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March 18, 2014

Poetry brings happiness to troubled teens

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A unique program in Seattle teaches teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives to write poetry as a way to triumph over their experiences.

For U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who recently visited the program known as the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project, these experiences are deeply personal.

“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,” she explained.

Teens who are part of the project often write about traumatic losses that occurred when they were little children, losses such as the death of a parent, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and a parent’s addiction. This writing experience sometimes paves the way to publishing opportunities.

Pongo volunteers, both seasoned and amateur writers themselves, meet with inmates, asking questions and helping them write.

One of the 16-year-old inmates came up with a metaphor to describe her state of mind: “I kind of felt like a plant, a flower, just stuck in a cave.”

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Personal reflections on the poetry of Maya Angelou

In this lesson plan, students will watch and read Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” then analyze and reflect on her words.

Over the years, the project has reached more than 7,000 teenagers in detention centers, state psychiatric hospital and centers for homeless youth.

“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,” said Richard Gold, who started the program 18 years ago. “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.”

Gold is collecting poems from the project for a new poetry anthology, and has published a book that he hopes will encourage similar programs around the country.


Warm up questions
  1. Do you find writing poetry or writing in general difficult? What are the most challenging parts and why?
  2. Why is it important for people of all ages and backgrounds to be able to express themselves? What happens to them if they can’t?
  3. Have you ever been betrayed by someone close to you? How did it make you feel? Were you able to overcome those feelings? How did you do it?
Discussion questions
  1. Why do you think it’s important that programs like Pongo are available to teens in detention centers and community centers that serve youths who have been faced with many challenges in their lives?
  2. What message does it send to teens when an adult spends time with them, listens to their stories and supports their self-expression through poetry? What impact might it have on the teens?
Writing prompt

During the interview, poet laureate Natasha Trethewey brought up the relationship between tragedy and happiness that is often experienced during the process of creating poetry:

“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?

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.”

How does this relate to your life? Think of an experience in your own life when you dealt with a painful experience and recall what emotions you may have felt before, during and after the event. Did you work hard to deal with the bad emotions? Was there a time during the process where you felt release or happiness? Explain your answer.

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