Ada Limón is a poet and author of Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World (both debuted in 2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, The Carrying, is the winner of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She’s been published in journals such as The New Yorker, Pleiades: Literature in Context, Harvard Review, and many others. She serves on the faculty of the Queens University of Charlotte low residency MFA program and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Jordan Nakamura: Congratulations on your book! You have a distinct style that you’ve been able to retain and hone over several books now. I’m wondering what your relationship is with voice and style. Do you ever try to deviate and depart from a poem that sounds like you? Is style something you stay anchored to intentionally?
Ada Limón: I do think I have a distinct style and that’s primarily due to the fact that I read all my poems out loud in order to make them so that I let my body’s internal rhythm take over and guide the poem’s form and structure. In that sense, the poems come from my body. They come from my body and they come from the way I hear the universe, as Robert Hass says, “the faint music under things.” I do try to change my style and the way I enter a poem each time, but the music of my world is loud and what I hear is unique to me and often takes over, even if I’m trying to get out of myself.
JN: This collection has been described as some of your most personal work. It’s almost like there’s a greater freedom to be more articulate to explore your own life and identity. Could you talk about how you enter into the kind of honesty that characterizes the book?
While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.
AL: This is my most personal book. It deals with my infertility and the questions of whether or not to have a child. But I think [that] my leaning in to that material of personal history, I am also interrogating my own purpose, my own purpose as a woman, as an artist. And so I think the honesty enters a place what I hope it reaches outward, beyond the self and into something more universally relevant. I write about my life because life moves through me, and I am so lucky it does. But I am also interested in what it means to pay deep attention to the world around you and love the messy world by giving it your gaze.
JN: You’ve written about the ways poetry kind of unlocks a sense of freedom in you, and I feel like this can transfer to your readers. Monica Youn talks about how readers will come up to her after readings of her book Blackacre, which partially deals with her experience with miscarriage, and say how they felt their own miscarriages were supposed to be a secret, but Youn’s work made them rethink that kind of shame-based silence. How has your work connected you to others? Is there anything that has surprised you?
AL: I am surprised by how many women talk to me about their own experience with infertility or fertility treatments or their own complex emotions about wishing not to become a mother. I was surprised that no one talked about infertility in a way that didn’t end with a child. If women talked about it, it was to say they had gone through it and then succeeded in getting pregnant. Very rarely was the other story told; the one that says, I went through that and now I am child-free. I hear from women almost daily how important it is to hear that narrative in a way that’s positive. I am also surprised by how many people needed this book. I wrote it because I needed it, but it feels huge to me to know others needed it too.
JN: You have a series of beautiful epistolary poems written to another wonderful poet, Natalie Diaz. You’ve said that it’s important to make poems that aren’t just for other poets, yet I think you’ve managed to write poems to a poet that also aren’t poems-just-for-other-poets. One thing I’m struck by is how relational your practice is, and kind of aiming for a widening of the fold of community. What is your community like?
AL: Thank you for this. I think of poetry as being something in a larger community, not just the academic world or the literary world, but poetry that takes places in community centers and bars. And that’s the poetry I fell in love with as a child, so part of me has always wanted it to go beyond the preciousness that it can so often be relegated to. My community is wide and ranging. Full of poets, of course, like the dear Natalie I write to. But it’s also full of people who don’t generally go to poetry readings, but might find one they like here or there. My husband works in the horse industry and many of our friends do as well. While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.
All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things?
JN: There are a number of poems in your work that feel like compelling ars poetica. I’m thinking of “The Last Thing” and “Mastering” among many others.
AL: On some level, many of my poems are ars poetica, because I am so aware that I have been saved by language. It’s not always on purpose, but I do see a gratitude take place in the poems at times where I am honoring the gift of this time, this work.
JN: How have you dealt with times when you didn’t have a literary community?
AL: My community is scattered all over the country, so I do what I must to stay in touch. I send poems to friends and family. I read the poems they write or send. I write emails and texts and call; I make sure that I am reaching out when I think of someone. That way, if I’m not immediately surrounded by an active community, I am making my own.
