Seattle is a city that’s been shaped by technology, from Boeing to Microsoft to Amazon. But there’s a new digital presence influencing how we see the city: poetry. The Seattle Poetic Grid is the culminating project of Claudia Castro Luna, in her role as the inaugural Seattle Civic poet. In conversation with The Record’s Bill Radke, she says it makes perfect sense for a poetic atlas to live in the world of ones and zeros.
“Seattle is changing very rapidly due to technology - it’s fitting that the arts should also occupy that space,” she tells Bill. Her work has long been shaped by the question of how we occupy space. Prior to becoming a poet, her first career was as an urban planner. Place, she says, is the thread that connects her work as a planner and her work as a poet; the map built a natural bridge between the two.
It also serves as a bridge between Seattle’s present and its past. In the poems people submitted, there is a palpable sense of loss. “The city is going through a change so rapidly that we have had no time to mourn,” Castro Luna says. And that loss of place can damage the physical manifestation of memory: “the memory lives now in the imagination.” Anna Bálint’s poem about an alley in the Central District where she used to live, is a prime example.
At the time of her poem, the corner of MLK and Union was an over-policed, working class neighborhood of color. When we visited it to tape her, there were pricey condos going up on the corner closest to the street.
While it captures what we’ve lost, the poetic can straddle places: both imaginary and real. And there can be a loneliness in those spaces. Bill reads a poem by Koon Woon, "The High Walls I Cannot Scale (With apologies to Tu-Fu)," which captures that sense of loneliness and loss through a morning in Hing Hay Park.
When Castro Luna put out a call for poems, she made no comment on what people should write about: just a memory about a specific location in the city. Sometimes the things that people focused were unsurprising: there were concerns about rapid change, and about homelessness. But there were also many poems set in public parks. In a city known for its camping culture, she was charmed to see so many poems about green spaces closer to home. She says that these spaces feed us in some way.
Dotted among the map’s leafy spaces and busy intersections are many poems in languages other than English. It’s a representation of the demography of Seattle, which has many large pockets of immigrant communities. Those populations aren’t always represented in the way that residents and outsiders talk about the city. Bill asked Castro Luna why she chose not to translate the poems. “I wanted those voices to occupy the space as they are,” she says. “It’s a conversation: and an invitation to the rest of us to lean into that conversation.”
Bill wants to know if she despairs about Seattle – if we’re losing our soul. No, says Castro Luna. We are losing things, as encapsulated in projects like Ghosts of Seattle Past. But Seattle is a city full of openness, never fully certain about who we are, and constantly changing. That sentiment is explored in her poem "Emerald City Blues." And the poetic grid is one effort to recapture who we are.