In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors-Steve Castro
Tell us about your poem “Mother” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
I came across Warsan Shire’s epigraph from her poem “The House” that I used in my poem “Mother” via an AFREADA x Africa Writes Competition in which we were asked to use her line “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women” as a writing prompt.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
The last two short pieces by Leo Tolstoy I recently finished via audiobook, i.e., “The Candle” and “The Three Questions” really excited me as a writer. There was so much truth in those stories that serve as teaching tools for the betterment of humanity. What turns me off is pretentious erudition. Writing that throws esoteric words left and right on the page just to sound learned. Mostafa Nissabouri is the latest example of a poet I’ve read whose erudition comes off as natural when putting pen to paper.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Rap / Hip-Hop music. When I was in the 7th/8th grade, I started writing raps on a regular basis. This was crucial to me (I learned to write in the English language in the 6th grade) because I was using metaphors, similes, and various rhyming schemes, internal rhymes, end-rhymes, consonance, assonance, etc. I didn’t know the terms at the time, but for over a decade, I would write raps on a regular basis, and then I transitioned to children’s poetry, and by 2007, when I started writing poetry, I had been writing constantly for almost two decades.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
The Old and New Testaments in The Holy Scriptures are my major influences as a poet and creative thinker. It is incredibly rare for me to read a book more than once, even if I love the book. For example, I absolutely loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1939) and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998), but I’ve only read them once. There are so many books that I’ve read that I adored when I first read them, but I move on to the next one without looking back. Perhaps, I learned this from Lot’s wife. The Bible is an exception to this rule. It’s the only book that I constantly read and have done so from a very early age.
My poetry is at times very dark, and so is The Bible, e.g., “They killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. They then put out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon.” 2 Kings 25:7 (NIV)
My poetry is at times surreal, and so is The Bible, “Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.” Ezekiel 1:10 (NIV).
My poetry focuses heavily on the speculative, e.g., magical realism, and the miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels, e.g., walking on water, fit into that category. My poetry, as in “Mother” is also heavy on documentary poetry, as is The Bible, e.g., “The descendants of Judah: Perez, Hezron, Karmi, Hur and Shobal.” 1 Chronicles 4:1 (NIV).
Not to mention the aphorisms found in The Bible, e.g., Proverbs & Ecclesiastes. I also use aphorisms in my poetry. Of course, poetry itself can be found in The Bible, i.e., The Song of Solomon and the Psalms.
My poetry mentors are my thesis advisors in graduate school, Kyle Dargan and David Keplinger, and in undergraduate school at Indiana University-Bloomington, Christopher Citro, Maurice Manning and Maura Stanton. All of the five poets, aforementioned above, have always been incredibly supportive of my poetry from the very beginning
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
During my sixth month stay in Kibbutz Evron in Israel, I came across a t-shirt that in the front read “Same, Same” and the back it read “But different.” Baseball, softball and wiffle ball are the same in that they all use a ball and a stick to get on base. I write poetry, including prose poetry, but also flash-fiction (rarely nowadays) and children’s poetry (also poetry, but usually best told with the help of visual aids, e.g., illustrations), which in a way all three are the same, same but different. Wiffle ball would be poetry, since it makes the least amount of money. Baseball is fiction, which also makes a killing financially.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Formal poetry challenges me the most. Many years ago, I took an 8-week online poetry course with the formalist poet Moira Egan, and we workshopped some of my formal poetry, e.g., sonnets, villanelles, even a sestina I wrote. I’ve also written pantoums, haikus, limericks, etc. I believe it’s important for a poet to try writing in form because it restricts your writing style and helps you to think differently. Writing in meter, pentameter, is something that I avoid. I prefer writing my sonnets using strict syllabic line counts. But, perhaps, in the distant future, I will dedicate some serious time to that strenuous endeavor.
As to my quirk as a writer, I will just quote a small part of Kyle Dargan’s jacket note that he wrote for my debut poetry collection: “Blue Whale Phenomena introduces Steve Castro as a relentless storyteller and story interrupter—inventing narrative moments or instead etching his brilliant quirks into the narratives with which we were born into the world.”
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
Even though my forte as a poet is the speculative and the documentary, I recently wrote a political poem, i.e., “Xenophobia” published in [PANK] – Latinx : Latinidad 1.0 issue. I wrote “Xenophobia” because I was really bothered with how Trump’s rhetoric emboldened people to be openly racist. About two years ago, I was speaking Spanish with my mother at a gas station on the west side of Evansville, Indiana, when an older white male, yelled our way, “speak fucking English.” The racism that was internalized and whispered are now shouted from the housetops, as the saying in Luke 12:3 goes.
As an editor, I also try to shed a light to issues regarding social justice. When I was the poetry editor at Folio, I came across a very powerful poem written by Cortney Lamar Charleston titled “Six Shot on Fergusson, Missouri” dedicated to the memory of Mike Brown. There are political/social justice elements embedded into my documentary poems at times, such as in my poem “Ancient Brown Skin,” which can be found in my collection Blue Whale Phenomena.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
As mentioned above: documentary poetry, and the speculative, e.g., magical realism, surrealism, fantasy, fabulism, absurdism, etc. Plus, ekphrastic poetry and writing prompts, are mostly how I construct my poems.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
My creative process varies. It sometimes (not often) comes from a prompt like the origin for my poem “Mother.” It sometimes comes from a line or an idea that I put down on my voice recorder. Sometimes, I just sit down or lie down, and start writing from scratch or I may sit in silence and think until the opening comes to me. There are times when I listen to my ideas in my voice recorder and then I write the poem in my head, and when it is finished or sufficiently finished, I start writing it down. As for how the environment shapes my work, I at times write apocalyptic pieces about our environment in total chaos, e.g., “The One.”
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I recently finished a children’s poetry book called Poems for genius children with dictionaries who like to read and ponder, and also poems for brave children who aren’t afraid of the dark. Once I edit it/revise it, the hard part will come, meaning, I will start looking for illustrators that are interested in collaborating.
Steve Castro’s book Blue Whale Phenomena was published in May, 2019. You can find more of Steve’s work on his website www.thepoetryengineer.com, and follow him on Twitter: @PoetryEngineer.