A Voice in Two Worlds: An Interview with Dr. Luisa Igloria

by Amanda Huynh

Luisa A. Igloria is a Filipina-American poet who teaches at Old Dominion University. She is the author of  Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (2014 May Swenson Poetry Prize), Night Willow(2014), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize), and nine other books.

Amanda Huynh: When did you start writing? Do you remember what you wrote?

Luisa Igloria: The first story I wrote was in first grade. I don’t remember the details, but it was some kind of fairy tale about a brother and a sister going on some quest. I was always reading– My parents encouraged me to read really early. I was reading by the age of three. My daughters are the same way.

AH: If you were reading by three, was this English or Tagalog?

LI: English. In preschool, they didn’t have language classes or any bilingual activities. By first grade, we did have classes in Pilipino (Tagalog). That was when I first started formal classes in all the different languages I knew. But I came to awareness of three languages at the same time: English, Tagalog, and Ilokano. Ilokano is the language spoken up north where I’m from, Baguio City. Sometimes when people ask me questions about language and why I write in English, I say, “Why can’t I claim it as a first language too?” since my awareness of coming to all three languages was simultaneous.

AH: Even though your poetry is mainly published in English, do you still publish work in Tagalog?

LI: Every now and then, people will come out with a call for something. I try and work on [my other languages] consciously because when I am here, I talk in English all day. I get home and it is the same thing; and we don’t have many Filipino neighbors. You really have to seek out those communities. I lapse into Tagalog, when I’m talking more around Filipinos, or I’ll meet up with an old friend and immediately I’ll notice a shift. I feel like I may have lost some facility with the language, but I do try and make a conscious effort to write occasionally in it.

AH: Do you think it is because of your environment?

LI: Yes. My context and my upbringing was part of it, but I think I felt more of the braid of the three languages, when I was actually still in the Philippines. It was a unique experience and I have lost a little bit of that. Here, I have to consciously compartmentalize all these different things and be aware of when I am using them. There I didn’t have to be so hyper-aware.

AH: As a young writer, who did you consider a mentor? Why? How did he/she influence you?

LI: I have multiple answers for different parts of my life. My first mentors were my parents, and they were very crucial [to my writerly development]; they were always shoving different books into my hands.

In third grade, there was Ms. Sifora Fang. She had a little book shelf in the back of the classroom. By the time half the school year was over, I had read everything on it. So she called my father and said, “I think your child has a weird thing or gift.” She encouraged my parents to feed me even more in this way. She would always talk to me and question me about what I was reading.

I don’t think I can speak of strong mentorship until I entered graduate school. Doreen Fernandez, my teacher at Ateneo de Manila University, was very nurturing while I was a graduate student. By then I had more of an idea of what I wanted to with my life, but before that I felt very much like someone working on the margins. All the hot literary action was in the capital and I didn’t really live there. When I was a young faculty member in Baguio, my friends in the faculty would say to me, “You know you should send your poems to the Palanca Awards.” I asked why and they responded, “We think you’re ready.” I didn’t know what a big distinction this prize really was.

If I had known more about what the award really meant, maybe I would have been more frightened, but I wasn’t. I won first place. When they told me what the award meant, I was shocked. I was twenty-one, and also a new mother. I was overwhelmed and terrified. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do afterwards. And [in the writing world it somehow signified that] people became aware I existed, that my writing existed.

After I first won the Palanca, I would get invited to things in Manila. From that I also got the sense that I worked very much in isolation. I would like to think that there is a part of my craft that is entirely learned, and a part almost entirely outside of the strictures of the prevailing notions of what is and what is not acceptable. I feel like this background gave me a certain amount of freedom to do my own thing, to discover my own aesthetics, and to really hone in on the basis of who I was reading and why I liked them and what I could learn from them.

When I went to Chicago, for my Fulbright, I studied under Ralph Mills, who was enormously instrumental in getting my Ph.D. creative dissertation into the hands of a publisher here (In the Garden of the Three Islands, which became my first U.S. published book, from Ashodel/Moyer Bell).

