Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Mar 06
In My Blood to Be a Drunk

At 10 years old, the girl was always home alone while her parents were out doing drugs. I asked if she was scared at the time. No, not for herself. She was worried about her parents. Now, at age 13 and in juvenile detention, the girl has been smoking bud and doing things she isn’t supposed to do. She wants her parents to worry about her for a change. She writes about her parents: “They’re the only people who will be there.” But her poem is titled “When Nobody Was There.”

Pongo’s teen authors will often write about drug and alcohol abuse. They give multiple and contradictory reasons for their involvement. For me, as a poet working with the youth, one of the toughest knots to unravel is the role of family. Substance abuse often seems like a response to emptiness at home and also a confirmation of family connection, however flawed. Teens seem to be filling an emotional void with drugs and alcohol, but also emulating someone they love. And parents sometimes give their children drugs and alcohol, playing an active role in both distancing and dependence. Family is very important.

Here are three teen poems from this year’s Pongo project in juvenile detention, that describe substance abuse in the context of family.

Liquor Makes the World Violent 
by a young man in juvenile detention, age 16

It’s in my blood to be a drunk.
I can only think of one person who don’t drink in my family,
my brother, who’s a religious freak.

Things that are bad about drinking:
               Kills muscle
               Kills your brain
               Kills your liver (my mom’s liver is really bad from drinking)

I don’t like that it makes my family violent.
And it makes me violent too
cause I’ve got anger inside.

Out on the street corner
I don’t even remember the night
I was out beefin’ with another gang,
got jumped,
woke up in my bed
all bloody.
I don’t even remember the night.

I think liquor makes the world violent.

by a young man in juvenile detention, 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.

My Dad 
by a young woman in juvenile detention, age 15

My dad is the coolest dad,
But he’s not the best dad.
Once I smoked meth with him.
I know that’s really bad.
He was never really like a dad,
But he always bought me stuff,
Gave me money –
He said to make up for lost time.

He is the coolest dad,
He lets me and my friends hang out at his house,
But he smoked meth with all my friends and my boyfriend,
And I didn’t even know.
He never tells my secrets to anyone, not even my mom.
But he acts like he is my age,
Not like an adult.
I used to run away a lot,
And I could hide out with him.
He would always tell me I should make different choices
Than him,
But he will support me no matter what.

Feb 27
Hearts Out Loud

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

And they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by a child in the Friends program

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

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

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

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

The flower's life depends on us

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

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

Feb 20

Shannon spent most of seven years as an inmate at Mission Creek Correction Center, from the age of 30 to 37. For the last three years, since her release, she has returned to Mission Creek with Pat Graney and the “Keeping the Faith” dance project, to help her friends. (I mention Mission Creek and “Keeping the Faith” in an earlier blog post on February 7.)

I asked Shannon to have coffee and tell me her story. I admire her strength. I was surprised in three ways by our conversation: the profound suffering she endured as a child, the sense of fragility she has about her new life, and the depth of compassion that drives her to help other women like her.

Like many women now in prison, Shannon was sexually abused as a child. In her case the abuse occurred between the ages of 3 and 7, perpetrated by a family friend. She was introduced to drugs by her family at the age of 9. Her father used drugs to sexually abuse her when she was a teen. She was a cutter, engaged in suicidal behaviors, was hospitalized. She became an IV drug user at 26, when she also entered an abusive relationship with her girlfriend. Her long history is dominated by stealing and drug dealing to support a drug habit.

About her current life, working with Pat, Shannon says she stumbled upon success, “Nobody wants to succeed when you’ve always failed. It’s scary as hell.” Shannon talked to me with her hands sweating. She says it’s a fight every day. A slip up last Christmas, drinking with an old friend, reminded her that she’s 48 hours away from returning to her former life. Shannon rejected her old friend. That friend did return to the former life, abandoning a young child in the process.

When I asked Shannon what had changed for her, she pointed to writing and dance with Pat Graney, but mostly to simple things – the passage of time, the wish not to return to prison, the desire to survive. The biggest difference in Shannon’s life now is that she has a whole new set of relationships, where caring doesn’t mean being partners in self-destruction.

Like many survivors of abuse, Shannon has deep compassion for others. Making a difference for them is an essential part of healing. Inside Mission Creek today, facilitating writing and dance, Shannon does not think about herself, her own struggles. She is also very uncomfortable with her own accomplishments. Instead, Shannon is often close to tears, dealing with the inmates’ suffering and hoping for a better life for her old friends.

