The Spanish hospital laundry worker who keeps winning poetry prizes

Begoña M. Rueda has just added the prestigious Hiperión to her collection of literary awards for lyrical reflections based on her experience at Punta de Europa hospital in Algeciras

Begoña M Rueda poesia
Begoña M. Rueda in Algeciras in early July.Marcos Moreno
Sergio C. Fanjul

The hospital laundry room is where patients’ pajamas, staff uniforms, surgeons’ gowns, blankets, sheets stained with blood, sweat, vomit and all the fluids secreted by sick bodies and fresh corpses end up. “You never get to know anything about the people who have worn the garments; whether they are living or dead. It could have been a loved one,” says Begoña M. Rueda, 29, who is from Jaén in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia. “It gives you a lot of food for thought, especially the children’s clothes.”

The world looks different seen through the prism of industrial washers and dryers and carts of dirty sheets and clothes. The shrouds that wrap the bodies of the deceased are the only items that are discarded. Meanwhile, just beyond the walls of the laundry room, the cosmic drama of existence takes place: people are born while others die, some get sicker while others are cured; there is both laughter and tears and much poetry to be found here.

Rueda washes and irons at Punta de Europa hospital in the port city of Algeciras, a place that has inspired her collection of poems Servicio de lavandería (or Laundry Service), which earned her this year’s Hiperión prize and a book deal with the publishing house that sponsors the award. In 2019, financial concerns prompted Rueda to put her degree in Hispanic Studies in Jaén on hold and find a job further south, leaving behind her partner, family and friends. Since then she has been watching the ships enter the vast port of Algeciras in full view of Gibraltar, and writing about aspects of her job at the hospital.

Writing poetry is a job that takes time and effort. Ideally it would be well paid, so that I could go back to studying for my degree
Begoña M. Rueda

“It has always seemed to me that poetry has to make the working class visible,” she says. “And, as far as I know, there are no books of poetry about this line of work.” The typical image of people doing laundry in literature is a riverbank setting, with women hanging white sheets that billow in the wind. But Rueda’s experience is, of course, quite different. “There are few who applaud/ the work of the woman who sweeps and scrubs the hospital/ or the work of those of us who wash the clothes of the infected/ with our bare hands.”

Rueda began writing her book in 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but when the virus struck it became an integral part of her poetry, as she believes that a poet has to be a child of their time. Poignantly, she recounts the early fears of an unknown threat, the lack of resources in the early stages of the pandemic, the collapse of the healthcare system, the minutes of silence for deceased colleagues. “As well as masks they give us gloves / I will no longer be aware of the sheets / that come still warm / into my hands.”

Since 2016, Rueda has been nothing if not prolific, publishing seven books as a result of winning awards with all seven. In the first, Princess Leia, she focused on a science fiction theme based on Star Wars, and won the Antonio Colinas Youth Poetry Prize. In 2019, in Reincarnation, she wrote about a woman who is reincarnated at different times in history, earning the Complutense University of Madrid’s First Poetry Prize. And with Error 404, she won the prestigious Burgos City Poetry Prize.

Some of her writing is conceptual and follows a narrative, while other collections have no specific theme. “I try to look for variety and versatility,” she says. “It’s true that the writer is always writing the same book, but you have to try to do it in different ways.”

Despite her awards and publications, Rueda has noticed that the world of poetry is, to an extent, class-ridden. “There are people who have told me they feel disappointed: they don’t understand why I am doing this kind of work considering ‘how smart you are’ and ‘how well you write’,” she says. In her collection, she mentions the doctors who don’t even say hello as they pass the laundry workers, and the managers who fail to take the laundry workers’ health seriously.

Poetry requires work, but it is undervalued and, above all, unpaid, so Rueda has had to take many different jobs to support herself, such as waiting tables and making pizzas in home delivery franchises. “I’ve seen conditions that were slavery, pure and simple, with salaries that were not enough to live on,” she says. “Writing poetry is a job that takes time and effort. Ideally it would be well paid, so that I could go back to studying for my degree.”

During the summer, the day-time temperature inside the laundry room with all the machines running can be inhuman, so this season Rueda has chosen to work the night shift when the darkness brings with it reflections on death and the dying. In one of her poems, she explains how some dying patients comb their hair, shave and soak in cologne shortly before their time comes, “as if dying/ consisted only in taking another of many walks/ on Sunday mornings.”

What poets live on

According to Spanish poet José Agustín Goytisolo, a poet’s profession consists of “Contemplating the words/ on the written page,/ measuring them, weighing/ their body in the whole/ of the poem,” which is all well and good, but it does not put food on the table. Given this, poets have had to devote themselves to alternative professions to survive. Some have gone into jobs related to literature, such as T.S. Eliot who, in addition to revolutionizing 20th-century poetry, was an editor at the UK Faber & Faber publishing house.

But poets have also taken on less glamorous roles. Charles Bukowski, for example, had many precarious, temporary jobs such as mailman. And before hitting the road and wandering around the US, Jack Kerouac was a merchant seaman and a forest ranger.

US poet William Carlos Williams used to practice medicine by day and write poetry by night; the precursor of Italian fascism, the eccentric Gabriele D’Annunzio, was an outstanding military man and war hero as well as a poet while Swiss-born novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars had a lot of unusual occupations, including jewelry salesman, pianist, beekeeper, slaughterhouse employee and whale hunter. Spanish post-Civil War poet Jaime Gil de Biedma also had a prosaic day-time job as manager of the family tobacco company.

Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño turned his hand to everything, but his work as a night watchman at a campsite on the Catalan coast is especially famous. Spanish poet Vicente Gallego was also a jack-of-all-trades, working as a doorman, nightclub dancer, pine tree pruner and city dump employee, a job he was doing when he won the Loewe Prize.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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