Healing Power of Prison Poetry
On a brisk September morning I wait in a dormitory (read: cell block) at King County Juvenile Detention in Seattle as a volunteer ushers in a group of five boys (read: inmates). The young men—three black, a Latino, and a white—have all weathered storms that I can scarcely fathom: born with drugs in their infant bodies, or abandoned by both parents, or traumatized by watching friends gunned down before their eyes.
As they come into the room, they strike a balance between obedience and resistance: hands behind their backs, smirks on their faces. Seeing their peach-fuzzed cheeks, absurd haircuts, and guarded gazes returns me forcefully to my own high school days, which took place less than a mile east of here. I know that many of these prisoners were up to mischief no worse than I got into myself: graffiti, smoking pot, chronic truancy. One of my mother’s favorite phrases, there but for the grace of God go I, keeps cycling through my head, but I correct it: There but for the color of my skin, the support of my family, the promise of higher education, there but for all of my invisible privilege, go I.
I had an advantage beyond these things, though—the written word. I started scrawling the first terrible lines of my own poetry at age 13 and found relief from the life events that haunted me, whether simple drama (breakups) or real tragedy (the mental illness of my best friend). So I’m honored to be here among other volunteers as a member of the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, which assists distressed youths in trading self-destructive and anti-social behaviors for poetic self-expression.
I’ve been here three times before: once for a stern orientation and twice for a sort of acclimation, during which the other volunteers and I huddled in unused dormitories to write our own poetry, an activity intended to help us identify with the kids and sensitize us to the struggle for creativity in a penal landscape. Parades of jump-suited kids filed past, casting aloof glances at us as if we were very lost tourists.
Today, a kid with a well-kept Afro spots me, grins, and saunters to my table. I am supposed to invite him to open his heart on my very blank pad of paper. I breathe deeply, shake his hand, and present my spiel.
“So, as Adrienne probably told you, we come in here because we believe that young people who have been through hard stuff have important things to say. We think the most important element of good writing is that it comes from the heart.”
Maxwell raises plucked eyebrows and nods at the first page in a stack of prompts. I slide the exercise, “I Am,” and a dulled pencil in front of him. Ten minutes later, he pushes it back, and his eyes are different, brighter. This is Maxwell’s first time writing with Pongo, but it won’t be his last; he employs his rapper’s talent to speak from his heart.
I Am Who I Am
Today I’m focused like a lens on a camera
Yesterday I was hard-headed like a hard-head on a hammer
On the street I’m so serious they call me Lil SB (Strictly Bizness)
In my room I’m like a failing quiz, you shouldn’t test me
To my mom I’m a little square like a rectangle
To my dad I’m a ghost, I can disappear like Chris Angel
My friends think I’m mean like the wicked witch of the west
Really I’m cool with something big pumping in my chest
The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project was founded in 1992 by a writer named Richard Gold. Gold had spent years teaching poetry at a San Francisco school for special-needs kids, where most of the youths were also patients at a psychiatric clinic. He observed that writing poetry could disarm traumatized and troubled kids’ natural hesitancy and help them learn the ability and value of self-expression.
Pongo’s writing sessions give youth a chance to express often-difficult truths. The program’s small press turns those expressions into anthologies, presenting the teens’ voices to the world in a format that conveys respect and dignity. Since 2000, Pongo has worked with more than 4,000 teens in youth prisons, homeless centers, and the two mainstays of the Pongo program: a children’s psychiatric hospital in Lakewood, Washington, and the 9-year-old program at King County Detention. Pongo has published 12 volumes of teen poetry, 12,000 copies of which have been distributed to distressed youths, libraries, judges, schools, and social service agencies.
