When St. Louis city officials appointed Michael Castro as the region’s first poet laureate, they picked the right poet. The retired Lindenwood University literature professor is all about poetry and literature. And he is eager to use poetry to unite and heal the community.
“I never even dreamed that position would exist,” said Castro, a New York City native and longtime University City resident. “I view it as representing not just the poets in the city but the arts in general.” He was nominated by several people.
Castro was sworn in Jan. 2 to a two-year term ending Dec. 31, 2016. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen established the position on Nov. 7 by ordinance, which also created a six-member commission tasked with choosing each poet laureate.
The Poet Laureate Task Force unanimously chose Castro from a pool of 65 candidates and the board of aldermen approved it.
A celebration will be held late this month.
As poet laureate, Castro’s duties are to write a poem to commemorate St. Louis’ 250th anniversary and to make six public appearances each year. Castro already has started on his anniversary poem.
“I don’t view it as an onerous task, but it’s a challenge,” he said. “A poet (usually) writes from his own inner resources.” He expects to deliver the poem sooner rather than later.
Two of the required annual events will be civic events, but Castro has discretion in the other four events.
“It’s an unprecedented position, so I’ve got the freedom to try to set the precedent,” he said.
His plans for the position include supporting young poets and providing platforms for all types of poets. He is already active as a consultant in 7th Grade Poetry Foundation, a project used in about 200 schools in 20 states to encourage poetry writing for kids. Castro will participate in the program’s April recital by the top poets of participating schools in the St. Louis area.
Castro also hopes to use the poet laureate position to unite local poets of all stripes through the Unity Community Poetry Series.
“We want to market this as a model for what needs to take place in the city: dialogue between separate communities,” Castro said.
Unity Community’s first reading is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m., at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd.
Immersed in Literature
Castro’s passion for writing began in fourth grade when his teacher assigned students an “original paragraph” based on a provided title.
“Most of my classmates found this an onerous task,” he said. “I loved it. I really got into it.”
He loved to read fiction and later turned to journalistic writing. In college at the State University of New York-Buffalo, he enjoyed the readings given by the lively English Department. He struggled to give a quick synopsis of what each poem meant, until reading Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry made him realize he was asking the wrong question. Instead of “what does it mean,” he should be asking “how does it affect you?”
“I realized that poetry could be like music or art that affected you on more than an intellectual basis,” Castro said.
Around that time, he was strongly influenced by songwriters of the 1960s, such as Bob Dylan, Donovan and Paul Simon. While waiting to be trained at the New York welfare office after a strike, he passed the time by writing songs in his black department notebook.
“And that was the beginning of my poetry journal,” he said.
Castro started to focus on poetry almost the minute he arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 1967 to attend graduate school at Washington University. He emerged from the university holding a doctorate in American literature with a focus on Native American literature. His dissertation, “Interpreting the Indian: 20th-century Poets and the Native American,” was later published by the University of New Mexico Press and reprinted in paperback by the Oklahoma University Press.
In 1972, Castro began teaching at University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he developed a Native American literature course, one of the earliest in the country. His mentor, Native American poet and medievalist scholar Carter Revard, directed him in 1977 to a conference for Native American poetry, where he met some like-minded professors. They pooled their teaching ideas into a book published by the Modern Language Association to promote the field of study.
Castro’s interest in Native American poetry started as an antidote to his very urban background.
“I wanted to find a way to develop a healthy relationship to the natural world,” he said.
He also wanted to become familiar with the mythologies that originated on the North American continent.
“A poet needs to know about myths,” he said.
Castro also met Native American writers through River Styx, which he co-founded in the late 1960s. The poetry reading group evolved into a magazine and a monthly reading series, now held at Tavern of Fine Arts after 37 years at Duff’s Restaurant.
Castro has published 10 poetry collections and his poems have been published in more than 100 publications. With Hungarian poet Gabor Gyukics he has translated the works of more than 60 Hungarian poets. He has received lifetime achievement awards from River Styx and Word in Motion and was named one of the top 50 St. Louis writers by the Missouri History Museum in 2014.
Castro moved on to Lindenwood University in 1980, where he started a master of fine arts in writing program. He received a Fulbright Fellowship in 1990 to study art and culture in India. He retired in 2012, giving him time to focus on gathering poems for a collection of his works.
Washington University’s Olin Library Special Collections section is collecting Castro’s archives of books, papers and River Styx materials. Before turning over his writing journals, dating back to 1969, Castro has been reading through them, “extracting passages and prose.”
He’s also using the extra time to work on some writing every day.
“I spend more time with individual poems. I tinker with them and try to really refine them to make them the best I can make them,” Castro said.
Castro’s revising some old poem drafts from the journals, with the benefit of distance and perspective. And of course, he’s writing new material, such as “Double Kwansaba After Michael Brown.”
When not working on his own writing he’s been reading novels, including Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Dostoevsky classics.
Castro has been fortunate to be able to spend his life immersed in literature by vocation and avocation.
“I wanted to be a writer, but my parents (who were shaped by the Depression) lived by the mantra of ‘you’ve got to earn a living,’” he said. “I followed my heart into literature and that led me into teaching, where I could continue keeping that focus going and try to become a writer.
“I always tried to keep being a poet at the center of everything. I saw myself as a poet who was teaching. By bringing poetry into the mix whenever I was teaching, I kept that perspective. That’s how I tried to maintain my sanity and identity.”