Mapping Seattle’s Poetic Soul: An Interview with Washington’s Incoming Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna

by Paul E. Nelson

Claudia Castro Luna is the incoming Poet Laureate of the State of Washington. For the past two years, she served as the Civic Poet of Seattle, the city’s version of the ceremonial position. In this first part of a two-part interview, she discusses her tenure as Civic Poet, her most memorable experience, the poetic map of Seattle she created, and how power is structured in Seattle. She will be the featured poet at the Easy Speak open mic, Monday, February 5 at Jude’s Old Town in Rainier Beach.

Paul Nelson: What was most memorable about your stint as the Civic Poet of Seattle? What stands out as something that you’re going to remember for a long time?

Claudia Castro Luna: Well, I think, one thing that comes to mind in terms of a performance was I did a performance with the Seattle Symphony where I put music to a symphony. So, it was like an ekphrastic work, and it was one of Ives’s symphonies, American Holidays. It’s been collected as a symphony, but they’re four standalone pieces. So, there’s four movements and it was a very interesting project to write into music, and then to perform with the orchestra, that was incredible, incredible. I mean just feeling the level of professionalism of the musicians, just the virtuosity. And watching that world from behind the scenes and then standing there to a full house, it was really incredible. And just the whole process of it. It was an interesting project.

So, that was in terms of the project. But then, I tell you, one of my favorite things that has happened as a result was just visiting libraries and being in different parts of Seattle, and getting to know people. It was always so fulfilling. And one of the stories that I really liked was working at the Lake City branch of the public library where I wanted to work with seniors. And once a month, instead of doing a programming at the library, they go a block away where their seniors come to a community space for lunch. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, let me go over there and I’ll do a poetry writing workshop with the seniors.’

And there’s a group of Spanish speakers that comes, and English speakers. I did a workshop with the English speakers and I came back another time and I did it with the Spanish speakers. And the Spanish speakers come from all over Latin America, so it was very interesting to be here with grandparents and grandmothers, who could be my own grandmother, and to get them to write. And some of them had very low literacy levels and kind of were eyeing me. But at the end of that workshop, we were having such a great time. My heart overflowed watching them wanting to tell the stories that they had written. And it was so good that I went back.

They really wanted me to come back. They really wanted to talk about themselves and poetry. So, my term ended and I called them back and I said, ‘I could go back now because I’m less busy.’ So, just going back and being there with guys from, these old men from Bolivia. A lot of them can’t hear very well. It was just transformative to be there and hear their stories.

There was this man from Texas who told me that he grew up in Mexico and as he aged, Mexico, that little chunk became the US. So, he watched and he was very, I mean, this is desert. This is rural. This is far away. His mom got tuberculosis and had to leave the house, so he grew up with his grandparents. Just hearing these stories of, not only his personal story, but then the history of the U.S. and then of course, who lives in Seattle. That was really, really a wonderful moment, my exchanges with people in the city.

Paul: Lake City is where Gary Snyder grew up.

Claudia: Yes. I know that. And you know what, if you could come across a poem, did he ever write about Lake City?

Paul: I think there are references to it, but he has written a poem “Things to do in Seattle” and also about hitchhiking down Highway 99.

Claudia: I’ve been trying to get a poem so that I could put it on the grid and I have read poems, but I haven’t found anything that even remotely speaks of it.

Paul: Driving here from Rainier Beach and coming to West Seattle, and from an angle I hadn’t come before. I came from the south. That’s like a different city here, in West Seattle.

Claudia:  Yes.

Paul:  You say that smiling.

Claudia: Yeah, no, because it’s true. It’s like a different city.

Paul: And going through South Park is like going through a little bit of Mexico there.

Claudia: Yes. It is, it is. Absolutely.

Paul: Is that how you found yourself here, close to the Mexicanos?

Claudia: No. You know, the reason why we’re in West Seattle is because my husband up until two weeks ago worked in Tukwila for the King County Housing Authority. And there just was no way we could live in the north end, Capitol Hill is so expensive. It was just like, it had to be the south. And this, you get through 99, I mean through South Park, you are in Tukwila very quickly. So, it worked out.

And then as we … and then I gotta tell you, the Salvadoran bakery is just down the street from here. So, once I knew there was a Salvadoran bakery that I could go to, it was like, ‘Okay, that’s the place.’

Paul: Talk about the map that you just made reference to. This was your project as Civic Poet, a poetic map of Seattle. Talk about how you got the idea for it and maybe some of the cool things that came out of that.

Claudia: Well, the idea came before I applied for the position, because I thought you should submit a project that you want to do. And I sat and thought what could that project be, and then it just dawned on me, for various reasons, one of them because I’m interested in place and what place tells … what we tell about the place in which we live. And I thought this position was one where, that engaged with the city, but in order to engage with it, you really have to understand the power structure of the city and you have to understand how that structure then plays out in the geography of the city itself, and what better way than looking at it on a map, because a map is a flat terrain. Everybody’s equal on the map. You can’t see the topography of it, you know? The map is flat, so everybody exists on the same plane, and I liked that idea of starting from kind of a flat surface.

And then I thought, I was very curious to see if I collected poems from different parts of the city, from Lake City, from Rainier Beach, from West Seattle, what sort of poems would I be getting, and what would that tell us about the city? I mean, it was like a little experiment. And so it was clear to me that the poems needed to be about place, about specific locations, because I wanted the map to talk back to us. And then the other concomitant there, when I thought about it, was that the reason why we’re having all these changes in Seattle is because of this high tech industry, and I really felt that a digital map would occupy space in the space where some of us perhaps are not welcome or don’t navigate as easily. So, it was important for me to claim a space in that arena, in the digital world.

