Claudia Castro Luna served as Seattle’s first Civic Poet, is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship, and is the current Washington state Poet Laureate.
By Jamie Melton, Communications Coordinator
She is the author of “This City,” “Killing Marías,” and “One River, A Thousand Voices.” Born in El Salvador, she came to the United States in 1981. She currently lives in Seattle with her family
Columbia Riverkeeper: What drew you to Columbia Riverkeeper?
Castro Luna: My intent to bring awareness to the river—to think critically about its history and interconnectedness—has many partners. This year, I was at a statewide conference for nonprofits where I heard about Columbia Riverkeeper from a local journalist. It was the next day that the Seattle Times published an op-ed by Brett VandenHeuvel and Jay Julius from Lummi Nation about salmon survival in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. I then knew that I had to make the connection, so I reached out to Brett. Our vision aligned and we embraced a partnership.
Columbia Riverkeeper: We recently had the pleasure of joining you for your virtual book launch party for “One River, A Thousand Voices.” How was that experience for you?
Castro Luna: It was like a dream. It was a moment where literature stepped out of a silo and spilled into the world of connectivity and activism. Poetry readings usually happen at a bookstore or with a publisher, and we need more raw, engaging ways to interact and weave literary arts into social and climate advocacy. It was refreshing to be able to launch the book alongside an acclaimed nonprofit focused on river advocacy and Tyrone Ross Thompson (Wyampum Nez Perce), who worked with me along the journey of writing poetry and exploring the river.
Columbia Riverkeeper: Can you share some insight on your connection to the natural world?
Castro Luna: I grew up in a small town in El Salvador, surrounded by vibrant landscapes, tropical birds, and beautiful bodies of water. My family spent a lot of time camping and fishing in natural areas right along the river. We would sleep in hammocks and eat whatever fish my dad and uncles would catch. My draw to natural landscapes was cemented from a young age and traveled with me when I arrived in the U.S. at the age of 14, and flowed through me ever since.
Columbia Riverkeeper: What initially inspired you to start writing poetry? What continues to inspire you?
Castro Luna: Poetry is a very natural impulse that I have no control over. I believe some people are called to do different things, and poetry chose me. When I was in college I started writing my earliest poems. I studied abroad in France for a year, which was a total immersion in language and writing poems in French, English, and Spanish. During this time, I felt really far away—I could feel the ocean separating myself from my communities and family. This loneliness and distance propelled me to say something about it in the form of poetry. Once I started writing poetry, it was always a welcoming space of exploration, of invention, of acceptance. I have issues with diction and an accent when I speak English, but poetry never rejected any of that—it actually absorbed and welcomed all of it. My shortcomings were okay in poetry, which made me embrace being here and always coming back to it no matter where I am or how I’m feeling. And it’s my journey to share this healing gift with others.
Columbia Riverkeeper: You recently wrote a piece, “One River, A Thousand Voices,” inspired by the Columbia River. What sparked your interest in this project?
Castro Luna: I am a maps person. I was studying how the trajectory of the Columbia River moves through an entire section of Washington state, areas that we know very little about. I put out a proposal to the The Academy of Poets to follow the course of the Columbia River through the entire length of state to hold poetry readings and workshops in small towns, with the goal to create forums of engagement about how the river influences and impacts the lives of local river communities. To my enormous surprise, the project was accepted. It was just one of two projects with an environmental focus. Before I made the proposal, I went to the river to listen and research. Because the project was founded through place and engagement through poetry, it also made sense to write a poem to anchor the project. And the poem turned into a long poem—a book—all inspired by the river.
My ears should have been hurting, I should have felt the jets of the falls. But I could feel none of it. The river had been silenced. The damming and the silencing of the river has meant the silencing of Native people as well. To not have a free flowing river with salmon is cultural genocide.
Columbia Riverkeeper: What gives you hope for the future of clean water and a healthy environment?
Castro Luna: My experience studying and learning about how the Columbia River engages with and impacts communities living along its banks has given me a renewed hope and appreciation for what is possible. I started my project learning about the Columbia River at Shonitkwu (Kettle Falls), which was an immensely important tribal fishing site, and has been dammed since the 1940s. I sat on the bluff overlooking where the falls once were, just noticing and listening. I heard a dog barking, a motor, and people— and it was so quiet, somber, and tragic. I was taken aback to learn that directly below me were the falls that could once be heard from five kilometers away. My ears should have been hurting, I should have felt the jets of the falls. But I could feel none of it. The river had been silenced. The damming and the silencing of the river has meant the silencing of Native people as well. To not have a free flowing river with salmon is cultural genocide.
One day, I was trading stories with kids on the Colville Reservation. One of the kids shared a story about moving up into the mountains to retreat from the flooding, and spoke about “living in the mountains now but that they will move back to the river again soon.” The way in which this story was told—and passed through generations—gave hope for the possibility of a return to a healthy river and to abundant salmon. It was through this story and many others from Native people that I have come to harbor hope for the Columbia River and our environment
Columbia Riverkeeper: How can people engage with your work?
Castro Luna: I’ll be hosting a Spanish poetry workshop for young kids and families “Tardeada de Poesía” with Columbia Riverkeeper on January 27. Visit columbiariverkeeper.org/events to sign up. You can also purchase “One River, A Thousand Voices” on the website by clicking on “Shop.” You can contact me directly on Twitter or on my website, castroluna.com.
Read Columbia Riverkeeper Newsletter Issue 3, 2020