In Philippine literature, there are mythical creatures which require disclosures. Such is Ma. Luisa A. Igloria. In the 1980s and the 1990s, writers aspiring to win the prestigious Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature had a hyperliterary hydra they had to try and slay—without much success—and that was Igloria. In an era when the Palancas allowed contestants to submit multiple entries as well as multiple winning entries from the same writer, Igloria won a near-mythological 11 Palanca Awards from 1984 to 1997 in three categories (poetry, essay and short story), including the semisweep in 1994 when she won both the first and second prizes in Poetry in English—she also won first prize in essay in English in the same year. But her invincible verses are the source of her mythology. After winning five first prizes, she was named to the Palanca Hall of Fame in 1996. But that only marked the beginning of her extraordinary poem of passage.
Today, she is 58, professor of English and Creative Writing at the MFA Creative Writing Program, Department of English, Old Dominion University in Virginia. The Filipino-American poet has spent two decades in the United States and told the Inquirer: “One would expect constant transformation in life as in letters, right? And it isn’t related only to place, but all the different ways we move and are moved in our lives.”
This makes transcendental amount of sense now that Igloria has been named Poet Laureate of Virginia by Gov. Ralph Northam, to serve from 2020-2022. On July 29, Igloria was sworn in virtually as the next Poet Laureate of Virginia. Guests at the event included Virginia first lady Pamela Northam, outgoing Poet Laureate Henry Hart and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.
At the swearing-in, Pamela Northam said: “That’s a familiar struggle for many, although our extraordinary poets today make it look easy with Dr. Luisa making a glorious commitment to one glorious poem a day which I find incredible.” Igloria was then sworn in by Thomasson.
‘Express the inexpressible’
In her response, Igloria recalled a long metrical romantic poem in Tagalog which was required reading in high school, “Florante at Laura” by Francisco Balagtas: “I’m thinking of the scene where the Albanian hero is lashed to a tree in the forest by his enemies and left to the wild animals and starts to lament his troubles when a Persian prince, fleeing his kingdom from where he has also been banished, comes to the hero’s aid. They exchange life stories and become close friends and allies. I never thought about this before, but suddenly this seemed astounding, audacious and profound. Here are two characters from two different cultures and yet they’re instantly able to understand each other through monorhyming 12-syllabyle Tagalog quatrain poetry. So I thought we need poetry more than ever to help us express the inexpressible.” She then proceeded to read two poems, “Ode to the Hand Wrapped Around the Achilles Heel” and “The Wanderer.”
Hailing from Baguio, Igloria earned her BA in Humanities, majoring in Comparative Literature, cum laude, from the University of the Philippines Baguio, her master’s in literature at Ateneo de Manila University and her Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing as a Fulbright Fellow from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has 20 mostly prize-winning poetry collections to her name.
As the Louis I. Jaffe Endowed Professor of English and Creative Writing, Igloria started teaching at Old Dominion in 1998.
“In early May,” she said, “I was informed by Henry Hart, immediate past Poet Laureate of Virginia and 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 shortlist.” But tumultuous events overtook the news. “Since that time, honestly, I hadn’t thought about it much anymore, because of all that constantly rivets our attention—COVID-19 (new coronavirus disease) news, Black Lives Matter and all the other challenges we’ve been experiencing in our daily lives,” she said. But then the message came, a ritual of calling: “I felt a bit overwhelmed when I received the news late Thursday—July 16—and when the official press releases came out of Richmond the following afternoon. I’m very grateful— It’s such an honor to join the ranks of many esteemed Virginia Poets Laureate.”
In these days of racial issues, Igloria’s new honor carries extra resonance, her translations in the wilderness. “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, my friend and retired colleague Tim Seibles, and myself—now there are four poets of color who have been appointed Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The title of Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia actually reflects the history of the Poet Laureate of the United States, as Igloria explained this reclaiming of vanished geographies and identities: “There have been 23 US Poet Laureates since Richard Auslander was named the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1937, the position was renamed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry through an act of Congress in 1986. Of the 23 US Poets Laureate, only five are poets of color, Rita Dove in 1993-95, first African-American poet named to the position; Natasha Trethewey in 2012-14, Juan Felipe Herrera in 2015-17, Tracy K. Smith in 2017-10, and the current US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo who is also the first Native-American Poet Laureate, since 2019 to the present.”
Igloria said she believed this designation is an important indication that artists of color are indeed being recognized for their contributions: “It’s significant as an indicator of important changes that are starting to manifest more forcefully in this country, that have to do with the ongoing reevaluation of history and the place that marginalized communities have been accorded in it.”
The position itself is not a regular government post per se. “The position is honorary and does not come with any compensation or cash prize,” she said. She is still thinking about her plans with her new platform. “While I haven’t had a chance to sit down and think about specific details, the Virginia 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 advocate for poets and poetry in general, as an important part of living in these times.”
Yet the poet who literally conquered every single literary challenge in the Philippines—and now in the United States—still misses her home country: “Yes, Baguio most of all.”
Poetry & experience
As usual, Igloria is busy writing, still undoing secrets. “Some of you know that for nearly a decade I’ve engaged in a daily poetry practice. One thing I’ve learned is that poetry is my preferred way to think about and process experience 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.”
Due out in September from Southern Illinois University Press is “Maps for Migrants and Ghosts,” cowinner of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Competition. “I’m also working on one new manuscript.”
Amid all this, Igloria still has things she wants to do: “I’ve always wanted to work on a book of essays, and write a novel. Travel again, with family.” She has looked back and knows how fortunate she has been, the best of all possible pasts and futures. “Grateful, mostly,” she said. “Still curious, still eager to discover new things.”
As the Filipino-American Luisa Igloria takes up the mantle of her latest, perhaps most significant, accolade, she understands the responsibility and the change she can bring with her, configuring the gods, regardless of her personal cartography: “For everyone in the world right now, not just in the Philippines or in the US—we’re trying to deal with the changing realities of life as we knew it, and most glaringly in the context of this pandemic. So much is unprecedented. There’s much uncertainty and fear. People have fallen ill and died, lost jobs and benefits, the ability to interact and even be with others. Rather than say how terrible it is, there or here; or make any kind of specific political observations, everything is political after all, I want to say that the arts are even more important at this time because they make it possible for us to sit with and express the most important things we carry in our existence: everything that seems mostly inexpressible—our deepest feelings and truths, our hopes and fears, our doubts, our heartbreak, rage and joy. Also: poetry, literature, music, dance, the visual arts— are methods of civic engagement too.” INQ