Paul E Nelson and Claudia Castro Luna. [Photo: Paul E Nelson]
Paul: In the realm that’s governed by our new overlords.

Claudia: Yes. Yes, even if it’s little. Even if it’s a small space, I felt that it was really important to have that. And once I saw it, I was sitting on the chair there and I was thinking, and then the idea came into my head and I told my husband, ‘Sean, I just thought of this idea. What if you have a map and you have these poems of place and you have this…’ I mean, exactly as it looks now. And he said, ‘That’s it. That’s a brilliant idea. That’s a great idea.’

So, it took me more than a year to be able to make it happen. To actually be en route to doing it, because we unveiled it toward the end of my term, but it took some time. But I was very happy to do it, because in the end, it looks like I imagined it when I first thought of it.

Paul: What did you learn from it? You said it was an experiment.

Claudia: One of the main things that I learned is how much people love green spaces in Seattle. That was a total surprise. I mean, I knew there were going be poems about gentrification. And I knew there had to be poems about homelessness, because these are huge issues for us, and that was true. And the poems about homelessness and displacement, there’s a varied note there of people remembering back when they were children in the CD to people who just arrived in the city.

There’s one poem there by a guy who walked into one of my workshops at the public library at the Central and he just saw, ‘Poetry workshop, fourth floor,’ or whatever and he just showed up, and he had come the day before to Seattle. And this was like the third time I was there or something like that and he felt very much like he needed to leave and I said, ‘No. Stay. Write. You have something to say. Tell us what you just, what you have noticed.’ And he ended up writing this very short poem about the tents, about the homeless tents, and I ended up leaving the poem. I put the poem in the map because I know all the stories behind the poems, but this was like here is a person who just arrived and he’s writing about the Sound and the homeless tents and that is his impression of Seattle.

Paul: First impression.

Claudia: First impression. Fresh. I mean, just arriving. So, I was not surprised about that. I was surprised about the number of people who chose to place poems in parks, who chose to write about trees. And the class and background of the writers are very varied. It’s not, I was just surprised about that, you know. Poems in Spanish about parks. Poems of people who’ve lived here a long time who remember being at a park. I think it tells us something about what we feel about living here in this beautiful place, you know? And yeah, and how important open space is for people, even though we’re surrounded by it. We still cherish it very much.

Paul: You mentioned you get a sense of the city’s power structure.

Claudia: Yeah.

Paul: And you were the Civic Poet when the whole Ed Murray resignation and the accusations came up!

Claudia: Yeah. It’s very clear where there is affluence in Seattle and where there is not, and for the most part, I would say Seattle is a very affluent city. I mean, it is, you know.

But it’s just clear walking around that there’s a lot of affluence here. But there’s some pockets that are more affluent than others and there’s just the way, for instance, the way South Park looks. What sort of investment is in South Park? Who lives in South Park?

I love living near South Park. The library down there is an amazing library, because it goes beyond the borders of a library. It’s really a community center and the librarians at that branch are really very committed and understand something about the power of a safe haven for kids and people, and their programing reflects who lives there and they really go out of their way. So, there is a strong sense of community there, which you may not think there is because it’s pretty bleak when you go down there.

So, just walking around the different pockets of the city, very few people know that South Park is even on the map. I mean, some places aren’t even on the map. And Lake City, too. Lake City is a very interesting part of town. But you know, these are pockets with immigrant communities. Rainier Beach, too.

You go down there, there’s a great poem placed on Rainier Beach by a person who’s lived there, Irene Yung. She had a poem about an old supermarket that was there and just all the folks that she met there, and the men that would flirt with her. It was just very interesting. And then a new supermarket came where it was a lot orderly, but fewer people went to it. So, then this sense of connection, just human interaction sort of starts falling apart. So, that’s what I mean by the power structure.

How, where do poor people live and where do wealthier people live, and how is it that some people are marginalized into some areas? And it was really important for me to work with those people and to have them on the map, because I think I’ve said even myself, when we came to the U.S., we weren’t even on the map. So, there are people who are not even on the map, not at the edges of the map, not on the map at all.

So, I don’t think it takes a long time to figure that out, you know? I think Seattle is lucky in that it has enough tax revenue from all the hotels and everything to put back into the arts. So, there’s an art world here that supports some of us who do that work. I’ve never seen it in other places. And also, green space. I think it’s very interesting that the city still has money to maintain green spaces, because that goes a long way for people’s sanity. 

Paul: Did you have a hand in selecting Anastasia Reneé as Seattle’s Civic Poet?

Claudia: Yeah. At first they asked me to sit on the committee, and I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to do that because I know a lot of poets in the city and I don’t want it to be seen as nepotism of some kind.’ But in the end I thought about it and I thought, ‘Well, I’m the only person who’s done this work, who sort of understands what it asks of you.’ because it’s really a position of service. You really have to go in understanding that, just like the Poet Laureate position. I mean, it is a position of service. It’s an honor, but it’s a position of service, you know?

And then I thought it would be good to be there as a sounding board for the folks who were coming in. If they had questions, then I could be there and answer questions and they could decide whether they wanted the job or not. So, in the end, I agreed to be on the panel, but I was a non-voting member of the panel. So, I sat through the interviews and I did answer questions of people had questions and I clarified things for the committee that was doing the selection, and then they voted at the end.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

There are two audio segments from this interview:



Featured image courtesy of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture

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