Richard Gold is a healer. As founder of the award-winning Pongo Teen Writing Project (Pongo) and author of Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method, Gold believes words are effective therapeutic tools. The power of poetry therapy is a strong theme in his work, which he spoke about on April 8 in the St. Kate’s Recital Hall.
Co-sponsored by the Department of English at St. Kate’s and the School of Social Work at St. Kate’s and the University of St. Thomas, the event focused on poetry and writing as a therapy tool, and was entitled “The Healing Power of Poetry: Empowering Disenfranchised Youth through Self-Expression.”
Gold discussed his use of poetry as a healing force in Pongo, and afterwards, a panel discussion was moderated by Mary Tinucci of the School of Social Work and Geri Chavis of the English Department. Panelists included Glo Martin, Program Coordinator for New Lens Urban Mentoring in St. Paul and former Creative Arts Specialist at The LAB in St. Paul Public Schools, as well as Janna Krawczyk, adjunct faculty member at Hamline University and writing teacher at the LOFT and The Art of Life and Writing.
Pongo, which is a volunteer, non-profit organization, endeavors to help Seattle teens who are homeless, incarcerated or living difficult lives in other ways. Trained volunteers enter teen detention centers and encourage the youth to express themselves via poetry.
“We don’t say to the kids, ‘writing is good for you,’” Gold said. “We don’t say, ‘write about the worst thing your parents ever did.’ We say, ‘write from the heart about who you are.’”
Writing from the heart is the driving force behind Pongo, coupled with creating a safe space for kids to think, reflect and heal.
“What fuels Pongo is the underground river of unarticulated emotion. It’s part of the human condition, and the amazing thing is, when we open up to that in a respectful way, it heals all of us,” Gold said.
Martin, a panelist and St. Paul native who began creating poetry by rapping, found that expressing his mind out loud helped him build self-identity, and reinforced his importance as a unique human being. Rapping allowed Martin to find his voice.
“Poetry and expressive writing is letting people know that they, as individuals, are important. Their feelings have value. Writing sets the table for people to be heard,” Martin said.
While volunteers guide the focus of the teens’ poems, they are not counselors. Pongo believes that writing is a healing process in itself, and, in order for kids to feel safe, the role of the volunteer must be one of facilitation.
“You don’t need a particular education to be a good listener, but you do need to know something about your own vulnerability and be mature enough to master your own material well enough to establish good boundaries,” Gold said.
Another component of the poetry therapy process is the sharing of poems. Teens choose whether or not they would like to share their poem in a large group setting. Often, kids prefer the mentor who facilitated the poem to read it aloud. Sharing is an important validation, as those who share are supported, encouraged and understood by peers.
“Who would expect to see youth writing about important things, crying in the process, and then beaming? They proudly say, ‘I wrote that,’ share it with others and support one another in ways you wouldn’t expect,” Gold said.
Pongo, founded in 1992, has worked with over 7,000 youths and published 500 of these young authors in 13 poetry anthologies. Three-quarters of the books are given to teens living difficult lives, while the other one-quarter are sold to the public. To maintain confidentiality, poems are published with pseudonyms, and identifying information within the poems is changed.
Gold has also been traveling around the United States, offering trainings to universities and organizations with regards to starting poetry therapy programs. Recently, he presented at the Tulane School of Social Work in New Orleans and worked to establish a relationship between Tulane and a local detention center. Now, the Tulane social work students are ready to be trained in as Pongo volunteers, set up with internships and perform research on Pongo outcomes for youth.
“Everyone in the caregiving in profession could use more tools for “self” care, and poetry is one of those tools,” Gold said.
Krawczyk, who engages in journaling and expressive writing, echoes those sentiments.
“The act of writing and following my thoughts truly saved my life at a time when I was groundless. It was my pen and paper that held me to this earth and helped me find the truth of who I was,” Krawczyk said.
The resounding message from The Healing Power of Poetry event was that anyone with motivation to start a poetry therapy group has the ability to do so successfully. Those dealing with emotional struggles were encouraged to explore poetry therapy, as it can lead to a deeper knowledge of oneself.
For more information on poetry therapy and Pongo, visit pongoteenwriting.org.