“When You’re Proud of What You’ve Done” — Inside the Pongo Poetry Training

Our new partnership will help bring this training to schools across the state

By Katie Bradley, Project Assistant, with Madison Vucci, Digital Design Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

 

Pongo Katie and Madison at training
Madison (R) and me smiling by the Pongo Teen Writing sign, feeling fulfilled after a day full of learning, writing, and growing. 

 

A good day is when you’re proud of what you’ve done. A bad day is when you forget all of what you can do.”

I hadn’t written poetry since I was in fourth grade. But after attending the Pongo Poetry Training in October, I had a subtle sense of accomplishment about what I had shared, and a sense of pride that I’ve been trained in a process that can help so many people.

As I rode back to campus, I had three takeaways from the training repeating in my mind.

Everyone has a story. The world wants to hear your story. Poetry can be about anything.

Through the training, I learned the power of poetry to unlock hidden emotions that are difficult for anyone to face and even moreso for a teenager. I also learned that writing these poems can be a healing process.

Pongo Teen Writing  is a volunteer, nonprofit effort that brings poetry to teens “who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives,” to give them the opportunity for self-expression, therapeutic relief, and pride.

Pongo Logo from Training

This smiling puppet is a part of the Pongo Teen Writing logo. Richard Gold, founder of Pongo, had written a collection of poetry called “The Odd Puppet Odyssey” featuring two puppet characters named Pongo and Rico; this inspired the name of Pongo Publishing. (Photo of the logo by Madison Vucci.)

The all-day training on the Pongo Method helped me realize certain parts of myself, like what is truly weighing on my mind and how creative I can be, and showed me how others can benefit from participating in the Pongo process.

I attended the training because our project is partnering on a new program — Pongo Poetry at Schoolhouse Washington — to offer a fellowship program enabling schools to teach the method to their middle-school students. The project will choose up to four schools/school districts, award them a $1,000 grant and train them on the Pongo method. Students will be able to write poetry with trained facilitators and even have their poetry featured in a book. (Learn more about the project here; applications are due Jan. 12, 2018).

Pongo at SHWA Project Logo RGB_ Logo Final_For Web
Logo for the new partnership that will give grants to up to four school districts around Washington state to develop a poetry program using the Pongo method. Learn more here.

 

My colleague on the Project on Family Homelessness—our very own graphic design genius, Madison Vucci—joined me at the training.

Together we learned a lot about poetry and, ultimately, ourselves.

Heartbreaking, Uplifting and Brave

Pongo MadisonReading2_preview
Madison getting inspired by one of the poetry books at the Pongo training. Photo by Katie Bradley.

To prepare for the training, we were asked some questions to frame our thinking before diving in: “What is your interest in poetry?” and “How will you use the workshop information to help teens?” I realized that my interest in poetry was framed largely as an art that I enjoyed reading or listening to. Writing poetry was simply not my thing.

Meanwhile, Madison was also very nervous to author a piece of poetry. Even though she’s a very creative person, she said she was intimidated by the whole package of writing, sharing, and finding her voice in poetry.

I imagine that many teens may have similar sentiments, and may feel doubtful that they can write a poem that is distinctively theirs—especially when given the chance to talk about the parts of their lives that are often left unsaid.

Before the training, I knew how deeply personal the poems written by teens could be; I had browsed the Pongo teen writing website and read a lot of poems. Some were heartbreaking. Some were uplifting. All were brave. Here is an example:

 

Pongo Poetry Option 2_I Hope
  “I Hope,” winner of a Pongo poetry prize. Credit: Pongo Teen Writing. Design by Madison Vucci. 

 

This poem that won the Pongo Poetry Prize for July 2016 was praised as a “dynamic and uplifting poem of hope, with metaphorical brilliance.” The Pongo Poetry website is full of beautiful, heartbreaking poems submitted by teen writers like this one.

The courage that these poems illustrate was amazing to me. I was curious how the teen writers were able demonstrate the hardships they have faced and utilize absolute fearlessness in their writing. Needless to say, I was excited to experience the Pongo Method for myself and understand the writing process that create these amazing works of art.

“A Sense of Affirmation”: Learning to Write

When we arrived for the training in the 2100 Building, we walked into a full room. It surprised me that so many people would attend the training on a Saturday. What was even more interesting to me was that so many people were attending the training for different reasons: some were therapists wanting to use the poetry method in their sessions, and others were school counselors, lawyers, homeless shelter employees and students.

Pongo Poetry Books Photo
The books placed across the tables featured a range of poetry, and gave us the chance to be inspired by other poetry and poetry techniques. Photo by Madison Vucci.

As we took our seats, we noticed a striking element of the room. Carefully placed in a line across all the tables to form a circle were books upon books of poetry. The titles of the books ranged from Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? to Digging for Roots to You Hear Me? Poems and Writing by Teenage Boys.

All the books added a dose of inspiration and color into the room. I flipped through a few books, as the room got settled and we began the training.

