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The Past Is Always Still There: Luisa A. Igloria

An interview with the Virginia Poet Laureate on poetry as witness, colonial history’s hauntings, and her longstanding poem-a-day practice

When poet Luisa A. Igloria was five years old, her mother Susie gifted her with a copy of the short story collection Magnificence and Other Stories (published in 1960, a year before Igloria was born) by the audacious, prolific, award-winning Filipina writer Estrella D. Alfon, who wrote in English. On the book’s front cover, Susie’s scribbled dedication to her daughter is faintly visible, “To my sweetheart … I hope you will become a writer like her someday.”

To another child, such parental hopes and expectations would have seemed delusional or pushy and anxiety-inducing. But for Igloria, who had learned to read by the age of three and had worked through Magnificence in elementary school, they were foundational to her development as a writer and perhaps even became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To date, Igloria has written 14 books of poetry and four chapbooks. She won the Palanca Award—the Philippines’ most prestigious literary prize, akin to the Pulitzer in the U.S.—11 times, and she was the second woman inducted to the Palanca Hall of Fame. She also has amassed literary awards from the U.S. where she now lives, including the 2009 Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize for Juan Luna’s Revolver, the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Prize selected by Mark Doty for Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser, the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for What is Left of Wings, I Ask, and the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition Award for Poetry for her latest book, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts. Igloria also is the Louis I. Jaffe Professor and University Professor of Creative Writing and English, and from 2009–2015 was Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

In July 2020, Igloria was appointed by Governor Ralph Northam to a two-year term as the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia. She became the fourth poet of color—along with Rita Dove, Sofia Starnes (who is of Spanish and Filipino ancestry), and Tim Seibles—to serve in the position.

The announcement came at a tumultuous time for the country, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the toppling of Confederate and colonialist monuments across the country, and arguably the most contentious presidential campaign in modern U.S. history. In a conversation I had with Igloria back in February, she reflected on the significance of being called upon not only to serve as the “premiere ambassador for poetry in the state” but also to “assist the Governor in solving real problems real people face.”

Igloria felt the charge seemed to convey that “poetry is something to think about as part of our social and civic existence. Poetry is another form of witnessing, asking us to pay attention to the world in a different way.” For her, this idea of deep listening and empathy, what she describes as “stepping outside of ourselves to try to imagine what another life, another experience might be like; what it might be like to consider another point of view,” is what’s most powerful about poetry, literature, and the arts.

Maps for Migrants and Ghosts invites readers to imagine alongside the poet a man with a “foreign-looking face” who simultaneously mourns his unpropitious future and defies it—“Not shoulder shrug, not fold over.” Or mothers who don’t know “where they’ve taken // all the children … // their grief, our grief, might merge / to form a thing that could unseal a stone.” Or an evacuee of a fire or a flood who “can’t decide which / of the things that could fit // into one backpack could answer to / the description of essential.” 

A number of poems in the collection are sites of collision between the present self and past selves, left behind in other places in time. Especially to the migrant—who for instance must calculate differentials when calling loved ones a continent away—time reveals itself as an illusion.

“We have a vocabulary for describing distances and places in relation to each other on a grid or a map—the meridians, the hemispheres,” Igloria explains. “But ultimately, we’re talking about things we really have no control over—in the same way we have no control over our relationship to land or to place.”

Igloria spent over half her life in Baguio, a city in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines, which once served as the summer capital of the American colonial government from 1901–1913. “Living in Baguio soaks everyone who lives there, consciously or unconsciously, with a sense of its own colonial history,” she says, “I like to think of how place names and places themselves are not only a sign of displacements and erasures, they’re also places of haunting and of the idea that the past is always still there.”

She mentions as an example Session Road, Baguio’s main thoroughfare, teeming with shops and restaurants. Locals don’t think much about the origin of its name (if they know it at all), which traces back to the American colonial period. In order to escape the heat and humidity of the capital Manila in the summer, the insular government temporarily relocated to Baguio and held its sessions in a building in the area now called Session Road. “There’s just this whole palimpsest, layers of things, that accrue over the surfaces of language and place,” she observes.

