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Poet Laureate Nominee Michael Castro Says Words Can Help Heal St. Louis

Michael Castro
Ros Crenshaw

Updated to include Michael Castro's poetry and interview audio, and reaction from poet Shirley Bradford LeFlore.

Except for dotting the “i’s” and crossing a “t” or two, St. Louis has its first official poet.

Michael Castro, a founder of the localRiver Styx poetry publication and organization, will become St. Louis’ poet laureate Jan. 1. A task force chose the University City resident from a pool of 64 names. The board of aldermen is expected to approve the nomination Friday.

St. Louis faces a number of challenges that poetry can address, Castro said, speaking of issues around the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and a grand jury’s decision not to indict him.

He described the unrest around Ferguson as a situation that’s ready for healing.

“I think the scab has been lifted and the poison is pouring out and there’s an openness, there’s a recognition that there has to be a change,” Castro said.

Hear Michael Castro talk about why he thinks a Poet Laureate can make a difference in St. Louis.

‘Fear is at the root’

Castro, 69, has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Washington University where he focused on Native American mythology and culture. He’s taught at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Lindenwood University and is widely published and nationally recognized.

Castro studied the art and culture of India as a Fulbright Fellow in 1990. He has published and translated numerous poetry books as well as a book of prose called “Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth Century Poets and the Native America.” He was named a Warrior Poet by St. Louis’ Word in Motion in 2005.

Castro acknowledges he takes on the role of poet laureate at a difficult time in St. Louis. He says poetry can provide clarity as well as connection.

“Words provide moments of identity with quote-unquote ‘the other,’ moments of simple recognition of our common humanity,” he said.

Castro is Jewish with Spanish roots. He plans to work with a diverse group of local poets to make sure every voice is heard during his two-year term.

“I would hope, as poet laureate, to bring the various strands of the poetry community together through initiating some programs that would accomplish that and bring in diverse audiences,” he said.

Castro wrote a poem about Brown’s death and its aftermath, referring to the police as a threat (see full poem, below). His feelings about the demonstrators and law enforcement are clear, and he feels compelled to speak what’s in his heart.

“I think there are certain situations where the poet is obligated to tell what he or she sees as the truth,” Castro said. “I think the main point in that poem is that fear is at the root of all of this. If there was not fear on both sides of the equation, the Michael Brown tragedy would not happen.”

‘Poetic justice,’ East St. Louis’ poet Redmond says

East St. Louis Poet Laureate Eugene Redmond has known Castro longer than Redmond has held his post, which is 38 years. Redmond noted Castro’s Ph.D., his wide recognition and the legacy of his teaching.

Eugene Redmond
Credit Provided by Mr. Redmond
Eugene Redmond

But he also pointed out that Castro is completely unpretentious and a “poet of the people,” who’s read in any number of venues from churches and synagogues to casual, open-air spaces.

“You can call him tonight and say, ‘We’re having a reading early in the morning,’ and unless he’s really got something to do, he’ll come,” Redmond said.

Redmond called Castro’s nomination “poetic justice.”

“He’s a walking, talking, living, writing example of what so many people are trying to catch up with or understand and speak of: diversity, multiculturism, pluralism. Michael embodies that,” Redmond said.

Shirley Bradford LeFlore
Credit 2Leaf Press
Shirley Bradford LeFlore

Well-known St. Louis poet and oral performer Shirley Bradley Leflore has also known Castro for more than four decades as a colleague and a friend.

"Michael has integrity and that's important to me," LeFlore said. "He's a nice person and he's dedicated to his craft."

Aaron Williams, founder of the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation, chaired the poet laureate selection committee. The selection of Castro was unanimous.

“When you look at all of the criteria that we were considering , Michael Castro was a grand slam in category after category,” Williams said. “In so many ways, he has the ability to unite the community and has been speaking for the community and has dedicated his entire life to poetry.”

A spokesperson for Lewis Reed’s office said that Reed is pleased with the choice of Castro.

“We think Michael Castro is a great poet leader for the region. We’re really confident and his work speaks for itself,” he said. “He has the ability to speak to a local and national audience.”

Castro will receive $1,250 for each of his two, one-year terms. His duties include six public appearances and composing a poem to commemorate St. Louis’ 250th anniversary.

Double Kwansaba After Michael Brown

By Michael Castro

When police are the threat, who’s there

to protect? When walking in the street

can get you busted, shot, or beat

just for being black, talking back, looking

wrong, or looking strong—how can we

really be: a viable city, where people

can live in harmony? a free country?

With tanks in the street, who or

what do they defeat? No good results,

only bad; fear is what drives us

mad. And fear, the root of hate,

becomes the Police State. Instead of tear

gas, hear us! Let’s relate, for a

start, human to human, heart to heart.

‘Freedom Ring

for Dr. Martin Luther King’

By Michael Castro

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

When the bloodhounds growled & wailed?

When sheriffs locked you up in jail?

When you sat up front in a bus?

When you overcame for us?

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

When the tap clicked on your phone?

When you prayed at night alone?

When a child returned your smile?

When you walked the extra mile?

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

With civil rights writ into law?

With klansmen pounding at the door?

When you won the Nobel Prize?

When you looked into deep dark eyes?

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

When you lunched with congressmen?

When you marched with garbagemen?

When your dream lit up the night?

When your soul beamed in the light?

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

When you climbed the mountain high?

When the bullet let you die?

When your spirit rose to speak?

When you turned the other cheek?

Dr. King, Dr. King,

When did you hear freedom ring?

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.