Michael Castro: A Poet to the Core

By Susan Fadem
In Culture

He leans forward, hands clasped almost prayerfully, in a velvety upholstered armchair. At what would be head level, if the towering Michael Castro slouched, is a small lacey chair cover, the kind that great-grandparents routinely used.

This setting, in the keepsake-studded living room of his compact house, befits him. With rings on five fingers and braceleted wrists, the mellifluous-voiced Castro—St. Louis’ first-ever poet laureate—transcends the ages.

Photo by Chris Williams

Photo by Chris Williams

Now age 70 and in the 14th month of his two-year “laureate-ship,” he has organized and/or helped coordinate, just in the past year, some 75 poetry-themed events. The recent Brick City Poetry Festival epitomized his goals: bringing together academic, spoken-word, young, old and racially diverse poets, in search of “unity community.”

The latter phrase, which came out of Castro’s mouth during an interview in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, has become his buzzword.

He wears it on a newly minted button, secured to a kurta, or collarless shirt from India, that’s one of many in his wardrobe.

A native New Yorker, his father and maternal grandparents from Greece, Castro moved to St. Louis in the late 1960s to enroll in graduate studies at Washington University. Likely to be known forevermore as a poet laureate, he emerged from 60-plus candidates to receive the unanimous vote of an outside task force. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen likewise approved.

Historically, such positions have deep roots. America named its first poet laureate, then called “consultant in poetry,” in 1937. Today, more than 40 states, including Missouri, have a state poet laureate.

Those who receive the title typically make public appearances and promote awareness of poetry.

Just in the past three to five years, Castro says, many more cities and towns have named a poet laureate. Here, he can’t resist a grammar lesson. The plural would be “poets laureate,” he says.

He’s right, of course. Castro revels in language, an acknowledgment dating to fourth or fifth grade. Each day, incorporating a title or phrase supplied by the teacher, students were assigned to write a paragraph.“Most of the kids saw this as an onerous assignment,” Castro recalls. “I loved it.”

With his Ph.D. in American literature, Castro taught for 30 years at Lindenwood University before retiring in 2012. His classes were mostly not on poetry but about basic and creative writing, philosophy and cross-cultural studies.

On campus he also administered programs, set up the masters of fine arts degree and annually advised more than 200 pupils, or some 6,000 students during his teaching career.

All the while, he remained true to his core of “first, I’m a poet.”

But asked to explain poetry’s power, he recites not his own words but a haiku by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, who died in 1828.

 

This dewdrop world –

Is a dewdrop world,

And yet, and yet…

 

To Castro, salaried just $1,250 yearly as poet laureate and thinking, so often, of more ways to expand poetry’s outreach, it’s all about the “and yet, and yet…” 

On the Job

One of Michael Castro’s official duties, as St. Louis’ poet laureate, was to compose a poem commemorating the city’s 250th anniversary. Here’s an excerpt.

BIRTHDAY ST. LOUIS TWO FIFTY

And the next two fifty begins a story

that can lead to disaster or to glory.

Will we be happy in our city’s mature years?

Will we get beyond our lingering, limiting fears?

For fear is at the root of hate,

a poison to individual & collective fate.

And we have certain obligations

to current & future generations.

Can we invest minds & money with wisdom & sanity

to support what’s best for our common humanity?

Can we provide all kids good education

so some won’t be mired in stagnation

& instead can rise above their station

& add their great gifts to a great nation?

It’s time for this & other conversations.

Will we be known as a city of the gun,

or as one that nurtures life like the sun?

 

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