Teen Poetry Collections


Because I Didn’t Know the True Meaning of Love is a collection of writing by teens in juvenile detention in Seattle, Washington. These young people are awaiting trial or serving sentences for a variety of offenses, from running away and truancy to prostitution, shoplifting, drug dealing, and violent crimes. My five colleagues and I helped the teens to write about their lives, through a program that I founded in 1992, the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project.


In the Pongo project, we ask the teens to “write from the heart about who you are as a person.” We especially help young people who don’t normally express themselves. We’ve found that, consistently, our authors use this opportunity to describe early childhood traumas such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, or family death.

This is the first insight that comes from working with young people in distress – that they have profound and secret traumas in their childhoods. In this book, the teens write about torturous circumstances: about being taken away from mom because of her drug problems, about witnessing dad beating mom with a belt, about running away from an abusive home and then being raped, about using drugs to deal with their pain.

Then there is the second insight, that comes after years of doing this work – the nature of the teens’ secrecy itself. Many teens don’t learn to communicate because they don’t feel listened to. Many don’t feel that it’s safe to express their feelings at home or on the streets. And many are profoundly ashamed that they aren’t better loved. This last point is the deeper significance of our book’s title, Because I Didn’t Know the True Meaning of Love.

On the other hand, there is another insight – the power that young people acquire when they find their voices in the world. Our authors are elated and proud to tell their stories and see them published. They eagerly share their creative work with others and learn to talk about their life experiences with more understanding, improved self-esteem, and less shame.

I thank the detention teens for sharing these truths, and I send them my best wishes. I also thank my colleagues, the “Pongoites” Ann, Carol, Frederick, Mary, and Tesmer, who volunteered with me in detention for this six month project. They were the writing mentors who facilitated the majority of the 200 poems we collected, including the poems published here. They are warm, creative, and dedicated people.

<!--[if !supportEmptyParas]--><!--[endif]-->I’d like to thank other wonderful people who made this project possible: the detention staff, including Karen, the volunteer coordinator; the detention school staff, including Cindy, Neal, Lynn, Rich, and Thomas; and the detention library staff, including Jill. Finally, I’d like to thank the Windermere Foundation for a grant toward the publication of this book.


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