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For troubled teens, making and sharing poetry may be unexpected source of happiness

March 17, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
The Pongo Teen Writing Project has been working with troubled teens in detention centers, mental health facilities and homeless centers for nearly two decades, taking their stories and turning them into poetry. In our ongoing series "Where Poetry Lives," Jeffrey Brown and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey learn more about a program that empowers young people in crisis to express themselves.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now Jeffrey Brown has the latest report in a series we call “Where Poetry Lives.”

He and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey are exploring poetry in various corners of American life, seeking to connect those trips to aspects of Natasha’s personal experience.

They recently traveled to Seattle to look at a writing program for troubled teens.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate: My brother spent about a year in a work facility.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Natasha Trethewey, our latest trip brought back vivid memories of visiting her brother in jail after his conviction for a drug crime.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: My brother started writing poems in prison. He told me it was about making something out of the bad situation that he was in. To be able to make a poem out of that situation felt like the act of creation that was a triumph over the experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a project aimed at that kind of triumph over difficult experience that we were visiting at the King County Juvenile Detention Center.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: When you see the streets in your mind’s eye, what do you look at?

JUVENILE INMATE: Death, shootings, robberies.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Pongo writing project has been working with troubled teens for nearly two decades, taking their stories and turning them into poetry.

We were allowed to watch on condition we wouldn’t reveal the identities of the young inmates, age 17 and younger, doing time for crimes that include theft, violence and drug offenses.

JUVENILE INMATE: I feel like the boy who cried wolf.

MAN: And why is that?

JUVENILE INMATE: I keep on saying I’m going to better and stay clean and sober, but then the drugs just come back.

MAN: It’s painful, long and dark nights.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pongo volunteers, both seasoned and amateur writers themselves, meet one-on-one with inmates for an hour, asking questions.

WOMAN: Is there something you can sort of think of that that feeling — to describe that feeling?

JUVENILE INMATE: I felt like I was crushed by a boulder.

JEFFREY BROWN: And encouraging them, like this 16-year-old who’d suffered a miscarriage while in prison, to find words, including metaphors, to describe events and feelings.

JUVENILE INMATE: I kind of felt like a plant, a flower, just stuck in a cave.

JEFFREY BROWN: At session’s end, the volunteers type, the inmates add finishing touches. And the teens are given the opportunity to read their work to the group.

JUVENILE INMATE: When I found out I had lost the baby, I felt like I had been crushed by a boulder. It made me think about the father. It made me realize I didn’t want to have a family with someone like him.

RICHARD GOLD, Pongo Teen Writing Project: How did your session go?

JEFFREY BROWN: Pongo was created by Richard Gold 18 years ago after he left a position with Microsoft. Over the years, he’s brought the project to detention centers like this one, as well as a state psychiatric hospital and several centers for homeless youth, reaching more than 7,000 teens.

RICHARD GOLD: The people who have had a lot of problems that these have been — may have suffered betrayal by the people closest to them.

That’s one of these ultimate complexities poetry can capture. I imagine that there are people out there who say that what I do isn’t poetry. I think what I do is the essence of poetry. What so many of us struggle with is the unarticulated emotion in our lives, and that when poetry serves that, it’s doing something essential for the person and for society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, the Pongo volunteers print up the poems, and then deliver them to the teens in their cells.

WOMAN: Thanks for writing today. Hope to see you again.

JEFFREY BROWN: A selection of them are eventually published.

LYNN VALDEZ, King County Juvenile Detention Center: That’s going to be the hard part for a kid like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Warden Lynn Valdez says the entire experience gives teens hope that they can overcome all of the negativity in their lives.

LYNN VALDEZ: They find a sense of relief and accomplishment, a reward of seeing something on paper that will be published.

JEFFREY BROWN: Valdez knows something about overcoming adversity. A former gang member, he spent time on the other side of these bars before turning his life around. He says that, while the teens are initially wary about poetry, they quickly come around.

