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Poetry of Place with Claudia Castro Luna

Poems are tools for existential work and Claudia Castro Luna’s poetry is our guide to a deeper understanding of place and belonging. Claudia was born in El Salvador and fled to the U.S. in 1981 at the age of 14. She writes about the grief of losing her first home and country in her book, Cipota Under The Moon, which she reads from in this episode. Claudia has put down roots, raised a family, and made Seattle her home. This sense of place is deeply tied to her work: Claudia is an Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate fellow, a Washington State Poet Laureate and Seattle’s first Civic Poet. We talk about the language of grief, her relationship with her grandmother and what it’s like to flee home.


You can find Claudia’s poetry and learn more about her work here: https://www.claudiacastroluna.com/


Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Hi, I am Sarah Cavanaugh and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode we explore death, dying and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators, they take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain and they translate it into words on a page. My guest today is Claudia Castro Luna. She's our first poet on the podcast. I'm so excited to talk with her about her work and personal experience, which are so entwined together.

She's an Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellow, a Washington State Poet Laureate and Seattle's first Civic Poet. For a little background, Claudia was born in El Salvador and fled to the US in 1981 at the age of 14. This gives you an idea of why place is so central to Claudia's work. Poems are tools for existential work. I've turned to poetry time and again to help me make sense of what is happening in the world and in my life. I read a lot of Claudia's work on the page to prepare for this conversation, but when she reads her own poems, they come to life. I'm so excited to have you as a guest. I always say that writers are our translators, and as you know, poets have a special place in my heart.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

And I know that holds true for you.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Absolutely.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, let's start with one of the themes so central to your writing, relationship to place.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Well, place is central to my work. I mean, it's central to almost everything I've written and published. For instance, my work as Civic Poet and as Poet Laureate was deeply grounded in this place, in Washington State, in Seattle. And I was really interested in facilitating people's own acknowledgement and understanding of the places they live in, facilitating that understanding, like how do we come to love a place? How do we call a place our own? What happens? And I think awareness of that makes for better living. It gives us a different understanding of who we are, a richer understanding.

And so my interest in that here in the United States has to do with the fact that I lost a place of belonging, I lost so much when my family left El Salvador. Not only our house, but a country, a language, history and a way of being and culture. I mean, there was such a deep rupture there. And I've rebuilt that and have reconnected to a new place, I call Seattle my home. I feel it very deeply. And that loss has made me realize the importance of recognizing and understanding and valuing the places we inhabit. And if we don't value them wholeheartedly, I love this place, then questioning what is it that is working there that makes us have an antagonistic relationship with it? And I think in that questioning, locations for action happen.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So what do you draw from as you're writing? What inspires you?

Claudia Castro Luna:

My life inspires me. So I'm originally from El Salvador and my family left El Salvador in 1981 as a result of the Civil War there. And when I say my life is the life that we had there, it inspires me to think of all the possibilities that were lost when we left. That was a big wound. So all this trajectory of being with extended family, just the way we were disappeared. So that's always a question that hangs for me. If I had stayed, if my family had stayed, I would've had a different trajectory. I don't even know that I would be a writer. It's not to say that my trajectory in the US is negative, it's to say that there was another one that belonged to me and I lost that. It's just to acknowledge that loss.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Claudia Castro Luna:

So that's one thing that inspires me. Cities inspire me, the urban landscapes inspire me and nature, trees in particular.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. You were 14 when you left El Salvador. Can you talk a little bit about what that's like coming into this culture, having English as a second language now and such a beautiful mastery of the English language?