Feb 13
I Feel Like Weights Have Been Lifted

For the past four years Pongo has surveyed its writers. I want to share the latest results because of what they reveal about distressed teens – their enthusiasm for art and for change, and also their insight into their own lives and their appreciation for those who care. (And I want to share the latest results because I believe in the Pongo method, and I want you to try it! Please read our web site and get in touch.)

Let me explain right away that every teen who works with Pongo in a one-on-one session completes a survey, unless we run out of time. The survey-takers are not a self-selected group. Also, when we choose youth to participate in a one-on-one session we give priority to teens who have never written before and who may be having a difficult time that day. (About one-third of Pongo writers are pretty new to writing, about one-third write a lot.)

As you probably know, the teens currently participating in Pongo are either in juvenile detention or the state psychiatric hospital for children. Many have suffered greatly in their childhoods. They have good reason to be angry, withholding, and mistrustful.

Here are the results of surveys collected last year from 100 different individuals:

  1. Did you enjoy this writing experience? [YES - 100%]
  2. Do you feel proud of the writing you did with us? [YES - 99%]
  3. Did you write about things you don’t normally talk about? [YES - 73%]
  4. Do you feel you learned something about writing? [YES - 88%]
  5. Do you feel you learned something about yourself? [YES - 75%]
  6. If you wrote about things that are bothering you, did the writing help you feel better? [YES - 86%]
  7. Do you think you might write more in the future? [YES - 92%]
  8. If so, do you think you might write during times when life is difficult? [YES - 93%]

About one-third of the teens in detention wrote optional comments, and most of these said that Pongo is cool and awesome. (Thank you!) The other comments showed the teens’ insight into their own process:

  • “I feel like weights have been lifted off my shoulders.”
  • “This writing was really fun even though the things I was thinking of were really sad.”
  • “I love writing, and I feel good that I can share it with people who care.”
  • “I love writing something that keeps me cool when I’m mad.”
  • “I’m proud you all came because I would not have expressed myself.”
  • “I think I let out a lot that was on my mind.”
  • “It raises my spirit."
  • "A very positive vibe.”
  • “It was a good experience for me because it helped release tension and stress.”
  • “Writing expresses a lot and helps me release stress.”
  • “It really helped me get stuff out of my mind.”
  • “It was a stress reliever.”
  • “It really helped me with how I was feeling.”

By the way, this year's survey results are completely consistent with Pongo's surveys over four years, from 386 distressed teens. (Pongo is cool and awesome.)

Feb 07
Mission Creek

On Friday I led a poetry workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, a women’s prison in Washington State. The first line of the first poem in the first group was “Why did he have to touch me there?”

The women wanted to write about childhood sexual abuse, a prevalent problem in the lives of incarcerated women. It hadn’t been my plan to begin with that deep and personal topic.

I admired the women for their openness and for the support and applause they offered one another. Women turned to their friends to help them finish and read their work. They handed around a roll of toilet paper to dry their tears.

Sometimes people in the community ask me if the work I do through Pongo is depressing. They read the sad poetry, but they aren’t privileged as I am. I see writers in their moment of triumph, vulnerable and brave.

Another thing about Friday’s group is that it confirms one of the messages of Pongo – that helping people write in a healing way is about removing obstacles to self-expression. People who are hurting want to make sense of their lives. They understand that writing and sharing can accomplish this.

What are some of the obstacles that have to be removed to enable writing? We have to let people know that we can tolerate their feelings and respect their process. As witnesses, we have to be vulnerable ourselves. Also, as part of Pongo, we have to support people as they begin a writing process by providing writing structures. With the women at Mission Creek I used an activity called “You Don’t Know Me .”

The experience at Mission Creek reminds me of another thought I've had from the Pongo work: I think one of the reasons society institutionalizes certain suffering populations is that we’re often afraid of their pain, of the intense feelings their lives evoke in others.

Finally, I'd like you to know the context for my work at Mission Creek. I am leading some writing groups in support of my friend Pat Graney, the choreographer, who is in her 15th year of Keeping the Faith performance projects with incarcerated women. Pat’s performances by women in prison include art and music, and importantly, personal writing. The public can attend the two performances at Mission Creek in May. Contact the Pat Graney Company .

Feb 01
A Black Hole in the Spirit

Many of the teens who write with Pongo have suffered trauma. And that distress leaves them silent, determinedly silent, helplessly silent – with a black hole in the spirit where their feelings are sucked inside.

It’s important to understand this silence in order to understand many suffering young people, and how they can be helped to poetry, and by poetry.

