Virginia’s latest poet laureate talks family, culture and the benefit of writing daily.
by VICTORIA BOURNE | photography by ADAM EWING
Like many of us, Luisa A. Igloria watched the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol unfold on television. She absorbed a scene of chaos and violence, saw toxic masculinity on full display as the mostly-male mob overtook congressional offices and chambers, plopping themselves down, spreading their legs and straddling chairs as though straddling an animal.
It was obscene, she says, this spectacle they were making in the name of some distorted idea of freedom. So, Igloria did what she often does when trying to process something, what she has been doing professionally for four decades and daily for the past 10 years. She wrote a poem:
While we were not watching
or when we were tired and
falling asleep, who turned
the key in the lock and threw it
into the lake of our deepening
misgivings? Who put their lips
to the hose and siphoned the gas,
so all we heard when we fired
the engine was a mindless buzzing
like bees? …
– “Defiler, Despoiler, Pillager” (excerpt)
“I don’t think I’m coloring these things with any emotional inflection from me; I’m simply listing them, recounting them, maybe asking questions here and there,” Igloria says of her Jan. 8 poem. “But I think getting them down in exactly what they might have looked like is a way to get to the next thing. When you look at their faces, all of them have the same manic, glazed-over looks. They were all just as if possessed by something that was not very pleasant.”
Igloria is a Norfolk-based poet and educator. She’s a professor of English and creative writing at Old Dominion University, where she’s worked since 1998. Igloria, who led the university’s M.F.A. creative writing program from 2009 to 2015, also teaches at The Muse Writers Center.
She has published 18 collections of poetry and her poems have appeared in several literary journals. Her work has received numerous awards over the years, including the first Resurgence Poetry Prize for eco-poetry in 2015. And she’s an 11-time recipient of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the most distinguished literary prize in her native Philippines. Igloria was a co-winner of the Crab Orchard Review’s open competition for her most recent book, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts, and in late July, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed her Virginia’s 20th poet laureate. She’s the fourth poet of color to receive the honor and the second ODU professor to be appointed in the past decade.
Igloria is part of a long, diverse literary history in the Philippines that includes colonial influences from Spain and America, but also a rich, indigenous culture of pre-colonial folk traditions, narratives and rituals spread across the archipelago. She has studied philosophy and the humanities and received a master’s in literature from Ateneo de Manila University in 1988, but she left her homeland to pursue her Ph.D. in English and creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Admirers describe Igloria as understated and humble – someone who’s worked incredibly hard to get where she is today and whose clear voice and resonant words speak volumes as a writer. She straddles the gap between socially and politically engaged poetry and the esoteric, they say, yet her work remains accessible. Her students say she is a sensitive reader who offers tough but fair critiques that help them find their own poetic voices.
“I think she’s absolutely brilliant,” says Dave Bonta, founder of Via Negativa, an online blog. Igloria is co-author and has posted a poem a day since joining it more than a decade ago. Bonta says Igloria’s life experience, being trilingual and growing up in a “crossroads culture” like the Philippines as well as her “incredible virtuosity” make her unique.
“The level of compassion in her work is something that stands out to me,” he says. “It’s not just breadth of topic, but it’s a breadth of care that she brings, not just to her words, but to the thing she’s writing about that seems really, really integral to her work, as well as this sort of restless energy and desire to experiment.”
Igloria says her daily practice of writing helps free her; the conditions she sets on her level of engagement are her own. Inspiration can strike at any time, an image or a sound piques her sensibility and she says to herself, “I think that wants to be a poem.”
The pieces she posts to Via Negativa are raw, works in progress, but still as close to a finished poem as she senses at the time. The process may be an exercise, but it often results in published work. Four of her collections were pulled from this daily practice.
