Whenever Claudia Castro Luna views a tributary flowing into the mighty Columbia River, she’s inspired.
“The river is an incredible being,” said Castro Luna, the Washington poet laureate. “People marvel at the Gorge, but the river is breathtaking no matter where you are in Washington state. To stand and watch the Spokane or the Snake blend into the Columbia, it’s so majestic.”
Castro Luna’s mission is about more than river scenery; it’s about river people, which means all of us. A fellowship she won last year from the Academy of American Poets has sent Castro Luna on a series of road trips, bringing poetry readings and workshops to communities all along the Columbia River.
“In some of these small towns we have people traveling long distances to come, and some tell me they’ve never been to a poetry reading before,” she said. “That’s a big deal for me.”
It’ll be a big deal for Vancouver Saturday night when Castro Luna leads a rock-star lineup of local poets in “One River, Many Voices,” a reading at the Vancouver Community Library. Clark County Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Morgan and Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford will participate, as will Yeshi Berry, student body president of Vancouver School of Arts and Academics and a regional winner of the poetry-reciting competition Poetry Out Loud.
Celebrating diverse voices of all kinds — from Clark County people to the natural environment itself — is a main theme of the event, Morgan said. She pointed out that 100-plus languages are spoken in local schools, and that Clark County is home to “many people with family and connections from around the world, from every continent and many faiths, spiritual beliefs and perspectives. … This event will be a reflection of how important it is to welcome and honor all who live in our county and region.”
Castro Luna will also bring a solo version of “One River, Many Voices” to the Camas Public Library at 6:30 tonight. At 10:30 a.m. Saturday she’ll conduct a Spanish-language poetry workshop at the Vancouver Community Library.
‘The big unknown’
She’s based in Seattle today, but Castro Luna is a native of El Salvador. She’s the child of educators who were threatened during the buildup to the brutal Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s. Castro Luna was just 13 years old when she opened her front door and proudly told a group of strangers that her mother wasn’t at home because she was teaching at school.
The group was a death squad, she realized later.
“Teachers were targeted by the military,” she said. It was a terrible time marked by assassinations and rising panic.
The family fled El Salvador for the United States. They stayed with a relative in Florida, then moved to New Jersey.
“It was the big unknown,” Castro Luna said. “It was a huge relief to be leaving a war behind, but it was also very scary. I had no context to understand this new place.”
She also knew no English language at all, she said, but she did inherit her parents’ passion for language, education and hard work. When Castro Luna started attending school, she lugged a dictionary with her.
“I was a very diligent student. Whenever I wanted to say something, I’d look it up and point to the word,” she said. After school, she’d make lists of unfamiliar English words. “That’s how language acquisition works,” she said. “Children with a strong command of their home language and good literacy skills … it facilitates easier acquisition of a new language,” she said.
The family eventually settled in Los Angeles. Castro Luna wrote fiction and reported for her high school newspaper, then studied anthropology in college and urban planning in graduate school. Along the way, she also started writing poetry.
“I had no choice. It chose me. I really feel that way,” she said.
Two states, one community
Castro Luna is the author of “This City,” a poetry book about Seattle, and “Killing Marias,” a poetry book about the disappeared women of Juarez, Mexico, where the female murder rate is notorious. She’s currently working on a memoir called “Like Water to Drink,” about her escape from El Salvador.
Castro Luna has served as Seattle’s Civic Poet and was appointed the Washington Poet Laureate in 2018 by Gov. Jay Inslee. Castro Luna’s initial two-year term was extended an additional year, through January 2021. The Poet Laureate program is administered through Humanities Washington and ArtsWA.
Meanwhile, Castro Luna won that $100,000 fellowship from the Academy of American Poets for “One River, Many Voices,” highlighting poetry and her fellow poets along the Columbia River in Washington. Read Castro Luna’s blog about her poetic adventures at www.rivervoiceswa.com.
“Part of what I do at every location is involve local poets,” she said. “I want to build community that lasts longer than my being in that location.”
She loves helping local writers start new poetry clubs or restart dormant ones, she said. Also, she said, there’s always plenty of time for Q&A at these “One River, Many Voices” events.
All her visits so far have been to rural communities, she said.
“Clark County and Vancouver are my first metropolitan area. This will be the only really urban space the project moves through,” she said.
There’s something extra-special about our lower stretch of the Columbia River, she said, as it delineates a state boundary but also anchors a natural bistate community.
“People go back and forth across the river. That’s their lifestyle,” she said. “The river there isn’t one state or another state. It’s one community that spans both sides.”