Claudia Castro Luna:

English and Spanish, which is my native language, are such different mediums of expression because the language is really a medium. It's like a rider on the horse and the language is the horse. And it could be Japanese or it could be English. Those are vehicles for manifesting an expression or a feeling that one has. Every piece of writing is a translation, I'm translating myself onto the page. I love English, maybe I love its brevity and its push for compression. And I think that's why it works so well for poetry for me because it is very compact and we know that's something that makes poems work. English allows me a detachment from cultural norms that I cannot escape in Spanish because that language is so deeply in me that all of the constructs that are patriarchal in nature are embedded in that language in a way that they are not in English. English is very different. And so I am slightly a different person in English and I like inhabiting that space for my writing. Spanish is beautiful and it does other things, but... Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So if you were to think about those two mediums, and I love that idea of them being two different mediums, which one would be the language of grief for you?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Probably Spanish. And I say that because my encounter with death and deaths is so tied to my experience of being and living inside the Spanish language. And when I think of death, I think of the rituals around it too, which are so important. And I know those rituals in Spanish. So all the cultural architecture that helps us grieve is for me something that I have seen enacted and I've been part of it in Spanish a lot more often than in English. And so if it was one or the other, I would say that the conduits are more open for me in Spanish.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Are you keeping those cultural rituals alive in your life here?

Claudia Castro Luna:

A little, but not very much. Yeah, it's so different there.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Claudia Castro Luna:

I mean, my dad lives in El Salvador and he is getting old and he had a stroke, he almost died and it was really scary. And I flew down there immediately as soon as I knew what had happened. But there was a sense of comfort in knowing that even though I wasn't there, that he would be held in a particular way, whether I was there or not or whether I got there late. There's a set of customs that get triggered and honored and held by people in community that makes the original impact of the news, so you're able to withstand it because you're with others. And that's all built into this way of doing things that I don't think is the case for me here. My husband's dad passed away 10 years ago in Boston and he had a peaceful passing, which we were very lucky for, but the rituals around it were very different.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, that's one of the reasons we started this conversation around Peaceful Exit is, what are all the cultural community rituals that we can get together and grieve together and support each other at the end of our lives? What is that community ritual that happens in El Salvador that doesn't happen here?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Well, this book is about many things, but included in it are several poems about my grandmother who was such an important person to me. And when she was ailing, she was being looked after. She had Alzheimer's, very advanced, and it got to the point where she couldn't really swallow, for instance, she had very slow control over her muscles and her body function wasn't there at the end. So I flew down there just to be with her and people dropped in to see her all day long.

In the morning, somebody would come in and say, "How's she doing? Good morning. How are you doing?" And that's all. And some people would come in and have a cup of coffee, somebody else would show up and say, "Oh, I saw this particular food in the market and I know Nia Carmen, she loves it, so I brought it for her." Or, "Here's a little tea that I made." I mean constant people dropping in throughout the day. She was an elder in that community and so she knew a lot of people.

And it was the same with my dad with the stroke, there were people coming by all the time. And that constant connection was both important for my dad and my grandmother, but for us, the family, knowing that we were not alone and for the community too because all those people dropping by know that's the rhythm of things. So if that were to happen to their mom or an aunt or to themselves, there would be reciprocity the other way. So it's a tradition of reciprocity and kindness that is very simple, it's not complicated at all, it's just showing up.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Claudia Castro Luna:

So it's this networks of codependency in sociocultural settings.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Let's call it belonging

Claudia Castro Luna:

Or belonging.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It's belonging.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes, I love that. Yes, it's belonging.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. So do you feel like poetry is a way of metabolizing that grief, that loss of place and ritual?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Oh my God, absolutely. Poetry has been so much a vehicle for me to process the loss and to reclaim it through beauty, which is I think the work that poetry can do and does.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, you've written many collections, you've published several books, but let's focus on Cipota Under the Moon. Tell me about this book and tell me about the title.

Claudia Castro Luna:

So cipota is a Salvadoran for girl and it is very Salvadoran, it's like a flag on the cover of the book. So girl under the moon. And of course it's making a play with my own name, which is my last name, Luna. This is a very autobiographical book so alongside this, I've worked on a memoir. The first part is very much that experience of being a girl in El Salvador and the memoir is centered around that experience. And the book here is really an homage to children because children are often those who lose the most in war situations and often their voices, they're children so we don't know their perspectives.

So throughout the book, I've tried to weave my own story when I was a girl of the war, of course, but also to bring to light children. So that's one of the themes that runs through the book. And you're so right to ask the question about whether poetry has helped me metabolize that loss and that grieving, because that is exactly what this book has helped me to do. And on the other side of it, I have to say I feel somehow reconciled to now inhabit where I am now. I'm not here anymore in the war, I'm not an immigrant, just arrived from a situation of war or learning English or making my way into the world, I've come a long way from that. And now I could inhabit this Claudia talking to you because this has been processed.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It's a way of accepting what has happened and what happened in your life, however traumatic.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Exactly. Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. Do you think some people are never able to grieve?

