Our poetry co-editor, Chris LaMay-West, recently had this exchange with Luisa A. Igloria, our Issue #16 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her development as a poet, her interest in myth and spirituality, and how growing up in the Philippines influenced her work.
Several of your poems (“Sea of Dreams” comes immediately to mind) seem to have explicit or implicit connections to myth and fable. Is this a major source of inspiration for you? What do you value in these forms that you hope comes out in your writing?
I’ve always loved myths, fables, legends, old tales. They were a staple among the childhood stories I was told, and among the books I avidly read as soon as I learned how. I also remember that as a grade schooler, I looked forward to a half hour radio program every evening at six called “Dagiti Sarsarita ni Uncle Pete” (“Uncle Pete’s Stories”), an Ilocano storytelling program which borrowed heavily as well from indigenous folklore. The attraction of such stories is perhaps best explained by scholars like Joseph Campbell, or Carl Gustav Jung, in their work with archetypal narratives and/or symbols as well as dreamwork and the unconscious–they explain how, worldwide, there are actually only a handful of core human narratives, and we respond powerfully to them because of what they reflect of our experiences in the life cycle.
There seems to be a diverse spirituality that shows up in your poems here, with Christian (“Morning, Aperture”, Magnificat”), Traditional Religions (“Huayruro”, “Netsuke”), Buddhist (“Netsuke”) and even Classical Greek (“Sea of Dreams”) imagery and language in various places. I wonder if you could talk a little about the role spirituality plays in your work?
I was born in the Philippines and lived there until I was 30. I was raised in a Catholic household, and the Philippines has the largest population of Catholics in southeast Asia. Under Spanish colonial rule of nearly 400 years, it is no wonder that Filipinos have inherited many traditions that are rooted in church doctrine and practice. But at the same time, perhaps owing to the archipelagic environment and the multiplicity of regional and indigenous ethnic groups, Filipino culture and traditions are also heavily steeped in folk animism. Most people do not experience the antithetical claims of one or the other religious tradition. Instead, many practices and beliefs are marked by a unique hybridity that to me shows the inherent resilience of the indigenous spirit. This kind of exposure to different perspectives is good for poetry–good for anyone making art or investing primarily in work of the imagination–because it encourages an openness and willingness to experience what is new, what is different, or even “other.” How else can we learn empathy? And poetry is all about using language to make sympathetic connections with others.
Many of these poems have a theme of traveling, either in time through memory, physically into the unknown, or both (“Morning, Aperture”, “Sea of Dreams”, “Magnificat” and “Manunggul Jar” all come to mind). Is this a theme you recognize in what you write? What about travel inspires you?
Travel exposes us to the new or to the never before encountered. But in doing so it also brings us powerfully back to ourselves. As T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
One thing I know about the Philippines is that there’s an incredible diversity of languages and cultures there. Do you think this cultural and linguistic diversity shows up in what (and how) you write?
I like to think so. And yes, there is an incredible diversity of languages and cultures in the Philippines. I probably learned first about the meaning of “multicultural” growing up in that context, before I encountered the term in north America. I like to think that, beneath the surface, I dream and imagine and compose in every language that I know and that I carry within me; and that even if I might mostly write in English, those currents somehow tinge the deeper textures, flavors, and sounds of my work.
Further in the area of influences, this is a question we almost always ask, but it’s because we’re always looking for new recommendations: What authors (or people creative in other media) influence or inspire you?
This is a difficult question because I love so many writers and artists. In general, I love those artists and writers who sound similar depths, so that what they’ve produced finds resonance in me; but I also love those who can show me that there are different ways of working and arriving at our similar goals. I like writers who are unafraid of being unconventional, who learn to use their marginality or difference to approach insights we might never have been able to arrive at were it not for the ways they have framed the questions or the stories. Currently, a list of influential or inspirational writers would include (but this is not an exhaustive list): Lorca, Neruda, Milosz, Mistral, Lispector; Estrella Alfon, Carlos Angeles, Cirilo Bautista, Rebecca Anonuevo, Eric Gamalinda, Claudia Rankine, Cecilia Woloch, J. Allyn Rosser, Edwidge Danticat, Ruth Ozeki… So many more, so difficult to list them all.
I have a feeling many of our readers are aspiring authors, so I have a question I think they might be interested in: As a faculty member and former director of the MFA program at Old Dominion, what are your thoughts about how an MFA can benefit a writer in their development, and how to get the most out of an MFA program?
As someone who did *not* initially cut my teeth in an academic writing/MFA program (I have a BA in Humanities, major in Comparative Literature, minor in English and cognate in Philosophy; an MA in Literature; and a PhD in English with a concentration in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Illinois in Chicago), in a way it feels liberating to know that there can be / is more than one pathway to writing (in the same way that I am grateful to have come from a perspective which showed me that there are many global traditions of writing and literature–something that I don’t think may be foregrounded as much in north American academic settings). As someone who has become part of the MFA Creative Writing environment, I realize that people bring a great variety of expectations to the time they commit themselves to, regardless of whether they enter a low residence or full studio program. It’s a great thing to have a writing community where one can feel supported and encouraged, and where everyone is passionate about similar goals. There is always so much to listen to and learn from within such a community. But also, I think that through it all, it is important to safeguard a sense of one’s own voice or sensibility; to listen to the gut, to remember what it is in the first place that makes us so excited about writing, about wanting to live a life of the imagination.
What about you as an aspiring author? When did you start writing poetry? Was there a sense from early on that you would be a poet, or did that come later?
I started writing at a very young age. My parents had taught me to read when I was three, and I quickly became a voracious reader. Perhaps the fact that I was raised as an only child and was introverted by disposition, contributed to this. We were not wealthy, but neither were we poor. My parents had early on harbored hopes that I might become either a concert pianist or a lawyer (my father was a lawyer). I had 13 years of music lessons (piano) and would have gone on to conservatory, but my English and Literature teachers in college sat me down and said they saw something in me and encouraged me to major in the Humanities. I wrote mostly bad poetry in grade school and high school. In college, I had great mentors who taught me about writerly restraint and encouraged me to read more widely so I could learn as much as I could about the craft I had fallen more in love with. I was 21 when I won my first major (national) literary award (in the Philippines)–first prize in the Palanca Awards for Literature, considered the equivalent of the Pulitzer there. It was such a shock, but after that came the recognition that one could actually devote a lifetime to learning more about poetry. It was also after this that I began more seriously to think about publication.
You’ve published 13 poetry collections and 1 chapbook. I was curious, when you write new poems, do you write them with a mind toward collecting them, or do write them individually and then bring them together?
I write at least one poem a day (a practice that has been ongoing for more than five years now). At the moment when I am writing, I am not necessarily working on a collection. I go back periodically to review what I’ve written, and revise constantly. Then things begin to suggest themselves, with each successive re-reading, as perhaps belonging together.
What are you currently working on creatively? And, for that matter, working on in life in general?
I have a new manuscript that I am sending around. I also have two new chapbooks that I am starting to send out. And I am working on revisions and structuring what feels like another manuscript. Life in general? –always busy! I’m a full-time academic, but also have a full-time domestic life (I’m married, have a 14 year old at home, and keep in touch regularly with my three older daughters, the eldest living in the Philippines). I like to read, cook, knit, draw, do occasional yoga and book-binding. I would like to travel more.