Friday, April 20, 2018

Between the rails of the printed page

This blog post first appeared in the WA State Poet Laureate Blog

This week libraries across the country are celebrating National Library Week. We all have read, or heard, stories of how libraries have literally saved people’s lives. Those lives were perhaps mired in difficulty and libraries offered a way to engage with new ideas, imagine possibilities and experience lives different than their own.
Growing up in El Salvador I did not have any public libraries. I knew there was a National Library in San Salvador, the capital. There were probably libraries in larger towns, but they were not easily accessible nor part of the collective consciousness. My father and mother, both teachers, were avid readers so I was lucky to have many books at home. They showered me with books they thought useful for me to read. They signed me up for a Book-of-the-Month Club through which I read Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Juan Ramón Jímenez, and many of the Western classics. It was not until the fourth grade when I attended a school run by American Maryknoll nuns that I had access to a children’s library for the first time. The excitement on library day was palpable. Every week we selected a book of our choosing without any adult mediation. Such freedom.
Libraries are mothers of love in my opinion. Everyone is welcome to the books on their shelves and the worlds, ideas and feelings within them yield their riches equally to all who take the time to read them. With our taxes we contribute to their existence and in turn reap benefits beyond what we individually could afford. Avarice and knowledge hoarding are anathema to public libraries; libraries keep the flame of democracy alive.
The poem that follows is one of three I wrote for Seattle’s Public Library while serving as the city’s Civic Poet. Whenever I share it out loud, I introduce it by saying that I don’t write love poems – or have written very few – but this is definitely one of them.
Ode to Library Books
Because more than ink glints beneath the rails of the printed page
Because like snow flakes, each person’s hands profile unique lines
Because every time a library book is borrowed, lifelines overlay each other
Because borrowed books bear fingerprint constellations on their backs
Because on borrowed pages we leave something of ourselves behind as tender evidence
Because fingerprints remain as glaciers remain in the valleys they carve
Because imagine all the points of connection
Because older hands may yet find their youthful versions on the cover of the same book
And because over the same borrowed book, neighbors not on speaking terms may still shake hands amicably
Because books visit our homes and witness the contents of the bags we carry
Because the trouble we would be in, if library books could talk
Because hand upon hand built the seven wonders of the ancient world
Because in a city of almost a million, chances are we’ll find each other first on the pages of a library book
Because from hand to hand, home to home, library books map the city
Because a hand that turns pages of a book collectively owned feeds a gracious and gentle    thing, a communal spirit whose wings span over park benches, over streets and p-patch plots, affirming dreams and daydreams alike, hatching songs that pour and cycle over us all — like spring’s pollen and winter’s rain.

World Poetry Day (from WA State Poet Laureate Blog)

This blog post first appeared in the WA State Poet Laureate blog (

So it is that the first day of spring this year corresponds with World Poetry Day, a designation made by UNESCO in 1999 — a more fortuitous collision of days.
The declaration states that, “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.”
According to UNESCO, “one of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.”
With this in mind I’d like to share a few lines from poets the world over whom I turn to often.
We all know and love Bashō, but few have heard of the extraordinary woman poet who went by the name of Rengetsu (Lotus Moon) and who wrote unforgettable poems in classical Japanese waka style. The translation here is by John Stevens.
Spring Rain
Random thoughts
And loneliness trouble me
But I am soothed by the
Anticipation of cherry blossoms
And spring rain falling on my hut.
Here is a short excerpt from the poem Stage 8 form the Danish poet Inger Christensen – translated into English by Susanna Nied.
Time:      dregs of words
like nubbly slugs.
Place:      solidarity of things
like random stones.
This past summer I did a reading in Barcelona and was chastised for not knowing the Peruvian writer Carmen Ollé. Below are a few lines in Spanish from her powerful book, “Noches de Adrenalina” (Adrenaline Nights)
“Tener 30 años no cambia nada salvo aproximarse al ataque
Cardiaco o al vaciado uterino. Dolencias al margen
nuestros intestinos fluyen y cambian del ser a la nada.”
From Chile, a poem by the Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf. The Mapuche territory encompassed most of Chile and a big part of Western Argentina. Mr. Chihuailaf writes in Mapuche. The poem below was translated from Mapuche into Spanish the into English by John Bierhost.
And at times there is nothing, I tell them. Nothing
The uneventful days pass by
My brother says to me
Listen to the song of the stream
(Come, let’s lean over and drink from its banks)
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is an Irish poet who writes exclusively in Irish and has played a big role in fomenting a renaissance of the Irish language in modern poetry. The English translation of A postcard home can be found here:
Cárta Poist Abhaile
Tá earraí ana-dhaor san áit seo.
bhíos ar mo shlí síos feadh na gcéibheanna
go caifé
nuair a chonac i bhfuinneog siopa
scata éanlaithe stuáilte.
Do chuimhníos láithreach ortsa, a chroí,
nuair a chonac an t-éan is mó is ansa leat,
an bonnán buí,
ina sheasamh suas cruinn díreach,
a mhuineál leata is cuma na scríbe air.
Cheapas go bpriocfainn suas é
ar neamhní
is go dtabharfainn mar fhéirín abhaile chugat é.
Ach nuair a d’fhiafraíos díobh cé mhéid é
gheit mo chroí.
Bhí sé i bhfad i bhfad
thar raon m’acmhainne.
Ko Un has written 135 books and been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His book Songs of Tomorrow was published by Green Integer and translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Gary Gach.
A Drunkard 
I’ve never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I’m a living collectivity
staggering zigzag along.
Sixty trillion cells! All drunk.
Hailing from South Africa, Vuyelwa Maluleke’s chapbook, Things We Lost In The Fire, appears in the collection Eight New-Generation African Poets (Akashic Books) edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. 