Claudia Castro Luna:

I think that's possible, yes. Grieving is devastating, the realization of it. I think for me, there's a poem in this book about Monsignor Romero, he's a saint in the Catholic Church, he's been canonized, but he was an amazing character during the war and he was killed. And we never had the time to grieve because we were in the middle, there was so much disasters, so much death happening, terrible deaths happening all around us and our imminent death was so obvious too. And it wasn't a slow acceptance of death, I think death is the great mother. I mean, I think of death that way, but I think it's very different to think about death in a time of peace as we are here talking than it is when you are in a situation of war or extreme violence where your life is on the line every single day.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Walking to school and-

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yeah, exactly. Just riding on the bus or going to work.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

The image of the children walking along the wall so that they didn't get in sniper fire.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes, exactly. So you're just surviving, you're surviving intensely. It doesn't give you enough distance to think of the way days pass and the way just the whole magnificence of life that we are born and we grow up and we change and we shape ourselves and not all the different ways in which we are in the world as humans and then we come to a place where that ends. And it's a beautiful, I think for me, it's a return to the great mother, like a river enters the ocean. But I could only conceive that after living in a situation of peace and thinking about it and having then process all the fears around the trauma of the war. And I think I've been immensely lucky to have been able to do that, as a person and as a writer. I think when you are not given that opportunity because you have to continue to survive or you continue to experience incredible situations of stress or stressful situations, then maybe that grieving never quite is a full experience.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You have a very special light and I've found the people I've met who have had very deep trauma and been in war situations or been incarcerated, it's almost as if that deep grief allows you a much broader joy and recognition of beauty and life.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Thank you for saying that. Thank you. Sarah, there was a moment, I think in Wenatchee when I was a Poet Laureate in a high school, some question came along from young people and these are people who are the sons and daughters of farm workers whose existence is very stressful. So someone asked a question and I was relating to them my own experience of being an immigrant, escaping a war and coming and not knowing anything. The way everybody is when you arrive in a new place, you don't know anything, you don't know your way around, you don't know the language, you don't have money. In our case, we didn't, my parents really struggled. And yet I said to them, "Despite all of the hardship and all that happened, if somebody were to offer me a different life, one that didn't contain war or exile or death or fear or economic limitations, all of those things that I've lived..." If somebody said, "Here's a different life where you won't have those things." I would not take it.

It became clear to me in that second that I would not exchange my life for another one that had less hardship in it because it is that life that I have lived that allows me to be the person I am now and to be and to own and to be in this body. And so yeah, what you just said, that experience of stress maybe widens you in a way, I think you're right about that. And that recognition for me came in that conversation with those students as a way to say, things will change, life is constantly moving and in the way of offering some kind of inspiration.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

And able to notice the beauty and able to smile and able to relate to people and all of the things you do.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Shall we read some poems from your book?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Absolutely.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love this one, Dios Madre.

Claudia Castro Luna:

This is a poem where I could tell you that The Sacred Book of the Mayas, which is a book of poetry, is very much a part of this poem. So I guess individual poems sometimes turn to particular sources where there are a couple of W.S. Merwin poems here where I'm definitely looking at him. And in this case, this is thinking about that beautiful story of the Popol Vuh.

Behind a counter tending to a customer, he could see her skipping and laughing in the middle of the street. Children playing under the midday sun. Soon she would come in for her [foreign language 00:19:36], then head back out to school. He bent his head to count out change, that is when it happened. That is when bullets ripped his world in defense of nothing that matters. In a split second, children, dogs, birds, the ghosts who live in trees, even the gunman dispersed, but she did not. She'd fallen under the old almendra tree and for a second, nothing glittered, nothing, not even the sun. He was too late to her side. She, still warmed to the touch, her long hair wet with her own blood. "Bring a healer." He screamed. "A priest, a doctor, a witch, hire a mountain, hire a God, hire two." He begged. "Someone please conjure a miracle."

