Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Dec 06
Warm Smiles in Winter

When I planned my last writing workshop at Mission Creek Corrections Center, it was just before Thanksgiving, and I was feeling particularly badly for the women. With budget cutbacks the facility is losing its only two recreation staff. Meanwhile the population has doubled to around 300 women. Holidays are always a difficult time.

As many of you understand, the lives of incarcerated women have included great suffering, including childhood sexual abuse and domestic battering, including drug addiction, including regrets about having let down their children.

But I planned a writing workshop on love, especially on the complicated nature of love. The poems I brought to discuss included Bessie Smith lyrics, “Dirty No Gooder Blues.” We did the Pongo writing activity “Love, Sometimes” (created by Pongo leader Ann Teplick).

In particular, I brought a poem by Hafiz called “With That Moon Language.” In this poem Hafiz says that we’re all walking around making a silent appeal to “Love me,” afraid to say the words aloud because people might think we’re weird. But ultimately we’re left with a choice. We can walk out today and join the throng… Or we can walk out and say the words that everyone is so desperately longing to hear.

The poets and I had a good discussion and a good time in our workshop. As usual the women asked me to distribute my backup writing activities as homework. Those of you who have followed Pongo know that I have a high regard for the emotional depth of people who have led difficult lives. At the end of the session, I said to everyone, “Spread the love!”

I packed up my materials and was escorted out of the prison. Just before leaving I walked through a common area where five women were huddled around a table. One woman was sprawled across the table top to hear better. The staff person made a comment to the sprawler, and the women looked up.

It turned out the woman at the center of the group had been in my workshop. She saw me, flashed a huge smile, and said, “I’m reading them my poetry!” Then everyone smiled.

Spread the love!

May 21
Thanks for the Rose

This essay is about the rewards of Pongo’s work. I hope more of you will help people to heal through self-expression. When you climb that mountain with someone, through a fog of pain to a clearer summit, there’s pride in the achievement, and closeness in the transformative moment you share.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog, choreographer Pat Graney has been creating performances in women’s prisons, with dance, writing, and art, for 15 years, as long as I’ve been working with youth in juvenile detention. I had the privilege of contributing to the writing component of Pat’s “Keeping the Faith” (KTF) this spring at Mission Creek Corrections Center.

There were two performances of KTF on Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8. That Friday, the performance was scheduled for 7:00 pm. At 5:00, Pat was still immersed in her creative process, making changes to the dances, waiting on costumes, and sorting through a one-foot stack of paper to choose final edited writing for the women to read. The women, who had never participated in a creative project before, much less an intensive personal and public experience like this, were walking around in shock.

Then at 7:00 the performance began. The audience was divided into two groups, one of family members and Pat’s guests and the other of fellow prisoners. The women danced and in between read their painful personal stories (many written with former prisoner Shannon Pena) and their poetry. The women cried, they addressed their families, the guests cried, the fellow prisoners cheered.

And afterward the women said that their lives had been changed.

The weekend was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. I was a very proud contributor. I wrote a poem and shared it with the women over an ice cream cake at our cast party a few days later.

Thanks for the Rose

by Richard Gold 

To the women of Mission Creek Corrections Center 

Thanks for giving me a rose
after your Saturday performance.
I was happy to help you with your writing.

You know this,
but when the audience cried and applauded you,
it was not because of the painful subjects of your writing,
about being betrayed by incestuous fathers,
or about being brought low by drugs,
or about your shame at letting down your children.
When the audience cried and applauded you,
it was because you were honest
at a level that exposed the deepest part of yourselves,
the deepest hurt that includes the deepest love.

Thanks for giving me a rose.
You gave me much more.

I was so overwhelmed by your performance
that I asked Pat if I could follow her
on the drive home.

I was so affected
that after I followed Pat to the highway,
instead of continuing home,
I followed her
when she drove off to get gas.

Thanks for giving me a rose.

This is what I want to tell you
as my good-bye.

I was so overwhelmed by your performance
that I was careless with the rose.
I threw my jacket over it in the back of the car.

When I remembered it on Sunday night,
I thought the rose was ruined.
It was bent over and the leaves were distorted.
But I trimmed the stem and put the rose
in water.

When I woke up on Monday morning,
the rose was beautiful,
and the first thing I thought of
was you.