Michael Castro, a founder of the local River Styx poetry publication and organization, will become St. Louis’ first Poet Laureate on January 1. A task force chose the University City resident from a pool of 64 names. The Board of Aldermen approved 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 Jr. by now former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, and a grand jury’s decision not to indict him.
“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.
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 UMSL 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.
“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. 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.”
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. 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, multiculturalism, pluralism. Michael embodies that,” Redmond said.
Well-known St. Louis performance poet 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.
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.
Edited for length and reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.