Photo: Matt Owens. Back To All Blog Posts

Poetry Is Endless and Welcoming of Everything

An interview with Claudia Castro Luna, new Washington State Poet Laureate, on war, words, and the puzzle of place.

  • March 16, 2018
  • |
  • Feature
  • |
  • By David Haldeman

The twisting lines of a country’s borders and the minimalist lines of a city’s streets merge into lines of poetry for Claudia Castro Luna. Place—its shape, the rhythms within it, the sense of belonging (or not belonging) it can evoke—is the main arterial running through the landscape of her work. How do the seemingly inhuman, utilitarian shapes of the built environment shape the lives of those within it? And why do some places foster peace and others violence?

For Castro Luna, these questions are not theoretical. When she was a child, the borders and lines created by politicians and urban planners could hold the difference between life and death.

Growing up in the early 80s in El Salvador, those borders and lines contained death squads. Unfolding a map of your city and learning which spots on the grid were considered safe could keep you alive. But sometimes even that knowledge wasn’t enough. Fighting broke out or bodies lay on the streets she’d normally walk down. The death squads used the anonymity of the streets to their advantage—they often parked black vans where they could quickly capture, torture, and sometimes kill.

Schools were a particular target. Some words and ideas were considered dangerous by the far-right military government, and they believed students could be indoctrinated by leftist ideology. Castro Luna’s parents were both teachers, and were being watched. Many of her parents’ friends were murdered, including the principal of her school. He was killed in his favorite rocking chair while reading the newspaper.

One day while her parents were out of the house, two friendly-seeming men came to Castro Luna’s home. She opened the door with her nanny by her side and they asked where her mother was. Proudly, she told them her mother worked at the elementary school. They thanked her and left. Her nanny was horrified. “You’ve told them everything!” she screamed. She had accidently given her mother away to the squads. Her family fled their house the next day, to a new place on the map.  But the change didn’t offer much relief. One afternoon she woke up to the sound of machine gun fire two blocks from her new house. For the next three hours she hid under the stairs listening to the crack of bullets and grenades echo around her neighborhood. She was 13 years old.

Growing up she saw that words could get you killed, yet were worth risking your life for.

The Salvadoran civil war between the government and leftist guerillas would last another 12 years and claim 70,000 lives—30,000 of which were civilians. Her family, however, crossed another set of lines into a space called the United States, and she was safe.

Questions of place initially led Castro Luna to study urban planning at UCLA. But not long after graduation, she felt the pull of writing. Her father was an avid reader and had amassed a large library in El Salvador that included “forbidden” books by people like Karl Marx and the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. He was forced to hide them wherever he went: in false ceilings, under stairs, or buried in the backyard. Growing up, she saw that words could get you killed, yet were worth risking your life for. She enrolled in an MFA program with an eye toward writing that had a “strong consciousness around power and class and race.”

After moving to the Northwest, she has since produced the Seattle-rich topographies of the poetry collection This City, as well as its darker counterpart, Killing Marías, in which each poem is addressed to dozens of real women named María murdered in Juarez, Mexico—a border town often referred to as the world’s most dangerous city. She was appointed Seattle’s first Civic Poet in 2015-2017, where her poetry and urban planning themes merged even more strongly with the creation of the Seattle Poetic Grid, an interactive map where poetry appears as dozens of small dots all over the city. Each dot is a poem about a specific location, giving human meaning and experience to the angular shapes of a city’s gridlines.

As Washington State’s fifth poet laureate, recently appointed by Governor Jay Inslee and sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA/The Washington State Arts Commission, Castro Luna will travel the state presenting free workshops, readings, and school visits. And her sense of space will expand dramatically. Among other projects, she is hoping to create a poetic grid for Washington State. Through it, writers from urban centers to small towns will be able to distill, like Claudia has, the landscapes, roads, and spaces that surround them into poetry.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Many people say, “Poetry is not for me.” That it seems inaccessible, or that they don’t understand it. Why do you think that is and what can be done about it?

Claudia Castro Luna: I think it has to do with the way in which it is presented. A poem is so often presented as having a secret heart that you have to unlock, rather than the idea that poetry is there to evoke a feeling. Poetry is feeling—that is a much more accessible approach than trying to figure out some obscure meaning. I’m teaching a class now at Seattle U and we are reading Langston Hughes; we read William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” before that. I’m very gently showing patterns, the craft behind the poems, but I don’t want to dwell on that aspect. Because the moment I dwell on that, folks become locked in; like the poem has to have end rhyme or particular line breaks, and I don’t want to do that. So tomorrow I’m going to tell the students why I didn’t go in-depth into a discussion about technical elements because I don’t want to burden the class [with the technical]. I want students to read. And the more you read, the more you discover for yourself what’s happening in a poem.

What drew you to poetry as opposed to narrative storytelling?

