Prof. Luisa A. Igloria, Virginia’s Poet Laureate and her upcoming book Maps for Migrant and Ghosts. | Photo by Chuck Thomas, ODU University Photographer

LUISA A. Igloria, an award-winning and prolific Filipina American poet and author, has a new title: Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Originally from Baguio City, Igloria currently teaches at Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program and has written several books of poetry. She was informed in early May that her name was on the shortlist along with two other poets being considered for the position.

“Because of everything that’s going on— the pandemic, Black Lives Matter— I didn’t think too much about it anymore after that. Honestly, I didn’t think I would actually be selected,” she told the Asian Journal.

What followed next was an email from the Office of the Governor letting her know that Gov. Ralph Northam was appointing her as the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia. Igloria was officially sworn in on July 29 at a virtual event, with First Lady of Virginia Pamela Northam in attendance. Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson administered the oath and outgoing VA Poet Laureate Henry Hart talked about his term and read a poem.

“It was a lovely surprise, and an incredible honor as I follow in the footsteps of many amazing poets,” Igloria said at the ceremony, streamed live on the web.

The position of Virginia Poet Laureate is honorary and does not come with any compensation or cash prize. It was established in 1936 and beginning in 1998, the Governor appointed a poet laureate from a list of nominees presented by the Poetry Society of Virginia.

Igloria, who will serve for two years, is the fourth poet of color to become the state’s poet laureate. She follows in the steps of 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, and Igloria’s friend and retired ODU colleague Tim Seibles.

“As an immigrant, I am proud to increase the number of poets of color who have been appointed to this distinguished position,” she said. “I feel 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.”

“I read somewhere that the Poet Laureate should ‘encourage the exchange of arts information and perspectives…[but] is not obligated to write any verse,’” Igloria shared. “But in the communication I received from Richmond, Governor Northam is focused on building a Commonwealth that works better for all people, no matter who they are or where they live. During your term, you will assist the Governor in solving real problems real people face.”

Luisa A. Igloria at her virtual swearing-in ceremony as Virginia’s 20th Poet Laureate. Screengrab from Gov. Ralph Northam’s Youtube Channel

Because of the current situation brought about by the pandemic, there are restrictions on travel and gathering as crowds so for this new platform, Igloria is planning to organize virtual programs, workshops, panels, and similar poetry events centered around this theme that other writers have affirmed: “how poetry (and creativity) are more important than ever during this time, and necessary for our survival  because the cornerstone of poetry— of all the arts, really— is the condition of empathy.”

“Many poets I admire, like Natasha Trethewey and Martin Espada, talk about how poetry is not a luxury; poetry can help us through grief and trauma as well as celebrate being alive. I like this idea that the Laureateship is a unique position for this kind of service and engagement through poetry,” she added.

Maps for Migrant and Ghosts

Her next project is a book coming this fall, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (its manuscript is a co-winner for the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Prize) which, according to her “continues to look at recurrent themes in my work — displacement, exile, origins; how even our most personal and intimate experiences are linked to larger collective histories that precede us.”

“The poems in this book look at the selves we used to be before we traveled to where we are now, before we became who we (think/feel) we are now. We think we leave others behind when we leave a country; we also leave ourselves behind. I had to write this book in part to make my way back to that abandoned self, though she has also changed,” she added.

Earlier this year, she found her way back to her old home in Baguio City.

“The Baguio of my childhood seems irretrievable now,” she said. “There were more pine trees then, and not this sense of streets choked with traffic and new construction upon new construction that I saw.”

Igloria recalled her youth walking from their house in City Camp Alley down through Kisad Road to Burnham Park, to the church, to the Midland Courier offices, to the City Hall, to market, to Harrison Road, Session Road and back.

“You had the feeling that you knew everybody, and that everybody knew you. I remember the fog on the mountains, and our frosted breath in the cold months from December to February,” she reminisced. “I think the long, damp months of the monsoon in some way predisposed me to the solitude that comes with writing.”

Back in the Philippines, she is an eleven-time recipient of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award (the country’s highest literary prize) for Literature in three genres (poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction). In 1996, she was elevated to its Hall of Fame, after winning five first prizes.

Igloria finished her Ph.D. English with a concentration in Poetry/Creative Writing in 1995, at the University of Illinois in Chicago where she was a Fulbright Fellow. This added to her degrees from the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University. She taught in the Literature Department of De La Salle University for a couple of years after earning her PhD and Old Dominion University hired her in 1998.

ODU has been her home since as a Professor of Creative Writing and English, and from 2009-2015 as Director of the university’s MFA Creative Writing Program.

Daily poems

The author of 14 books of poetry and 4 chapbooks has been writing at least one poem a day since 2010. She posts them daily at the ViaNegativa.us website.

“When I started my daily writing practice ten years ago in November, I was simply looking for a way to structure my attention and to make some kind of time for me to drop into and write, even if it’s only for half an hour,” she shared. “Now I look forward to it every day—and I realize that poetry is really where I prefer to process my thinking and my “living,” in language.”

She does not set a specific time of day to write nor is there a fixed theme. At least four books have come out of this daily practice.

Igloria shared that she had learned to read by the age of three.

“My parents, who had a huge age difference between them, liked to take me with them to whatever activities or social events they went to,” she recalled. “They’d plop me down in some corner chair with a book or paper, pencils and crayons, and I would be content.”

She considers herself to be lucky to also have teachers who supported her love for reading and words.

“It just seemed like a natural thing that I would wind up writing my own stories and poems,” she quipped.

Now, she is the one supporting young people who love reading and words.

For young Fil-Ams who want to pursue a career in arts or poetry, her message is simple: “I say more power to them.”

“We frequently hear people say that if you pay attention to your heart and do what you really want to do, then the rest will follow,” she said. “We need more writers, more artists, musicians— because they help to shine a light on things that otherwise we would find too difficult to even articulate.”

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