Monday, August 10, 2015

Saint Louis, MO Poet Laureate: Michael Castro

Xánath Caraza


Michael Castro (Photo by Ros Crenshaw)

At the 100 Thousand Poets for Change World Conference, recently in June 2015, I had the opportunity to meet a number of powerful poets and activists from around the U.S. and the world.  Of these poets, I met Michael Castro and his wife, Adelia Parker Castro, from Saint Louis, Missouri.  Being from the Midwest myself, it first caught my attention that they were both Midwesterners as well.  Important to highlight, I then realized that Castro is the first Poet Laureate of St. Louis, Missouri after the horrific killing of Michael Brown, a year ago on August 9, 2014.  Castro’s appointment has very recently begun on January 1, 2015.  The following is an interview that he graciously agreed to share with La Bloga readers along with some of his poems.


Adelia Parker Castro & Michael Castro (Photo by Ros Crenshaw)


By Michael Castro

America loves its guns more than its children.
America hunts down its children in the streets,
mows them down in the schools, massacres them in the malls.

American loves its guns more than its children.
Keeps its gun with it at all times, at all costs.
Would rather wage war than feed poor kids.

Would rather everyone be armed than everyone be smart.
America loves its guns more than its children.
America carries its gun in the store, in the bar, in the church,

anywhere you might be-- make you feel safe?
America loves its guns more than its children.
America buries its children—doesn’t tuck them in at night,

doesn’t read them stories in bed. Instead,
America, lonely & stressed, sleeps with its gun under its pillow.
America loves its guns more than its children.

America sells guns to crazy people,
its weapons of war to madmen militias.
Sells guns out of the trunks of its cars.

America loves its guns on tv, in the movies, on the news.
America loves its shooting range, its gun shows, its American Sniper.
America is entertained by its guns. America dreams of its guns.

America loves its guns more than its children.
America buys guns & cuts education funding.
America loansharks its college students, devours them with debt—
     gives tax breaks to masters of war

America loves its guns more than its children.
America loves it guns while its infrastructure crumbles.
America loves its guns while its air & water thicken & sicken.

America protects gun owners, neglects the environment.
America says guns don’t kill.
America is armed & dangerous.

America makes bigger & better guns—sends its children off to wars.
America is world’s biggest arms merchant.
American guns are big business/big business are US.

America loves its guns while its jobs evaporate.
America is mowing down its children right & left
in the streets, in the schools, in the malls,

Mowing them down right here today,
mowing down their present, mowing down their future.
America loves its guns more than its children.

©Michael Castro

MC speaking to 7th Grade Poetry reading by school champions (photo by Adelia Parker Castro)

Gracias Michael Castro for accepting this interview for La Bloga.


Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Michael Castro? 


Michael Castro (MC): I am a poet. Being a poet is the sun around which my other public lives orbit: educator, arts organizer, radio show host, translator, editor, performer. 


I am human being, a man living in America in the 21st century. I am a son, lover, husband, father, grandfather, relative, and friend. A traveler and seeker. These are among the things that feed and nourish my poetry.



XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading? 


MC: My parents encouraged me to read. I devoured comic books, Hardy Boys detective novels, and books about history in the Landmark series. I did this without much guidance, sometimes under the covers after bedtime with flashlight illumination.

MC with poets at the Julia Davis Library North St Louis (Photo by Adelia Parker Castro)

XC: How did you first become a poet? 


MC: The seeds were sewn in fourth and fifth grades at P.S. 98 in Manhattan where my teacher, Mrs. Higgins, assigned an “Original Paragraph.” She would provide a title and we could respond to it freely in writing. Most of my classmates regarded this as an onerous homework assignment. I loved it. I remember one piece called the “Be-Bop Language,” in which I created my own language. I knew nothing about actual be-bop at the time, I just liked the sound of the word & took off with it with my imagination. I think of this now as my first poem. Years later, upon graduating from college, I worked briefly for the New York City Welfare Department and began transitioning from prose to poetry by writing songs in my Welfare Department notebook. Then I moved to St. Louis to attend graduate school and began writing actual poems. My first publishing was done there, a little book called Ripple with three other fledging bards who performed collectively as the Peace Eye Poets. We sent copies around to poets we admired & got some positive responses. When I would here from friends who had visited Allen Ginsberg in his East Village apartment that they had seen my little poem, “Brown Rice,” from Ripple, pasted on his kitchen wall, I felt affirmed as a poet.


