SPECIAL ISSUE: INTERVIEWS
Luisa A. Igloria
By Melissa R. Sipin & Bel Pobaldor
Originally from Baguio City in the Philippines, Luisa A. Igloria is a Professor of Creative Writing and English, and Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.
Various national and international literary awards include the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Prize selected by Mark Doty, for Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (Utah State University Press, to be released in early September); the 2009 Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize for Juan Luna's Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press); the 2007 49th Parallel Poetry Prize (selected by Carolyne Wright for the Bellingham Review); the 2007 James Hearst Poetry Prize (selected by former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser for the North American Review); Honorable Mention in the 2010 Potomac Review Poetry Contest; Finalist in the first Narrative Poetry Contest (2009); Finalist, the 2007 Indiana Review Poetry Prize; the 2006 National Writers Union Poetry Prize (selected by Adrienne Rich); the 2006 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize (Crab Orchard Review); the 2006 Stephen Dunn Award for Poetry; Finalist, the 2005 George Bogin Memorial Award for Poetry (Poetry Society of America); the 2004 Fugue Poetry Prize(selected by Ellen Bryant Voigt); Finalist, the 2003 Larry Levis Editors Prize for Poetry from The Missouri Review; Finalist, the 2003 Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press); the first Sylvia Clare Brown Fellowship, Ragdale Foundation (2007); a 2003 partial fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg; two Pushcart Prize nominations; a 1998 Fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Lasswade, the Midlothians, Scotland; and the 1998 George Kent Award for Poetry.
Luisa is an eleven-time recipient of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature in three genres (poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction) and its Hall of Fame distinction.
Reading The Saints of Streets was such an evocative experience for us. How does your poetics define "memory" and what is "erased"? What does anti-memory/anti-erasure mean to you?
Memory and erasure are, to me, related. But I do not think their relationship is defined by, or only by, polarity. That is to say, when I remember, I do not think I necessarily resurrect or restore what was previously absent from the foreground. There is more than just depth and surface. We know only too well that because memory is fragmentary by nature, constantly shifting, sometimes untrustworthy—it can also be an augmentation: it can embroider and embellish, widen, extend; but it can also strip away what she who remembers, might believe to be in excess. For me, erasure can simply be the refusal to see, or see at all; perhaps it is too painful to look? perhaps one is ashamed to acknowledge what is there? perhaps there are angers and hurts that still fester at that site? But their common sieve is a consciousness defined as much by the material conditions of experience, as it is by more abstract processes like reflection and thought. Writing (and rewriting) is therefore by nature an active attempt to embody moments that were first skewered as both physical and affective experience.
The landscape and language is afire in Juan Luna's Revolver. It's as if the language/landscape, wherever the Filipino body is positioned, is alit with inherited trauma, especially in America. How do we write through the dislocations, the fractured collective Filipino psyche? Concerning the demons that we inherit, especially our family's or our culture's: how to make them into art?
This question comes right on the heels of my teaching an Asian American Literature class, where Lynda Barry's One! Hundred! Demons! was used as one of our texts. Anyone who's read Lynda Barry will immediately recognize how such demons we inherit are the repressed, making their return in multiple disguises and forms. Our hungry ghosts are both personal, and those inherited from history. As for the question of how to write beyond the dislocations in order to make meaning and art: something in me instinctively turns toward the models presented by allegory. For instance, in many Filipino folk tales and classic poems, narratives often begin with a once idyllic state fallen into calamity or rupture: for instance, in the Sarimanok story, a great king is gravely ill; in "Florante at Laura," while states are at war, the prince is lashed to a tree in the forest, certain he will soon be gored to death by a beast. All these stories bear carefully coded motifs and emblems that instruct the hero/persona on strategies for surmounting the condition of destabilization, disenfranchisement, disease. They warn of requirements of great sacrifice and endurance, and the risks involved—the seeker might turn into stone, might never return home again. In Baguio, in the Cordillera region where I grew up, there are many tales of the lizard and how it has the capacity to renew itself—its tail, caught by a cleaver or in a too quickly closing door, might regenerate. I think about these things and how they instruct me in making my art: we write to replenish ourselves, to renew, to invent and reinvent, despite and against the odds.
