Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
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!”

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)