XC: Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?  Or stanzas? 


MC: The gift of a book of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems made me want to switch my writing focus from prose to poetry. Lorca’s poems made me realize poetry to be more than an intellectual experience, but one that could also be sensory, sensual, emotional and spiritual. He engaged my total being and imagination in ways prose could not. I sensed poetry’s affinities with music and visual art in the way it could impact. His poem, “Romance Somnambule” (“Ballad of the Sleepwalker”) remains a favorite.. Here’s how it opens: “Verde que te quiero verde / Verde viento, verde ramas. / El barco sobre la mar / y el caballo en la monta︢︢︢na. / Con la sombra en la cintura / ella suena en su baranda, / verde carne, pelo verde / con ojos de fria plata. (“Green, how much I want you green. / Green wind. Green branches. / The ship upon the sea / and the horse in the mountain. / With the shadow on her waist / she dreams on her balcony, green flesh, hair of green / and eyes of cold silver.”) Lorca’s poems’ music and imagery knock me out.


Later I learned to love William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, especially poems like “The Tyger,” The Sick Rose,” “Ah Sunflower” (a musical version of which by The Fugs was the theme song for my radio program, Poetry Beat) and “London.” These deceptively simple poems deal with the most profound social and metaphysical issues. “London” depicts the stresses affecting citizens of the developed world to this day—powerlessness, alienation, exploitative labor, war, religious hypocrisy, sexual disfunction, crime—all in sixteen lines.  Its opening two stanzas are firmly embedded in my consciousness: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street, / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Wow! He walks down the street and sees the pain etched on everyone’s face. It goes on:  “In every cry of every Man, / In every Infant’s cry of fear, / In every voice, in every ban / The mind-forged manacles I hear.” The phrase “mind-forged manacles” blows me away. It suggests that what we perceive as problems are the creations of our cultural and individual minds—and, I like to think, Blake is implicitly suggesting they can be transcended by the same minds that forged them. This, I’ve come to believe, is the central problem of our time. As I say in a poem called “Poet’s Rap,” “any answer we can find / delving deeply in the mind.” Our capacity to solve the problems we face exists; the question is, do we have the collective will and wisdom to enact what we know?


A more recent favorite poet is the Nicaraguan, Ernesto Cardenal. His collection, Cosmc Canticle, is a really great epic work, sweeping in its scope a la Whitman’s “Song of Myself;” it’s remarkable in its integration of the concepts of modern physics and Native American myth, exploring social, scientific and metaphysical issues along the way.

Michael Castro with St. Louis Visionary Women in the Arts Award (Photo by Adelia Parker Castro)

XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you? 


MC: A day of creative writing for me is a joy. Writing a poem in a single sitting, making progress on a poem, initiating a poem, revising a poem, finishing a poem exist on a scale ranging from frustration to elation—but getting down to get it down however it goes down makes me happy, or at least keeps me half-way sane.


I don’t really have a reliable routine. I have periods in which I’m writing and revising day in day out for weeks at a stretch, usually taking weekends off; & then I’ll have fallow stretches where I’m not doing much more than jotting down notes & hoping for a poem to come to me. Eventually, this will make me anxious and out of sorts, so I’ll make a concerted effort to get back in a writing groove. I might do free writing to reconnect, or mine old journals I’ve kept, or try to revise abandoned drafts. I typically write during daylight—but the poem can come when it chooses & I try to be ready with pen & paper within reach 24/7.


In the Spring and Fall I write in my study in the basement of my home. In the Summer and Fall, when its too cold to work down there, I work on the dining room table.


XC: When do you know when a text/poem is ready to be read? 


MC: This is a very intuitive thing. When you silently say, “Ah,” or “Aha!”


XC: How have you developed as a poet?


MC: I like to think I’ve gotten better. But that’s for others to judge.


Proclamation of Michael Castro Day in St. Louis, MO on July 31, 2015 (Photo by Ros Crenshaw)

XC: Could you describe your activities as Poet Laureate?