Sugarcane horizons trembled and the looming volcano stirred. Cupped in his hands, his 10-year-old daughter in her school uniform passed from smiling to hardened concrete. When she was under nine days of prayers and safely underground, he fled north, shoeless like rain. Somewhere along the road he cut his head off to scream less. He carried [foreign language 00:21:05] and grief under his arm for miles. Then joined a crowded bus, crossed a river, sat on the roof of a wagon train, crawled across the desert, his head facing upwards, strapped to his back, better not to see her in every girl he came across. He now lives in a place where people see him as he is not, call him names not his own, illegal they say, among other things. The man he was is no longer, but he's still a father, her father. Some days, in the hustle to find food and shelter, a second passes and he doesn't, doesn't think of her.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

How does it feel to read that now?

Claudia Castro Luna:

It's just made my skin feel very alive. Yeah. It's based on a true story, that's the thing.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Is this someone you knew?

Claudia Castro Luna:

I didn't know this person, but I went to visit my dad as I do and he had a little picture of a very beautiful girl in a school uniform. It was a school picture. And somebody had made a nice little frame around it with glitter. And then I went to my aunt's house around the corner and she had the same little frame. I was curious who this girl was, it wasn't a family member, so I asked my dad, "Who's that girl?" And he told me the story that she was playing on the street and there was a gang fight and she was shot and everybody else wasn't. So she was the unintended target. My dad lives very close to a corner, but at the corner there was a store that her father owned, so he was able to see in that direction and heard the shots. It was almost midday, so kids had gotten out and were playing on the street.

And my dad said that he was well liked and loved in his neighborhood, very well respected, but he could not take the grief. He did not know what to do and so he ran here to the United States. He not only had a business that was doing well, but he just had a life that wouldn't be easy leaving behind and just his grief was so paralyzing. In order not to be there, he came to a place where nobody knew him and where he knew life would be hard. And so it made me think about this collective grieving that the neighborhood did for this little girl where everybody was remembering her and keeping her very much alive in their homes. It made me think of the reasons why people leave. Because we have these immigrants who are at a certain border are always, there's faceless, there's this mob, there's this hoard of people, they're coming over, they're going to take over. But there's these stories underneath each one of them and in this case, you have the story of a father and just his love for his child.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You're humanizing it.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yeah. The story really took my breath away. And actually this last time I went, the store just closed. Now it's no more, it's boarded up and I don't know even if the family's there.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You're making me think of the poem Home by Warsan Shire. It goes, "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." And I think people forget why people are leaving their home countries and they don't humanize the terror and the grief that requires departure. It's survival.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You don't leave home unless your survival depends on it.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yeah. And that nonsensical gun violence, having this result of this man being in a way in purgatory. This one is titled Dead and Alive.

We die every day a little more. Just ask the trees outside your window. In fact, as we gather a new breath, part of us is already underground, tucked in graves among the remains of our dear someones who took with them the piece of us only they knew, as we retain the piece of them only we knew.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Beautiful.

Claudia Castro Luna:

This is this idea of death as the great mother and it is a blessing to be able to sit as a writer and contemplate life. And I think is in one of those moments where I realized I may be sitting here in Seattle, but thinking of those dear ones who we lose, who take with them part of ourselves. And just as we are dead a little bit, they've remain alive. Just like that little girl was being kept alive by everybody thinking about her and remembering her. I mean, they say, "We are only truly dead once nobody remembers us." When nobody could recall who you were or keep you in their hearts and minds, then when that happens, we are truly dead.

And part of Día de los Muertos, the ritual of the dead that people in Mexico and Mesoamerica celebrate has to do with that idea of keeping the dead alive. They are very much with us. And so, I mean, that's something I have always felt because that's how I grew up. And so I think of my grandmother, every time I go to El Salvador, I go visit my family who's in the cemetery, very much like I would go have a cup of tea with somebody. It's part of what I do. And there she is and she knew me as her granddaughter and only she knew me like that, as that granddaughter in that little town. So it comes from that idea also that we die each day a little bit and that is we age, right?

