Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Feb 07
Mission Creek

On Friday I led a poetry workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, a women’s prison in Washington State. The first line of the first poem in the first group was “Why did he have to touch me there?”

The women wanted to write about childhood sexual abuse, a prevalent problem in the lives of incarcerated women. It hadn’t been my plan to begin with that deep and personal topic.

I admired the women for their openness and for the support and applause they offered one another. Women turned to their friends to help them finish and read their work. They handed around a roll of toilet paper to dry their tears.

Sometimes people in the community ask me if the work I do through Pongo is depressing. They read the sad poetry, but they aren’t privileged as I am. I see writers in their moment of triumph, vulnerable and brave.

Another thing about Friday’s group is that it confirms one of the messages of Pongo – that helping people write in a healing way is about removing obstacles to self-expression. People who are hurting want to make sense of their lives. They understand that writing and sharing can accomplish this.

What are some of the obstacles that have to be removed to enable writing? We have to let people know that we can tolerate their feelings and respect their process. As witnesses, we have to be vulnerable ourselves. Also, as part of Pongo, we have to support people as they begin a writing process by providing writing structures. With the women at Mission Creek I used an activity called “You Don’t Know Me .”

The experience at Mission Creek reminds me of another thought I've had from the Pongo work: I think one of the reasons society institutionalizes certain suffering populations is that we’re often afraid of their pain, of the intense feelings their lives evoke in others.

Finally, I'd like you to know the context for my work at Mission Creek. I am leading some writing groups in support of my friend Pat Graney, the choreographer, who is in her 15th year of Keeping the Faith performance projects with incarcerated women. Pat’s performances by women in prison include art and music, and importantly, personal writing. The public can attend the two performances at Mission Creek in May. Contact the Pat Graney Company .