West Seattleite Claudia Castro Luna, city’s first Civic Poet, prepares to become state’s next Poet Laureate

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

West Seattle poet Claudia Castro Luna has just concluded a huge week, and her two-year term as Washington State Poet Laureate hasn’t even officially begun yet.

Consider last Monday: She read two poems at the inauguration ceremony for four citywide elected officials, including West Seattle-residing City Councilmember Lorena González (click the image to see and hear via YouTube):

That same day, she started her fourth year working at Denny International Middle School, teaching poetry to Spanish-immersion students, a four-week series in conjunction with the Jack Straw Cultural Center, where the students will record their poems at the end of the series. Some will be set to music this year, with the help of a guitarist.

The next day – this past Tuesday – she was at Seattle University, teaching a composition class.

Next Wednesday (January 20th), she’ll be at Elliott Bay Book Company, for a reading from her new book “Killing Marias: A Poem for Multiple Voices,” with a classical guitarist who has set eight of her poems to music: “I was floored by what she did – it’s incredible.”

But of all the events on her busy schedule, the biggest will be at 7 pm January 31st, when she officially becomes our state’s new Poet Laureate, succeeding Tod Marshall (who himself followed West Seattleite Elizabeth Austen), in a “passing of the laurels” ceremony during a reading event at the Central Library downtown.

This comes close behind the conclusion of her term as Seattle’s first Civic Poet.

Castro Luna lives with her husband and their three children in Gatewood, not far from where we sat down recently to talk over coffee. She acknowledged she’s receiving many invitations and working to fit them into her calendar. “There’s not a moment to waste … When I was Civic Poet, I always worked from the motto that I always try to say yes … (but) it will become harder, since (as Poet Laureate) it’s the whole state.” That will be a big change from traveling to what seemed like the far corners of the city. “West Seattle is … such a complete community in a way, it felt like going to Lake City (or elsewhere) was far away. It’s all putting it in perspective.”

Almost six years ago, she and her family chose West Seattle as their home after he got a job in Tukwila. Their children, a tween and two teens, attend West Seattle public schools.

She adds that “I’m from El Salvador … I love being close to the Salvadorean Bakery” in White Center, “and South Park,” with resources about which she rhapsodizes, from the library to the Duwamish Rowing Club.

Castro Luna’s identity “as a woman and an immigrant” factored heavily into her decision to apply for the Poet Laureate position. Two years ago, at North Delridge-based Southwest Youth and Family Services, we recorded her telling her story of coming to the U.S. as a teenager:

While on one hand, she says, the Poet Laureate role will demand a lot of time and travel, and she wanted to be certain she could do that, “in the end, I thought, when you consider the legacy of the people who have occupied the position, it’s daunting … (I was) thinking of, what can I bring, what can I offer, can I offer something of substance?” And she realized that “in the historical moment we are living,” in a time when “immigrants are being considered in all sorts of light that is not necessarily the most flattering and engaging … I’m proof that we are people who contribute to society – in many ways, not just economically, but also in art making.”

(We should note, our conversation happened before the President’s recent slur against regions and nations including El Salvador.)

She continued, “This is the most esoteric thing you could be doing … a working poet … we have all these ways to contribute … this is a moment, something i could offer through my life story and my dedication to the art, to offer a new viewpoint and to open ways of thinking about immigrants and people of color.”

That art, Castro Luna declares, is “more important than ever.” Not that poetry “has ever gone out of style – it’s as important as it has always been, one of the oldest art forms that we have.” But – “in terms of breadth and variety and expression of voices, I don’t think we’ve had such a rich time.”

This is not just an urban passion or indulgence. She notes a visit to Mount Vernon in Skagit County, where she asked a bookstore owner “do you have a poetry section?” and he replied that he “can’t keep the books in stock, they sell so fast.”

And the readers start young – “kids love poems” because they hear so much that rhymes, and “they love rhyme.” Middle-schoolers, the ages of the students with whom she works at Denny IMS, work to express their feelings through poetry. Denny, for example, has an annual poetry slam for 8th graders. The number of participants “impressed” Castro Luna, who adds that she is “floored by where the kids want to go as writers, to talk about their lives.” In addition to schools, other organizations are involved too – she mentions The Boot, the publication of work by youth in an intensive writing workshop at SWYFS (read the 2017 edition here).

She reads for young audiences, too, recalling a Civic Poet presentation at Fairmount Park Elementary, saying she had “never been so nervous” as she was, in the cafeteria there, reading to the 4th- and 5th-grade classes. “Everybody was so quiet, and I could not read any expression – I thought maybe I had made a mistake” (in what she chose to read) – “I finished reading and the teacher asked for questions, and there were so many! (Questions) about process – how do you write, how do you come up with ideas – I realized they were so quiet because they were hanging onto every word – they were so focused!”

Castro Luna did not start her own writing early. She began in college but “never took myself seriously about my writing … but everywhere, everything I did, turned to writing.” She earned an MA in urban planning and a teaching degree. Then after the birth of her second daughter, she “got creative” and took a community-college class. “Then another, and another … I said to my husband, ‘I need to do this’.” She pursued an MFA degree, and was on the writing path from thereon out.

And now, as she looks ahead to her two years as Poet Laureate – a position sponsored by both Humanities Washington and Arts Washington – she also has a concurrent project, as artist in residence at the School of Visual Concepts. (Words are part of SVC’s emphasis – Castro Luna explains that they do a lot of printing and typesetting.) The residency involves coming up with a project. She “decided to write a series of poems that explore stories of arrival in this state – it is a very young state … I want to explore that, not just people, the natural world (too) – when did species come to Washington state? This whole idea of arriving …I’m thinking of the geography and topography of the state,” including its “far isolated corners.”

Not only will she write the poems, she will “publish a book that I will make myself” with the typesetting and printing equipment at the school. To start the residency, there was a “passing of the apron” – a printer’s apron – from her predecessor in the role. “What attracted me is something new to explore, the link of poetry to printing, the power of the printed word.”

And there is power in the handwritten word – that’s how Castro Luna writes her poems, she told us.

Now, she gets to lead our state in celebrating, enjoying, and practicing her chosen art. “It is such a huge thing to be awarded the title – sometimes I can’t believe it.”

(The public is welcome at her upcoming events, mentioned above, and she keeps a calendar online.)

4 Replies to "West Seattleite Claudia Castro Luna, city's first Civic Poet, prepares to become state's next Poet Laureate"

  • MP January 15, 2018 (11:14 pm)

    Feeling so grateful that during such a dark time in our country, WA makes it priority  to make art accessible to the public. Claudia’s beautiful work is a desperately needed antidote to the toxic, hate-filled gibberish being spewed at us from the bottomless pit of depravity in the other WA.  To know she is a West Seattle neighbor makes this especially gratifying. Yay for good news! 

  • Maureen Rigert January 16, 2018 (8:32 am)

    My heart and mind seek reassurance that we will survive these dark times in our country. Claudia Castro Lunes, the woman, mother, poet, teacher, and immigrant, shares her experiences and insights with intelligence, kindness, and grace. 

  • Heather January 16, 2018 (1:06 pm)

    Here Here! To MP’s comment above! 

    And thank you to WSB for telling us. 

  • Kate Zylland January 16, 2018 (11:33 pm)

    This is amazing! I knew when I moved here this was a special place, but wow! Thank you for sharing this story. I look forward to spending a lot of time reading poetry now :-)

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