JN: In your poem “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” the speaker is dealing with the issue of when institutions try to manipulate brown people to perform signals of authentic diversity for the benefit of that institution’s image.
I had two questions about this. One is about language: what is your relationship to bilinguality (or maybe more accurately, the expectation of it) in your life and work? I personally don’t know Japanese well and frequently feel a great sense of loss and try to recover meager hints of it in my work, but I sometimes enter what feels like a fraught landscape of false authenticity, unintentional performing, specters of “self-exotification,” etc. Do you experience similar thoughts and if so, how do you navigate that?
The other question has to do with assimilation. The poem has that line, “Don’t read the one where you are just like us.” I was reminded of James Baldwin saying, “One of things the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else.” Perhaps paradoxically, similarity can become threatening rather than placating to whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. Maybe this has to do with the gaze of those things, but how do you approach resistance to that or find freedom from that?
AL: Thank you for this question. First, I speak a little Spanish and can understand a little, but not much. I was not raised in a Spanish-speaking household. However, because of my name, of how I look, there’s often an assumption that I am fluent. The thing I’ve had to do the most work around is the guilt of that. I am who I am. I was raised in Northern California and my culture is a Northern California culture. But that doesn’t mean I’m not also of Mexican heritage. What I’m interested in is, why is it that we must be one thing? Why can’t we be many things? Part of the reason I think we don’t allow that of ourselves, [that] people don’t allow it of us, is that it becomes more complicated. Complication is harder to define. Complication is more human. And this, of course, points to your second question. All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things? That to me offers a freedom, a freedom no one else can give or take away, but that I can manifest all on my own. It’s necessary. It’s the place where I most want to create.
JN: You mentioned that you consider Alberto Rios’s superb “Rabbits in Fire” to be a “perfect” poem. The concept of perfection will always be contested, but I kind of love when writers thoughtfully bestow that term on work, as you’ve done. Do you have other poems you consider perfect?
AL: Oh, the word “perfect.” What do we mean by it? It seems to be an unfair word for art. What can be perfect? A perfect circle perhaps? I suppose I mean that if I call a poem perfect, I am calling it complete: I am calling it whole and I am saying I am wrung out by it, lifted by it, that each line works toward a music that’s all it’s own. That afterward, I am a part of it and it is a part of me. I actually have many poems that move me that way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Denis Johnson’s “Sway,” so many poems by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks. I think Natalie Diaz’s poem “Desire Field” is perfect. Oh, so many loved poems.
JN: So many including myself are uniquely moved by the experience of your readings. It’s so generous, smooth, and well-thought-out: from occasionally telling the audience how many you’ll read to the ordering of the poems for a kind of journey in dynamic tone. And your actual oration of the work is clearly a practiced art. I think you’ve said before that you do a lot of work to create line breaks that help the ear receive the clarity of the poem, but you’ve also written that you try not to think about readership. In any case, what goes into your preparation of readings and of voicing your work in the air?
AL: That means a lot to me, thank you. The truth is, I am lucky that I have a degree in theater, so studying the art of oration and the performance of a monologue was key to my understanding of how to connect with an audience. The poet who writes the poem isn’t always thinking of audience or readers. Perhaps the poem is a quiet, internal lyric that is only meant to be heard by the space between things. All of that is fine and wonderful, but then when you read the poem, the other person, the performer shows up. She must do the work of bringing that poem to life for a reader. I’m not interested in performing as show, but I am interested in how I might help a listener to hear and receive the poem. How we might be connected together in that fleeting moment. The poetry reading is a very sacred thing to me. It is a chance to offer something not only to the audience, but to honor the poems themselves.
JN: I read you do live readings quite frequently. Is that still true, and how often do you do them?
AL: I give about three to four readings a month during the busy season. Sometimes more.
