Navigating Seattle’s ever-evolving streets through poetry – PBS NewsHour

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first to a story of poetry and place, and a new way to look at the life of an ever-evolving city.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Seattle.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you map a city in all its complicated glory?

For Seattle, a bird’s-eye map in 1889 showed its early expansion. Foot traffic downtown was highlighted in the 1920s, pedestrian fatalities in the 1940s.

There’s this minimalist map of the city’s quirky and infamous intersections, and now, a different way of seeing the city, the Poetic Grid.

The idea of the Poetic Grid is to capture a sense of place in a city going through rapid change, and to use the words of the people who live here.

CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA, Creator, Seattle’s Poetic Grid: I have a background in urban planning, and, you know, it was a happy convergence, I think, of my interests in poetry and place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Claudia Castro Luna dreamed up the online digital map in 2015, when she became Seattle’s first civic poet.

It’s a two-year position administered by the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. She ran a series of workshops at Seattle’s public libraries, and asked people to write about the place they live.

CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA: We all have stories to tell about the place we live in. And we all have memories attached to the place we live in. And so, you know, it was like opening up a faucet.

And people have stories to tell. And that’s one of the marvelous things. At the end, I told them, you will write. You will see you will have a poem. And, indeed, they had one. And it’s such a pleasure. It’s a pleasurable thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: The poems for the grid span the city. Some are about home, memories of growing up in the affluent Blue Ridge neighborhood. Others are about homelessness, the cold concrete of a Seattle underpass.

There are poems left in their native tongues, Spanish, Arabic. The writers run from well-established poets to first-timers. And they reflect the diversity of the changing city, where cranes dot the skyline.

Seattle is adding more people per year than during the post-gold rush boom years.

CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA: Some of the poems express very well what it feels like to not recognize the place you grew up in, because the buildings that you had so much attachment and were meaningful to you are no longer there, and the sense of this location, of turning a corner and the building that was there is no longer there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Changed that fast?

CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA: Oh, yes, it has.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hing Hay Park in Seattle’s International District has seen its share of change.

KOON WOON, Poet: I first moved in here when I couldn’t afford rent anywhere else in the city. And my uncle said well, there’s a room here for $60 a month. And I came here to look at it. And there’s this tiny little table. I said, I can put my typewriter on top of that. So, I took the room.

JEFFREY BROWN: Koon Woon was born in China, but moved to Seattle in 1960. In the 1980s, he lived just a block from here, sometimes homeless, struggling with mental illness.

His poem, “The High Walls I Cannot Scale,” is now part of the grid.

KOON WOON: “Desolate in my Chinatown morning, among the scraps and people sleeping in urine doorways, I ache from the politics of the heart. Pigeons flock together in Hing Hay Park, no children to greet them. I walk for my sanity, since, alone in my room before dawn, the mind constructs improbable things.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Why are you writing about these things?

KOON WOON: Well, I first started writing poetry as a way to deal with my mental illness. I could articulate my feelings and try to clarify to myself what my thoughts were. I would try to separate delusions from reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: There go the pigeons you write about, huh?

KOON WOON: Yes, that’s the flock of pigeons, yes.

LILY BAUMGART, Poet: Seattle Youth Poet Laureate: I always enjoy coming back.

JEFFREY BROWN: For 17-year-old Lily Baumgart, animals figured into her writing as well.

LILY BAUMGART: The squirrels here are very aggressive. They expect to be fed by people. And so we’d write stories about why they’d come up to people, how humans’ interactions with animals change their behaviors.

JEFFREY BROWN: We met in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at Volunteer Park, where Baumgart took field trips in elementary school and conjured up images of what lived in the reservoir, inspiring her poem.

LILY BAUMGART: “Volunteer Park, they say there’s a giant squid in the reservoir, that if you could climb the fence, you could stick your hand into the bright water and feel his slimy body swimming by yours. When it rained we would hide in trees and feel their cold bark underneath our toes. We’d laugh so loud that the sky would be scared of us and our umbrella laughter.”

JEFFREY BROWN: So now you’re here, much older, right?

LILY BAUMGART: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think the squid is still out there?

LILY BAUMGART: I like to think he’s still there.

(LAUGHTER)

LILY BAUMGART: I think it would be a lot more fun if we had a squid there. But I don’t think he is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Baumgart is now Seattle’s youth poet laureate and one of the youngest contributors to the new grid.

LILY BAUMGART: I get to write about myself and my own experiences, without it seeming like me, me, me.

I can kind of hide it behind using different metaphors or even characters, for lack of a better word. I feel like poetry has a sense of intimacy that other writing just can’t give you, which I enjoy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Poetry brought something else to Claudia Castro Luna, a way to work through traumatic childhood memories of war in El Salvador that forced her family to leave their home when she was 14.

CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA: It was a tremendous loss of place, of culture, of family, of language. And I think it’s taken me my entire life.

Actually, I think a lot of, all of my writing has to do with understanding that — what it meant to lose that place. And this is why I’m interested in other people’s lives and what they have to say about the place they occupy.

“A corner to love. Maps of this city number in the thousands, each unique and folded neatly inside each citizen’s heart. We live in the city, and the city lives in us.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Castro Luna’s term as civic poet has ended, but she plans to add more tales of the city to the evolving online map.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Seattle, Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch the poets read their full poems on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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