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Incarcerated teens write to free their demons; ‘I could have been beautiful’

Pongo students read their poetry at the New Horizons homeless center in Seattle.

Keep moving forward.
The power of speech, self-expression,
Will take you to heights
You never thought could be reached.


Jada participated in the Pongo Writing Project while at a state psychiatric hospital.

That poem, written by 18-year-old Jada, has become his mantra, of sorts. He began writing poetry five years ago, when he was a patient at a state psychiatric hospital in Lakewood, Wash. There he participated in the Pongo Writing Project, a poetry program that has been working with troubled teens for nearly two decades.

Jada, a pen name, says writing has helped him cope with life. “I was in foster care for 10 years, group homes, institutions, so when I wrote, it gave me a release to get everything out. It wasn’t that I was trying to be an artist or be creative. It was more like: this needs to get out before something happens.”

Pongo was created by Richard Gold, a former Microsoft employee, who says helping teens deal with such trauma is precisely the goal. “The economy of poetry inherently captures a lot of the complexity that the youth have a hard time articulating,” says Gold. “There are people out there who say that what I do isn’t poetry. I think what I do is the essence of poetry.” So far, Pongo has worked with more than 7,000 teens in psychiatric wards, homeless shelters and in the King County Juvenile Detention Center.

A crew from PBS NewsHour got a rare glimpse of the program in action at that detention center in Seattle where volunteers meet weekly with inmates for one-on-one writing sessions. The volunteers — who are writers themselves — use guided questions to draw out the words about what the teens are feeling. At session’s end, they are given a chance to read their work to others and submit it for possible publication.

Read an excerpt from a poem that was written during the NewsHour’s visit:

by a 17-year-old male inmateWhy can’t I quit?
How do I stop?
I’ve been to rehab four times
but meth and heroin still take over me.
I feel like drug addiction has me in handcuffs–
there has to be someone with a key to get me out.

How do I make up for the things that I’ve done?
I want to do right, go back to being a normal kid
be in school again, having family
having a mom and dad that aren’t always yelling at me for doing bad
family dinners, going to church
somebody to just tell me I am doing good,
that I am doing good with all the struggle I’ve been through,
somebody to just tell me to keep my head up
that understands that it’s not easy to go through
what I’m going through.
Old friends, kids I used to have fun with, faded away.
Now I’m stuck in a cell.
I feel like nobody cares
Nobody wants to make my bail.

I feel like the boy who cried wolf–
I keep saying I’m going to do better
but the drugs just keep coming back.
It’s like they got stronger while I’ve been in here.

Will there be a day when I can finally be free?
Not just free of jail but free of this demon inside me?

Where Poetry Lives” is a special NewsHour series featuring reports on issues that matter to Americans through the framework of poetry. Funded by the Poetry Foundation and in partnership with the Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center, the reports present U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown as they explore poetry and literature in various corners of American life.

Previously, the duo visited the Alzheimer’s poetry project in Brooklyn, where people with the disease use poetry to try and trigger memory. They also explored InsideOut, a program in Detroit that turns their students into published poets with a little guidance from professional writers, and Harvard Medical School, where Rafael Campo teaches poetry to medical students to help them better connect with their patients.

Watch chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s broadcast report on the Pongo Writing Project.

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