Special Feature: Altars of Writers & Artists: Luisa A. Igloria

IR: How did you begin the practice of creating an altar or spiritual space in your home? What does the process of tending to the space entail for you?

LI: There were at least a couple of altars in my childhood home. One was on a floating ledge above the dining table where a resin statue of the Santo Niño de Praga or the Infant Jesus of Prague was set between two votive candles. It wore a distinctive red robe with gold filigree, and a gold crown. The right hand was raised in the gesture for blessing, and the left held a golden orb and cross. When the bells (or the sirens) sounded out across the city for the Angelus at 6:00 PM, we stood under that altar to say three Hail Marys. There were folk stories told about how even without a clock or alarm, we would know it was time for vespers or the Angelus, because house lizards would drop from the ceiling or rafters to kiss the floor.  After the Angelus, children were supposed to lift the back of the right hands of their parents and touch it to their foreheads as a sign of respect and request for blessing. 

            The other altar was in the bedroom of my parents— where I also slept (on a cot bed along one wall) when some house renovations were being made, as well as when we had guests for whom I had to give up my bedroom. This altar was a recessed alcove between two built-in cabinets—one for my father’s clothes, and the other for my mother’s wardrobe. Below this altar space was a small built-in shoe cabinet, taken up mostly by my mother’s pumps and sandals. Two plaster statues were ensconced there: a seated Sacred Heart of Jesus, left hand with visible stigmata pointing to his heart encircled with thorns and radiant light, and crowned with flames and a cross. The other was a blue-robed, tonsured statue of Saint Vincent de Paul. Its left hand at some point had cracked and broken off; my parents found someone to carve a wooden replacement for the missing part; it was never painted or finished, and did not match the rest of the statue. My father had fallen into the habit of placing objects he’d taken out of his pocket at the end of the day, on the left side of the alcove: receipts and bills, house keys, packs of Salem menthol lights (when he still smoked), his comb and watch, alongside his rosary and the laminated novena to Saint Pancratius which he faithfully prayed every morning before going to work. My mother would also put my report cards and drawings made in school, there.

         When my husband and I bought the house we currently live in (our first), I was immediately drawn to the space on the second floor with an angled loft-type ceiling, with a window looking north. I knew I wanted my writing desk there. I wasn’t aware that I was gradually creating an “altar space” out of a low table which I placed off to one side of the writing desk, beside a shelf with some plants, books, journal notebooks, and art supplies. 

         On it, I have placed a small medallion hanging that depicts the Annunciation (Mary and the angel), a verbena-scented candle, and a small driftwood birdhouse. There’s a box of dark wood with a hand-carved lizard on its lid; it is an indigenous design from the northern cordillera region where I am from, in the Philippines. There are sea shells I’ve picked up from the beach, an “Emerging Girl” hand-fired pottery piece from Hawai’i; a honeycomb beeswax taper from the Meteora monastery, and a Tibetan singing bowl (the last two were gifts). The other objects I’ve placed there also were gifts from friends or students throughout the years: there is a lizard from Bali of carved pale wood, a small cast iron one, a copper wire one from South Africa, and another small one made from volcanic rock. 

        I once had a deep, waking dream in which a lizard made an appearance before running across my forearm and vanishing in a flash of brilliant blue and silver; it felt absolutely totemic in significance. In any case, there are  some folk stories in the cordillera region where the lizard is a trickster figure, a master of survival. I’ve always liked that it has the capacity for regenerating a body part that has been severed. After telling friends and family about the dream, now they keep finding and giving me lizard trinkets. 

IR: How does this altar or spiritual space interact with your creativity? How do you see it relating to your writing or art?

       I like the medley of shapes and textures of each object on this table. I “tend” this creative altar or space very lightly — now and then I’ll dust the surface and each object. Sometimes I play a little with the singing bowl, trying to coax a ring of uninterrupted sound out of it. Sometimes I light the scented candle. To me it’s a little island where my eye can come to rest (maybe in between reading and writing or grading student papers). Mostly, I like that it’s there, with this perhaps odd collection of objects that reminds me too of the altar spaces in my childhood home and how they spoke to me of the sacred and the secular, the mysterious or unknown and the domestic— and how they are impossible to compartmentalize or separate from each other, in art as well as in life.   

Luisa A. Igloria is the author of Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Co-Winner, 2019 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Prize), The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (2018), 12 other books, and 4 chapbooks. Originally from Baguio City, she makes her home in Norfolk VA where she teaches in Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program; and at The Muse Writers Center. In July 2020, she was appointed Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Academy of American Poets awarded her a 2021 Poet Laureate Fellowship in April 2021. http://www.luisaigloria.com/

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