By Richard Gold, poet and Founder of Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project in Washington state
The Pongo Teen Writing Project is a 17-year-old nonprofit that uses poetry to help youth at juvenile detention and other sites to heal from childhood traumas, such as abuse and neglect. We have also worked with incarcerated adults. Pongo’s authors find great significance in personal writing. Though their poems may be quite sad, the teens feel excited, proud, relieved, and accomplished in this process.
In the paragraphs below I provide more history and background about Pongo. But I would like to begin by extending an offer. Part of Pongo’s current mission is to share and consult on the methods we’ve evolved for therapeutic poetry with distressed populations. If some of you are currently using other art forms, but would like to incorporate poetry, or if some of you are currently developing a new writing project, please feel free to contact us for support. Also, Pongo’s web site has information on our methods, hundreds of example poems, and 50 writing activities that people can complete online and that teachers can download for their own use.
The origins of Pongo go back to the late 70’s, when I created a poetry program at a special school. One day some strangers approached me at a school function. It turned out they were the teens’ therapists. I learned that half the students were patients at a psychiatric clinic, and that these youth were dealing with issues in poetry that they’d had difficulty dealing with in therapy. The clinic hired me, and I worked there for four years, as part of a multidisciplinary team at a psychoanalytically oriented teaching hospital.
Later, in the early 90’s, after a career publishing computer books at Microsoft, I retired and founded Pongo. Pongo’s two principal sites are the juvenile detention center in Seattle (since 1998) and the Washington State psychiatric hospital for children (since 2000). At these sites and others, Pongo has worked with 6,000 youth, published 13 books of youth poetry, given away 13,500 books to youth and others, and talked to over 10,000 people in the community about the lives and poetry of our authors.
In addition to the personal and transformative poems themselves, which can be read on our web site, another indicator of Pongo’s wonderful effect is the result of 574 surveys of our authors: 100% enjoyed writing, 99% were proud of their writing, 72% wrote about things they don’t normally talk about, 88% learned about writing, 76% learned about themselves, 82% felt better after writing, and 94% expected to write more in the future. Importantly, one-third of Pongo’s authors had never written before or hardly at all.
How does Pongo realize its mission? We believe the creative process flows naturally, like water flowing downhill, but that varying types of support may be required to start that flow. To begin, we try to be good listeners, to understand the complexity of people’s emotional issues, and to accept people’s strong feelings. We ask people to “Write from the heart about who you are.” We say that “Honesty is the most important quality of good writing.”
Then, to initiate the creative process for our authors, we offer support in the form of structured writing activities on relevant themes (for example, a fill-in-the-blank poem in the form of a letter to a missing parent). Importantly, we create these structures and themes so that they are non-intrusive and flexible, respecting the teens’ vulnerabilities.
Ultimately, Pongo’s primary purpose is to help our authors understand their feelings, build self-esteem, and take better control over their lives. The original feedback that I received in the 70’s, that teens are writing about things that they’ve had difficulty talking about before, is feedback I receive from therapists at the psychiatric hospital today.
We love what we do and would be happy to talk further with you. I think you’ll appreciate a recent TV story about our work in juvenile detention. Best wishes.