At my wrist, constant beat of what the gecko sings in the eaves:
Be brave, be brave. I try to quiet that pulse when it hammers
too loud in my ears, when the merest tender bar of moonlight
threatens to break a dam of pent-up tears. In the mountains,
many years ago, I dreamed I could give myself to a lifetime
of work and words. And this morning I knew when a bird
touched down in the fig by the tremble in the net of leaves. …
– “Measure” (excerpt)
In Maps for Migrants and Ghosts, Igloria, a mother of four daughters, pulls at threads of memory, opening drawers and wardrobes, examining bones of her past. There’s a level of intimacy to the words, conjuring vivid postcards of experiences and people that touch on themes of family, motherhood, identity and sense of place. It may be Igloria’s most personal work to date.
“I haven’t been able to write more directly like that, about these parts of my life and the people who were part of it in a major way, in, like, this sustained way. But I think I’m able to in this book.”
Igloria was born in the Philippines in 1961 – 15 years after the United States officially granted the country its independence. She grew up in Baguio, a mountain city, 5,000 feet above sea level. It was developed and designed by American occupiers in the early 20th century as a “hill station” and became known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines – government officials found its cooler climate more appealing than Manila’s 90 degrees in the shade.
As a result, Baguio’s indigenous inhabitants were pushed to the outskirts; roads and streets still bear American names. “Before we’re even aware of it, we already live in confrontation with that part of our history,” Igloria says. The city also has an exceptionally long monsoon season; two months could pass without seeing the sun, she says. “Maybe it’s what partly turned me into a poet, too. I don’t know.” Rain is a recurring element in her poems:
Risk is but the fact you have to go
too far. And if that’s so, is it still risk
after you’ve returned? Peering through rain-
slashed windows of the bus that twisted,
ponderous lozenge through a narrow gorge
I hardly recognized the city, every hillside
shingled with dark roofs, every road choked
with vehicles in which disconsolate motorists
sat waiting to arrive at their destinations. …
– “Prodigal” (excerpt)
Rampant construction has since diminished the lush pine trees and greenery Igloria recalls from her youth, but Baguio once felt like an ideal place to grow up. Her family lived in a central part of the city and nearly everything was within walking distance of her home. Her father was a lawyer-turned-judge. Her mother was a homemaker and a talented, self-taught seamstress who later pursued her own higher education ambitions. “She actually got her Ph.D. before I did,” says Igloria, who received her doctorate in 1995.
Baguio had a lively, creative community of visual artists, local musicians and writers. Her parents were 20 years apart in age and she was raised as an only child, Igloria says. The couple enjoyed going to concerts, movies, local theater and art shows and invariably brought their daughter along. “They would just stick a book in my hands or give me a pad of paper and a pencil and put me down somewhere in a quiet corner, and they’d say, ‘Here, you can just amuse yourself if you get bored.’” She still has a collection of short stories by Estrella Alfon called Magnificence: And Other Stories that her mother bought for her in 1966 when Igloria was only 5 years old.
Igloria learned Ilocano – the language of her parents’ ethnic community – Tagalog or Filipino, and English simultaneously at home, she says, but schools enforced an English-only policy; students were fined 5 centavos for every word spoken in the vernacular during the school day. “So, of course, I learned my English well,” she says.
Writers are often inspired by skeletons in their family closets but growing up Igloria’s skeletons were very much alive and moving about in the split-level home they shared. “One day I’ll write a novel,” Igloria says. She lived in an extended household, which is not unusual in the Philippines, and was reared by two women: the one she knew as her mother, and the other – her mother’s younger sister – that she would learn actually gave birth to her.
“But there’s a lot of taboo … you don’t talk about these things in Filipino culture. So, I would hear sort of whispers and rumors, but never an actual full story and never an actual full reckoning for history, so of course I had to become a writer to figure it out,” Igloria says. “If you can’t put two and two together, you can imagine, at least.”
