Pongo Teen Poetry: Finding Peace in Poetry
I just thought you should know what I’m doing now.
I’m addicted to drugs and in juvie a lot. I am an unloved
person who spends a lot of time doing drugs to feel better
and not abandoned.
I just thought you should know how I’m feeling. I just
hate you. I hate my dad, too. I hate you because you left
me one night when I was 7 and never came back. The
police broke down the door to take me to foster care. But
even before that you brought home men who hurt me
and did bad things to me. I hate you for pimping me out.
I hate you for packing my nose full of white powder,
which is why I have breathing problems now. I hate you
for getting me into drugs. I hate you because I ended up
in a gang. I hate you.
I just thought you should know what I have been through.
Since the last time I saw you I’ve been in more foster
homes than I can count, but 45-50% of them were
abusive. I always ran, but the system found me, didn’t
believe me, and put me in another, and another. The time
that I was going to be adopted was especially important.
They came and picked me, and I lived in their house for a
week before they found out my history and they
sent me back.
I just thought you should know what I wish for the
future. I hope that somehow I can yell at you without
having to see you, to blame all this crap on you. Though
it would do nothing for me, at least I wouldn’t have to
hold it inside any longer.
I just thought you should know what I don’t miss about
you… I don’t miss you at all. I’m glad I don’t have to
worry about you leaving me again and not coming back.
I just thought you should know that there is nothing at all
that I miss about you.
I just thought you should know that no matter what,
you’ll always be my mom, and I’ll always love you.
Dedicated to my mom
By Katelyn, Age 13
In above the water of my sorrows
A poetry anthology written during Pong Teen Writing sessions at King County Juvenile Hall
King County Detention Centre
Pongo Teen Writing are helping people to transform terrible and traumatic experiences into something beautiful: poetry. The poem above was written during a Pongo Poetry session at King County Juvenile hall, and during my time in Seattle I was able to observe a Pongo Poetry session at this same location. Young People at the detention center are between the ages of 10 and 17, and stay for an average of 10 days, but can be incarcerated for up to a year depending on the offence. This is an extremely vulnerable population with 85% of detainees having mental health and other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, ADD, anger management or foetal alcohol syndrome.
As the population is so transient, the Pongo Teen Writing team prepare their workshops as one off poetry experiences that last between 30 minutes to 1 hour. In this time they are able to make a big difference to the young people they work with. In a Pongo Teen Writing session, the young people work one-on-one with a volunteer and the volunteers are supported throughout the experience too.
The day before the workshop I met with Richard Gold, the founder and director of the programme (pictured below with the Seattle Troll), and Eli Hastings the assistant director of the program. They acknowledged that the key element that makes the poetry sessions successful is that the facilitators have to believe that the work can have a powerful impact and have to be able to sit comfortably and listen to what the young person has to say. After being with the volunteers for 10 minutes before the session started, it was clear that the volunteers are all incredibly patient and perceptive people and that they truly understand the power of the work.
The volunteers commit to one session a week for a year and they attend two days of training to inform them of the Pongo method. The training is also ongoing and before they start writing with the young people, they have an opportunity to share a poem that has inspired them during that week and to share another poem that they have written themselves that week. This helps set the mood for the volunteers and follows the belief that you can’t support a young person in their poetry unless it is something you use to support yourself.
After the volunteers share their poetry, Eli and the lead volunteer Emily visit one of the classrooms where a group of students are learning maths. Pongo Teen Poetry have built up a strong relationship with the detention centre over many years, so the teachers and staff can see that the benefit of attending a Pongo Session is significant enough to let students leave their regular lessons to attend the session.
Eli and Emily let the students know what Pongo Teen Writing is about. They do this by reading a poem that a previous student from the detention centre has written and by telling the students that they all have important stories that deserve to be told. Some of the group have heard of Pongo before and there is an excited murmur around the class. It is completely voluntary whether students want to participate and approximately half the class put their hand up to participate.
The four students who want to participate are escorted to the volunteers and they get straight to work. The volunteers introduce themselves and explain a bit more about the poetry writing process. The key point that they try to explain is that poetry can appear in many forms, for example a story or a list. There is no pressure to have experience in writing; anyone can be a poet.
