Personality: Dr. Luisa A. Igloria

9/3/2020, 6 p.m.
It was in early May when Dr. Luisa A. Igloria learned she was on the short list for consideration to …

It was in early May when Dr. Luisa A. Igloria learned she was on the short list for consideration to be named poet laureate of Virginia.

The notice that she had been chosen came on July 16. The next day, Gov. Ralph S. Northam made the official public announcement.

“I’m very grateful,” Dr. Igloria says. “It’s such an honor to join the ranks of many esteemed Virginia poets laureate.”

The native of the Philippines and creative writing and English professor at Old Dominion University is Virginia’s 20th poet laureate and the fourth person of color to be named to the distinguished honorary position as an ambassador for poetry for the Commonwealth.

Dr. Igloria follows Rita Dove, the first African-American poet laurate of Virginia and of the United States, Sofia Starnes and Tim Seibles, who blazed the trail as poets laureate of color in Virginia.

During her two-year tenure as poet laureate, Dr. Igloria is expected to promote the exchange of arts information and perspectives, though she’s not required to write any poetry.

But Dr. Igloria says that she has written at least a poem a day for almost 10 years now as part of her daily poetry practice.

It’s a “pleasure and high point of each day,” she says. “I look forward to that part of the day, not rigidly scheduled, when I claim that window of time to sit down and write a poem. I think this is just because poetry is the place I prefer to go in order to think through and feel and process things.”

Dr. Igloria has authored 14 books of poetry and four chapbooks. She has won numerous national and international awards for her writing throughout the years, including the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the May Swenson Poetry Prize, the Resurgence Poetry Prize for ecopoetry, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature and the Crab Orchard Open Competition Award for Poetry.

Her work delves into any number of themes. Poetry, she says, “taps into those places that are difficult to express otherwise, those places where we experience our very human fears, rage, doubt, pain, but also joy, love, hope.”

Dr. Igloria credits her parents with giving her the joy of reading, “which led to the joy of writing,” she said. She remembers writing poems and stories when she was just a first-grader using lined elementary school paper.

That passion has continued to this day, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, protests against police brutality and rallies for racial justice and other societal changes occupy- ing her thoughts.

She doesn’t take her selection as poet laureate lightly, however, and sees it as “an indicator of important changes that are starting to manifest more forcefully in this country,” from re-examinations of history and the role of the marginalized in that history to the increased awareness and desire for equity and justice across a wide span of social and cultural issues.

Asked if she feels this new honor comes with any additional responsibility during this moment in time, Dr. Igloria says that she’s waiting to see “what things will evolve out of this.”

Being poet laureate already has led to an increase in attention, she says. And she encourages others to share their own perspectives and ideas through poetry.

“One poet laureate can’t do it alone,” Dr. Igloria says. “And poetry is better shared in a more public way and a broader setting.”

Meet a creative thinker and writer and this week’s Personality, Dr. Luisa A. Igloria:

Latest honor: 20th poet laureate of Virginia and the fourth Virginia poet laureate of color.

Date and place of birth: Sept. 3, in Makati, Manila, Philippines, but I grew up in Baguio City, and consider it my hometown.

Current residence: Norfolk.

Occupation: Louis I. Jaffe Endowed Professor and university professor of English at Old Dominion University.

Community involvement: Board member of The Muse Writers Center, a community nonprofit writing center in Norfolk; Poetry Society of Virginia; and Friends of the ODU Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program.

Alma maters: Bachelor’s in comparative literature, English and philosophy, University of the Philippines College Baguio, 1980; master’s in literature, Ateneo de Manila University, as Robert Southwell Fellow, 1988; and Ph.D. in English- creative writing, University of Illinois at Chicago, as Fulbright Fellow, 1995.

Family: Husband, Ruben V. Igloria, and four daughters.

Being named poet laureate of Virginia means: With Rita Dove, who was the first African-American poet laureate of Virginia and of the United States; Sofia Starnes, who is of Spanish and Filipino ancestry; Tim Seibles; and now myself, now there are four poets of color who have been appointed to this distinguished position.

These numbers more or less parallel those in the history of the poet laureateship of the United States. There have been 23 U.S. poets laureate since Richard Auslander was named the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1937. Of the 23, only five are poets of color.

I think this is significant as an indicator of important changes that are starting to manifest more forcefully in this country, that have to do with the ongoing re-evaluation of history and the place that marginalized communities have been accorded in it; and that have to do with making people more aware of the heightened need to work to eradicate social, educational, cultural, racial and other forms of inequity and injustice.

How I learned I was named Virginia’s poet laureate by Gov. Ralph S. Northam: In early May, I was informed by Henry Hart, immediate past poet laureate of Virginia and a member of the board of the Poetry Society of Virginia, that my nomination for poet laureate had moved forward along with two other poets to the short list. Since that time, honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much anymore because of all that constantly rivets our attention — COVID-19 news, Black Lives Matter and all the other changes we’ve been experiencing in our daily lives.

So I felt a bit overwhelmed when I received the news on July 16, and when the official press releases came out of Richmond the following day. I’m very grateful. It’s such an honor to join the ranks of many esteemed Virginia poets laureate, including Rita Dove, Claudia Emerson, my friend and retired colleague Tim Seibles, Ron Smith, Sofia Starnes and Henry Hart.

Length of tenure: Two years to June 30, 2022.

Poetry is:—orcanbe—a way of living in the world and responding to it. Among other things, poetry shows the importance of paying attention to details, to the world around us, the sounds and shapes and music of words; how the language of poems can help us keep alive that very important condition of wonder. It also has taught me that it’s OK to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is not necessarily a weakness. It’s OK to feel deeply. We should feel deeply, otherwise, what are we when we cannot be moved by anything?