JN: Wow. What’s it like for you to be traveling so often? I’m curious about the mobile life of artists and how they nurture relationships across busy schedules and distances. Robin Coste Lewis points out how, for most of human history, the migratory existence has been the norm. How do you conceive of the idea of home? (I’m thinking of your poem “Against Belonging” and how the speaker tends to shake off citizenship.)
I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years.
AL: I travel about half of each month, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a lot and it’s hard, but if my health is good, then I enjoy it. If I’m sick or if I’m in pain, it’s harder. I think now of my home as Kentucky mainly. My husband and I own a home there. I think wherever he is and wherever my dog is, that’s my home. But also Sonoma, California, is my home as well. But yes, my home is where my man is, where my dog is, for sure. A simple definition, but true.
JN: What are some non-writing related passions or hobbies of yours that sustain you?
AL: I love to read. I read lots of novels as well as poetry. I love to cook and garden and exercise and have cocktails and talk. I love good conversations. They sustain me through long periods of silence.
JN: Lots of writers get asked about writing habits, but often less frequently about their reading habits. What does your reading life look like?
AL: I read a lot of poetry books, and I listen to books on audible a great deal while I’m traveling. It helps me stay engaged and centered. But yes, I’d say I’m reading pretty much constantly.
JN: How has teaching in your low-res program been? Have you noticed any good changes in creative writing education? And how do you think it can be done better?
AL: Ha! That’s a pretty giant question with a long answer. I think I’ll just say that I adore my low-res program. I love working with students and reading their gorgeous poems.
JN: You’ve had some really great mentors when you were in creative writing school, and I’m sure you’ve been a mentor to many students now. What are your guiding principles for mentoring. and what do you remember fondly from past mentorships?
AL: I will be honest that I’m not sure if I had mentors as much as I had teachers. When I was in graduate school, there wasn’t really access to your professors like there is now. Sure, you could go to office hours, but you certainly weren’t going to have an email relationship. They were wonderful teachers, but they knew how to set boundaries, and I think there was something beautiful in that. I think I had friendships instead of mentors really. And for those friendships, I am deeply grateful.
JN: So much of this book has to do with working through the pressures and aggressions of expectation, namely social pressures placed on women. It’s moving to see how your poems insist on fuller expressions of womanhood outside of motherhood or marriage. I think, for example, of Mary Oliver’s resistance to similar expectations of her as a woman, a lesbian, an artist who had no children, who remained steadfast in her chosen life and style of writing. How did you find, or how do you continually look for your own compass that at times leads away from these expectations?
AL: Again, I think I look to my friendships for guidance. I look to how I see these fabulous women moving in the world child-free and making art, and I am reaffirmed every day in my own body and in my own choices.
JN: You reference landscape and animals often in your work. Hopefully more of us have begun to think very deeply about the land and life on earth as endangered. Masao Miyoshi wrote that he believes the humanities having a united effort for eco-justice is the only hope for their relevance in education, and this seems to be something you are a part of. You mention Robin Wall Kimmerer in The Carrying and your love for being surrounded by green. Do you have a conscious focus on some sort of ecological poetic gesture?
AL: I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years. But I am also very aware that in order to practice presence I can’t become a nihilistic person. I have to believe that showing love and gratitude to this earth now is a worthy endeavor, if only as a way of saying goodbye.
JN: Father Greg Boyle often says something to the effect that “we should be in awe of what the poor carry.” You likewise spend a lot of time in awe of how people carry suffering, grief, pain, just moving through the weight of life. Do you think your writing has helped you maintain awe—which I think is a kind of gesture that is against judgment or jadedness—or was it always there? In other words, what’s your relationship with awe and retaining it throughout the years?
AL: I am in awe all the time. I cannot believe what humans can do, will do, how we have the capacity for so much pain and so much love all at once. I am in awe at our natural world and how it gives back to us, how it seems to love us despite what we’ve done. I’m flying home now to see my grandfather before he passes away, and I am in awe of the human body, the way it holds so much. I sometimes have to turn down the awe, turn the awe off so I don’t keep bursting into tears as I walk around this world.