Updated 3:00 p.m., Dec. 28, with "St. Louis on the Air" segment – When Michael Castro spoke in the City Hall Rotunda last month to pass the St. Louis poet laureate torch to his good friend Shirley LeFlore, he beamed.
It was clear that cancer was taking its toll on his body, but his spirit seemed defiantly filled with joy. He smiled big, hugged long and was so thrilled it was as if he was getting installed all over again.
“I’m happy to be on the stage to honor her,” said Castro, who served as the city’s inaugural poet laureate from 2014 to 2017. He then read the title poem from his book “We Need to Talk.”
That Friday in the first week of November would be one of Castro’s final public appearances. He passed away on Sunday, December 23 after a battle with colon cancer. He was 73.
“Our hearts break because of what he has meant to the city and the poetry community,” said poet and educator MK Stallings. “Over the last few years of his life, Michael Castro was focusing on bringing different parts of the St. Louis community together.”
Stallings was on the task force that selected Castro as the city’s first poet laureate.
“The whole poet laureateship for him was about him bringing people together,” Stallings said. “He’s always been present, he’s always been supportive. He was constantly thinking about what it means to be a poet in the different communities that we often times don’t consider as participants or contributors to our literary canon.”
Listen to "St. Louis on the Air's" discussion in rememberence of Michael Castro with two locally based poets and friends of Castro.
LeFlore said Castro spent years and years going from place to place sharing poetry with all kinds of people.
“He went everywhere. He performed his poems, and he listened to the poems of other folks too,” LeFlore said. “He wanted to learn how they used their language. He wanted people to understand each other – in poetry and outside of poetry.”
As a St. Louis native and established poet in the city and beyond, LeFlore often served as Castro'sguide to the local poetry scene. He arrived in St. Louis in the early 1970s to attend Washington University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in American Literature that focused on Native American mythology and culture.
'A delight for language'
Born July 28, 1945 in New York City, Castro’s love of words began almost as soon as he learned to put them together on paper.
“I look at my writing as having begun in the fourth grade when my teacher would assign what she called an original paragraph,” Castro said in a video interview produced by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri. “She would give us a phrase to write about. Where most of the kids viewed this as an onerous chore, to me this was a great opportunity to play with language. I think that’s where poetry starts: with a delight for language.”
Castro came to St. Louis as a graduate student in his early twenties. He later spent decades developing that delight he found in elementary school among students of his own as a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Lindenwood University.
He was one of the founding poets of River Styx, which grew out a series of jam sessions featuring poets and musicians in the early 1970s. River Styx still holds readings every third Monday at 7:30 p.m. Castro founded the River Styx literary journal. He published several poetry books and the critical study “Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth Century Poets and the Native America.” With Gabor G. Gyukics, he was a major co-translator of contemporary Hungarian poetry.
Castro was recognized by his peers as being a word warrior within the city of St. Louis. He loved to perform, almost as much as he enjoyed helping others find their voice.
“Poetry is often an art that involves discovery,” Castro said. “You don’t always know what the next phrase is going to be or how the next line is going to be resolved. Poetry can be inspirational for younger people, especially in terms of self-worth.”
'Poet of the people'
His work as an educator stretched far beyond the classroom.
“He was teaching poetry in the university level, but he was also living it in the streets,” Stallings said.
Through publishing and performance, Castro was a monument to the healing power of poetry.
“He is a poet of the people,” longtime friend and legendary Poet Laureate of East St. Louis Eugene B. Redmond told St. Louis Public Radio when Castro was announced as the first-ever Poet Laureate of St. Louis. “He’s a walking, talking, living, writing example of what so many people are trying to catch up with or understand and speak of: diversity, multiculturalism, pluralism.”
Castro’s ability to build bridges between poets and to celebrate many different kinds of poetry left as much of an impression on Stallings as Castro’s body of work. He recognized all of the deep racial divisions in the city, which also manifested on the poetry scene. Stallings pointed out the “schism between the so called academic poet and the spoken word poet,” and Castro’s active pursuit of bridging that divide.
“Black poets are often lumped into this whole spoken word, street poetry space,” Stallings said. “But he recognized that it’s beyond that. That all of us who write poetry are all participating in this sort of art making and we are all valued for what we have to offer and should not be marginalized just because of a particular style of poetry that we prefer.”
Castro edited a book titled “Crossing The Divide” that was an important part of his legacy. According to Stallings, the book represented what Castro wanted to see for the St. Louis poetry scene and the community in general.
“He wanted people from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds to be in the same kind of space,” Stallings said. “He recognized the value in making sure all of these poets from different places – whether it was North City and North County or South City and South County or the Metro East – were all a part of this literary tradition in St. Louis. We are going to make sure we keep that alive.”
Castro is survived by his wife Adelia Parker-Castro, son Jomo Castro, stepdaughter Veronica James, stepson Darin Parker and seven grandchildren.
We will update this story when funeral and burial plans are announced.
This story originally appeared in the St. Louis American, a news content partner of St. Louis Public Radio.