LYNN VALDEZ: First, there’s a slight hesitation because they’re not sure what they’re doing. But that — once they overcome that part of it, then it becomes a feeling or something they tend to write down. And they — the reward is, I think that they have actually released something that they have repressed inside.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you see that light bulb go off or something?

LYNN VALDEZ: Oh, you can see it. Oh, you can see it. I have been here 25 years, and this program or this group, what it does is give them some sense of good feelings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pongo has also won over some of those, like juvenile court Judge Barbara Mack, who see and sentence these young people every day.

JUDGE BARBARA MACK, King County Juvenile Court: I see children who come before me every day who aren’t very good at communicating. They have been buffeted by trauma that most people can’t imagine. And they have never really learned how to express themselves. And Pongo gives them the opportunity to do that in a way that’s not threatening.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Natasha, who’s now serving her second year as poet laureate, says she started writing poetry as a way to cope with a traumatic event: the murder of her mother when Natasha was 19.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: And it seemed that poetry was the only thing I could turn to that would help make sense of that enormous loss that I felt. People talk about poetry being therapeutic, and it can be a reductive way of thinking about poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Because…

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s all it is.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s all it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: To sort of help us feel better or something.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right. But it’s so much more than that.

Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poems are records of the best and happiest times and the best and happiest minds. And I have read — given readings and people will ask me at the end, do you ever write any happy poems?

(LAUGHTER)

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: And I tell them that all of my poems are happy poems, because even if I’m writing about the — what seem to be the most traumatic subjects, the making of the poem is the moment when I am the happiest. So, if that’s therapeutic, so be it.

JEFFREY BROWN: At Seattle’s New Horizons homeless center, young people come for recreation, a hot meal and sessions with the Pongo project. The happiness of making and sharing a poem were on display at a poetry reading we attended, as were the hardships in these lives.

WOMAN: Here comes trouble. I hear that she sleeps in a car. And when she needs a cigarette, she just finds half-smoked ones on the ground

MAN: Why would you make a child carry a child, then break a child, then cruelly take a child’s spirit by leaving that child and only that child behind? Never mind, because the answers won’t make up for the fact that my foundation is cracked.

JEFFREY BROWN: Afterwards, we talked to the young writers who asked that their names not be used.

MAN: I started writing because I didn’t have another way to cope.

JEFFREY BROWN: To cope?

MAN: To cope?

JEFFREY BROWN: With what?

MAN: With life.

I was in foster care for about 10 years, different places, group homes, institutions, et cetera. So, when I wrote, it kind of gave me a release to kind of get everything out. So it wasn’t in the sense that I was trying to be an artist or be creative. It was more of just like this needs to get out now before something happens.

WOMAN: All the things that I wouldn’t say to people regularly, I can write it down and make it sound beautiful.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Why does poetry become the place that you can say it?

WOMAN: The things that would normally sound disgusting all of a sudden sound beautiful, like, empowering, I guess? Instead of — instead of feeling ashamed, it’s sort of like you’re getting past that bad stuff.

MAN: Yes, it’s just taking a negative force and then turning it into a positive thing. I can take all of this negative energy I feel inside myself that I would normally bottle up, until eventually it’s going to reach a breaking point, no matter what, in my opinion, and then I just turn it into like literal art.

WOMAN: I looked forward to going to Pongo when I was younger because I could just speak whatever was happening. I was living in group care at the time, so you weren’t allowed to say whatever you want on the floor. Like, you will get sent to your room.

So just to be able to just scream, cry, curse, laugh, chant, whatever I needed to do, and they wrote it all down, and then they give you the power to take out or put it wherever you want. And, like, for me, that was the ultimate empowerment.

RICHARD GOLD: He’s always got my back. I have always got his.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Gold says he’s now collecting poems from the project for a new anthology. He’s also just published a book about the Pongo method that he hopes will encourage similar programs to be set up around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Listen to some of the heartbreaking and inspiring poems from the Pongo students and read Natasha Trethewey’s personal take from visiting with the teens. That’s on our Poetry page.

Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.