Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna on the relationship between poetry, identity, and landscape, and how her Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship supported her journey along the Columbia River.
“I’m not wedded to the idea that a poem needs to exist in stanzas or on paper. The sharing of one’s interiority with others is poetry too.”
When the novel coronavirus hit Washington State, its Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna’s first instinct was to create a space where people from across the state could share poems that offered them solace, strength, and even humor during difficult times. Early submissions to her online, crowd-sourced collection Poems to Lean On were mostly penned by famous names. But as days of isolation turned into weeks, she started receiving more and more poems written by the people submitting them.
“The poems fill me with empathy, joy, and hope. I think they have contributed in a really powerful way to my mental health,” says Castro Luna. “I feel that I have been the effort’s biggest beneficiary.”
That early response to what has become a global pandemic with no clear end in sight led to Castro Luna’s newest effort, Poetic Shelters: Documenting Home in Covid-19. As with her previous interactive poetry projects, she asks site visitors to share poems, observations, images, and essays in this case that “consider the poetics of your home and how its physical and emotional character is changing during this time.” And while the circumstances that inspired Poetic Shelters are unprecedented, the concept behind the project took root more than a decade ago.
Originally from El Salvador, Castro Luna earned a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1999 before receiving her MFA in poetry from Mills College, in Oakland. While at UCLA, she explains, “we were looking at big sets of data and then mapping them onto the city or local counties to understand population movements and how power relations exist in physical space.” As a writer interested in how identities are defined and understood in relation to landscape, those concerns never left her.
So in 2015, when the Seattle Office of Art and Culture put out a call for its first Civic Poet, encouraging those with an interest in the intersection of language and urban space to apply, Castro Luna did not hesitate. She was chosen for the inaugural two-year term, and spent that time creating the Seattle Poetic Grid, an interactive digital map dotted with poems written by the city’s diverse inhabitants—established authors and novices alike—about the places they call home.
In 2018 Castro Luna became the first immigrant and person of color to hold the title of Washington State Poet Laureate. In her new role, she created Washington Poetic Routes, an expansive statewide version of the Seattle Poetic Grid. When the following year the Academy of American Poets announced their new Poets Laureate Fellowship, she proposed One River, Many Voices, a project that won her the grant and has since enabled her to travel to communities in remote towns along the famed Columbia River as it cuts across Washington all the way to the Pacific.
We spoke with Castro Luna about her fellowship, where “One River” took her before the journey was cut short by the pandemic, and about the projects and poetry she is turning to as a source of comfort during this challenging time.The Columbia River as photographed by Claudia Castro Luna during her travels across Washington State for her project One River, Many Voices. Courtesy of Claudia Castro Luna. Portrait, top: Photo by Tim Aguero.
Your digital poetry mapping work emerged many years ago, starting with Seattle’s urban grid and then expanding to the mountains and valleys of Washington State. How were you able to shift from a city to a statewide geography?
The challenge was thinking about what spatial concepts to hang the poems on. The city of Seattle was easy—it’s a grid and it’s a very discrete terrain. In Washington State, we have two huge mountain ranges, we have mighty bodies of water, we have snowy passes. There’s a real physical barrier for Washingtonians to travel from the west to the east. The project allows readers to create imaginary traces that connect one place to another across the state through poetry, while asking, “What roots us to the places we live?”
For One River, Many Voices, I continued to think spatially, this time about how the Columbia River really dissects the state of Washington, cuts it almost exactly in half. It’s such a mighty thing because of all the other rivers that flow into it. It carries with it all of these other provenances, and it moves through the most rural and undiscovered terrain in Washington State. I wanted to develop a project centered on the river—not only to map its rich history, but also to access the communities that I would otherwise not visit.
What happens during the poetry workshops? Can you describe one of your stops along the river?
In Mattawa, which is a tiny community up on a hill made up almost entirely of Latino agricultural workers, I visited middle schools and high schools where I talked about poetry and literature with students in classrooms, wrote with them in the high school library, and held an evening reading for the community at large. While on this trip, I took advantage of the proximity to the Yakima Nation and held a workshop at their cultural center in Toppenish. The Yakima River flows nearby on its way to meet the Columbia. We wrote poems, and at the end people shared. I heard wonderful stories from people who have been living and fishing along the river for generations.
It was transcendental to me, and I think everybody there was moved by the stories, including the speakers themselves, who are not often given the chance to reflect on their lives. That's what this project has done. It offers a moment of recognition. It’s about writing, but it's also about breath. I’m not wedded to the idea that a poem needs to exist in stanzas or on paper. The sharing of one’s interiority with others is poetry too.
What has the fellowship made possible for the “One River” project?
When I proposed One River, Many Voices, I loved the idea of complicating the river with its own history and demographic changes; I could see it in my mind. But the reality is that each stop has required a lot of planning and development.
This grant has allowed me to be generous. By enabling me and my community partners at each location along the river to provide nourishment, literally and metaphorically, we can create a space that includes food and fellowship. People enter feeling welcomed.
Also, I have done this as a Latina, traveling by myself over mountain passes and long stretches of magnificent road on my own. It was really important for me to feel safe. I had to know that I was driving a sturdy rental car, and the fellowship has allowed for that.
Like so many vital arts initiatives, One River, Many Voices has been put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you experience that disruption?
It was really hard to cancel the last remaining stops on the river. So much had been already organized: school visits, library workshops, nature walks, readings alongside musicians, readings with poets who would travel from Oregon to join me on the Columbia Gorge. I so much wanted to witness the river’s merging with the ocean, to pay tribute to its life-giving force in the company of others who know it well, whose lives are intimately tied to it. My response to the loss was to create Poems to Lean On.
Are there writers whose work you’ve turned to for solace in this time of social distancing and isolation?
I find myself reaching for Ross Gay for his lovely expansive kindness, for the inimitable Cecilia Vicuña whose work Saborami is a field manual for how to respond fiercely with the arts in times of utter national chaos and fear. Pablo Neruda is never far away from me…and to my kids’ dismay, I am again turning to the familiar writing and guilty pleasure of Jane Austen’s novels.