We're compelled by the cultural mythmaking and pathos in your poetics, especially when it bleeds into your daily writing practice. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I've said more about this process here and there on my own website. But I'll also say here that the daily poem-writing discipline I've undertaken since November 20, 2010 (sometimes I write more than one poem a day) has become a sort of devotional practice for me; I use this phrase in the sense of how it has come to mean more than duty or obligation—I truly look forward to those moments in my very busy days, every day, when I can meet myself again in the cleared space of writing, making, remembering.
What's your advice in structuring a book?
After the poems are written, there is the complete understanding that they are still mine to gather into a manuscript or collection. And I do go back to think about revisions. But even AS poems are getting written, sometimes, it will feel as though they already belong to a book—do you know what I mean?—that's already waiting in the wings. So I try to remember those visceral feelings, and when it is time to work to put them together, I print out poems, I lay them out, I lay them side by side, I try to listen to them and what they are saying to me about how they should be situated in a book. I try to look for a shape, an arc: not solely of narrative, but also the lyrical underpinnings that correspond in my mind most closely to the way an argument might be formed. I already have another (new) book manuscript I am putting finishing touches on—poems I have been writing and working on since February this year.
How does a writer find her subject?
A writer may think s/he finds her subject, but a subject also often finds the writer. Because we are formed and shaped by histories and our milieu, the obsessions that we write about will be indications of the subjects that engage us, compel us, and demand from us the deepest forms of response. These recur. They inflect and inform our vocabularies, our catalogues of imagery and sound. In other words, for me, the question of "authenticity" has more to do with how deeply we live and write the underlying questions we bring to our poems, rather than merely on the conditions of our physical location or geography. At the same time, and for the same reason, I believe that it WILL show in the fabric and tenor of a writer's work, if the elements s/he addresses are mere co-optations of form or figure, if they are merely token, surface, or passing appropriations of "cultural information" that have not truly welded themselves to the psyche.
What's your attraction and relationship to form? Repetition? Evocation?
I like working in form because it gives me something immediate not only by way of structure, but also by way of a set of, shall we say, rules of engagement—for instance if you're writing a sonnet, you know that a turn or volta typically occurs in the 8th line; knowing such things gives me a way to anticipate development of material, so that it isn't just a completely amorphous mess in my head. I love how the ghazal gives you ample room to extend meditations on a theme while allowing you each instance provided by the rhyming couplet, as an exercise in focusing or honing in on a particular moment. And I also love the playfulness that comes with working in forms both received and created/invented: I feel like I have been shown into a room—it might be narrow, have very spare furniture, but in it I know I can do anything I want or can imagine.
How do we, as writers and political bodies, sift through the push-and-pull of community-based, familial honor or shame?
In the same way I spoke about my own notion/s of "authenticity" (see above), I believe that a writer's truths will always come through, no matter what. This is why to me, writing is more than just about putting down words, language, on paper or on some medium that documents it. Writing is a kind of soul-work, and it is difficult. It does and will involve others. And this is how we know we are not only talking to or writing for ourselves. We invoke or address an other, others, every time we enter the space of writing. The sooner we embrace that notion, the more quickly we can get to what we want to do.
Last but not least, can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming books, Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser, which won the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Award, and Night Willow? As a prolific writer, what was your process of solidifying your voice? Any advice for emerging writers who are still finding their voice?
I feel rich beyond measure for the blessing of two new poetry books released in the same year, just months after each other.
I think the poems in Night Willow are more intensely lyrical than others I've written before. Perhaps this is because they are all prose poems, and my formal compass and rudder in writing them had less reliance on lineation and more to do with a heightened attentiveness to how the varieties of sound, textural and tonal shading in each poem might be harnessed to the poem's intentions.
I'm not always sure what to say about my own books, because I don't want to predetermine reader responses in any one particular way... But I feel I can say of Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser—that this may be one of the books I've written that (to me at least) comes really close to the idea of poetry as lyrical vehicle for living the questions I ask myself on a daily basis.
As for finding one's voice: I believe every writer already carries a voice. It's not like we can just go shopping for it, like, say, at a writing program, or in a year trekking around India or the Philippines or Tibet. But our job is to hone our attentiveness, our ability to focus and clarify what that voice sounds like as we move through the layers of life; our job is to remain open, to grow, to remain excited and curious while retaining humility and heart; to be open and vulnerable to both risk and pain, disappointment and reward.
Above photo provided by author's website