Black Girl

Black girl, loan me your lonely,
don’t bother washing it or giving it a pretty press,
let me have it at its worst
and I will keep it for you,
till there are more hands to share it.

On Beginnings (from WA State Poet Laureate Blog)

This blog post first appeared in the WA State Poet Laureate Blog The first one I wrote in my capacity as Poet Laureate.

There is magic in beginnings. The anticipation of what might be and the force behind the thought that generated the action conjure excitement to each start we endeavor no matter how small. February has been a month of beginnings for me. I started a year-long creative residency at the Seattle School of Visual Concepts where I have been invited to discover everything related to letterpress printing and design. And of course the big beginning happened at the Passing of the Laurels ceremony on January 31st when I took over as WA State Poet Laureate from the amazing Tod Marshall.
The Monday after the Passing of the Laurels I was the featured reader at Easy Speak at Jude’s Old Town in Seattle’s Rainier Valley organized by Paul Nelson - ( I was my first time at this small but mighty local restaurant and after the fine evening I have every intention of returning. A good crowd gathered that Monday evening and between servings of gumbo and libations we enjoyed a range of poetic expression and thematic concerns.
The following Sunday I had the privilege to read at the African-Americans’ Writers Alliance ongoing monthly series at the Columbia City Library ( Those of us gathered there remembered that Tod Marshall had also read there at the beginning of his term. I was in the audience two years ago and was so pleased, along with everyone else, at how personable and inclusive his presentation was.
Both of these events use a similar format: a featured poet is followed by an open mic. On the Sunday I attended the Columbia Library more than twenty people shared their poetry and stories. At the Easy Speak the number was similar and it included someone who gave a beautiful plaintive rendition with his bugle. It was fantastic.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Here is an Op Ed that I wrote for Crosscut earlier this week. A response to Trump's comment about certain countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Central America.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Day 2017

Autumn Thanks

We are gathered here today
to observe, not so much the end of the Fast
which continues to this day relentless,
the way ancient glaciers dragged
boulders across centuries.
The rumbling mass of injustice
fueled by greed that you sought to starve César,
still careens under western and eastern skies alike
extracting widows, homeless, mourners, sufferers
in the lamentable social strife
in which we find ourselves. 
Light wanes turning leaves fire and gold
revealing over horizon’s lip
the margins of our days.
Time it is to give thanks
for grandpa and grandma
sitting in the old living room sofa holding hands
waiting for their slice of apple pie
and for the cousins playing
their annual football game
in the park across the street.
We gather to acknowledge
our mothers’ lost hours,
lost on growing the alabaster
bones on which we stand.
We give thanks for ancestors
who came before us and lost,
for courageous walkouts
and for those who subsist
on malnourished minimum wage checks
for they will one day be relics
of our grinding, slow march
toward justice. 
If we in our days, put a fraction
of what bird puts into her song
we may yet reap a future
when injustice and war are the moraine
of our present, bitter, epoch.
We are gathered here today.

                                             Claudia Castro Luna

César Chavez – “We are gathered here today to observe, not so much the end of the Fast” from On Ending Fast – 1968
From participant’s notes Cascade Women’s Program - “grandpa and grandma

Abraham Lincoln – “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged” from Proclamation of Thanksgiving  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Giving Thanks

On the eve of this day -with all its historical implications and complications - I find myself in a space marked by overflowing gratitude. So much has happened for me this year from the good to very good from great to impossibly fantastic. Is that me to whom these things have happened?

Among the highlights: publishing a new book of poems, a mini book tour in Europe for an Anthology of Salvadoran writers, the successful culmination of my tenure as Seattle's Civic Poet with my Poetic Grid, a segment on the PBS Newshour, the publication of two stories in two separate and highly valued anthologies, and the appointment as WA State next Poet Laureate!!

I am thankful for all of it. For every recognition and for every opportunity to engage with folks, learning from them, sharing together the thing I love and for years was afraid to admit: writing and  poetry. Above all I am thankful for the health of family and friends and for my own health.

But most of all I am thankful for the gift of living; I am grateful for the chance to live. I was mulling these thoughts on my walk today when a gust of wind shook hundreds of golden leaves from a Japanese maple tree directly in front of me. I ran toward the spiralling leaves, to be part of their movement, to maybe catch one, the way kids  try to snap snowflakes on her tongues. I managed to loose every leaf I tried to grab, but turned behind me following the trajectory of a tiny one to the ground where it became mine. Behind me, above me, over me arched a rainbow. I would have never known it had I not ran to embrace life.

Claudia Castro Luna Named 2018-2020 Washington State Poet Laureate

Claudia Castro Luna Named 2018-2020 Washington State Poet Laureate: The Salvadoran-born, former Seattle Civic Poet is the first person of color to assume the role. She'll succeed Tod Marshall, whose term ends January 31.