Back in early December 2015, I asked my mental health clinician, Dr. V, if she could sign me up for a writing workshop. My intention was to receive feedback on how to improve my memoir and my book of essays. l was looking for someone to help me edit my work.
But the name of the group was deceptive. It was really a poetry workshop. Had it been called that, I would have never enrolled.
I enjoy reading, but I did not read or write poetry for the first two months of attending the group. I felt out of place. I sat there listening to other writers read their poetry. I paid close attention to the lessons and assignments that the teachers gave the group, but I felt like something was missing.
The workshop was held every Friday with four rotating teachers: Rose B., Lisa C., Julie M. and Ken W. They were all poets, and every Friday we had a different teacher giving different assignments.
I approached Mrs. B. in early February and said, “Ma’am, I’m not into poetry. I’m not a poet. Can you please drop me from the group?”
She took a step back. Through her eyeglasses came a stare like no other. Her question took me by surprise. “Mr. Teque, do you read and write in Spanish?” she asked.
I responded, “Yes, I’m bilingual.”
She then walked back to her bag and came back with a book. It was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “Odas Elementales.” That weekend, I indulged myself with his poetry. One poem in particular, “Ode to my Socks,” awoke something in me. For the first time in my life I was feeling and admiring poetry. I found myself wanting more.
The following Friday, Mrs. B. and Ms. C arrived at the workshop, together with a psychologist. They shared a DVD, “A Place to Stand,” an 85-minute story based on the highly acclaimed memoir by Jimmy Santiago about how he left prison to become a celebrated poet. The story of this man’s life glued me to my seat.
Finally, after all these years, there was someone I could relate to. Monstrosity, I was not. I walked out of the group that day wanting to read more of Baca and Neruda’s work. I started writing my thoughts down, writing what came to my mind. I was no longer holding back. Poetry became a part of my life.
My teachers passed on many tools that I continue to use when writing. I learned about personification and wrote my first poem, “The New Year (El Año Nuevo),” which was published in volume 17 of the Red Wheelbarrow literary magazine in 2016. I also translated it into Spanish.
I’m forever grateful to my teachers and the title of the workshop that led me to untap a hidden talent. A few years ago, “A Place to Stand” was shown to the group again, and the encore inspired me to write this essay. From poetry comes poetry.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.