BY VENI FIELDS
NORFOLK — It seems not all that long ago that Luisa Igloria was a toddler in a corner with a book.
She was three, and she could read it. But she did something else after she was plunked there either in the kitchen or in the houses of her parents’ friends while they socialized.
She listened. She watched. She absorbed the goings on among the adults who thought she might be a lawyer one day like her father. Or a concert pianist – she was learning that, too, and she would become accomplished.
But the awkward, introverted only child wouldn’t become either of those things.
What she would do was attend movies and theater and the ballet with her parents, who encouraged her to always keep learning. She would take in the stories of her family, the history, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and smells and sensations of the Philippine mountain city of Baguio, on the northern island where she grew up, and she would write them down.
She would marry at 18. She would begin teaching at a university a few years later. She would later remarry. She would have four daughters. She would visit Scotland and Russia, then the US.
Over time she would develop an international reputation as a poet who crafts masterpieces with words, and she would accumulate a list of awards as long as her arm, among them a first of its kind. In 1996, she became the first Filipina woman of letters to be installed in the Palanca Literary Hall of Fame.
Two years later, she would move permanently to Virginia and begin a career as a professor at Old Dominion University. And now, in the middle of a lockdown during a global pandemic, she would earn another accolade.
Dr. Luisa Igloria recently became only the fourth poet laureate of color appointed by the governor of Virginia since the distinction was first awarded in 1936.
A recent Virginia poet laureate before her also is from Hampton Roads, her friend and now-retired ODU colleague, Tim Seibles, who held the two-year appointment from 2016 to 2018.
To whether or not Luisa Igloria expected to ever land in this position, she gives an emphatic answer:
In an email, she wrote that, “because of the love for language and literature (and music) being instilled early in me, it just sort of felt natural that I would wind up writing. I wasn’t necessarily sure I would be a poet, though I had always written poems, more seriously maybe starting in my senior year of high school. Before that, as a high school freshman, I actually nearly failed a Literature test on metaphor (LOL).”
She entered a folio of poems to the Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature, considered the most prestigious of literary awards in the Philippines, at the urging of former college professors who were then colleagues.
“To my great shock, I won first prize. I was 21. Those poems eventually grew into my first published book of poems, Cartography [Anvil Press, 1992], which also went on to win a National Book Award from the Manila Critics’ Circle.”
A series of award-winning others followed. While comments about some of her work include words like enchanting, haunting, mythical or lyrical, Igloria’s inspiration can derive from simple moments, from folklore, from nature. In 2010, she began a practice she still maintains — to write at least one poem every day, ignited when another writer, Dave Bonta, in a blog called The Morning Porch, described a woodpecker working its way up a tree.
Other references might be political. Or personal. Or whimsical, as were some ponderings in her 2018 compilation, The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Midlife Crisis. In “The Buddha goes on the Internet,” from that compilation, he complains to a therapist he found there:
You think the Buddha has no need to work out issues, or even that
he has any issues? This is partly the problem – all
the press he’s ever gotten has him just about perfected.
Every brass likeness and stone statue, from museum gallery
to the home improvement section of Lowe’s or Home Depot,
depicts him in nothing but an attitude of pure serenity
even if next to him there is an entire box of manic-
looking garden gnomes – …
That poetry can be as accessible as Home Depot or Lowe’s is something Igloria, who has contributed poems to The Independent News, hopes to impart in her ambassadorship over the next couple of years. As the spread of Covid-19 has restricted travel, she talked during her online swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, July 29, about how to achieve that, especially among children, through virtual programs, conversations and workshops and a young poet ambassadors program idea sparked by the Poetry Society of Virginia, of which she is a member, and which makes poet laureate nominations.
“There is this idea about how some of us write poems and teach at the same time that somehow our work is merely academic or theoretical and has no connection with real life,” Igloria said, “or that we write merely to count or publish books. Far from the truth. … One thing I’ve learned is that poetry is my preferred way to think about and process experiences.
“As someone introverted by nature and who as a child was clumsy, tongue-tied and terrified of even talking on the phone, I am learning from poems how language tries to come as close as it possibly could to describing experience. This demands attention and the cultivation and sensitivity to listen and speak to each other better so we might gain a deeper understanding of our mutual condition as humans.”
Igloria believes that is especially important right now, particularly as an immigrant and a woman of color, which also makes this appointment an honor she considers exceptionally meaningful.
She heard about her nomination in early May and forgot all about it, she said, “because of everything else that’s going on right now the pandemic, our continued isolation, and the actions for change that Black Lives Matter urges us to consider and carry out. … Everyone who is a poet laureate is not only an advocate for poetry but also addresses the idea of what it means to live and write as a person at their particular time and place in history.”
Igloria noted Rita Dove, the first African-American poet laureate of Virginia in 2004 and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress since that position was created in 1986, and Sofia Starnes, born in Manila of Filipino and Spanish ancestry, Virginia’s poet laureate from 2012 to 2014.
“I am proud to increase the number of poets of color who have been appointed to this distinguished position,” Igloria said in her address. “I feel that this is a significant indicator of important changes manifesting across the country that have to do with the reevaluation of history and the place that marginalized communities have been accorded in it.”
Anyone might be forgiven for underestimating the bookish child who would grow up to transform a kaleidoscope of life experience into passages that evoke and reflect human complexity, or even the soft-spoken adult whose gracious humility, eloquence and depth of knowledge and artistic passion is singular.
In a traditional Filipino hand-embroidered barong Tagalog, a contemporary rendition of a traditional Spanish-inspired garment of sheer fabric originally designed to reveal hidden weapons on its wearer, Igloria accepted her new appointment over a sometimes-shaky screen with dozens of well-wishers watching around the world.
It might be apropos that it happened that way, via a technology that connects people from disparate places and may be frustrating and a little unreliable. It’s a little like words. It’s a little like writing. It’s a little like poetry.
“People may think that’s stretching it a bit, but I think no,” she said in a phone interview a few weeks after the ceremony. “We think of technology as a way to learn how … how to do things, using a specific vocabulary or using a certain range of ‘equipment,’ which in this case is language.”
She cites her poem, “Recursive,” which ends:
When it rains, I am oddly comforted.
The rain soaks through, asks me to give up
a little of myself. Asks me not to be so hard.
“It’s asking us not to be hardened by life,” Igloria said. “The basis of poetry and all the other arts, I think, are the same. The cornerstone is empathy.”
Learn more about Igloria and her work at www.luisaigloria.com. Fields, a contributor to The Independent News, is a student in the MFA Creative Writing Program at ODU.
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