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Poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna wins $100,000 to bring poetry to the Columbia River

Claudia Castro Luna, Washington’s poet laureate, won a $100,000 fellowship to create a series of poetry workshops that trace the route of the Columbia River through Washington to the Pacific Ocean. (Matt Owens)
Claudia Castro Luna, Washington’s poet laureate, won a $100,000 fellowship to create a series of poetry workshops that trace the route of the Columbia River through Washington to the Pacific Ocean. (Matt Owens)
By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

Washington state’s poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna was shocked to learn that she had won a $100,000 national poetry fellowship last week.

“(The Academy of American Poets Laureate) called me and I took some time to re-read my proposal before calling them back since I figured they were asking for clarifications,” Castro Luna said. “I remember reading my proposal over again and thinking, ‘This is a good project. I stand behind it.’ ”

Apparently, the academy needed no persuading. Castro Luna was among 13 first-time recipients of its inaugural Poets Laureate Fellowships, a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to promote creative projects around the country. Winners each received between $50,000 to $100,000 to pursue their ideas.

Castro Luna’s winning proposal is to convene a series of poetry writing workshops and readings along the Columbia River, from the point it enters the northeastern corner of Washington to its encounter with the Pacific Ocean. The main thrust of the project will be to highlight the importance of the river as a natural resource.

The Seattle-based poet described how residents often mentally divide the state in half, concentrating on the eastern and western edges. The river runs mostly down the middle of the state, an area many overlook.

“Spokane is a dynamic place with a lot of art and things happening, so is Walla Walla and Pullman. This area is almost like a heartbeat to Montana and Idaho. And on the other side of the state is the Puget Sound and the coast,” she said. “But what about the middle?”

“I think it’s a super contentious space. I think that the river belonged to the people who lived there for thousands and thousands of years and I think that they were displaced, so it has deep sorrow,” Castro Luna added. “Then the river gets dammed, there’s all these new interests, new life, the agricultural part, all those apples. That farmland is irrigated from the river and so now those people have a stake, they are from there now.

“I am just interested in what the river has to tell us,” Castro Luna added. “There are layers and layers.”

Forced to flee her war-torn birthplace of El Salvador as a child, Castro Luna has always been intensely interested in place. “Many people don’t realize how much we define ourselves in relation to the place where we grew up or live,” she said. “So when you come to a new place as an immigrant you are stripped of all that.”

Castro Luna has transformed her own personal trauma and loss by writing about place and encouraging others to do so. She is the author of “Killing Marias” (Two Sylvias Press, 2017), a book in which each poem is addressed to someone named María who has been murdered in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, victims of a surge of female homicides that have resulted in little government action.

She also published the chapbook “This City” (Floating Bridge Press, 2016), as a result of her work as Seattle’s first civic poet. In that position, Castro Luna won acclaim for her Seattle Poetic Grid, an online interactive map of poems showcasing different locations around the city.

In her current role as the poet laureate for the state, a position jointly sponsored by Humanities Washington and the Washington State Arts Commission, Castro Luna continues her obsession with place. Earlier this month she unveiled her online poetry map of Washington State, called Washington Poetic Routes. Visitors click dots on the map to see a poem from a Washington state poet written about that location.

The map at currently has dozens of poems from both established and younger poets. Castro Luna is working to include a broad swath of Washington’s residents, from school children to adults to long-time poets and first-time writers. Anyone can submit a poem for consideration via the website.

Next year’s $100,000 project will identify established poets along the river who can help Castro Luna teach poetry writing workshops and grow new poets, while also fostering a love of poetry more broadly. “I want to build the literary community in the time I will have,” she said. She will also use the money to create her own work about the river.

Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, explained in a written statement why Castro Luna was among the most generously awarded among the winning poets laureate. “Claudia Castro Luna is a poet whose work exemplifies how poetry can spark conversation and can help us learn about one another’s lives and unique experiences, which promotes greater understanding,” she said.

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