Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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.

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Ubaldo Teque Jr.

Ubaldo Teque Jr. is a Guatemalan poet, essayist and memoirist from Southern California. His poetry and prose have appeared in Red Wheelbarrow, Pilgrimage and other publications and was read on the program Central Coast Poetry Shows on Community Television of. He self-published his first collection of poems and essays, “Niño Inmigrante” through Amazon in August 2020. He enjoys translation and has translated many of his father's poems from Spanish to English. Ubaldo is incarcerated in California.