The volunteers ask the young people questions such as ‘How was your day?’ or ‘Is there anything you would like to write about?’ They then write down what the young people say and this forms a poem. Witnessing this process was very inspiring as through the careful, non-intrusive, respectful and interested questions from the volunteers, the young people started to talk about important topics, such as death, drugs, court and birth.
You could visibly see the young people relax as they had someone listening to them and a small smile of pride would creep over the young people’s faces, as they listened to the volunteer read back what they have written. The young people could hardly believe that the volunteers were reading what they had said, and were amazed that they had come up with something so interesting.
At the end of the session, some of the young people read their poetry to the group. They received praise and appreciation from their peers and they left looking buoyed by the experience. Pongo receives 100% positive feedback when they ask participants if they enjoy the poetry writing process. 98% of participants feel proud of their writing and 75% write about things they wouldn’t usually talk about.
At the end of the session, the volunteers have a debrief where they discuss any successes or challenges they have had during the session. It is important that every volunteer has a chance to share and as the content of the poems can often be quite difficult, the volunteers need to make sure that they are supported in dealing with this too.
Some young people may find it harder to enter the writing process and during my visit, there are two separate sessions. One with four boys and one with four girls, a few of the girls need quite a lot of support in getting their ideas out, so the volunteers share strategies to support each other in this situation. One idea they have is to use a fill in the blanks style poem, to get things started and they have hundreds of resources available to help with this on their website: http://www.pongoteenwriting.org/introduction-to-writing-activities.html?
When speaking to Richard and Eli about the programme, it is clear that they have a very strong belief in their method and it is very important to them to share what they have learnt. You can read about their method in Richard’s book called ‘Writing with At-Risk Youth.’ It is a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to try poetry workshops with young people and it means that their work can be replicated around the world. Most recently, Richard was asked to deliver a workshop with a group of Syrian Refugees in Amsterdam.
The work is very transferable to different contexts and in recent years, Pongo has also started delivering workshops at homeless shelters, with similarly vulnerable, but older populations. I was lucky enough to join Richard at two programmes within homeless shelters: 1811 and Canaday. The volunteers face different challenges to the detention centre, as alcohol can be available at the centres and so some participants may be under the influence when they write.
However, no matter what the circumstance, the volunteers treat each participant with respect and the same positive results are seen in these settings. The participants were clearly really pleased to have someone listening, with one participant saying the session ‘made me smile, which I don’t get much chance to do these days.’
Richard explained how keeping the volunteers safe has to be a priority in all the centres and we nearly had to leave one session when a resident at the shelter was experiencing mental health difficulties and became violent, but it is because of these difficult situations that the residents experience that the sessions become even more important. The sessions give the residents a chance to escape for a while.
As an observer, it was amazing to see that when the session was taking place you could forget the setting for a while. You could forget the orange uniforms of the incarcerated children and you could forget the fact that a picture sat on the table at the homeless centre of a resident who had died the day before.
Perhaps ‘forget’ is the wrong word. Instead the poetry gave a space to experience the emotions that come with these difficult settings and a space to find peace with them.
It is a small intervention, but it is making a big impact on the people it touches and the impact lives on with the poems that are handed back to the participants for them to keep or are published anonymously in Pongo anthologies, for us all to learn from.
I would like to thank Richard and Eli, for inviting me into this fantastic organisation, but I would also like to acknowledge their wonderful volunteers who put so much thought and energy into the sessions. It really was a privilege to join them for a week. Unfortunately I didn't get to meet everyone, but anyone who I didn't meet, I have also heard wonderful things about! So, here they are:
Programme Leaders: Ann Teplick, Emily Caris and Vanessa Hooper (also Pongo event coordinator and development director).
Mentors: Amani Carithers, Becky Sherman, Natalie Singer-Velush, Jefferson Rose, Ellen Bloom, Lisette Austin, Rebecca Richards-Diop, Samantha Krecjik, Jaspar Lepak and Ashley Skartvedt.