June 24, 2014

The Panza in Perryville Women’s Prison: Part two of a two part series on The Panza Monologues in Arizona

Note: This is the second post of a two part series on Virginia Grise's trip to Arizona this past spring where she had the opportunity to present on The Panza Monologues, work with ASU's Humanities Behind the Wall program, and interact with women, students, and community members of all kinds. Read part one of the series HERE.

Goodyear, Arizona

Reflections from Virginia:
In 1998, I worked with a local arts organization in Austin, Texas to implement a series of writing workshops both at the high school where I taught and in the juvenile detention center. In this program, I met a twelve-year-old who was functionally illiterate. One of the poets and my mentor, Raul Salinas, asked me to work with him one-on-one. For two weeks, I would listen as he told me the story he wanted to tell, transcribed the words he dictated to me each day. Every night, the young man returned to his cell, paper tucked in the waistband of his pants. With the help of his cellmate, he would memorize the words on the page before returning to class the next day. At the end of the program, he performed his story with the rest of the students. The night before the reading he asked me “What about you Miss? What story are you gonna to tell tomorrow?” Without thinking I responded, "I'm not a writer." Raul calmly walked up behind me and under his breath said, "You better go home and write yourself a poem, sister." And I did. My very first public performance was in the juvenile correction system in Austin, Texas. 

I return to that memory often. It is an important moment in my genealogy. I revisit it whenever I feel a little lost - uncertain about my work and myself. When I can't figure it out alone, sometimes Raul appears to me in dreams, calmly redirecting me, "Don't be late to the discipline committee meeting, sister." And somehow I know exactly what he means. I was an activist turned artist and now I'm an artist trying to find my way back to the activism that shaped my early years of political development. As an artist, prisons (both literal and metaphorical) are a recurring trope in my work. I can't write about prisons without an analysis of the state, without imagining freedom and without fighting for liberation. 

Since 1998, I have taught numerous poetry classes in the juvenile correction system not only in Austin but in San Antonio and Los Angeles and have also taught women who are incarcerated in California but I find Humanities Behind the Walls run out of Arizona State University to be a particularly exciting model for inside/out programs.    

What is Humanities Behind the Walls?
 “Humanities Behind the Walls draws on a genealogy of situated and subjugated knowledges that have emerged from behind prison walls to provide an opportunity for faculty and students to critically engage the humanistic and humanizing potential inherent in acts of reading and discussing literature, poetry, and drama with people incarcerated at Perryville Women’s Prison, and with formerly incarcerated people at Arizona State University.”
The Panza in Perryville
Perryville Women's Prison (1 of 13 prisons in AZ) is off of I-10 in the small town of Goodyear, about 20 miles west of Phoenix. We drove there just as the sun was setting and you can not help but be seduced by the beauty of the landscape - forgetting for a moment that the desert can be a hostile place. Goodyear after all is in Maricopa County, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.     

As we drive down the long road leading to Perryville, my body begins to tighten. The road gives way to steel gates and barbed wire, four units that make up The Perryville Complex, housing over 2,000 people behind bars. I've never been to Perryville and yet this is a familiar drive. The drive to the prison parking lot reminds me of similar drives I've taken to visit family and loved ones in state prisons and county jails across the Southwest - tucked away, off an exit that seems to lead to nowhere.  

The experience however is quite different. When you are visiting friends and family there is a way that many guards treat you as somehow guilty of a crime by association. It makes me paranoid, mentally going through the checklist of everything I can and can not do (no open toed shoes, sleeveless shirts, no paper, no keys) because I do not want my visitation denied. This time I am able to walk into the prison with a handful of books.  I brought signed copies of both The Panza Monologues and blu with me for the prison library as well as a copy of Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for The End and The Beginning of the World

We walk in with ease after our IDs are checked by the guards but my body is still tight as I mentally go through the list (that I don't need this time) but I can't help it (no open toed shoes, sleeveless shirts, no paper, no keys), body tight, barely breathing. I don't think I actually begin to breath until we are introduced to two women on the inside (incarcerated at Perryville) that have been helping to facilitate the program. They invite us into a room and go over the agenda for the day.

Humanities Behind the Walls offered four different classes in Perryville, including a class on mothering and the concept of family, current issues, critical analysis, and theatre and performance.  The Panza Monologues was used in the theatre and performance class and I was invited to the final class of the spring semester where the women from all the classes presented their work to each other. One group of women even wrote their own Panza Monologue, read in three voices...  
I am trying to get rid of my panza and I couldn’t give a reason as to why
God created my panza beautiful and gave it to my mother and my father.
I’ve never had a flat panza, it’s always had a little hump.
I have it stuck in my head that I need to maintain a small weight. And yes, my arms are skinny and my legs appear skinny and I’m sure, to a lot of people, my panza seems non-existent.
In turn the doctor cut the umbilical cord separating mine and my mother’s panzas.
I like to think I have grown out of being ashamed of my panza not being flat! But what woman ever does?
But I don’t see it that way myself.
The feeling of loss.
Hell! The comparison started so young and so long ago. I suspect no matter how old or how wise I get – it will always be in the back of my mind.
In my image of myself, I see it as protruding out over my pants or shorts. I see my panza as growing instead of shrinking.
My panza grew and the world abused my panza with their greed and lust and want for more – not treasuring the panza.
Wait a minute – look at that bitch’s panza. We’re the same age and her shit is still flat…looking like a black Barbie.
Yes, I know I may not see things quite the way others do --- but how to get past it?
So I did not learn the power of the panza until I learned to treasure the creation of the panza.
Stop this shit “keybee” – stop complaining about it and do something about it. Hell no!! Naw – I paid for this panza. Why get rid of it?
After all, big is in this year!


After the women presented their work, I read excerpts from The Panza Monologues and blu.  My reading was open to not only the women in the classes but to the entire yard. As I performed, I was reminded of what it means to share our stories with each other, the power of storytelling and its potential danger. Some of the stories I read about queer desire and love could have been seen as “contraband” for example. I closed with a reading fom blu and asked the women - what do you dream?   

I believe in prison abolition and in the on-going work of Humanities Behind the Walls to create spaces of freedom in the most unlikely places.   


If you are interested in hosting a Panza Monologues book reading or workshop in your community contact us at panzapower@gmail.com


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