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

Claudia Castro Luna:

We age, our bodies are in this constant motion and accepting the marvel of that I think makes death less scary. I'm not afraid of dying because I know that it is a process.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

Claudia Castro Luna:

It's a process. I've wrote a book about the Columbia River and followed the trajectory of the river through almost the entire path through the state of Washington. And of course there's many tributaries to the Columbia and I traced the moments of confluence. For some reason I thought when the river enters the Columbia, it would be this roiling waters and just massive disturbance. But it's not like that at all, it's just this peaceful release of the small river into the larger one, almost imperceptible to the eye. Just this peaceful surrender into this bigger body of water.

And it startled me because it was not at all what I was expecting. Just this quiet entry, this surrender. It is a surrender. And I have also observed rivers in meeting the ocean and it's the same thing. Even when the Columbia meets the ocean, which is thousands of gallons of water and the jet goes miles out into sea. There's something about a river joining the ocean or another bigger river like the Columbia where you just realize this moment of surrender like I imagine my grandmother's death was. I mean, I was with her, I came back and three days later she passed away.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Oh, you were able to be with her?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yeah. It was really good to be with her.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I'm thinking of those small streams that come into the Columbia and then go out to the ocean, it's like the life cycle of birth to death. It's just really beautiful. Thank you.

Claudia Castro Luna:

So this is titled A Natural Act. I feed my baby daughter her noon meal, mashed peas and brown rice. She swallows easily, mouth fast open after each spoonful, plump face and fervent hands. The last time I saw my grandmother, I fed her like I now feed my daughter. She sat in a room full of shadows, a crucifix above her bed. She was ghastly looking, emaciated limbs and eyes staring into space. She opened her mouth anticipating the water I held in a cup, but the liquid came back, relief rolling down her chin and all the while death watched her the way ocean waits for river, the great mouth of river's end.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Beautiful. You can really feel the love between you and your grandmother in that poem.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

It hasn't diminished even though she's passed.

Claudia Castro Luna:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

For the last poem today, and I love the title of this poem, can we do Leave the Gate Open on Your Way Out?

Claudia Castro Luna:

This poem is very much her spirit. Leave the Gate Open on Your Way Out. On a quiet street, a bloom laden rosebush leans into the sidewalk. It's orange flowers swirl and pulse, buds shoot up to meet the sun, which in time will ripen their promises. On the same bush next to fragrance and splendor, in quiet hush, invalid roses drop fading pedals one by one. At the end of the street stands a hospital, it houses a morgue and a maternity ward. My own three children were born within its walls. To give birth is a revolution. Leave the gate open on your way out, better for the angels and the devil to come and go. The path to happiness is by way of pain and sorrow. That is something my abuela could have said. On this quiet street many pass by the rosebush, exuberant or crest fallen. The shrub stands ready to share loss and joy, but only with those who stop to smell its roses.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that. So for you, what does a peaceful exit mean to you?

Claudia Castro Luna:

Well, a peaceful exit for me means dying a nonviolent death. Because so many of the deaths I have experienced have been violent deaths. And so when I think of the way my grandmother died in her bed with people who were coming around all the time asking how she was doing and everybody knew that she was going, and she even in her Alzheimer's probably knew she was going too. And to have that sense of that arch that you could see spread before you, I think that that would be an amazing thing, to die a death that is not violent and a death where there is perhaps some knowledge of it so there's some preparedness around it. That I could prepare for it, but that my family could prepare for it.

And understand that that is what it is, that it's part of life. We couldn't have life without it, it's how the universe has been designed. In that peaceful last exit of that breath, it's a transition. And when I think of plants or animals in the wild, they decompose or they get eaten or they get reabsorbed into the thrust that is nature and our life. And I like that idea that I will become part of the whole, somehow I will be absorbed into the whole. That's what I think.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love your answer and I loved our conversation and I love reconnecting.

Claudia Castro Luna:

I was going to say, it's so lovely to see you and thank you so much for inviting me and having me on your podcast. This has been really lovely. Thank you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at L-A-R-Jmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Bandcamp. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh and this is Peaceful Exit.


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