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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Q&A: Luisa Igloria Reflects on Tenure as Virginia’s 20th Poet Laureate

By Jonah Grinkewitz

This June, Old Dominion University's Luisa Igloria will finish her two-year term as poet laureate for Virginia.

The Louis I. Jaffe Professor of Creative Writing and English was appointed as the state's 20th poet laureate by former Governor Ralph Northam in July 2020.

Igloria is the author of 14 books of poetry and four chapbooks. For more than 11 years, she has written a poem every day.

In May, she was named 2022 Newsmaker of the Year by Virginia Professional Communicators.

ODU News recently took a coffee break with Igloria to reflect on her time as poet laureate and discuss the importance of poetry as means of self-expression.

ODU News: We're meeting in Café Stella, a popular spot for artists in Hampton Roads where you often come to write. How important is it for artists to have a space for creativity?

Luisa Igloria: Oh, it's very important. Any artist, not just a writer, needs what I call "dreaming time" to think about their art without too many interruptions from the outside world. It can be difficult because we all have different hats that we wear. I'm also a mom, a wife and a full-time faculty member.

ODU News: As your two-year term ends, what were your favorite moments from your time as poet laureate?

Luisa Igloria: Working with young poets across the state, even when it was just a virtual visit. I love working with young writers because they aren't as formal. They can ask you things like, "What did you have for breakfast?" or "What's your favorite movie?"

ODU News: After Tim Seibles (former ODU English and MFA creative writing professor), Rita Dove and Sofia Starnes, you are the fourth person of color appointed to this position. How did your experience as an immigrant (she's originally from Baguio City in the Philippines) and a woman of color inform your time as poet laureate?

Luisa Igloria: They inform practically everything that I turn my attention to because I mean, I live in this body, right? I come with this history, this background and all the contexts. When I was sworn in as poet laureate, one of the first things I did was explore not only who the past poet laureates were, but also who the Virginia poets are. One place I checked was Wikipedia, and to no surprise, many of them were white males. This in part led to my decision to start the Virginia Poets Database which exists through ODU's Digital Commons platform. There is a need for better representation of the actual diversity of poets on the ground in the state.

ODU News: In April 2021, you were one of 23 poet laureates nationwide to receive a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. Can you tell me about the projects you started with this fellowship?

Luisa Igloria: When I submitted my proposal to them, I designed it around three cornerstone projects: The Virginia Young Poets in the Community, the Virginia Poets Database and a series of workshops, readings and poetry conversations (most of the latter were presented with the help of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk). For the Virginia Young Poets, we asked young poets across the state to submit not only examples of their best work, but also to submit their own proposals for how to bring poetry into more of a public setting. I like that they are feeling a sense of agency in the things they have proposed. I think the academy's mission, through the fellowships, is also partly to foreground poetry as a democratic way of sharing things that are important to us as human beings.

ODU News: In addition to being a poet, you're a creative writing and English professor. How do you approach your role as a teacher and mentor for aspiring poets?

Luisa Igloria: I always see a great hunger for learning to do more with language as a means of expression. In my writing classes, I would like my students to keep experiencing curiosity, the kind that may lead to more useful discoveries for them. Part of feeding that hunger, of course, is exposing them to different kinds of reading. As I keep saying, you can't be a writer unless you're a reader.

ODU News: You recently wrote a series of poems in conjunction with "Maya Lin: A Study of Water," a new exhibition at Virginia MOCA. What was your reaction when you were asked to do this?

Luisa Igloria: That was truly amazing. She has been my one of my art "s/heros" ever since she won the award to do the Vietnam Memorial. She has just been this wonderful and deeply thoughtful spirit in the arts and the exhibition is truly physically and spiritually inspiring.

ODU News: One of your poems was included in a time capsule placed at the former location of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond. How did it feel to have your work included in these artifacts?

Luisa Igloria: I feel very privileged and honored. To be part of something as historic as that, and to know that someone like me has something that I made that represents me and other people like me, in a vessel holding artifacts representative of this time that we're going through ... it gave me goosebumps.

ODU News: What do you think the role of the Virginia poet laureate is?

Luisa Igloria: I think it's basically to connect with people around the idea of poetry as a place to articulate and share experiences in language we might otherwise have difficulty finding words for. Like music, poetry gets to the places where we feel most human and vulnerable. I think that's what the arts do, and the language of poetry makes us pay closer attention: it's a language that is more interested in showing than masking.


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