Monday, November 30, 2015

Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s Civic Poet

Xánath Caraza

Otoño by Xánath Caraza

En mi reciente visita a Seattle tuve el gusto de conocer a Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s Civic Poet.  Originaria de El Salvador ha pasado la mayor parte de su vida en el northwest.  Hoy una entrevista a Castro Luna, quien amablemente ha aceptado compartir sus palabras con los lectores de La Bloga.

Claudia Castro Luna (Photo by Carmen Carrion)
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Claudia Castro Luna?  How do you define yourself as an author?

Claudia Castro Luna (CCL) is Seattle’s Civic Poet, the recipient of a King County 4Culture grant and a Jack Straw Fellow. Born in El Salvador she came to the United States in 1981. She has an MA in Urban Planning, a teaching certificate and an MFA in poetry from Mills College. She writes because the flesh remembers even when the mind forgets and moving the hand across a page is a measure of resistance. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Riverbabble, the Taos Journal of Poetry and Art and City Arts among others.  She is working on a memoir about her experience escaping the Salvadoran Civil War; an excerpt of it appears in the 2014 Jack Straw Writers Anthology. Living in English and Spanish, Claudia writes and teaches in Seattle where she gardens and keeps chickens with her husband and their three children.


XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading?  Who guided you through your first readings? 

CCL: Both of my parents were teachers in El Salvador. Both of them were also big readers so growing up I was surrounded with books, newspapers and even magazines. My mother taught me to read and write when I was four years old. We had a small school desk at home and every afternoon when she came home from teaching 5th grade, we would do a lesson together. I’d sit at the little desk and practice reading and writing the day’s lesson. I remember clearly the afternoon my father came home with a volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s stories. My mother opened the illustrated book and read from it, El patito feo -- The ugly duckling.  I could not hold back my tears hearing the sufferings of the young goose.


XC: How did you first become a poet?  Where were your first poems written? In which city? When did you start to publish?  And, what impact did seeing your first publications have on you?

CCL: My junior year of college I was an exchange student in France. It was there that I wrote my first formal poems. I worked really hard at them but the words on the page never met up with the ideas I had in my head. Somehow I wasn’t quiet satisfied with them. But I continued writing poems in my journals. After the birth of my second daughter I took writing seriously and enrolled in a poetry class at my local community college -- Laney College in Oakland, CA. It was while at Laney that my first poems were published and that I read them in public. A woman walked up to me after a Laney reading and asked me to sign her copy of the journal that had one of my poems. Her request was completely unexpected and left me feeling strange and invigorated at the same time.

Claudia Castro Luna

XC: Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?  Or stanzas?  Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/these stanzas?

CCL: I have many favorite poets and I read their work over and over again. Pablo Neruda, Gioconda Belli, Wislawa Szymborska, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Sonia Sanchez, Marie Ponsot, Cecilia Vincuña. These authors are teachers and their poetry fills me and inspires me. Here is the opening of Gioconda Belli’s Armar tu vida:


“Armar tu vida.

Irla haciendo como rompe-cabezas.

Conjurar el futuro.

Construir la esperanza.”


XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?  Where do you write?  How often?

CCL: Writing time happens for me when my three kids are at school. I try to sit at my desk four to five times a week. From necessity I have learned to write in the mornings though I am more of a night person.  Sometimes I take advantage of weekend nights and stay up writing well until midnight. I write from home where I’ve set up a desk in a corner of the basement. To my right, a window looks out at the garden and chicken coop, to my left a love seat stands ready to curl up with a book or to re-read my own work. I often start writing by reading and the sofa is the perfect place for that. If I get an idea, I can get up and jot it down quickly at my desk.


XC: When do you know when a text/poem is ready to be read?  How have you developed as a writer/literary critic/poet?

CCL: First I know that a poem is ready when whatever is on the page matches the thought/emotion that engendered it in my mind.  I start with a thought/feeling and as I write my way into it I often end up coming across an unexpected thought, something I had not considered at all at the onset of the writing process. I love it when that happens. Actually it is necessary that a divergent point happen in the writing of the poem. Without that moment, there is no surprise and without a surprise for the writer, there cannot be one for the reader. Wherever I end up at the end of the road, I can always trace my way back to the kernel that first appeared in my mind.

The second thing I do to insure that a poem is complete is to read it out loud. Hearing the work is a great way to edit. Sometimes I record myself and make changes according to what I hear.  Sound is a guiding force. When the poem flows effortlessly from my mouth, I know it is done.

When I first started writing poems I was more driven by content.  One of the main things I took out of my MFA program is the importance of sound: how it informs and guides a poem.  I also pay a lot of attention to form. Finding the form, the vessel, in which to pour the poem is critical. Form is the engine fueling the rest of what takes place within the poem. So much meaning, feeling and force can be conveyed through the physical nature of the poem itself. Tension, alliances, passions, discord, is all conveyed through form. It took me a while to understand and internalize this concept because form can be invisible to the reader. The more poetry I read and write the more I value the role form plays in writing a poem. This is why writing a lot, in journals, notebooks, the back of envelopes, the corner of newspapers, is so important. Most of my poems never make it past an embryonic state. All those writings are experiments are word play. And play is key to developing a poetry muscle and honing a voice.


XC: Could you describe your activities as poet/author?