Richard Gold, the founder of Pongo Teen Writing, introduced the project and talked about how he got started working with at-risk youth by volunteering at a school in San Francisco, where half of the teens he wrote with were in the adolescent psychiatric hospital.

I was impressed that Richard didn’t necessarily set out with the goal of starting Pongo, but his passion for poetry and natural compassion led him to create an impactful organization that helps people daily. He had a soothing gentleness in the way he spoke, which, even as he just talked to the group, sounded poetic. Richard addressed all of us by name as we went through introductions, and would say “thank you” after each person shared before moving to the next.

The acknowledgement of me individually helped to create a personal, yet comfortable group dynamic because I felt recognized and valued as an individual.  I later learned that Richard had been demonstrating a recommended Pongo technique, which helps to create a sense of affirmation and individual recognition.

Pongo Screenshot Richard PBS.png
Screenshot of Richard Gold in action at a juvenile detention center, as featured in the PBS Newshour Feature on Pongo with U.S. Poet Laureate. Credit: Pongo Teen Writing.

As we continued our group introductions, one person at the training showcased the need for a program like Pongo at the school district level (which exemplifies how we hope Pongo Poetry at Schoolhouse Washington will help students and staff).

This high school counselor for a low-income school district deals with students who struggle with a wide range of issues, from being upset about a breakup, to questioning why they look different than their teachers, to dealing with being hungry or tired at school because they do not have a home or access to a warm meal. The counselor said she wishes she could do more for her students, because she often cannot take their pain away and feels at a loss in helping them. With Pongo, she hopes to offer her students a tangible outcome from sharing what they are going through that includes their own poem to hold onto.

The Pongo Poetry writing process attempts to help the teens interpret, process, and share what they are dealing with. It may even help them realize that they are not defined by what happens to them; their stories are not who they are, but rather experiences that they have been through and survived.

Fire Trucks and Blooming Flowers—The Pongo Method

As we dived into the Pongo Method, we started with “list poems.” The beauty of a list poem, I quickly realized, is that it can be about anything and everything all at once.

This proved to be a good “warm-up poem” as we went around in a group stating where our hearts were in that moment. My heart was a fire truck engine. Madison’s was a blooming flower. All together we created a list poem.

Then, we practiced writing our own poetry. We paired into groups of two and became writing partners. I was excited to be partnered with Brandy Sincyr from Columbia Legal Services, who is a partner on the Pongo Poetry at Schoolhouse Washington project with us.

Brandy_Sincyr_8_1
Our partner Brandy Sincyr of Columbia Legal Services and Schoolhouse Washington helped Katie overcome her nerves and write a poem she was proud of.

I was really nervous to start writing a poem at first, but Brandy made me feel at ease as she guided me through the process. I started with a fill-in-the-blank poem. The Pongo method offers templates of poems that prompt the writer to share their thoughts related to the poem’s theme.

Using the A Good Day/A Bad Day template, and working with Brandy’s gentle guidance, I came up with a poem I am really proud of. I feel like it truly represents me. Here it is, below.

Pongo Poetry Option 1_Katies
Katie’s fill-in-the-blank poem, written using a Pongo template, with help from Brandy. Design by Madison Vucci.

I found the the template really helped me through the process and broke through my nerves. With the Pongo method, you have the option to transcribe your poem or have your partner write it down for you. As Brandy wrote for me, I found myself digging deeper into my thoughts without second guessing what I was saying, or trying to auto-correct.

After the first poem, we did a dictation poem. When Madison wrote hers, she was nervous to share it with the group in the beginning; but she became comfortable enough to share it with the class and, now, with our blog audience. Here’s hers.

Pongo Poetry Option 1_Madisons
The poem Madison created using the Pongo dictation poem process. Written and designed by Madison Vucci.

 

Through our separate writing processes, we both were able to share about ourselves and found a part of us that could write a poem. We even feel comfortable with sharing it. This small sense of accomplishment gave us a glimpse into how teens who have written about something difficult must feel.

Even more, the training taught us tools “to use on Monday.”  The philosophy is that you are immediately able to teach the method to others. We left the training with the ability to not only write poetry ourselves, but help someone else share a part of themselves through poetry.

In just a few hours we learned how helpful this process is  for people struggling through the difficult paths life can take. We were able to personally grow through the training, and we’re excited to see the growth, healing, and pride that teens dealing with challenges can feel through the Pongo Method.

Remember: Everyone has a story. The world wants to hear your story. Poetry can be about anything.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Apply for the Pongo Poetry at Schoolhouse Washington fellowship for your middle school or school district and help students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. See the application website here; the deadline is Jan. 12, 2018.
  2. Attend a Pongo Techniques for Facilitating Therapeutic Writing Training. Check out the Pongo website for more information.
  3. Try the Pongo method yourself! Use a fill-in-the-blank poetry template here. The templates can help facilitate that poetry writing process and are a great place to get started.
  4. Read poems submitted by teens leading difficult lives. Consider submitting your own, or encouraging a friend to.
  5. Volunteer with Pongo Poetry to support teens leading difficult lives.

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