Spotlight on Pongo Teen Writing
To celebrate the release of Prison Noir — the latest release in Akashic’s Noir Series and edited by National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates — we’re pleased to bring you a spotlight on the Pongo Teen Writing program written by Eli Hastings, the program’s assistant director.
by a woman in juvenile detention, age 16
I just thought you should know that life is hard—I’ve seen a lot:
murders, love like grandma’s peanut butter pancakes,
hate like my parents’ addiction and absence,
my siblings tormenting me because I have a different dad
(theirs sent money, mine disappeared)
I’m loud, but it’s a mask
On the inside I’m quiet
But I’m making sure I’m seen and heard
I just thought you should know that your actions make me hate you,
everything you made me see—it made me think you didn’t care:
taking me to drug houses, letting people do what they wanted to me so you could score
I’m going to be more than you were
I’m going to make you proud of me
I just thought you should know that I love you
and that the pain that you caused taught me a lesson—
about how to treat my children:
I’ll never do to them what you did to me
I’m going to help them succeed
I can say the following clinically, like this: A frontline evidence-based treatment, dialectical behavioral therapy, claims the principle that every significant problem in one’s life is the result of a failed dialectic—that is, a failure to find a synthesis between two opposing poles.
I can say it like a normal person, too: Almost all of the problems in our lives boil down to our inability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.
But I like the way the young woman above said it—no psychobabble, no philosophy. The author of the poem achieved, at least in part, a greater level of emotional maturity than many educated and privileged people achieve in a lifetime of therapy. Much credit is due to her for seizing upon the depth of courage necessary to excavate such unwieldy, painful, and opposing feelings: “I am deeply damaged because of what my mother did to me and I love her and am going to be an exemplary mother to my own children, which will make my her proud because she’s not a monster, she’s an addict.”
However, much credit is also due to Pongo Teen Writing.
In 2008, as a bumbling writer/activist-cum-teaching artist, I began a short-lived feasibility study on how to use creative writing with distressed populations. It was short-lived because I found Pongo.
But Pongo itself is nineteen years old, created by poet Richard Gold when he retired from Microsoft in the 1990s. We run writing projects for youth that have suffered childhood traumas, abuse, and neglect. We have painstakingly developed methods for facilitating writing. We work inside juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and other sites. We focus our work on young people who have a hard time expressing themselves, and our primary purpose is to help our authors understand their feelings, build self-esteem, and take better control of their lives.
We have worked with over 7,000 teens, produced 13 books of teen poetry, distributed 14,200 copies of our books for free to youth, and talked to over 10,000 people in the community about the lives of our authors. In 1,000 surveys from Pongo’s authors, 100 percent enjoy writing with Pongo, 98 percent are proud of their writing, 75 percent write on issues they don’t talk about, 82 percent feel better after writing, and 94 percent expect to write more in the future, while 35 percent have written only a little or not at all before.
When I began working with Pongo in juvenile detention, I witnessed what dozens of mental health and social service personnel have observed over the years in Pongo projects: kids that seemed impossibly haunted, blunted, or scrambled by horrific events were having breakthroughs. After a couple of years of seeing that it worked, I wanted to understand why.
It just so happened that I entered a Master’s program in psychology around the same time that the broader therapeutic community was looking closely at how narrative can impact the symptoms of trauma. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), for example, jumped to the front line of treatment for trauma. In TF-CBT, clients write a “trauma narrative,” recording in precise detail what happened to them. They go over it time and again with their clinician, slowly putting order and sense to events that were confusing, fragmenting, and chaotic. It turns out that storytelling can dampen or eliminate the lingering effects of even chronic trauma, because it acts as a countermeasure to the isolating, splintering impact that horrific events have on people. It offers the chance to clarify, externalize, and ultimately foreclose on nightmarish memories.
But Pongo does something more. Pongo not only offers chronically traumatized youth the opportunity to tell their story, but also to create a piece of art that is accessible by and impressive to the outside world. Whether it’s a poem that we publish in an anthology or one that we type up and slip beneath their cell door during lockdown, it’s a piece of evidence that they are capable of art and life. It is no exaggeration to say that there is some alchemy that occurs in the process: from shame (at what they have experienced) to pride (at having survived), from victimhood to survivorhood.
Pongo Teen Writing has been honored over the last few years, by the US Poet Laureate and PBS NewsHour story, to a Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award, a Microsoft Alumni Foundation Award, and a KING5-TV news story. Our founder and Director, Richard Gold, published his comprehensive book, Writing With At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method,to great acclaim last year. We continue to expand our work to offer support to counselors, teachers and others wishing to bring this transformative project to life.
Visit us at www.pongoteenwriting.org
Eli Hastings is an author, father, youth-and-family therapist, Assistant Director of Pongo Teen Writing, and a cautious motorcyclist. Visit him at www.elihastings.com
Posted: Sep 24, 2014
Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: Akashic in Good Company, Writing, Joyce Carol Oates, spotlight, Prison Noir, prison, Eli Hastings, Pongo Teen Writing, Pongo, prison writing programs, juvenile detention center, Dear Mom, therapy, Richard Gold, trauma, mental health, psychology, CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, TF-CBT
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