Like many children born and raised in the Philippines, Igloria acquired multiple languages simultaneously—in her case Ilocano, Tagalog or Filipino, and English. As a young person, she wondered, “Could I not claim English too as a first language, since I learned it at the same time as the other languages that I feel are primary to me too? At that stage, you’re not really parsing, Oh, this is the language of your colonial masters. Only later on do you figure out, Okay, this is why you speak this way because Baguio was a colonial hill station.

Yet, alongside the inherited American place names like Burnham Park, Harrison Road, Malcolm Square, and Cabinet Hill, are the indigenous Ibaloi place names Abanao/Wide Street, Chanum/Water Street, and the Lucban/Orange neighborhood, which according to the elders was named after citrus groves that used to be there. They are reminders of origins and uprootings; of beauty existing alongside terror and violence; of a sense of control or confidence racked by anxiety and unknowing.

Our strong emotional attachments as human beings are formed by these opposite states of being. Igloria theorizes that our deep ties to the places that formed us “is something that we know because of what it no longer is or because its possibilities could be different.”

This idea shows up in a poem like “Song of Meridians,” where “it’s spring, or whatever / season it is for laughter or slaughter, a difference of one letter between one state of being and another.” Igloria notes that there also is a sort of randomness in our experience of life, where “a really horrible event like a bombing, or a disaster, or people dying” take up the same space on the front page of the newspaper as “trivial-seeming stuff in comparison, like ‘Miss Universe Is Crowned’ or some other story that’s very different tonally.”

Igloria’s poems in Maps for Migrants and Ghosts seem to convey a sense of immediacy, even urgency. Perhaps this could be attributed partly to her poem-a-day writing practice, which she has managed to keep up for over a decade (since November 20, 2010).

“I was simply looking for a way to get over the feelings of frustration that we have as writers who are busy with a million other things—I’m a parent, I’m a full-time professor, I tend to so many different things every day,” she reflects. “I feel very unhappy when I can’t get to something that feeds me in that deep way, which is for me my writing, my art.”

Serendipitously in November 2010, a cold spell had dumped an unusual amount of snow in Virginia’s Tidewater area—more than 10 inches, recalls Igloria—which left her homebound and thinking, Oh, maybe I can do something for me. She went looking for a writing prompt and stumbled upon Dave Bonta’s Twitter feed/microblog The Morning Porch, where Bonta records daily observations from his porch.

Igloria found herself responding with a comment in poem form. Afterwards, she said to herself, That felt really good—let me do it again! So, she went back, day after day, writing poems in comments until Bonta finally noticed and invited her to contribute to a daily poetry blog he founded, Via Negativa.

A daily writing habit has taught her a lot about herself as a writer. She doesn’t set a specific time to write, rather she finds a place in the day to come to her writing. “It just dawned on me that if I can do this in half an hour, I should just work with what I have instead of thinking, When can I get away to have an uninterrupted month or two just by myself? which is nice but sort of unrealistic, given that you’re right in the thick of living your life.”

Consistently coming back to her writing also has helped Igloria learn to work through moments of inertia or what others might call writer’s block. She throws down words to break the blankness of the page and without thinking too much, falls into a rhythm that gets her moving past a difficult moment. Now, she thinks of her poem-a-day practice as a personal treat.

She tries not to set any expectations about her writing, about the poem, or even about what she is going to write about that day. Inspiration for her poetry comes from her day-to-day engagements, whether it’s something she is reading (at the moment, alfabet/alphabet by Sadiqa de Meijer, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, and Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody); something she overhears; or an image that she’s looking at (she has written a number of ekphrastic poems).

“Writers are always tucking away little bits and pieces of information and suddenly something lights up in their brain and they think, Oh, that could go in a poem—I don’t know what it is yet, but it sounds like I should write that in a poem, she explains.