She evokes that complicated family dynamic like pieces of a puzzle that go together but don’t quite fit, and wrestles with “The Angel of History,” wondering what it has seen that for her is as yet unknown:
… I don’t have feelings
for the Angel. I do have feelings for the people
it turned into my kin; for the bonds it multiplied
in ways they also strained to wear through the years
they lived together: fiercely guarding secrets,
loving and hating and fighting in the same space. …
– “I Don’t Have Feelings for the Angel” (excerpt)
But don’t confuse her work for confessional poetry. Igloria says it may be related to her biography, but she isn’t necessarily looking for absolution or catharsis. She’s diving for deeper truths and asking questions for which she may never find the answers. Poetry offers the possibility of change, she says, of things being imagined in a different way.
“I also tell my students this a whole lot: Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s a poem. Just because it has feelings, doesn’t mean it’s a poem.”
Igloria was Briel Felton’s very first poetry workshop professor at ODU, an experience she describes as brutal but also transformative. “It was an emotional roller coaster in that class,” says Felton; heavily marked pages often elicited tearful phone calls home to mom. Igloria set firm expectations for her students and made them work hard, Felton says, but her critiques were delivered with sweetness and grace.
“She didn’t just let me stay comfortable because I thought I was good. She pushed me to write as best I can.” The experience “made my work sing so beautifully,” Felton says, and gave her the confidence to pursue a highly competitive M.F.A. degree at Cornell University in New York; Felton was one of four accepted into the program in 2019.
“Even now, I’m still hearing her voice in the back of my head.”
Poet Beth Oast Williams is a frequent flier at The Muse, where Igloria has taught intermediate and advanced poetry since 2011. Williams says students from all walks of life find equal footing in Igloria’s classes and her love of poetry is contagious. Williams’ first small collection of poetry published last November. When she asked Igloria to write a blurb for the chapbook, titled Riding Horses in the Harbor, Williams says Igloria didn’t hesitate.
According to The Muse executive director Michael Khandelwal, Igloria’s classes consistently sell out, and more quickly now since she was named poet laureate. As co-vice presidents of the Poetry Society of Virginia’s southeast region, Khandelwal and Norfolk poet Kindra McDonald shared the responsibility of nominating someone for the governor to consider for the honorary distinction, which dates to 1936. Igloria was the first person to come to mind.
“It was long overdue, in my opinion,” Khandelwal says, not just because of her accomplishments, but because of how she plans to use her new platform to reach out to more people, to make poetry more inclusive and find the poets who are not in the traditional academic setting.
“People don’t really know what the variety (and) diversity of Virginia poets is all about – there are so many new people that I’ve also been introduced to because I’m looking now for exactly these connections,” Igloria says.
One of her first efforts as poet laureate was to host a virtual reading and conversation in October featuring four diverse women writers. An online database of Virginia poets is in the works at ODU, and in recognition of National Poetry Month, Igloria curated a selection of Virginia poets for a poem-a-day series that was to launch in April on the Slover Library’s website. Igloria says there’s been an explosion of readings and poems from established as well as budding writers online and on social media. She wants to help amplify those voices.
“There’s plenty of room, but I think it speaks to this need that everyone shares to find a way to express what we don’t even have words for yet,” Igloria says. “And I think that’s what poetry does so well. …. It can break these boundaries somehow and get to the places where we feel most human, most vulnerable. …
When that instantaneous thing of comprehension and connection and understanding happens, that’s poetry.”
It swings imperceptivity on the slack
end of a clothesline. Dark hooded shape,
wings glossier than tree ear mushrooms, its
marble eye fixed on my own. Every afternoon
I come to the kitchen threshold
and there it sits; I almost want to raise
my right hand and swear with my left
on the cover of a sacred book. It never stays
long—swooping into the bush to stab
a worm in half before arcing away
into the sky. Vines settle back upon
their blue-green cowl when it leaves.
Say to the soul, I know you. Chant a spell
learned long ago: Maykan, maykan, di ka agbutbuteng.*
(*Come back, come back, do not be frightened.)
– “Calling the Soul Back to the Body”