Claudia Castro Luna reflects on two years of listening to the creative voices of a city she thinks is evolving too rapidly for most people to take in, or understand what’s lost.
Some poems get away from Claudia Castro Luna. Seattle’s first civic poet calls these poems her “losses.”
One of them surfaced this summer during a poetry workshop she held at Green Lake Library for seniors, when a man in the group wrote a poem during the class about arriving at King Street Station in the 1950s.
“It felt right for him, and he just felt so lucky,” Castro Luna said. “I felt the same way when I came to Seattle.”
But there was longing in the poem, too, because that old Seattle is gone.
Castro Luna would have liked others to see that poem, but the author didn’t send it to her, even though she begged him to do so. When poems like these slip through her fingers, Castro Luna feels like she’s losing more than just a work of art. She’s losing a piece of Seattle’s history.
“That city is no longer there, but it is in his poem,” she said. “That’s why these poems are important — because that place exists in that poem he wrote.”
Castro Luna has been collecting poems like this for the past two years. She was appointed Seattle’s civic poet in 2015 by Mayor Ed Murray, and in those two years she’s made it her goal to chronicle the changing city through poetry. She passed the torch to writer and performance artist Anastacia-Renee Tolbert at the end of July, but says she’s leaving with a deeper knowledge of the soul of Seattle.
Castro Luna, 51, is primarily a poet and a teacher — she has a master’s of fine arts in poetry from Mills College and is a K-12 certified teacher — but she also has a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA. She submitted her poem “A Corner to Love” as part of her application for civic poet:
Maps of this city
number in the thousands
unique and folded
neat in each citizen’s heart
we live in the city
and the city lives in us
Possibly the most tangible product of Castro Luna’s work over the past two years is an interactive map of the city that she calls the Seattle Poetic Grid (seattlepoeticgrid.com). It’s a collection of poems that draw an intimate, personal picture of the city’s neighborhoods as a reader clicks on them: There’s an ode to an old tree in Lincoln Park, a sketch in words of a homeless man walking under the West Seattle Bridge, a tale of a “churro guy” selling snow cones and fruit in South Park.
The verses span the emotional spectrum, from nostalgic to joyful. Some were written by experienced poets; others are a first effort.
Kilam Tel Aviv came to one of Castro Luna’s workshops downtown because he was struggling with his poetry. A University of Washington accountant by day, Tel Aviv has been writing and performing poetry for the past three years. He came to make his imagery more “vivid.”
The workshop Tel Aviv attended was four weeks long, and each week Castro Luna gave him a prompt and a restriction. One week, he had to write a poem with three words per line, using only a list of 12 words.
The second week, he had to write one in which every line started with a certain word or phrase.
“She’s conditioning you to think different,” Tel Aviv said. “It’s one of those humbling moments where you feel like, ‘I’m never going to get that good.’ And of course she’d come along and say, ‘Yeah, you will.’ ”
One week, Castro Luna prompted Tel Aviv to talk about the Seattle he loves and “Pike Place Market” came from that:
Cobble stone roads luring you inside
wondrous caverns of memories
of reds and browns coating the heavenly
warmth of commerce companionship
reflecting welcoming faces and foreign dispositions,
intrigued by the promise of adventure
sweet and savory ride the airways
to hallways buried within themselves
triumph and despair wound
in debt and deflated dreams
softened with a gaze of interest
layers of shoes at a snail’s pace
keep the cadence to the spirits heartbeat,
highlighted by high hats of chatter
overlaying strings of desire,
under the eye, of a golden pig
In these two years, Castro Luna has presided as civic poet over a city whose physical map is changing rapidly — so much so that Castro Luna thinks most people don’t have time to take in what is happening or to contemplate what’s been lost.
“We don’t have enough time to mourn the change,” she said. “You kind of walk around with this ghost in your head.”
That’s true for poet Bang Nguyen, a real-estate broker who grew up in South Seattle. Nguyen recently had a visit from a college friend who hadn’t been home to Seattle for more than a decade.
In the 1990s, Bang and his friend lived on Capitol Hill and went to Seattle Central College together, but now his friend didn’t recognize a thing.
Nguyen turned their conversation, and his reflection on it, into a poem he called “Strange Homecoming”:
“That was the Bauhaus Cafe! See, the front door frame
still looks like it sorta … I know, it’s gone
And that used to be … I know, it’s gone too.
“Oh, that’s the block that used to be Tugs gay bar
next to King Cobra the Irish bar. I know, it’s gone.
And that was Bill’s Pizza … well, that huge
Hole used to be Bill’s.
You can still tell because next door is Linda’s Tavern,
the only place still there.”
“Whoa! You don’t recognize anything?”
“No, man! It’s just terraformed and replaced,
an alien urban landscape.”
You can live your life growing up in a neighborhood,
intimate with every street corner and alley.
Then you leave, like Jason and the Argonauts,
off on a fantastic journey to explore the world beyond.
An epic adventure to breathe adventure into your life,
like wind into sails, all of it taking you further
and further away from home and that young man
who was once “from around the way.”
Many lives later, you return to the port of your youth,
a world-weary traveler, counting on the familiar old hood
to be there, waiting patiently for you,
like a loyal pet, unflinching and unfazed by time.
Then whoa! The shock of so much change!
Your familiar stomping grounds now unrecognizable
with you a stranger in a strange land.
Ok, so it’s time to reflect on your own self,
like taking a deep look into a pool,
except, the deeper you look the stranger it gets.
“Hey stranger, you from around here?”
“No, not anymore. I’m just visiting.”
This poem helped Nguyen come to grips with being an outsider in the neighborhood that used to be his home. Castro Luna heard Nguyen read this poem in February, and asked him if she could include it on the map.
Castro Luna feels her work isn’t close to done — and the next civic poet, she hopes, will do even more in the position.
“I was a little naive … in the scope of work I could do,” she said. She wishes she’d been able to bring more immigrant voices into the grid; there are a few poems in Spanish and Arabic, but not as many as she’d like. Castro Luna herself came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 14, fleeing the country’s civil war.
But a diversity of voices is a key part of the goal of the grid.
“Literature provides us with the capacity to imagine somebody else’s life, and in that life find empathy,” Castro Luna said. “That grid, I’m hoping, will provide us with some glimpse into the other.”
She said she’s come out of the experience with a deeper understanding of the soul of the city — and the choices this metropolis faces in the future.
“It’s one thing to read something, in the comfort of our home or on the bus, and another thing to take action toward some change. Not even meaningful change — like go run for City Council or something — but just a small act that makes you reach over and transcend that personal everyday space that we all get holed into,” she said. “The difference for me in Seattle hangs a lot in that little decision-making, in that personal line. Otherwise we continue to feel very separate.”