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We Reach Toward Poetry

An interview with Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna

Washington state’s 5th poet laureate, Claudia Castro Luna, red from her poetry collection Killing Marias at Kings Books in Tacoma May 24. Photo credit: Christina Butcher

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On a chilly Wednesday night last January, Claudia Castro Luna took up the mantle of Washington state poet laureate. She is the state's fifth poet laureate, and she'll serve as a poetic ambassador to communities across the evergreen state from 2018-2020.  Her prior experience as Seattle's inaugural Civic Poet (2015-2017), a published author of two poetry collections, and recipient of highly esteemed arts awards have all contributed to her initial success over the last four months as the state poet laureate. Castro Luna spoke with the Weekly Volcano about her new role and what she hopes to achieve under its laurels in the next two years:

Q:  Forgive us, but what exactly does a poet laureate do

A: The job of a poet laureate is to serve as an ambassador for the state and to create an awareness of poetry. It also means facilitating writing experiences with people. When we write about ourselves in poetry, we come close to touching on parts of ourselves in a way that may not be possible otherwise. That's very powerful ... I wish to share that with others, to share in reflective moments and provide those opportunities to as many people in Washington state as possible.

Q: What do you hope to achieve while serving as poet laureate? 

A: One of the projects I've proposed is to work with community colleges. ... So many different people come to community colleges from different backgrounds ... reflecting back to us the communities we've created and live in. They are places crucial to our communities. I'm hoping to begin traveling to community colleges in the fall ... and engage with students. I want to inspire them to write, to discover themselves and to share stories. We empower each other through stories. 

Libraries are another linchpin to this work. My goal is to touch as many people and be present in as many communities as possible - to inspire and engage people to handle language and to write. 

Q: What's one thing you'd like people to know about you as it relates to your role in the arts community?

A: I'm the first immigrant to hold the poet laureate position in Washington state. There are very few immigrant poet laureates across the U.S. ... I always point out that immigrants - in particular, Central American or Latino immigrants - have a range of expression and jobs that contribute to our collective society. Some of us wash dishes in restaurants, clean homes or harvest, but some of us are sculptors, doctors, lawyers and poets. Just like everyone else, we engage with the world in a variety of ways and we contribute in a variety of ways. 

I point this out because we have a propensity to "other" people ... and I want to build a collective awareness of what immigrants bring to our community. Washington state is a recent state ... and most of us are "arrivals" here. It's not too far back in our family histories where we'll all find a family member who "arrived" in Washington state. We all have these arrival stories - we have common ground. We're all immigrants. 

Q: Where did you immigrate from?

A: I was born in El Salvador, but I've been in the U.S. for about 37 years. I've been living in the Pacific Northwest for almost seven years. My educational background is very eclectic: I have a B.A. in anthropology, a master's degree in urban planning, a teaching degree and an MFA in poetry.

Q: What would you say to those who claim poetry is irrelevant nowadays?   

A: Poetry has never stopped being relevant, frankly ... It's always played an important role in human life. In times of difficulty, political upheaval, ecstatic moments like the birth of a child or marriage, or deep grief or confusion, we turn to poetry. Poetry can express things we cannot otherwise touch upon in everyday language. We reach toward poetry to fill us in some way, to guide us. The need to express oneself is very powerful and we feel that keenly in the moments we're traversing (now). I don't think poetry has ever been irrelevant. 

The Washington state poet laureate is sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA. The position is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities Washington.  

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