CCL: Before I became Seattle’s Civic Poet I had a writing and performing routine built around my home life. I wrote mornings while my kids were in school and met with a writing partner every Friday--for the most part. I attended readings around town on a monthly basis and also presented my work in many of the known poetry venues around town.

Since becoming Seattle’s Civic Poet my writing life has changed dramatically.  I’m finding that I have less time to dedicate to my own writing but I am also sharing my poetry and prose across many sectors of the city. This is one of my personal goals as civic poet: to share poetry with as many communities across the city, in locations not traditionally associated with the literary arts and especially to write poems with folks whose voices are not often heard.  So far, I have read at events involving a housing non-profit, a community development agency, a women’s rights organization, an environmental agency to list a few. I have been working with the Seattle Public Library designing a program to reach citizens at the local branches. I have also been in conversation with the Office of Neighborhoods and with other local non-profits with the aim of bringing poetry – writing it, reading it, sharing it – to as many corners of the city as possible. As Civic Poet my activities have become more outwardly focused – and I am blessed and welcome the opportunity – Poetry Matters!

Claudia Castro Luna

XC: Could you comment on your life as a social activist?

CCL: From social work, to union work, working for a Los Angeles City council member, teaching K-12, to doing community development work, all of my professional endeavors have had a social justice dimension. My writing is also political. It is political because as a woman, an immigrant, a person of color I’m embedded in a socio historical context that is political and ruthlessly unequal. I write my reality. In that sense writing moves beyond literary engagement and becomes justice work. Audre Lorde said it best, “For women, then poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence … Poetry is the way we hope give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”


XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?

CCL: I have several projects that I’m working on. I’m producing a chapbook, Little Rose Garden of the Soul, consisting of a series of interlinked short poems honoring and demanding justice for the murdered women of Juarez. I wrote the poem as a work for multiple voices and had the honor to read it in July at the annual MALCS – Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social -- conference in Albuquerque. I read it with an amazing group at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. MALCS is a national organization of Chicana, Latina and Native American women. I am pursuing a recording of the poem in a professional sound studio to make it accessible as a podcast. The plan is to donate all proceeds from the chapbook sale to an organization working on women’s rights in the city of Juarez, Mexico.

I am also writing a memoir about my experience as a fourteen year old escaping the Salvadoran Civil War. One chapter of the memoir was published and a second one is coming out in an anthology of Salvadoran writers to be published in March, just in time for the AWP in Los Angeles. I also received a grant from 4Culture, the cultural services agency for King County, Washington, to conduct interviews and do research in El Salvador. I’m excited to be travelling there in the early weeks of 2016.

And continue to edit a book length manuscript of poems gathered under the title, This City. These are poems that speak to my fascination with the urban environment, the way in which the city limits and expands, enriches and marginalizes. The way in which we each make the city at the same time that the city shapes us.


XC: What advice do you have for other writers/poets?

CCL: I would tell young and new writers to write and write and write. I have been writing for many years and have kept journals since I was 15 years old. Reading the journals back I have found snippets and beginnings of poems and stories. But I did not trust myself enough to pursue it seriously even when it is what I most wanted to do. I wish I had come out of my shell sooner, perhaps then someone would have also encouraged my writing sooner.

Instead I waited until I was mature enough to encourage myself. I came to understand that nothing, not teaching, not community development work, not urban planning, not political work, nothing, was going to fulfill me as writing would. Once I understood that, I turned to writing with all my heart, fighting inner demons all the way, but staying true to the impulse.  And have since found people that believe and encourage my writing life – that is essential and necessary -- but not more necessary than believing in yourself and in your own need to commit to paper your dreams, fears and hopes.  

So I say write, put your heart down on paper. “Hay que insistir,” said the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti. I firmly believe that.  Insist in yourself.


XC: What else would you like to share?

CCL: I am including a poem I wrote to explain my relationship with writing poetry – or how is it that I became a poet – or how I came to recognize something about myself that had always been there – or how poetry has been like a dog to me, insisting that I look at it, take notice, embrace it, because she was not about to leave me alone.


Lyric story

She had always been there

trailing me with scent of musk and torn book

take me in, she said one day with a bark

once command and twice seductive plea 

I felt her rough coat, every inch of her wild

her fluorescent eyes giving away nothing,

the fierceness of her canine teeth.

Panic swept me and I leapt

best to hug familiar territory

the way a toddler holds on

to her mother’s skirt

but she followed me up one year, down the next

nipping my ankles, sleeping at my feet

splicing my dreams with her untamed lease

she stayed on until I let her in

I let this dog that walked away from wolf

enter me whole, fur, tail, jaw

she’d long known that I belong to it

-- not the other way around

she nuzzled me away from self pity

“Be animal,” she said and returned me

to the wilderness inside myself

where flowers are words that hang from trees

tortillas are halos, and over moist ground

lyrics grow scattered and unattached.

©Claudia Castro Luna

Seattle by Xánath Caraza


jose carrillo said...

Xánath Caraza- Mil gracias for this wonderful interview with poet, Claudia Castro Luna; it is a beautifully detailed account of a poet's life, work, and achievements. I love your photos, too. Saludos y felicitaciones!

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Gracias, Xanath, for this great interview and for introducing me to Claudia Castro Luna. Her insights on writing and poetry really spoke to me.

msedano said...

dog that walked away wolf. thank you, CCL.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed learning more about Claudia's writing method. Thank you.