Giant Panda

The Juvenile Detention Center is in a bland, sprawling building on 12th Avenue halfway between Capitol Hill and the International District. In the belly of the center, once you pass through a metal detector and a security checkpoint, you'll encounter a branch of the King County Library System. Most of the juvenile-detention facility looks like a depressing postapocalyptic high school—gray institutional rooms with no windows, hallways blockaded with armored manned checkpoints that resemble machine-gun nests, teenagers walking in straight lines with their hands held behind their backs and their heads hung low—but the library is quite pleasant. It's spacious, large skylights allow in a fair amount of natural light, and shelves are stocked with well-worn comic books and manga.

On the evening of April 23, most of the shelves have been pushed aside and 50 young men and women—all dressed in navy blue scrubs, wearing identical white socks and bright orange plastic sandals—sit in rows flanked with correctional officers, listening to other inmates read poetry that they, and other kids like them, have written. Once you remind yourself that instead of an awkward high-school assembly, this is an audience of criminals (with crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault) performing for other criminals, it's surprising to see how nervous the readers get. After she reads a short poem, one young woman hides her blushing face in her hands when a guard gives her a thumbs-up.

The audience has been quiet until now—they know they'll be sent back to their narrow cells if they aren't polite—but a young man reads a poem that inspires the audience to laugh and cheer and mutter "amen." The poem is titled "Inauguration," and as it builds to a close, the young men in the audience get more and more into it: "It makes me feel good to have a black president/Even though my dad's not a real man, Barack is evidence... Listen to him talk at the inauguration/Makes me want to read and increase my vocabulation./Barack makes me feel like, 'Why settle for less?'/When you can be black and have the best." The poem gets the biggest applause of the evening.

Richard Gold started Pongo Publishing in 1996, and in the years since, dozens of teachers—many of whom are psychology majors with a background in English—have joined him in Seattle-area juvenile-detention centers and mental-health facilities to provide poetry therapy for troubled youth. Gold is a small, soft-spoken man who seems physically incapable of saying a negative word, and his staff of volunteers has the kind of positive, wildly optimistic energy that is normally reserved for born-again Christian proselytizers.

A week before the reading, Gold invites me to watch a poetry session. The poetry is written in a structured environment: Six to eight inmates gather in a conference room, and a spirited volunteer named Adrienne Johanson leads a group poetry-writing exercise, writing down ideas for poems on a large pad of paper. "What do you want to be like?" she says. The suggestions come from everywhere: Bear. Lion. Waterfall. Quarterback. "What makes you feel strong?" she says. A lanky boy in the back bellows, "Weed," and Johanson, without missing a beat, counters, "That's great, but we need to focus on something a little more appropriate."

The imagery suggestions begin to turn ribald—"I'm going to push it like a Mack truck" and "Stand tall and firm like a skyscraper"—before a short kid mutters, "You look like a porn star." Johanson, with the brusque, practiced air of a teacher, whips back: "What was that? You have something to contribute to the poetry?" The room gets still, and the short kid shrinks in his seat. Control is regained, but just barely. ("When kids are snarky or sarcastic, that's a display of their wit or cleverness," Johanson says after the session. "You just have to engage slightly with it to turn it back on track.")

But once the kids break out into one-on-one sessions with their teachers, the emotional feeling in the room changes remarkably. The teachers walk the inmates through fill-in-the-blank worksheets of Gold's invention ("Dear __________ [Mom, Dad, Sister, Grandma, old friend, ???], Since the last time I saw you, I have __________ [grown, suffered, changed, ???] so much. The time that I __________ was especially important"), and the kids start talking about themselves. One young man cries as he talks about his grandmother's disappointment in him. An illiterate boy, narrating his story to a volunteer, talks about forgiving his father and then says he hadn't ever done that before. The volunteers shape the stories into poems and read them back to the boys.

Johanson and Gold say that the sessions often work like this, with an unruly group that dissolves into a sincere emotional experience during the one-on-one sessions. Gold selects some of the poems to publish anonymously in chapbook form. He says, "Publishing their work is huge for them. It makes it real." Many of the Pongo poets, including one young man at this session who has participated three times, send their work to their parents. It's the first meaningful interaction he's shared with his mother in years.

There are no quantifiable results to report. Pongo Publishing can't track its poets' progress because of legal issues associated with them being minors, but Pongo can cite several surveys, including one sponsored by the Soros Foundation, that "showed a significant reduction in the teens' level of distress" once they've been through the program. Gold cites anecdotal evidence, too, including a young man named Colby who called in to a 2008 radio appearance on Steve Scher's Weekday program to say that one session of poetry with Gold changed his life. "It lit a bomb inside of me... if it wasn't for [Gold] extending that invitation to me, I never would've found poetry."

Support The Stranger

Gold has arranged for two members of local hiphop group Giant Panda to perform at the April 23 graduation ceremony. Free- styling a cappella, with the audience providing beats, the rappers seem to make a connection with the kids, especially when they do a song called "Racist," a litany of stereotypes. (From the portion of the song devoted to honkies: "I voted for Bush again/Set my VCR to tape the last episode of Friends.") But the best part of the performance is an impromptu speech by Jamaan Mclaren, who performs under the name Maanumental.

"I just wanted to say my brother's got two strikes," he says. The audience clucks its sympathy. "And he's one of the smartest people I know, a genius. He'd get bored, and so he'd always go out and get into some high jinks." Mclaren says his brother's doing better now, even recently touring Japan with Giant Panda. "You've got to find something you love and stick with it," he says. "And that thing better not be crime." He looks out at the audience and says, "Y'all look like my brother, and y'all are geniuses." One of the guards gets a little teary. recommended