Preview: Claudia Castro Luna’s poetry grounded in sense of place, effects of displacement

Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna (Photo by RadfordCreative)

I remember the troubles in El Salvador. In the early 1980s, I would return home at night and watch the reports of atrocities in much the same way we view the tragedy of Syria unfolding before us today. El Salvador was in the news.

Growing up there, Claudia Castro Luna knew that something was very wrong. The adults in her family no longer went out after dark, and no one used mass transit any more. Reports of heinous crimes were commonplace. People disappeared.

At 14, her family loaded up four small suitcases which contained mostly books, and prepared to flee. She remembers her mother and aunt studying her sister’s gait – trying to decide just how much of their emergency cash they could stuff into her Mary Jane’s without drawing attention to her.

They arrived in Florida four days before the announcement that El Salvador was “officially” engulfed in a civil war.

She spoke no English. But she was relentless, carrying a dictionary with her wherever she went. Two-and-a-half years later at her high school graduation, she was given a special commendation for her remarkable progress in learning English. She later earned a K–12 teaching certification, a Master’s degree in urban planning, and later still, a Master of Fine Arts in her study of poetry.

Castro Luna still feels the impact of the turmoil of her home country. Over the last 38 years, she’s returned three times to visit, in roughly 10 year intervals. She has family there – her father has returned to live, but she’s found it very hard to overcome her fears. At times, she could not separate the trauma of her past experience with her visits. Although her children would like to return again, Castro Luna does not relish the idea. It’s just too hard.

As an exile from her birth country, sense of place and the effects of displacement inform her work. Her first advanced degree is in urban planning, which serves to reinforce this focus. When she produced a volume of poetry to achieve her MFA, faculty and fellow students consistently remarked on her recurring theme of place.

A resident of Seattle, in 2015, she became the city’s first Civic Poet. During her tenure, among other projects, she created a “poetic grid” of the city. The grid is basically an interactive map of poems created by local poets – legendary poets, complete novices and everyone in between. It’s a collection of poems scattered around the neighborhoods of Seattle, each telling a distinctive story of place, and of self. It’s pretty cool:

In November 2017, Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) announced that she had been chosen as the fifth Washington State Poet Laureate by Governor Jay Inslee.

When I spoke to her, she was conducting poetry workshops in the Methow Valley, having recently visited Orcas Island, Walla Walla, and Brewster, in Okanogan County. “Poet Laureate doesn’t really have a lot of official duties – although my predecessor Tod (Marshall) was asked to write a poem for the dedication of a bridge. I basically serve at the discretion of Governor Inslee,” Castro Luna said. “There is an understanding that the poet laureate will travel around the state. Everyone that’s held the position has done so.”

That seems to be just fine with Castro Luna.

Castro Luna’s primary emphasis seems to be encouraging and nurturing others. In virtually all of her social media, it’s the work of others that she seeks to promote. That’s a rare and refreshing thing these days. About her public library reading she explains “I like to read with others. We’re a community of poets. I learn so much from them. I also love being in the company of people who love poetry.”

On Friday, Oct. 5, as part of Edmonds’ popular Write On The Sound writers’ conference, Castro Luna will be working with students at Edmonds-Woodway High School.

At 5 p.m. Friday, the public is invited to join her for a free poetry reading with local poets Gerald Bigelow, and John Wright in the Edmonds Public Library Plaza Room.

On Saturday, after conducting workshops at the WOTS conference, she’ll be available for book signings with the other presenters from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. for The Edmonds Bookshops’ pop-up bookstore, featuring the work of WOTS presenters in the library’s Plaza Room.

Immediately afterward, at 6:30 p.m., all are welcome to enjoy “open mic night” at Café Louvre. Here, conference attendees are invited to read five minutes of their fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Both events are open to the public. Café Louvre is located at 210 5th Ave S., in Edmonds.

Sounds like a movable feast!

— By James Spangler

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