Poet laureate Castro embraces universality of art

Michael Castro

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

In a University City neighborhood of small brick houses, the one shared by St. Louis’ first poet laureate, Michael Castro, and his wife, photographer and multimedia artist Adelia Parker-Castro, is the only one with a purple foundation.

Somehow irresistibly metaphoric, the color choice seems a nod toward tradition – after all, the foundation still holds up the house – but one quirkily punctuated by independence.

A visit with mellow-voiced Castro, 69, does not disappoint. The Jewish Light caught up with him recently for a wide-ranging discussion.

Many may not have realized until reading about your latest honor that you’re Jewish. How do you trace your roots?

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My father was born in Salonica (now in Greece) in 1905. At the time, Salonica was part of the Ottoman Empire and a center of Sephardic Jewry. My father came to New York in 1919 to join his family.

What about your mother?

She was born in New York in 1909 to immigrant parents from Janina, Greece. Her parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. My mother didn’t know much about her background. With her two younger brothers, she was raised in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York 

and in foster homes. Since she was never taught to speak Ladino, a variation of Spanish, my father’s mother thought, when they were dating, that she was a shiksa.

Years later at a Modern Language Association meeting, I’m looking through the program and see there’s a scholar giving a lecture on place names of Jews in Janina, Greece. When I told her my mother’s maiden name, Coffino, she said: “Oh yes, they were a very prominent family. They were Romaniot,” or Jews who had been in Greece under the Roman Empire. So much for her mother-in-law’s “clannishness.”

Were your parents role models?

My father graduated from high school and spoke about a half-dozen languages: French, Yiddish, smatterings of Turkish, pretty good Greek and Ladino, and also Spanish and English. 

He was a shoe cutter and an activist in the early union movement in the 1920s and ’30s. A street speaker, he had a pseudonym – Joe Blair – I guess to make him “WASP-ier.”

He eventually became one of the owners of the factory where he worked. The employees were unionized. The partners were kind of leftists. My father had a dispute with the others because they had become “too capitalist.” He left that business and owned a cigar store.

He was a Communist during that period, which a lot of Jews were. He broke with Communism when the Hitler-Stalin Pact came along.

My mother was the valedictorian of her high school class. She had the opportunity to go to City College of New York but didn’t because she felt she had to take care of her younger brothers.

According to your bio, your great-grandfather was head rabbi in Salonica and a great-great-grandfather was head rabbi in Palestine. What about your own upbringing?

I was raised on the northern tip of Manhattan and went to a Reform Jewish congregation. I was bar mitzvahed. We had a very progressive rabbi I admired very much. He was controversial in the congregation because he was active in anti-nuclear causes. I actually worked as a waiter at his summer camp in Connecticut. (It was nothing like the summer resort in the Catskills, shown in the “Dirty Dancing” movie and musical.)

Were you always “my son, the poet”?

I was an only child. My mother had two miscarriages before me. My parents were conditioned by the Depression. Their mantra was: “You’ve got to get an education. You’ve got to be able to earn a living.” But I’m very thankful my father also said, “Do whatever you really want to do.”

When did you discover the power of words?

In fourth and fifth grade, I had a teacher who would give you a title and assign for homework an original paragraph using that phrase. Most of the kids saw this as an onerous assignment, but I loved it.

What about the power of poetry?

When I graduated from State University of New York at Buffalo, where I did my undergrad studies, a friend gave me a bilingual edition of “Poeta en Nueva York (Poet in New York),” a collection of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. I would read these very surreal poems and be very moved by them. I couldn’t tell you what they were about, but it hit me. This is such a powerful way of expression. It’s beyond intellectual. It’s like music. It hits you on a visceral, emotional and spiritual level. That really motivated me.

During these times of heightened racial unrest, what are your challenges here as poet laureate?

My orientation has, from the very beginning, been multicultural, even before that word existed. Attending a poetry reading or reading a poet’s work can put you in touch with another human consciousness. It can expand us out of our walled-in cells and result in a recognition of our common humanity. Ultimately, we’re all one.

Finally, I can’t help but ask about your house. Not only is the foundation purple, but the exterior window frames are painted purple, too. How come?

Purple is my wife’s favorite color. That’s the long and short of it. I like the color, too.