Black Hole
by Erica (a homeless young woman, about 15 years old)

My heart and my spirit are
very different.
My heart’s saying Yes,
but my spirit says No.

What’s the matter with me,
can you hear me,
can you even feel me?

I feel like a black hole,
something so gone.
I’m here but lost in…

but lost in what?

You try to finish the rest.

Often when people think about writing classes, they think about an expert writer who teaches skills and refinements of communication to people who already express themselves, even if those students don’t yet understand the deep reflection that writing can facilitate.

On the other hand, consider the people who have a black hole in the spirit. Many Pongo authors have suffered trauma, such as abuse, and their feelings are buried deep inside. Among the effects of trauma, people can be in shock and numb, cut off from feeling. Trauma itself can be overwhelming and people might repress the experience, or disengage from the experience in a more extreme way as if their traumatized feelings are part of an entirely separate personality.

Trauma can leave a person hypersensitive and overly reactive. This is not silence as such, but it might be a painful diversion from more painful feelings. Some people are aggressive. Some people hurt themselves. They unconsciously avoid feelings of traumatic loss.

Then there are traumas that exert an even more brutal grip on feelings. If a child has been abused by a parent, the child might blame herself or behave in other ways that protect the relationship with the parent. Also, the family may adapt to the abuse by placing great responsibility on the child, including the responsibility to keep the abuse a secret.

Guilt and shame are also powerful effects of trauma, and are contributors to a person’s silence. And so on.

For people who have suffered trauma, who feel a black hole in the spirit, poetry heals them by integrating experience and feeling.

Pongo enables that integration by listening to experiences and by placing a person’s words in the feeling-ful medium of poetry. Beyond that, the Pongo method is essentially gradual, nonintrusive, supportive, and caring.

Jan 09
How Do You Talk About Violence?

Last night a group of Seattle performance poets read Pongo poetry on themes of trauma and violence. Most of the poetry had been written in Pongo projects in juvenile detention. The performance included poems about child sexual abuse (“The Guy with the Green Eyes”), addiction and abuse at home (“Without a Family”), parental abandonment (“The Other Piece of Me, My Father”), and rape (“Running Away”).
The performance was the vision and execution of Pongo volunteer Eli Hastings and Seattle poet Roberto Ascalon. It took place at Youth Theatre Northwest on Mercer Island. And the performance was the product of many months of thought and several false starts. What made this performance so difficult to create?
The WHY of such a performance was an easier consideration than the HOW. The Pongo poetry can make people cry. It illustrates the profoundly hurtful and earth-shaking traumas that often precede teen behaviors that eventually lead to incarceration and psychiatric care. The Pongo poetry can facilitate understanding and a constructive response to youth violence. But HOW do you talk about such traumas without evoking and creating more trauma and destructive behavior?
Pongo has had the privilege over 14 years of working with, and learning from, youth in crisis. We have worked in collaboration with many insightful professionals, such as Dr. Ted Rynearson, founder of the Homicide Project, and Dr. Mick Storck, a psychiatrist at Child Study and Treatment Center. So we have learned to appreciate the great hurt inflicted by trauma, a hurt that can leave a person feeling preoccupied, damaged, guilty, worthless. We have also seen that these same hurt people can show another complicated reaction to trauma in which they seem uncaring or are drawn to recreating traumatic events.
Our solution to the HOW, when it comes to talking about violence, was to focus in this way – the effects of violence on the individual, as expressed in poetry, and the benefits of poetry for resilience.
In other words, we chose not to talk about violence as a concept or a sociological study. The seeming neutrality of such a discussion might only reinforce a person’s sense of damage and helplessness. Instead we chose to talk about trauma and violence in terms of how the individual feels in poetry. And how we feel in reading and hearing the work.
This approach was also important, I think, for the majority of the audience, those who have been less directly affected by trauma and violence in their lives. After all, how often in our social dialogue do we respectfully open up to feelings about something so overwhelming? Isn’t it more common for us to shut down emotionally or to express anger instead?
At the end of a great evening, that included performance and discussion with performers and audience, Roberto said, “This was so easy, why couldn’t we have made this happen sooner?” The answer of course is that talking about trauma and violence isn’t easy at all.

Dec 11
Lost Family and Deep Shame

My first two posts discussed how we begin life as the object of stories told by others, stories by our families and later society. If these stories betray us, if they tell us we're defective or unwanted as children, we lack the power to answer.

But the impact of others' stories is even more hurtful than as critical sounds in a hateful world. When we are betrayed early in life, we feel a more fundamental and personal failure, a failure in our love. Others' critical stories become the stories we tell ourselves -- the internal and assaultive voice of our shame.