MC: Basically, the Poet Laureate supports and promotes poetry and the arts. But being St. Louis’s first Poet Laureate in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown compels me to be part of the healing efforts going on in our city. Toward that end, I have brought together poetry presenters from St. Louis’s fragmented poetry communities, mirroring our fragmented city, most of whom had little to no previous contact with one another, to create a Unity Community Series. These are poetry readings that are racially, generationally and stylistically diverse, designed to celebrate both poetry in its many voices, and the principle of unity amidst diversity. Poets reach new audiences, audiences are more diverse. “Mind-forged manacles” are shattered as our common humanity is affirmed, and, we hope, the message and the consciousness spreads.  Bringing the presenters together resulted not only by their enthusiastic embracing of the Unity Community Series and concept, but several spin-off projects, including a Brick City Poetry Festival in September.  Four Unity Community events have taken place through July, with more coming up through my two year appointment.


The formal requirements of the Poet Laureate position were to make six public appearances each year, and to write a poem in 2015 relating to the St. Louis’s two-hundred and fiftieth birthday celebrated the previous year. The poem, “Re: Birthday St. Louis Two Fifty” was first read at my Inauguration January 31st and has been subsequently published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis American, St. Louis Public Radio and St. Louis Magazine. In the first six months I have made thirty-five public appearances,--as a show of support, as a host of a reading, as a media interviewee, as a featured reader/performer or speaker. I’ve appeared at youth poetry events, interfaith events, scholarship raising events, a gay pride celebration, at colleges, in libraries, in bars, before the St. Louis Board of Alderman, before the Ferguson Commission, at the History Museum. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve tried to promote the idea/ideal of Unity Community. Beginning in the Fall I anticipate working with children in the schools and in the Ferguson community.

MC interviewed on KDHX radio (Photo by Adelia Parker Castro)

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


MC: Well, in my student days I protested against censorship, both in my high school and University newspapers. I was active in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. I currently work with an organization called Gitana Productions. Our mission in brief is “cross-cultural engagement through the arts.” We have educational programs for immigrant and minority children, produce art events, and commission plays exploring issues affecting minority and immigrant communities. Most recently our play, “Black and Blue,” based on interviews with Ferguson residents and protesters, as well as police, played to large audiences throughout the city in a month-long run, and is being sought out for additional performances this fall. “Cross-Cultural engagement through the arts” has been the focus of my activities for more than forty years. I co-founded the River Styx literary organization and magazine, now in its fortieth year, in 1975. The orientation of both our magazine and reading series was what became known as multi-cultural, which was pioneering at the time. Our reading series gained a national reputation for its uniquely diverse and lively audiences. As an educator I’ve taught courses in Native American literature, Art and Culture of India, World Religions and World Poetry. As an administrator I’ve developed a Cross-Cultural Studies curriculum, establishing nine credits of study in cross-cultural coursework as a core General Education requirement.


I hosted poetry radio programs for over twenty years. Always the orientation has been multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Unity amidst diversity is the central paradox, central truth, and central challenge of our time.


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


MC: I’m currently doing final galley proofs for a book of poems by the Hungarian poet Endre Kukorelly that I co-translated with the Hungarian poet Gabor G. Gyukics. I’m also working on choosing and assembling work for a Selected Poems as well as working on some new stuff. Here’s a recent piece:



I am more than your idea,
I am tangible, touchable,
a human being like you.
We breathe the same air,
want the same things.
We need to talk.

I am more than my skin tone,
more than the weight I bear,
more than the clothes I wear,
more than who I sexually prefer.
more than my accented speech,
hear me—we need to talk.

So get out of your closed mind,
It’s claustrophobic in there—thoughts fester
if they can’t expand. Let’s meet.
Get out of your car, come onto the street.
Let’s discover each other on common ground.
We need to talk.

I say, take off your armor,
put away your gun,
don’t just stare into your smart phone.
Hello. Or as they say in the East, Namaste,
& Savati—the god in you honors the god in me.
We need to talk.


More poems by Michael Castro




When police are the threat, who’s there
to protect? When walking in the street
can get you busted, shot, or beat
just for being black, talking back, looking
wrong, or looking strong—how can we
really be: a viable city, where people
can live in harmony? a free country?

