Sandra L. “Sandie" Castle, a poet, playwright, artist and writer who owned a Hampden gallery and was described as the "urban guerrilla of Baltimore poetry scores,” died of cancer Sept. 15 at her Roland Park home. She was 66.
“Sandie was magically talented,” said poet Andrei Codrescu, who had taught poetry and literature at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore, and retired in 2010 from Louisiana State University.
“She was witty, funny and incredibly influenced by the streets of Baltimore, which during her lifetime she made into magical fables,” said Mr. Codrescu, of Brooklyn, New York, who is also a contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “She could have been a rock star or an oral genius performing before crowds. Sandie was somebody to know.”
Richard A. Sober, a poet, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, got to know Ms. Castle in the late 1970s and 1980s in Baltimore.
“As a poet, she was always direct and honest, and while some thought she was iconoclastic, I think Sandie made her multitude of sadnesses into songs,” Mr. Sober said. “She became a very important person and sensibly added a lot to the local poetry scene at the time and made it into a vibrant community. Her death is a huge loss to the poetry community and the community at large.”
The former Sandra Louise Berger, daughter of John Thornton Berger, a city police officer, and his wife, Eileen Burns Berger, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Hill Street in South Baltimore.
She attended city public schools until the sixth grade when she dropped out. “She ran away and was 15 when she married Joel Castle,” said her son, Shawn Castle Hartlove Baron of Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. “They later divorced.”
In 1976, she married Francis Joseph Hartlove, a bartender, who died in 1982. She married Meyer David Baron in 1984 and divorced him five years later. Since 2004, she had been married to Geoffrey Harris, a contractor.
She later earned her General Educational Development diploma and earned a certificate from the Professional School of Commercial Art in Baltimore in 1977, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1997 from what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University.
Ms. Castle began reading her poetry in barrooms and bookstores, and earned recognition for her work when the Maryland Writers Council named her Best Poetry Performer of the Year in 1983.
“She’s hot. She’s maybe the hottest young poet in town,” wrote The Evening Sun’s Carl Schoettler in a profile at the time.
“Sandie Castle reads her poetry in a tough, wiry Eastern urban voice that cuts through the barroom smoke like a metal shredder,” the late Mr. Schoettler observed. “Her voice has the easy rhythm of a street A-rab on Bank Street, the authority of a semi-pro stickup man and the little edge of sorrow of a 3 a.m. siren.
“Sandie Castle’s a lot like Billie Holiday, slick, sharp, smart, vulnerable maybe, but full of coppery melancholy and bittersweet lyrics.”
Ms. Castle explained to The Evening Sun that when she read her poetry, she thought of it as music. “It seems to me it should be like music,” she said. “It is like music to me. It is like jazz. It’s like a solo.”
Mr. Schoettler wrote: “Castle chortles and chuckles through her poems during her readings and raps with her audience and adds a running commentary and improvises on the text like a street corner preacher or bebop horn player."
Ms. Castle’s first book of poetry, “The Catholics Are Coming,” was published in 1984 by the Maryland Writers Council.
“Ms. Castle is hardly the stuff of nose-in-the-air-poets. The language in her works gives the word ‘colloquial’ new meaning, (‘GIRL we thought we’s so slick/couldn’t nothin touch us/We was such good runaways' — Georgie Girl,'" The Sun reported at the time. “It’s raw, broken loose from the straitjacket of grammatical postulates. An English teacher would beat her over the head with her ‘cuz’s,' ‘sez’s' and ‘kinda’s.'”
In a review of the book, Michael Stephens, wrote: “Sandie Castle has her own voice in this hierarchy. That voice comes out of Catholic myths, but her rituals are of the street. She is a performer of poems as well, so the voice is colloquial, full of the vernacular, death-aware yet life-affirming.”
In “A Death in the Family,” Ms. Castle addresses her drinking and death.
“I drink because I’m happy/because I’m sad, because somebody’s dead/ because they’re not/because I’m not. because I could be/at any moment/ It’s a sad case/of the poor me’s/pour me another one.”
She’s about to leave when she learns of a death.
“Bartender, over here/quick I need a drink/'But I thought you were finished, lady'/ ‘I was but a friend of mine just died’/ ‘Gee, lady, I’m sorry, who was it? somebody close?'/ ‘God’/ ‘No kidding’/' Yeah, better make it a double.'"
In 1988, Ms. Castle’s first play, “What the shadow knows,” was performed in Baltimore by the Pleasant Living Players.
“Sandie was a good writer and a human being who came across as tough, but she was very vulnerable [and] used her vulnerability to her advantage,” Mr. Sober said. “She opened the door for so many people to do that for themselves.”
Ms. Castle was in her 20s when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “She kept going and didn’t let it get her down and while she struggled a lot, she was in high spirits,” Mr. Sober said. “She was honest and a survivor.”
Other works include “Turning 30” and "A Child of God,” another play, “Rhythm of Torn Stars,” and an anthology, “Exquisite Corpses.”
Ms. Castle was still writing at her death, her son said.
From 2004 to 2010, she was the owner of Passion Fish gallery in Hampden, which sold collectibles, including Raggedy Ann dolls and Hardy Boys books.
In her private life, she was an avid book collector and a collector of “religious icons, dolls, tchotchkes and colorful stories,” her son said.
Because of the pandemic, plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
In addition to her husband and son, and to her mother, of Baltimore, Ms. Castle is survived by a brother, Rodney Berger of Brooklyn.