The Spiritual Poet: Luisa Igloria



Bill Glose

Framed by a nimbus of light filtered through the curtained window, Luisa Igloria relaxes in her Norfolk home on the living room sofa. She is the author of 13 books of poetry and one chapbook, but none are exhibited here. Instead, novels pile up on the wooden coffee table along with compilations of IQ puzzles and various literary journals. Books also congregate in the room’s margins, stacked neatly on stools, on shelves, crammed into two wicker baskets beneath a round table displaying an ornamental Buddha and a dozen framed family photos. The children pictured here have grown up in a house of words, and one of them, Igloria’s youngest daughter, was practically born into the literary life.

“The night before I gave birth to her,” Igloria explains in her Filipino accent, “I was reading at an event in Virginia Beach. I was very pregnant, very breathless by the time I left at 7 p.m. I gave birth to her at 7 in the morning.”

Dressed in ripped jeans and sandals, dark hair cascading over her shoulders, Igloria’s manner is laid back and inviting. Her house is walking distance from Old Dominion University where she’s taught Creative Writing and English since 1998. She’s lived here long enough to consider Norfolk as home, but her poetry usually resonates with a different sense of place—Baguio City, the mountainous “summer capital” of the Philippines where she was born and raised.

“I think it’s an organic part of who we are to carry what we call heritage or culture with us wherever we go,” she says. “Eating or food or habits or anything that we do in a physical sense—but there are also less visible signs of those things that we carry with us, like the way we see the world. And all of that enters into the fabric of my writing.”

Her style of poetry is packed with mellifluous words that sing off the page. From poems tinged with magical realism—When my nose bled nearly every day / for a year, the elders broke an egg into water; / they cast rice grains to read upon its membrane, / then wove me a secret name—to those that ring with blessings—Let us praise, they said. And so we should: / Let us praise the wood that was saved / from the house, and the stones that we used / for the new kitchen floor. Let us praise / the walls which leaked with fury / of hurricanes yet kept us dry—to metaphysical questions about life itself—The ferryman came and whispered / in my ear, asking if I would like / to visit that town I might not ever / see again but in my dreams—the music of her early life infuses her stanzas and creates a seductive melody that all but hypnotizes readers.

“I come from a culture that in many ways has these animistic beliefs woven into it,” she explains. “There’s very actively still entwined this sense of how nature is a breathing, living thing, the world animated with spirit. In our Ilocano language, there’s a term called ‘atang ti kararua,’ which means ‘offering to the spirits.’ What we do, whenever there is a special occasion, we would set aside a little plate of whatever special food we were eating to mark the occasion and a little cup of drink for the spirits of our departed. We call for them to come and share in the joy of the moment with us.”

Igloria has always felt a deep connection with the environment. As a child, she was taught to ask plants for permission before trimming their leaves or cutting anything off, to pause a moment and let them know she meant no harm. So, in 2015 when she heard about the inaugural Resurgence Poetry Prize, the world’s first major eco-poetry award, it only seemed natural that she would enter. Afterward, as so often happens with busy people, she forgot about her submission while tackling the daily chores of being a professor, a mother and a homeowner. One day in late November, after waiting hours for a refrigerator repairman who failed to show during the designated time window, she snatched the phone from the receiver when it rang. Figuring it to be the company calling to reschedule, she yelled her terse greeting into the mouthpiece to make her displeasure known. Then she waited, stewing, for the excuse. What came over the line instead was a cultured, British voice informing her that she had won.

Recounting the episode, Igloria laughs and shakes her head. “It was thrilling,” she says. “Because the prize was substantial (£5,000), my husband and daughter wanted to come to London with me. I thought what the heck. It was an abundance that was not expected, so why not use it with the people that I love most?”

They spent a week in London, visiting galleries and museums, strolling Bond Street beneath a dazzling array of Christmas lights. And then, to cap it all off, they were feted at the Leighton House Museum where the former Poet Laureate of the UK, Sir Andrew Walsh, awarded Igloria the prestigious prize. For Igloria, having her family with her was almost as rewarding as the prize itself, a chance to show her daughter, a budding poet herself, some of the joys that are possible after years of hard work, especially when you have the support of your family.

“When I was 5,” Igloria recalls, “my mother gave me a book by one of the leading short story writers in English in the Philippines, Estrella Alfon. It was a book called Magnificence, and she inscribed it to me on the cover. She wrote, ‘In hopes that you will become a good writer like this someday.’ I read those stories and I loved every single one of them. I still remember them to this day.”

She excuses herself to rummage about upstairs then returns with the well-worn paperback, a jagged fissure splitting its cover. Even so, she sets it down delicately, presenting this treasure like crown jewels.

Perhaps only one thing in this room means more to her than this thin volume of stories. Of course, it is another book, the Rattle Young Poets Anthology. She picks it up with just as much care as the collection that nudged her onto her own path so many years ago. She flips open the cover and points to the table of contents. “There,” she says, beaming, her finger tracing the line for a poem titled, “Lessons.” “That’s my daughter.”

She may be a world-renowned eco-poet, but first and foremost she is a proud mother.

 

Luisa Igloria reads her poem Certified on Virginia Poetry Online:

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