And there was Carlos A. Angeles. He was a Filipino writer, the winner of the first Commonwealth Award in the Philippines. I had read him as a young writer in college. When I met him as a graduate student in Chicago, he spoke of his long  years of employment by Pan Am after he came to this country as the reason for why he had not been able to write for a long time. He felt he had given up the best years of his life just so he could find financial stability in order to support his family. Eventually, he came back to poetry in his later years and wrote one more book. But even at his advanced age, when I met him, he was so excited about the world. In the morning, he would email me and ask: “What have you written today? Show me. Have you read this poet?”  He would send me books and things he got excited about he would share them.

AH: When did you know poetry was a part of your life? What seduced you about the language?

LI: Very early on. When I was five, my mom gave me a book of short stories titled Magnificence by Estrella Alfon; she was one of the leading Filipina writers in English. She was a short story writer who came to prominence after the Second World War, during a time when there was a push to establish university programs and to build a tradition of writing in English.

My mother had taken me to a bookshop and bought me this book of short stories. She wrote on the cover: “In the hope that you might also become a writer one day.”

The title story involves a single mother raising two children. She is trying to valiantly raise them the best that she can. The woman is not wealthy or poor, but of the lower middle class. She finds herself having problems helping her kids with homework. A kind neighbor volunteers to help tutor them. He comes every Friday to help them with their homework and it goes on for a while, but then the mother sees something inappropriate in the way he touches her daughter. She tells him to get out, closes the door behind her, and slaps the man down this long flight of steps. I thought it was such a powerful story. Language can do that. I think I was riveted especially by the power of language to capture those moments.

AH: Did you read a lot of poetry as well?

LI: Yes. I still know by heart “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear. I can blame Ms. Sifora Fang for that, but mostly I fell in love with the sound of poetry– the music in it. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll was another one. Not only did I learn to read at an early age, I had also started piano lessons at three, so my ears were attuned to music.

AH: What are some of your favorite forms and why?

LI: I like sonnets because they are exacting and spare. They seem rigid, but I enjoy most the flexibility of being able to do whatever I want to do within the confines of what’s given. But I like knowing there is something to fall back on: the structure becomes a guide. You’re not completely blind. You know you can rewire the rhymed endings. You can do the envelope and the quatrains. You can write a poem in a bunch of intricate ways. But it is language that has a cabalistic appeal: it is mysterious and arcane.

There are all kinds of carpentry involved in poem-making, and I like the moving parts in a poem. I can look for those parts that make it move, where they fit together, and where I can make them sing. The carpentry and the singing are my favorite parts.

AH: So you favor the sonnet?

LI: But that’s like asking me: “Which child is my favorite?” I love them all. I like ghazals, too; and letter poems, and prose poems.

AH: Do you find yourself writing a particular form more often?

LI: Not exactly. Sometimes I will go on binges. It depends on what’s engaging me at a particular moment. I like prose poems for their lyricism; how they bring out more of that lyric voice. People tell me I write a lot of narrative poems– as if that were a fault. I don’t understand that because I do not think a pure strain of narrative or a pure strain of lyric exists. We are always braiding things together. I am more interested in how those things can work together.

AH: Talk about your recent book of prose poems, Night Willow. What was the inspiration for this book?

LI: With Night Willow, I wanted to explore the lyric vein of writing and expression. Over the summer, I taught a prose poem course for the Muse called “The Love Child” — I called it that, because prose poetry straddles prose and poetry. In the class we also discussed one particular Japanese calligraphy technique called the running brush. Poets have written poems called Zuihuitsu  in emulation of this technique, like Kimiko Hanh who uses it in some of her work. The idea is compared to picking up a brush laden with ink, and writing until it runs out without lifting the brush. I’m interested in propelling it forward, but also in seeing what trails along in its wake. I think the prose poem and various techniques like this help to foreground that lyric quality in poems.

AH: What inspired you to start writing a poem a day? Where do you find your poems coming from?

LI: In November 2010, I felt that there was no time to write. I had work, papers to grade, director tasks, dishes, and other domestic things to do. The poem a day was fueled by my own unhappiness at being unable to find enough time to write. Finally one day, we were snowed in, and I was idly browsing through Dave Bonta’s “Via Negativa” blog. It branches out into a wide variety of things. In one of his microblogs, he describes going out onto his front porch every morning. He tweets one succinct observation; pithy, precise, and something image laden that comes to him from the view on his porch. On November 20, 2010, his entry was about a woodpecker ratcheting up a tree, and he used the word “pawl” to describe the movement.

