addition, I am hiding my true needing of LOVE.
In my addiction, I’m in a constant battle with myself.

I am addicted.

The Pongo Poetry Prize is presented quarterly to a poem submitted on our web site by a young person. There is a $50 award. Please encourage young authors to submit their creative work! You may click on the following links to read this quarter’s Honorable Mention poems, as well.

The Sick Boy
Emotions Lost in a Musician's Fingertips
Thanks to Mom (Stings Like an Eel)

Mar 27

At the prison, I asked the women to suggest topics for future writing classes. Their first topic was “relationships.” So I created an activity, based on my feeling that the emotional fault lines in relationships often lie along conflicting needs and expectations, not only between two people but within an individual.

It was a great writing class, and I’d like to tell you about it.

First, the women made me feel honored and happy because they wanted to share writing they’d done in my absence. With my colleague Shannon they had written a few days earlier on the topic “What I See When I Look in the Mirror.” In this writing, a very strong theme was the women’s drug addiction and its effects on their children. For many of the women, this damage is a profound source of personal pain and remorse.

When we were ready for the activity, I distributed some poems on the topic of relationships, which the women read aloud. These poems included “Reminding Me of Your Own Dead Seas of Silence” by Diane Wakoski, about a man who was quiet – but also silent. These poems also included “How Many Times” by Harvey Shapiro, about a relationship where quarreling had begun to feel like love. And these poems included “True Love” by Sharon Olds, about a relationship where love was good and physical and occasionally blinding.

For the writing itself, I had created a sample poem and fill-in-the-blank exercise based on needs and expectations. You can read my sample poem and my activity here, on the Pongo web site, and you can try it out yourself. And if you’re a teacher or therapist, you can also try it with adult students or clients.

I’m including several of the women’s poems below. Before you read the women’s poems, I’ll just explain that everyone wrote, almost everyone shared their work with the class, and everyone applauded one another. And we had a wonderful experience working together. The teaching techniques discussed in this article are explained in the Teaching Resources section of this site, for example under Accepting Self-Expression and Jumpstarting Creativity.

by JR

I needed unconditional love
And he needed me to change
But I expected love for all eternity
And he expected me to alienate myself

While I also needed treatment
When he needed me to be pregnant
And I expected love for all eternity
When he expected me at home and nowhere else

While my father needed to walk again
And my mother needed to get me help
And my children needed me in their lives

I really needed help as a teenager
I really needed treatment
But he needed me to be pregnant
I needed unconditional love

by MM

I needed love
And he needed a maid and a one night stand
But I expected more
And he expected me to be this doting girlfriend

While I also needed my freedom
And he needed me all for himself
But I expected understanding
And he expected me to see it his way

While my father needed me to be his little girl
And my mother needed her liquor
And my son needed me all to himself
And my sister needed her big sister

I really needed the love of my mother
I really needed to find the inner me
And my son needed his mom
I needed my son

by TJ

I needed to be loved
And she needed me to grow up
But I expected her to give up on me
And she expected me to lose control

While I also needed her to stand by me no matter what
When she needed me to hold on
And I expected her to let go
She didn’t realize I was a bird with broken wings

While my father needed to rape me
And my mother needed a hit
And my sister and brother needed a mom
She was nowhere to be found

I really needed her to be there for me
I really needed God to heal my soul
But she needed me to let it all go
I needed for God to be in control

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.

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