Igloria and Bonta are often asked or cautioned about putting their poems out on Via Negativa, undermining their chances of publication in journals, “as if a poem has one life only, and one form only,” counters Igloria. Both poets believe that poetry is meant to be shared as widely as possible, and they question the proprietary notions we tend to have about art. Bonta likens poetry to open-source software, and Igloria often tells her students that it is a form of technology, encoding human experience in language.

“Today, we talk about this culture of virality, but perhaps the oral tradition of how literature came down to us early on—circulating among communities to such an extent that they learned about songs, and epics, and histories, and to such an extent that they defied extinction—was a form of virality for those times,” Igloria says.

She marvels at the way students now have more rapid access to information because of technology—how they are able to look up answers to questions in class, or capture and easily share what she puts up on a whiteboard using their mobile phones. But she consciously reminds herself that her students’ experiences reflect a kind of privilege that may not necessarily be the same for others, especially in another cultural or environmental context. She recalls her own experience as a college student at the University of the Philippines, Baguio, where a class of 40–50 people had to share one copy of a book, which was placed on reserve at the library for students to mimeograph or copy with a clunky Xerox machine. 

Still, as someone who didn’t cut her teeth in the North American writing workshop model, Igloria feels “liberated by the idea that I have seen other ways of doing things, other models from global literary traditions that we can draw from,” which she notes are rarely ever brought into a North American writing workshop or classroom except occasionally under the esoteric, idiosyncratic “special topics” label.

Her broader experiences have become especially relevant as predominant, longstanding workshop practices such as “the cone of silence” as well as how “craft” is defined and taught, increasingly are coming under scrutiny for the ways in which they privilege male, white, and cis-straight writers and readers.

Ultimately, these disruptions to the workshop space reflect the larger social struggles playing out on the streets in solidarity marches for Black lives and for immigrant rights and in advocating for policies such as climate justice—all aim to demolish structures that have perpetuated systemic injustices for centuries against marginalized groups. Igloria sees her students empowered by the variety of organizing tools at their disposal; however, social media activism sometimes may give them “a false sense of optimism that anything is possible.”

At the same time, Igloria observes an intergenerational anxiety, for instance among her friends as well as her daughters, her students, and their friends, about the future when contending with “the precarity and inevitability of things like climate change. You know that unless certain types of collective action are taken in a big, decisive way, we won’t be able to have the privilege of that kind of optimism.”

These preoccupations are central to the projects Igloria currently is working on. Prior to the laureateship, she had been working on a new manuscript of poems “about how explorations of empire, including those that landed on Philippine shores, created a blueprint for the current environmental crisis.”

March marked the quincentennial of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage to the islands now known as the Philippines, which ended in the explorer’s death at the hands of Lapu-Lapu, ruler of Mactan island who fended off Spanish colonization for another 40 years. Igloria has written poems about that historical moment, but most have been contemporary meditations on how the “Age of Exploration” had set in motion the multiple crises we are experiencing in the world today.

The idea for her new collection sprung from a recent collaboration with the Philippines-based Agam Agenda, a project of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, which brought together 30 writers and 30 photographers from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America to work on the anthology Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis (forthcoming in 2021).

Igloria was invited to contribute a piece of poetry or prose in response to an image of a woman waist-deep in plastic water bottles (taken by South African photographer Oluwabukunola Adesanwo). Somehow, the photograph reminded her of those glass bottles that displayed intricate miniature ship models. From there, her imagination took a leap and she ended up submitting an expansive lyric essay about seafaring and water for publication in the anthology.

The work of Igloria and the other anthology contributors exemplify how art and literature can be forms of witnessing and being present in the world. While the focus on climate science and policy is critical, it sometimes obscures the reality that many societies already are living on the edge and have been forced to reckon with their precarity.

An image or a poem often can tell a more compelling story about the human condition than data or statistics alone. More crucially, they engage viewers and readers to think about their own connection (and consequent responsibility) to the air they breathe and to the water and land that sustain their existence. As Igloria puts it, “After all, we need to visualize change before we can act on it. We need to look for what is still possible in this world.”

Read two of Luisa A. Igloria’s poems from Maps for Migrants and Ghosts in The Margins.