The Page Transformed: Luisa Igloria on Ekphrasis in JUAN LUNA’S REVOLVER

Juan Luna's "Spolarium"
Juan Luna's "Spoliarium"

As part of our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Luisa Igloria (who was featured in our November 2009 interview) very graciously agreed to answer some questions about the role that ekphrasis plays in her most recent book, the Ernest Sandeen Prizewinning Juan Luna’s Revolver [UND Press 2009].


LR: In what ways did visual art inform your process in developing Juan Luna as a project?

LI: Visual art provided both a means to stimulate individual poems, as well as provide points of thematic unity between the different parts of the book.  I looked at photographs, old lithographic representations, postcards, and more.  Juan Luna’s Revolver could not have evolved without calling to poems that make some reference to art — after all, Juan Luna was a painter, one of several Filipino artists and intellectuals who left the Philippine colony for Spain and other European destinations in the mid to late 1800s to study and to travel. Juan Luna was perhaps most famous for his mural “Spoliarium” which depicted two defeated gladiators being dragged into a chamber where they would be stripped of their armor and prepared for burning. The painting won one of two gold medals at a Barcelona exposition and took the art world there by surprise.  In truth, however, I came to the Juan Luna poems in the book more gradually — the book perhaps really began with my long-standing fascination with stories about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, and how 1100+ indigenous Filipinos were transported to serve as live exhibits there (many of them were taken from the northern Cordillera region in the Philippines, which is where I grew up). I’d done considerable research on this and looked at archival material, and it became clearer to me as the poems came that one of the central themes in this project was colonial spectatorship. Fair-goers at St. Louis in 1904 came to see the Philippine reservation and its half-clothed savages, and protested that they had paid to see “the authentic native” when well-meaning persons out of concern for their health, wondered if they should be given warm clothing to wear. While traveling in Europe, Juan Luna and his contemporaries were similarly gawked at. But through the powerful art and literature they produced (Juan Luna’s compatriot Jose Rizal wrote the two novels that further inflamed a grassroots-led revolution which finally overthrew the Spanish colonial regime) they had found a way to return the gaze of the Other.

LR: What influenced your decisions in terms of where and how to place ekphrastic poems like “Letras y Figuras,” “Dolorosa,” and “Mrs. Wilkin Teaches an Igorot the Cakewalk” within the text of Juan Luna?  How do you envision their particular contributions to the arc and the rhythm of the text?

LI: When I’m beginning to work on the structure of a book, I also like being led by the tonal and emotional congruencies between parts. I try to see what kinds of “music” might be made by the decision to set one poem next to another, one section next to another. I don’t necessarily think a chronological approach is always the best one. And, I much prefer trying to set up relationships across poems so that it might be possible for an image or motif to jettison the reader back or toward another moment, in another poem…   For example, even if the 1904 / World’s Fair poems form the last section, I hope it eventually becomes clear to readers that I’ve been trying to talk about the implications of looking at something or someone, or being held in close scrutiny, really from the very outset (such as in a very early poem in the book like “Intimacy deserves a closer look” ).

LR: In the poem “Ekphrasis,” you write of the viewing of sculpture as a process of critical reading: “the bridle that is history’s wants it to stay / its previous course — At least that’s how // it might be read” (55).  In what ways can the exercise of “seeing” and subsequently interpreting a physical object of beauty prove useful to poets in our own crafting of imagery and perspective on the page?

LI: Poets frequently “see” and “interpret” — that is, find ways to move from a physically sensuous validation of the world (“seeing” is part of that) to finding in language the means, the shape, the form in which to express it. “Seeing” has never  equated to a “neutral” activity to me. Even when I’m people-watching, I quickly realize I’m making up stories, wondering about the hidden narratives: who’s that old couple in the parking lot? where are they going, what are they thinking, who will they meet? what did they have for breakfast? When the imagination exerts an influence on what’s given, we make art. That’s one of the things that still continually amazes and humbles me – that on the one hand historical reports might say of events in the past, “these things are over, they’re done” — but that on the other hand, poetry can say, let’s look at it again; and what if?  So yes there is critical reading, but there is also a sense that meaning can be remade or that a closed door is not necessarily what we think it is.  We might think we know everything there is to know about something. But poetry always reminds us of the mystery that remains.

To read more about Luisa Igloria and her work, please visit her web site and blogJuan Luna’s Revolver is available for purchase from the University of Notre Dame Press.

Staff Picks: Holiday Reading Recommendations

Whether you’ll be traveling or relaxing at home during the upcoming holidays, it’s a great time to polish off an old reading list or to start in on something new.  As our gift to you this season, and to help you get started on your own holiday reading list, we’ve asked members of the LR Staff to recommend some of their recent favorites.  Here are our suggestions.