Once a 13-year-old girl in detention wrote about being abandoned by her father, her only parent. Cheri (a pseudonym) created "The Other Piece of Me, My Father," where she describes that her dad told her not to come home one night when she was 11. She had nowhere to go, and she stayed with a neighbor, a stranger. The next morning when Cheri went home, her father had moved out.

The rejection was torturous. Her dad left behind Cheri's birth certificate, her baby pictures, and little presents she had made for him when she was little. Then Cheri concluded by saying, "That's what I get for being a bad kid, I guess." The rejection, the lost family, was personalized as shame.

When I asked Cheri to say more, she talked about a wider range of feeling -- about how her mother had abandoned her when she was an infant, about how she had hit a teacher in anger management class in elementary school. Then she wrote a new ending to her story and said she felt neglected.

Finally Cheri dedicated her poem to her father, as many teens do even when they have been hurt. The teens' love is enduring, though they feel tainted by rejection.

That's the damage that can be done by other people's stories of who you are, especially in the context of lost family. They become the damning stories you tell yourself.

Nov 19
Feeling Invisible

Richard’s blog: In my first post I wrote that we begin life as the objects of other people’s stories -- stories from our families and our society about who we are and what we will become. We’re fortunate if that story is an insightful novel, where we are a unique and developing personality. Unfortunately, the story we’re handed might be a horror story, a tragedy, or a play with no exit. Sometimes, I learn that a Pongo author believes he is a monster (“The Battle Between Good and Evil”). Sometimes, I learn that a Pongo author believes she is a failure for not saving her family from an impossible dysfunctional state (“Looking for Love”). Sometimes, I learn that a Pongo author is supposed to be a reflection of a parent who is mired in a painful life (“Just Another Girl”).

And what can we do as children to understand and contradict these stories? We are quite helpless. Our strength comes from finding someone who loves us as the person we are.

Without that love, what do we see in the mirror? Who is that person there? The feelings that define us, the richness that is part of our nature, they lose all validity. We are alienated from ourselves. And society’s own image of our race, age, economic status, and gender may also limit and degrade that image of ourselves.

And then the factors of invisibility can become more complicated and convoluted still. Trauma is a frequent event in certain lives – There are children who watch violence at home when Mom is beaten, who suddenly lose a loving grandparent, who see murder in gangs. Trauma can cause a person to separate herself from certain memories and feelings, can build emotional and experiential walls, can cause a person to become a true stranger to herself.

How do we clear the fog from that mirror, how do we learn to see and accept our human selves and our possibilities? One of the ways is to find and believe in a better love. Another way is to understand our true feelings. A third way is to find a voice that creates a clear story, the honest story, of our life and our hurt.

Nov 17
Telling Your Story, Claiming Your Life

Richard's blog: Pongo has a story, and it's about sharing stories. It's about how people change after creating their stories, and how others are changed in the process of listening to what we say. To look at these processes together tells us something rich and essential about who we are. But to look at the source of our story can also tell us something about the pain in understanding.

Even before we can frame our own story, we are the object of others' stories. Over and over in teen writing, Pongo hears that, perhaps from birth, perhaps covertly, a teen was told that others don't want her to be strong and happy. One burden of this inherited story is that it serves the deeply felt need of a person the child cares deeply about. One burden of this inherited story is that the child feels responsible for a loved one’s pain, and feels unlovable herself. From Pongo, there is Joey's story in "Parents," where his mom gave him the choice when he was seven to live with his aunt. Joey made this choice, and Mom then blamed Joey for rejecting her. She refused to see him again. Joey felt and feels terrible. It is in our nature as children to become others' stories.

Also, before we can frame our own story, we are the object of society's stories, where every social group, including our own, protects its emotional vulnerabilities with a story of who we are. These stories often feature a message of unworthiness about those who are different, a message that masks our own insecurities.

How amazing it has been for me to find Pongo's story -- about how simple it can be to write a transformative vision of ourselves. (How simple it can be, but not easy.) If we write from the heart about the circumstances of our lives, especially the singular moments that affected us deeply, this heartfelt truth has the power to be a new reality. Interestingly, we don't have to glorify ourselves or blame anyone else for our troubles. We just have to speak our own internal truth.

I think this transformative power in writing is the common power of our humanity. It is so powerful that, even when we are hurting, we can recognize the humanity in ourselves. When we write from the heart about our feelings, we see a version of ourselves that can feel better and take more control. We are changed -- both the writer and the listener.

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