With tanks in the street, who or
what do they defeat? No good results,
only bad; fear is what drives us
mad. And fear, the root of hate,
becomes the Police State. Instead of tear
gas, hear us! Let’s relate, for a
start, human to human, heart to heart.

©Michael Castro-2014

                         *A kwansaba is a form invented by Eugene B. Redmond: seven lines, seven words per line, no more than seven letters per word



          for Katherine Dunham

     She digs an endless root, cuts, transplants
     Sets herself up as a root doctor in a powerful swamp
     Sets herself up all right, sets herself all upright
     She digs an endless root this doc of dance

     Holds a mirror up to each patient's breath she do
     Holds a sea up to a setting sun o yeah
     Walks that same path Damballa Wedo do each day o
     Slides across the sky on that endless root hey
     Root doctor dancing, the root twists & turns
     Flames leap at the center, the heart weeps & yearns
     A flaming swamp flower reaches up to the sky
     & down into the earth where the living must die

     She digs an endless root, cuts, transplants
     In the powerful swamp where the two rivers meet
     The cuttings take hold through the earth, of the dance
     Of the blue people waking & quaking their feet

     Gatekeeper Legba, an old man in tatters
     leans on his crutch in the dust of the path
     He points with his pipe & its tiny fire
     to a place you can't see but know matters

     Root doctor dancing, the flames dancing too
     The garden is growing where the people are blue
     She holds up a mirror that's deep as a gun
     She offers an ocean to a serpentine sun

    Ghede sits dapper at the edge of a circle
    His cigarette dangles, right leg's crossed over knee;
    Behind his shades an underworld darkens
    Look in his eye dancer, whose "i" do you see?

    She digs an endless root, cuts, transplants
    The dead are awakened by the din of the dance
    Root doctor swaying, the loa arise
    They shine in her eyes now, she seems in a trance

    Erzulie is mounting a bucking bon ange
    She rides now in terror, she rides now in grace
    She rides over the sea to the mouth of the river
    She leaves you behind & she smiles through your face

    Doc digs an endless root, cuts through & transplants
    Sea flows through the rivers & sings in the swamps
    Blue people buckle, Damballah still shines
    & Shango speaks surely through the cracks in time

   Root Doctor the patient, the patient revive
   Root Doctor I didn't think that patient alive
   The mirror is cloudy, spirit floats in a mist
   The sun's in its bed now, the sea has been kissed

   Root doctor loa, root doctor up right
   Root doctor darkness & root doctor light
   Endless root opens the gate of the night
   Serpent sun memory speckled & bright

   Holds a mirror up to each patient's breath she do
   Holds a sea up to a setting sun o yeah
   Walks the same path Damballah-Wedo do we do
   Slides across the sky on that endless root hey

 ©Michael Castro


          FREEDOM RING        

                    for Dr. Martin Luther King



               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freedom ring?


          When the bloodhounds growled & wailed?

          When sherrifs locked you up in jail?

          When you sat up front in a bus?

          When you overcame for us?


               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freedom ring?


          When the tap clicked on your phone?

          When you prayed at night alone?

          When a child returned your smile?

          When you walked the extra mile?


               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freedom ring?


          With civil rights writ into law?

          With klansmen pounding at the door?

          When you won the Nobel Prize?

          When you looked into deep dark eyes?


               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freeedom ring?


          When you lunched with congressmen?

          When you marched with garbagemen?

          When your dream lit up the night?

          When your soul beamed in the light?


               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freedom ring?


          When you climbed the mountain high?

          When the bullet let you die?

          When your spirit rose to speak?

          When you turned the other cheek?


               Dr. King, Dr. King,

               When did you hear freedom ring?


       ©Michael Castro
MC in Om Cap (Photo by Adelia Parker Castro)
Michael Castro is a poet, translator, arts activist, and performance artist.  His collaborations with musicians are on six CD’s.  His poetry and translations are collected in fifteen books.  In 2015 he was named the first Poet Laureate of St. Louis, MO.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Castro's poetry heals and rejuvenates the heart of St. Louis after it briefly fluttered following Ferguson's outcry for its fallen son. Its the poetry, art, songs, and dances that will see the pieces float into place and not the raucous rantings of politicians and bigots. For having the good sense to crown a poet laureate, I admire St. Louis. For choosing Dr. Michael Castro, I admire her even more! Connie Schafer


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