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Mapping Seattle, poem by poem

Seattle has a new way of mapping itself — through the so-called “Poetic Grid,” an online map of the city from the voices of people who live there. Claudia Castro Luna dreamed up the idea in 2015, when she became Seattle’s first civic poet.

WATCH: Navigating Seattle’s ever-evolving streets through poetry

Castro Luna wanted a way to capture the rapidly changing city and asked people to write about specific locations that had meaning to them. We met with her in Seattle’s Central Library, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, and also the site of workshops Castro Luna has held to meet budding poets in her city. In addition to being poet, Castro Luna is an urban planner and teacher. She read us her poem, “A Corner to Love”:

Maps of this city
number in the thousands
unique and folded
neatly inside each citizen’s
heart. We live in the city
and the city lives in us.

We also traveled around the city to meet other contributors to the “Poetic Grid,” stopping at the locations they wrote about. Seventeen-year old Lily Baumgart met us in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, where she grew up and went to school. She’s currently the city’s Youth Poet Laureate and she read us her poem, “Volunteer Park,” in the park with the same name:

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.

And there’s a giant bone in the park
that kids say is the squid’s skeleton.
But if you were to brush away the wood chips
you’d see a placard and commemoration.
We’d slide down the soft curves
and land on our knees,
letting the damp soak through our jeans.

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; our umbrella laughter.

On snowy days we’d take cardboard
for sleds
and leave our scarves at home.
They say when the reservoir freezes over,
the squid still lives
but only if you throw rocks
over the fence and break holes
in the white ice
for him to breathe through.

Koon Woon is a longtime Seattle resident and a published poet. He came to the U.S. from China with his family in 1960. We spoke in a neighborhood he once called home, the International District, a gathering place for Chinese immigrants. Woon started writing poetry as a way of working through his mental illness. From the middle of Hing Hay Park, Woon read us his poem, “The High Walls I Cannot Scale (With Apologies to Tu-Fu).”

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.

The city is humming for profits,
and I wait for the porridge place to open:
a bowl of sampan porridge
adorned with a clump of watercress.

The Chinese and I are one, scattered
to the four corners of the globe.
I have only enough to pay for one bowl,
and so, my friend, I’m sorry, I must dine alone.

The Poetic Grid was created by Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture.

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