Seattle Poetry: From Populist to Civic

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Once upon a time, there was a populist poet for Seattle. From 1999 to 2009, poets and their poetry were interwoven with the workings of democracy and civic discourse. Rather than appointing a poet laureate or having a jury select ourpoet, I created the post of Seattle Poet Populist to elect its chosen poets.

Electing a public poet was unique to Seattle and to the nation. Cambridge, Massachusetts, started their own Poet Populist program after learning about ours and remains the only city with an elected poet.

A number of Poet Populist candidates were write-ins, but many were fielded by diverse organizations across the city, such as Jack Straw, It’s About Time Reading Series, Youth Speaks, 826, Seattle Poetry Slam, Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, and others.  Not only did the Poet Populist elections give residents a wealth of diverse choices, but they afforded participating organizations opportunities to reach out to new audiences city-wide.

Since 2009, Seattle has gone without its Poet Populist due to funding shortfalls.

On August 3rd, the Mayor announced the implementation of a new official poet position for Seattle that I and many of Seattle’s literary community had sought since the loss in 2009 of the Poet Populist program. The new program is called Civic Poet and the first person to hold that title is Claudia Castro Luna.civic-poet

Her role is to serve as an ambassador for Seattle’s rich literary landscape and to represent Seattle’s diverse cultural community. By bringing poetry directly to neighborhoods, schools, and public events, her words and the ideas they carry will touch populations throughout Seattle that might not otherwise have been exposed to or even think of including poetry.

Castro Luna was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. as a young teenager fleeing civil war. She holds a Master of Arts in Urban Planning, a teaching degree, a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, is a K-12 certified teacher with a passion for arts education and teaching immigrants, was a 2014 Jack Straw Fellow, and has received funding from King County’s 4Culture.

Her poems have appeared in Milvia Street, The Womanist, Riverbabble, and forthcoming in the Taos Journal of Poetry and Art.  She has been a featured reader for the Berkeley Poetry Festival and for NPR-affiliate KALW. Castro Luna is also writing a memoir, an excerpt of which appears in the 2014 Jack Straw Writers’ Anthology.

You can catch her poetry at this year’s Mayor’s Art Awards at Seattle Center and, following that, at five community performances and workshops throughout the city between then and August of 2017, when her two-year term ends. Castro Luna will also participate in the Seattle Public Library’s Sharing Our Voices project. The Library will commission three original poems, record Castro Luna reading her poems and record an oral interview with her identifying the inspiration and creation process inherent in poetry. The recordings will be added to the Library collection. She will receive a $10,000 stipend from the Office of Arts and Culture, which manages The Civic Poet program.

Claudia Castro Luna was selected from an impressive list of finalists: Gloria Burgess, Sierra Nelson, Anastacia Tolbert, Anis Gisele, Imani Sims, and Shin Yu Pai.

The selection panel included Hamda Yusuf, Kelly Rodriguez, Natasha Marin, Carletta Wilson, Bob Redmond, and my very own staffer Frank Video.

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