Teen Poetry Collections

We don’t know who we are. We are alienated from the parts of ourselves that hurt and feel unloved. And if, as children, we are overwhelmed by terror and loss, we break down along these fault lines of pain, to become one person with separate lives and segregated feelings, to become disengaged strangers in one mind. We make sense of our dysfunction in the best way we can, by assuming it is our fault. We feel like monsters and unlovable. This is how we suffer from the worst experiences of life.

These words in italics, here and throughout this Preface, are my portrayal of the lives and poetry represented in this Pongo book. The Pongo Teen Writing Project is a 16-year-old volunteer-based nonprofit that mentors personal writing by youth inside sites such as juvenile detention, homeless shelters, and psychiatric hospitals. I am Pongo’s founder.

The 63 poems in this volume are samples of 741 poems that were facilitated by Pongo at King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle from fall 2007 to spring 2011. The poems are organized in sections, based on the school year they were created. The authors’ names and some details in their poetry have been changed to protect their identities.

To say more about the context and the writing, the teens in juvenile detention are awaiting trial or serving sentences for a variety of offenses, from running away and truancy to prostitution, drug dealing, and violent crimes. The consistent theme in the young people’s writing is childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence. These traumas have a profound effect on the youth, as shown in their poetry, but the story does not end in hopelessness.

Our segregated feelings are intense, as well as unattributed. Our anger and despair drive us to distraction, including taking drugs and alcohol, including running the streets. We replay past agonies in present days. There is no safe place for us.

We feel alone – that we never belonged at home, that we never belonged outside our own neighborhood. The world is afraid of us, afraid of our pain, which is everyone’s unrecognized pain. We feel like monsters and unlovable. We replay our agonies with injured companions. We worry that we have no futures.

The story is difficult, but there is also resilience. Many people who have suffered childhood trauma will struggle as children and teens, and many will recover, often with the help of loving family, caring strangers, and significant others.

And poetry is a miraculous tool for re-assembling the pieces of fragmented consciousness. Through poetry, young people bravely communicate feelings and connect these feelings to experience. At the same time, the poetry of trauma, though terribly sad, is also a basis for pride, a vehicle for openness, a tool for self-maintenance, and a source of great joy.

Among our estranged selves, there is also an insightful self with a clear voice that speaks directly from the heart. The voice is unpracticed because no one has listened before. But we use it to heal ourselves. We begin with sadness, which is frightening. We especially desire relationship, but have doubts. We are ready to be purposeful, and wonder if we will succeed.

We are poets. And through creativity we make new connections. Our voice gets stronger as we learn who we are. We are not the awful experiences that have happened to us. We want a better world for everyone. And though we mourn our many losses, we write and dream the future.

Poetry is a tool for healing. Pongo has collected surveys from 500 of its writers, to learn that 100% enjoyed writing (though 33% were new to poetry), 70% wrote about things they don’t normally talk about, 99% were proud of their work, and 95% expect to write more in the future.

I hope that readers of this book will go to the Pongo web site, where youth can use Pongo activities to write online, and where teachers and counselors can download Pongo activities and also read about Pongo’s teaching approach and techniques. There are hundreds of teen poems for inspiration, as well as my blog on the meaning of the work.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the many people who make Pongo’s work possible. I thank our friends at King County Juvenile Detention, including Pam Jones (director), Karen Kinch (volunteer coordinator), and Lynn Valdez (supervisor). I thank our friends at Seattle Public Schools inside detention, including teachers Neal Baumgardner and Stacy Vida. I thank our friends at King County Library inside detention, including librarian Jill Morrison.

I thank our funders, who are listed on the dedication page. I thank our own talented Pongo project leaders and wonderful mentors, who are listed on the title page. And lastly, I thank our authors, who move us, inspire us, and teach us every day.

We would love to hear from you!
And we can help you find your poem.