Poetry can lead to discovery or surprise. Even when you think you have nothing new to learn, a poem can show you the inexhaustibility of experience. A poem can show you that something can still open even when you think it’s closed.

First poem written and why: Goodness, I can’t remember exactly. I know I started writing poems and little stories as early as first grade on lined elementary school paper. Why? Just for the love of writing them.

Who or what is the main inspiration behind my literary work: The idea that literature/ art allows us to imagine possibility. We need that in order to create conditions for freedom and change in our lives. The language of poetry taps into those places that are difficult to express otherwise, those places where we experience our very human fears, rage, doubt, pain, but also joy, love, hope.

Themes covered in my poetry: Place, displacement, history, home, exile and migration; nature and the environment; the complexities of family and relationships; the self, coming back to self, transformation; the duality, no, multiplicity and depth of experience.

How reading and writing poetry can help people during difficult times like today: It’s good to think about how this position was created/formalized through an act of Congress, an act of government. This would send the message that poetry and the arts are recognized as important to civic and social well-being, which I believe in because poetry and the arts, like community, have human empathy as their cornerstone.

Who do I hope to inspire with my position and poetry: While I haven’t had a chance to work out specific details yet, the poet laureateship is such a unique position for service and engagement through poetry. I hope to have many conversations with others and to find meaningful ways to support and promote the voices of Virginian poets in particular and the work of poets and poetry in general as an important part of living in these times.

How I start the day: A quick shower. Then if I can, a bit of writing and reading. When the academic year is in full swing and things are busier, I usually “go” straight to work. Now, this mostly means logging on to our computers. But always, with a mug of coffee.

A perfect day for me is: Ah, that dream of having no interruptions on one’s time to do what one pleases. There is so much I still want to read. And write. I’d do that during such a “perfect” day. Spend time in the sunshine, even just out in my backyard. Not have to rush. To make a meal and share it with those I love. Have those I love all around me.

Something I love to do that most people might never imagine: I used to play the piano for many years. I might have gone on to conservatory if my college English teachers had not “kidnapped” me for life. Having no instrument at home now —we have a tiny house — I do miss that. I like to hand-bind little books. I knit.

A quote that I am inspired by: Two have resonated with me strongly in the past month or so because of the pandemic and everything else that is troubling in the nation and the world:

“In these bruising days, any delicately made thing quickens the heart.” ~ Teju Cole

“I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.” ~ Terrance Hayes

My friends describe me as: Devoted, organized, artistic; a “woman of letters.”

At the top of my “to-do” list: Overall, to make more art. Maybe not the top, but among the things I would still like to do: Travel more, or again, with loved ones; work on a book of essays and a novel. Listen to more music. Learn to garden properly.

Best late-night snack: Cheese and fruit. Or cheese and bread. Gelato or ice cream. See, I can’t limit the idea of “favorite” or “best” to just one.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: The joy of reading, which led to the joy of writing.

The person who influenced me the most: My late father Gabriel Z. Aguilar was a big influence in my life and still is. One of the things he once said to me: “I may not be able to give you an inheritance, but I tried to make sure you got a good education.” He wasn’t a wealthy man. He came late into his career but was a lawyer and local public servant until the end of his life. In a culture where it seemed hard to do so, he never took a bribe and took pride in that. But he loved the arts and culture. He was always reading something — a book, a magazine, the newspaper. Or finding tickets for us so we could watch a concert or a ballet. When a controversial biography of Imelda Marcos — “The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos” by Carmen Navarro Pedrosa — was surreptitiously circulated during martial law, he somehow got a borrowed copy and said even I could read it. I think I was only 8 years old then. Then he’d put it away inside his coat closet. We’d sit on the porch after breakfast on Sunday and he taught me to do crosswords, showed me the section of the paper with “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” He bought many books for me growing up, signed me up for painting lessons for a few years. Decided to take me out of the parochial high school I was in as a freshman, and move me to the University of the Philippines high school in our home city because he said he wanted me to learn to be a more independent and critical thinker. He said he was afraid I might forget about religion in that environment, but he wanted me to develop a good mind. Though we had a simple but sustaining life, he had an expansive imagination for taste and new experiences. He’d save some new or interesting food item from a dinner out with colleagues, for instance, and bring it home to us so we could have a taste. That’s how I first tasted abalone and sea urchin. He said, “Don’t be afraid to eat what the world brings to your door.”

Favorite poet and why: Anyone who writes is usually an avid reader. I read a lot of, and am inspired by many, poets. I read many poets of color. I find that the experiences they write about are the ones that resonate most with my own as an immigrant, as a poet of color myself.

Don’t ask me about favorites though, because that’s like asking someone who their favorite child is. One poet whose words have stayed with me through the years is Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote about “duende,” or that spirit of creation welling up from that deep, mysterious, interior space in the psyche. He talks about poems that are transformative and powerful as having “duende,” which is not the same as “inspiration.” He talks about going into one’s psyche and finding the courage to wrestle with “duende” there. Only in doing so can great poems come out of us.

A book that influenced me the most: When I was young, my mother gave me “Magnificence,” a book of powerful short stories written by Filipina writer Estrella Alfon.

What I’m reading now: Because I’ve just made selections to teach this semester, and because I regularly review books for Rhino Reviews, in no particular order: “Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting” by Shivanee Ramlochan; “Refuse” by Julian Randall; “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flower” by Jake Skeets and “Antiemetic for Homesickness” by Romalyn Ante.

Next goal: To curate a small series of virtual programs — readings, conversations — featuring mostly Virginia poets and to work with other poets in the state to make sure that our representation online gets updated, and is more inclusive.