I think poetry, for me, frankly . . . I had no choice. It chose me. I really feel that way. Once I started writing, it just allowed me in. And it wasn’t limited to English. I could use Spanish, and that was very welcoming of who I am. I could tell a story or make an observation or I could speak in Spanish. Poetry just never rejected what I tried to do. That’s what attracts me to it. And [former Washington State Poet Laureate] Tod [Marshall] said that after his poet laureate experience, he realized that what was important to him in his role was words; language. He would encourage people to engage with words as much as possible. If they loved the Declaration of Independence, he encouraged them look at it and memorize it. If they liked the Gettysburg Address, he wanted them to think about it, work with it, memorize it. Sort of an embrace of the possibilities that language offers, rather than a formal understanding of it as poetry.

Do you think that because you grew up in a time and place where some words were considered dangerous, maybe in a strange way that helped you appreciate their power more?

Yeah, [Salvadoran-American poet] Javier Zamora refers to that. So many people have died for words. When you’ve been around that, there is definitely a respect and an awe of what a word can do. This is why, again, going back to analyzing and understanding a poem, the resonances within a word are so multiple and so personal that you can’t reduce something to one understanding. There isn’t just one meaning locked inside a poem.

Tod has become very concerned about that—about how we take words for granted. I’ve been thinking about that too in terms of poetry, because poetry values the individual word. It’s so distilled. Each word is considered in the poem as you’re writing. Poetry is a kind of protector of the value of words because of all that it allows language to do, and all the jumps that a poem makes in time and ideas. I mean, it exists outside of logic in a way. I’ve really think poets are the keepers of the value of words and language.

What was the final push for your family to leave El Salvador to come here? I’m assuming that the political situation became simply untenable. Could you describe a little bit about that experience?

I think 1980 was probably the worst year of the war. It was just so extreme, the fear and the terror. Teachers were targeted. Teachers were killed on the way to school. They were sought out because they were thought of as planting seeds of insurrection in people. They helped people think, and thinking was considered dangerous. That was why teachers were persecuted. Both of my parents were teachers, and a lot of their friends got killed. It wasn’t far away. It wasn’t something that was out there. It touched everybody, the war. It just seemed like there was really—it was dark. It was a dark time. My mom, two years before, had submitted papers to come here. When my family came from El Salvador, we left with green cards, which is very rare. Most people leave with a visa, not with permanent residency like we did. That was because my mom submitted papers way in advance, kind of foreseeing that there was very little we could do. We were missing school a lot. There were a lot of work stoppages that ended up in massacres on the streets. There was a constant derailment of going to school and working. I think that that was the final thing: It just seemed like we were doomed if we stayed. We were in danger of being killed. It wasn’t one thing. It was just death all around, and fear. A lot of fear.

Poetry is a kind of protector of the value of words because of all that it allows language to do.

In a blog post for us a couple years ago, you told Jefferson Robbins that “war and the aftermath of war shaped to a large degree the person I have become.” How did the shape the artist you’ve become?

Well I think the two of them are together. I did not understand the effects of the war until I became a writer. The choices I made in my life and the things that made me afraid were there, but I didn’t have the deep understanding I have now.

That whole poetic grid is an experimentation of place and belonging. Partly because I’m curious about that—I want to see how people express themselves in relation to where they live, because I’m constantly doing that. You know, I love Seattle. From the moment we moved here I felt so—it’s kind of strange to say—at home. What is it about this place that is so familiar to me? What is that something about it? So I’m curious about that. I think we as humans have the ability to attach ourselves and love many places for different reasons. So I don’t find it an aberration that I would love living here as much as I do, even though it could not be more different than my place of origin.

Part of this has to do with me being an immigrant I think, but I’m also really interested in the way in which place affects who we are, our sensibilities, what we think, and how we feel, and the possibilities of being able to exert some power over the spaces we occupy. The Seattle Poetic Grid is a marriage of those two, of planning and my interest in poetry.

If someone comes to one of your readings who hasn’t been exposed to much poetry, what do you want them to come away with?

If it’s a writing workshop, I would feel successful if people either tapped into place or tapped into memories. Those two things are very potent—everyone has something to say about those topics, and in a workshop setting they surely end up writing something. And the important thing is for them to write and see themselves reflected, and to experience some sort of a connection with themselves on the page. Because one of the reasons I love poetry is because poetry is endless and welcoming of everything. Poetry rejects nothing. [For writing your own poetry], you could have a memory. You could have a limerick. You could have a little piece of a commercial. You could have something somebody said or insert part of a conversation. I mean it really is inexhaustible. If you understand it that way, then poetry, the act of writing it, opens up all sorts of possibilities. For me, the idea is to discover yourself in writing. And if it’s a reading and not a workshop, I always tell folks to come and hear and discover what poetry might do to them. It’s an invitation to be. An openness.

Claudia Castro Luna presents free events around the state as Washington State Poet Laureate. Find a free event near you on our calendar and check out her blog at wapoetlaureate.org.

Humanities Washington

Get the latest news and event information from Humanities Washington, including updates on Think & Drink and Speakers Bureau events.