Read More Pongo Teen Poetry
NOT FEELING CARED FOR
I feel alone
Like a deer that’s just been born
But its mom died
Like the only flower
In a field
Like a pool of water
In the middle of the desert
I feel deserted
Like an open piece of candy on the shelf
That nobody wants to buy
Like a box of kittens
And I’m the last one in the litter to be picked
Like an un-ironed pair of pants
That nobody wants to wear
I feel the need for love
A squeeze of lemon in my glass of water
A breeze on a warm summer’s eve
A whisper in my ear that tickles
—by a 16-year-old young woman in juvenile detention
Between 2005 and 2008, Pongo surveyed nearly 300 of the kids who participated in the project. One-third of Pongo youths had never or hardly written before; 100 percent enjoyed writing; 66 percent wrote about issues they normally wouldn’t talk about; 80 percent felt better from their writing; and 96 percent claimed they would write more in the future.
Pongo takes kids who have been left out of the educational system at every step and draws them into learning and expression. In the year that I’ve worked with Pongo, I’ve watched these kids open up through writing.
Every Tuesday between September and April, the other volunteers and I were allowed to enter a raucous classroom in Detention’s public school program to make our upbeat pitch, “Who wants to come write poetry?!” Plastic chairs bucked into odd configurations as the kids leaned back. Some heckled. Many crossed their arms: There were the skinny appendages of a precocious addict or the thick, tattooed ones of a Deuce-8 gang leader. Some days their cool aversion was contagious. Other days more students raised their hands than we could handle.
Regardless of their initial level of enthusiasm, once each kid sat down at a table across from a Pongo volunteer, heard that the only determinant of “good” poetry for us was honesty, and started writing, he was captivated.
In the vast majority of cases Pongo volunteers are the first to invite a kid to speak about his struggles with the motive of honoring them instead of analyzing them, and on some level each kid realizes that. Pivotal life events that may never come up in counseling sessions sometimes emerge in Pongo poetry. Freed from the judgment of their peers and the interrogations of psychologists, however benevolent, students get immersed in the natural high that comes when you abandon the bravado, bluffing, and bullshit and start finding truth and color from within.
Pongo is only a small part of these kids’ weekly education. In Detention, the public schools literally have a captive audience. But the disparity between what happens in class and the lives of the kids could hardly be wider. Algebra and grammar rules are often the last things on their minds.
John, for example, with wild eyes and a honeyed voice, has never learned to write decently because he’s been booted out of every high school he’s attended. Jeremy squeezes his pencil so hard his knuckles whiten as he recounts the lesson he’s taken from his best friend’s murder: “That I’d better worry ’bout the bullet coming for me—fuck homework.” The bulldog-shaped, quick-to-tears Terry is too busy trying to “breathe right” and manage his anger to pay attention in class.
Why should these kids place education above the gang allegiance that keeps them alive on the street or provides them the family they’ve never had? Why should teens that suffer from PTSD due to repeated rapes or a friend’s killing embrace the challenge of a textbook instead of the relief of a pipe?
This is the terrain on which Pongo operates—the writing is not just another classroom exercise. The poetry allows these young people to practice self-expression and talk about their experiences in a safe place. Pongo invites them to exchange shame for candor, to witness their truths on the page, to look at their circumstances analytically, and to honor the strength that’s enabled them to survive hardship. And perhaps most importantly, Pongo’s youths learn to use writing to deal with their memories, rage, sorrow, and trauma, instead of turning to gangs, prostitution, and drug abuse.
It’s tragic that these kids had to land in a detention center to receive an education in honest self-expression. But the kids who walk out of Pongo gain a new faith, however nascent, in the power of their own voice, and may be less likely to return to a place like this.
At the end of every Pongo afternoon, we deliver four freshly typed copies of each poem back to its author. This always happens at shift-change hour, when all the kids are locked down in their cells. So as we walk the worn linoleum corridors, past the circular control posts manned by deadpan guards, our footfalls echo. We can’t even hear the voices of the kids until we enter the dormitory, and then they are muted behind tons of steel and cinderblock. But when we slide their poems beneath the door of their cells and bump fists through the Plexiglass window, their smiles are plain to see.
Eli Hastings wrote this article for Learn as You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Eli teaches creative writing in nontraditional contexts. He is author of the memoir Falling Room (Bison Books, 2006). His writing has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals.
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