I thought it was a cool image, and I never thought of a bird in that mechanical way. Before I knew it, I was writing a poem in response to that in the comment box. It was fun. I found myself thinking: If I can do this here, maybe I just have to pare away whatever it is; to whittle it down to one moment at a time and see how far I can take it. So I continued. He noticed and gave me a space on his “Via Negativa” site to archive the daily poems for me.

AH: If you’re writing a poem a day, when do you find the time to edit?

LI: Almost immediately. Sometimes I edit as I am going along, but once I’m done with it; it is there. I do go back, but mostly now I’ve trained myself to edit as I go along.

AH: Since starting your poem a day, has there been a change in your poetic voice?

LI: I believe my voice has grown stronger. The benefits of writing a poem a day may not necessarily be seen by people who read the work, but from the writerly standpoint I feel as if my agility to move through the poem has improved. I am able to peel away what, to me, might be in the way, or that is inconsequential to the poem; both internal and external noise. I have also become more confident about putting my work out there. I do not feel too many qualms about who is watching. Not that I don’t care, but I don’t care about certain things anymore: whether it might meet approval and such.

AH: What is the best and worst advice about writing you have ever received?

LI: After I wrote Cartography, I branched out and wrote about other subjects besides Baguio. About a year after Cartography was released, I was invited to a panel. At the open forum, an older poet or critic commented on how much my poems had changed from the first book and he wished my voice would’ve stayed the same. It wasn’t advice, but more of unsolicited commentary. The way I distilled it: you shouldn’t change your material or you shouldn’t change the sound of your voice too much. I deeply resent the idea that we are not free to reinvent ourselves. I believe we should be able to reinvent ourselves in any way that we feel is useful to our art or that dictates our thinking process. We pass through historical moments in writing and living; we are surrounded by change. By his comment, I felt like I was being asked to stay in a box. Even now, similar variations include: “Why are you always writing about the Filipino subject?” –as if I could rewind and unravel my association with my Filipino culture; it is a part of my history. It can also permutate, swing in the opposition direction: “Maybe you should stick to writing about the Filipino subject. Don’t venture outside your known territory.” These statements resonate with the same idea: stay in a box.

AH: What strengths do you think you possess as a Filipina writer?

LI: I think a part of my strength as a Filipina writer involves distance. When you live away from home, it gives you certain vantage points, a perspective you probably would have never seen if you didn’t leave home. But then again maybe it isn’t true for everybody. I’m only speaking about myself.

Another strength would be my ability to look in more than one direction and to not accept the givens as the final pronouncement. For instance, in Juan Luna’s Revolver I wanted to question the interpretations of history that are available to the public about particular subjects. It also speaks to the other larger themes about what we do with the voices or figures in history that are only recorded in a marginal space. My insistence on discussing these topics is to say history is still malleable to a certain extent. It hasn’t all happened already. It hasn’t all been said. You can reinvestigate those terms of engagement and those terms of representation. You’re able to bring them up to scrutiny again, tell the stories, and maybe they will change or you’ll see something more that you didn’t see the first time.

AH: What advice would you give to young Filipina writers? I know when Sasha Pimentel came to the Literary Festival this year, she was very grateful to you as a mentor.

LI: To any young writers: take risks and try new things. Since you brought up Sasha’s example, it makes me think about community. For Filipino writers in this hemisphere, the forms of community involve making sure information is shared more broadly and helping each other out. When Sasha was here, she was grateful and so was I.

AH: In the past year, Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraserwon the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Prize judged by Mark Doty and The Saints of Streets won the 2014 Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award. What does it mean to you, as a Filipina poet, to have your work recognized across both cultures?

LI: I think that’s the ideal. We want to be read in more than one world. We want to be relevant in more than our tribal community. That’s wonderful– to have a voice heard in both worlds.

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Amanda Hyunh is a first-year poetry student in Old Dominion University’s MFA program.