Asylum | Quan Barry | University of Pittsburgh Press (2001)

Recommended by Mia: “My holiday reading pick . . . it’s her first collection.  Her engagement with the voices and subjects of the Vietnam War is beautifully executed, and though the scope of her work is much broader, I was most riveted by her ‘war’ poems.”

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Behind My Eyes |
Li-Young Lee | W.W. Norton & Company (2008)

Recommended by Iris: “This is Lee’s most recent collection — and it is stunning, as always.  Figurations of the Virgin Mary intertwine with moving landscapes, conversations between the poet and his wife, the transitory spaces of travel, a chance vision of the poet’s father; all hang in a delicate, almost sacred, lumen, suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.  Each poem breathes with an expansiveness and a grave tenderness that only Lee knows how to render. Behind My Eyes is sold with a CD of the poet reading some the poems in the book, and I highly recommend listening to this, as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Lee read from his drafts for this book a few years before it came out, and loved the way that the intonation of his voice seamed through the lines of each poem, threading them together in a low, sonorous hum.  It’s a beautiful listening experience, and adds a new and lovely textural dimension to his already melodious poetics.”

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Call Me Ishmael Tonight |
Agha Shahid Ali | W.W. Norton & Company (2003)

Recommended by Supriya: “This collection of ghazals shows the versatile ways in which a poetic form can go beyond its history and language while staying true to its essence. Agha Shahid Ali demonstrates the intentionality with which he overcomes expectations and boundaries by using a traditional form that often evokes feelings of longing and melancholia but writing in a contemporary English that feels timeless. Although written entirely in form, the range and depth of this collection allows for a vast expanse of emotions and possibilities and is the perfect collection with which to curl up whatever your mood.”

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A Gesture Life |
Chang-rae Lee | Penguin USA (2000)

Recommended by Ada: “Told from the point of view of Dr. Hata, a Japanese WWII veteran, this fictional memoir weaves between his experiences in a crumbling outpost of a Japanese imperial outpost in the last days of the war and his later life in gated, suburban America. The protagonist in Lee’s second novel is so reasonable it’s eerie, and though I think that we are meant to feel sorry for Dr. Hata and the stiffly respectable, appropriately understated life he has bound himself into, the distance that separates him from all the other characters in this book translates into distance from the reader. Not that the whole book left me cold: the scenes describing Dr. Hata’s encounters with Korean comfort women during the war are eye-opening, gripping, and an interesting perspective on the terrors of war.”

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A Conversation with Luisa Igloria

Luisa A. Igloria and two of her most recent books
Luisa A. Igloria and two of her most recent books

LUISA A. IGLORIA is the author of Juan Luna’s Revolver, recipient of the 2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize (University of Notre Dame, 2009 ); Trill & Mordent, recipient of the 2006 Global Filipino Award for Poetry (WordTech Editions, 2005); and 8 other books. Luisa has degrees from the University of the Philippines (B.A.), Ateneo de Manila University (M.A.), and the University of Illinois at Chicago (Ph.D.), where she was a Fulbright Fellow from 1992-1995. Other awards include Finalist in the 2009 Narrative Poetry Contest, the 2007 49th Parallel Prize from Bellingham Review, the 2007 James Hearst Poetry Prize (North American Review), the 2006 National Writers Union Poetry Prize, the 2006 Stephen Dunn Award for Poetry; and 11 Palanca Awards and the Palanca Hall of Fame Distinction in the Philippines. Originally from Baguio City, she lives in Norfolk, Virginia and is an associate professor on the faculty of Old Dominion University, where she directs the MFA Creative Writing Program. She keeps her radar tuned for cool lizard sightings. Visit her online at her web site or at her blog The Lizard Meanders.

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LR: When did you first decide that you wanted to become a writer, or have you always known?

LI: I’ve always had a love for words, perhaps because my parents taught me to read early ( by age 3 ). I was also raised as an only child by parents who were twenty years apart in age (my dad was 20 years older than my mom)—perhaps this had some bearing on the way I was raised, perhaps not; in any case I remember that they took me with them a lot when they went out or to other friends’ homes to socialize, and would invariably bring a book or two for me so I could occupy myself safely in a corner and not be bored. They loved going to art events, concerts, the movies—we weren’t wealthy but my father would sometimes be able to get complimentary tickets because of work connections, and he would always be sure to include me. They took me to see a group from the Bolshoi ballet with Dame Margot Fonteyn dancing excerpts from “Swan Lake” when I was a second grader and let me stay up past bedtime to do so; but they were also just as excited by musicals like “Showboat” and in fact took me out of school early so we could watch the first run. I always knew that whatever it was I wanted to do, it would involve the work of the imagination. They’d wanted me to be a concert pianist (in fact, I’m named after a Filipina pianist popular back in their day), or a lawyer, like my father.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Luisa Igloria”