“Where we live” by Luisa Igloria
Poet Laureate of Virginia, 2020–2022
It's good to think about how the U.S. Poet Laureate position was formalized through an act of Congress. In Virginia it was established in 1936 and codified in 1998. This seems to send the message that poetry is recognized as important to civic and social well-being. I believe this, because poetry and the arts, like community, have human empathy at their cornerstone. We first need to imagine to create conditions for freedom and possibility (and therefore change) in our lives. The language of poetry taps into places that are difficult to express otherwise—those where we experience our very human fears, rage, doubt, pain, but also joy, love, hope.
As a woman and immigrant, I think it’s significant that I’m now one of (to date) four poets laureate of color in the state. I see it as an indicator of important changes starting to manifest more forcefully in this country, having to do with the ongoing re-evaluation of history and the place that marginalized communities have been accorded in it.
When I was appointed the 20th Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth in July 2020, it seemed to carry additional significance, considering our shared experiences during this time—including but not limited to the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the increased violence directed against Asian Americans. Because of all this, I was pleased to be 1 of 23 poets nationwide to receive a 2021 Poet Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, with the mandate to create a year-long program of public poetry projects. And so, while I may not have been specifically required to write poems to fulfill poet laureate duties, I tried to create opportunities to highlight poetry’s importance in our lives as citizens and members of a community.
For Thanksgiving 2020, The New York Times asked state poets laureate to send in a statement about what communities in our states were grateful for. I chose to write a short poem about the taking down of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, and how the site, covered in graffiti since the death of George Floyd, is now being considered one of the “the most influential work[s] of American protest art since World War II” (The Richmond News). The day after, I received an email from an angry reader who described herself as a proud descendant of families who’d owned slaves but taught them to read and write; she said something about how I don’t know anything, because I’m not really from the South. I got another email, thanking me for writing the poem; this was from someone in the Dilenschneider Group, which I learned had established the Civility in America Lecture Series—a forum for thinkers from a variety of professions to give “perspectives on what must be done to restore civility in our Country."
I did get a few commissioned works—A long poem responding to Maya Lin’s “A Study of Water” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, which I got to record and which visitors to the gallery could listen to while looking at Maya’s pieces; and to curate a community program where other writers, musicians, scientists, and artists came together to share their own responses.
In summer 2022, I had the opportunity to talk with the Hampton Roads Community Foundation through its then Vice President for Communications Cherise M. Newsome and her team, in order to write a poem reflecting on life and history in our Hampton Roads communities. The poem, “Where we live” appears below.
Then, on May 28, 2022, “We, Seafarers,” a poem I was invited to write, was read at the Unveiling and Dedication of the Virginia Historical Marker Honoring Filipino Sailors at the Philippine Cultural Center, Virginia Beach.
I’m proud of the poems that came out of these engagements, because they signify how poems are truly able to reach people in forms and venues beyond their “literary” occurrence.
I’ve found these experiences to be quite powerful; they inform me that yes, poetry is alive and well; it has an audience, and it can and does live in all the spaces where we live, flounder, and flourish. Whether or not I’m Poet Laureate any longer, I continue to write poems every day as I have for the last 12+ years because I’ve realized that poetry is my preferred way of thinking through and feeling through, “processing,” what the world brings to my door.
Where we live
is here, inside of
History— By which we mean
the soil and salt-laden air,
ridges and hills;
tunnels and bridges,
shipping channels, harbors,
teeming with wildlife:
cormorant and tern, osprey,
oysters, crabs. Before
who were— before us—
here? What names did they bear?
Algonquian, Chesepian, Piscataway,
Kecoughtan … And who
remembers a world before
the famine time, before street
names, before paved
curves of interstates? Yellow
fever and Spanish flu; a quarantine
house at Lambert’s point nearest
“the anchorage between…
black buoys numbered 5 and 7.”
History, your brittle shards speckle
our shores and ports like oyster shells.
You are what we mean
when we remember commerce
of bodies brought over the water:
bound, weighed, marked, sold
exchanged for other
goods, enslaved. Their first
landing here: irony of a port called
Comfort. Each plague of fortune-
seekers ready to measure
and claim, plot, make war
or whatever it might take to fill
the scales. When one dreams of grace
or fortune now, how could it
only be for oneself? Where you live,
who came before you and twisted
cotton out of the ripened boll,
cropped it into bags
while trying not to cut their hands
on bristled stalks? Who fled from
some war abroad with one suitcase
in hand, and some wild hope
for a different life? Sometimes
in the evening, you’ll hear a different
hush inside the air: the sea’s
old voice? the ancestors
sending up a collective sigh
from out of marked or unmarked
graves? our bodies that swell the streets,
marching to the anger and ache
from so much death, saying no
more, no more, no more? A sound
that’s one long braid: echo of footfalls
and battle cries, ironclads
testing wooden vessels; a cannon-
bell that hurtled across burning
roofs to lodge in a wall on the side
of a church. Long-legged
waders step carefully through water,
almost as if they too can’t breathe.
And the swamp winds itself a sheet
of tempered iron, a mourning veil.
Nothing is new, or everything’s
new— but only because it’s come
from something that preceded it:
fireworks explode in July
over a landfill, mountain
fashioned from pressed layers
of waste and good, old-fashioned
soil. Summertime fills
estuaries with jet-skiers,