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Poet Ada Limón on the mystery of writing, the value of simple joy, and how poetry teaches us a way to be in the world.
MIDWAY THROUGH ADA LIMÓN’S stunning new collection, “The Hurting Kind,” I am momentarily stopped in my tracks by a poem that echoes a pandemic experience I thought was unique to me: the radical perspective shift that comes with the installation of a bird feeder. In “Calling Things What They Are,” the speaker’s fascination with a backyard feeder — characterized by a growing need to not only watch the birds but identify, name, and know each one — becomes a catalyst for understanding their own emotional pathology. In the poem, the speaker reflects, “I like to call things as they are. Before, the only thing I was interested in was love, how it grips you, how it terrifies you, how it annihilates and resuscitates you. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t even love that I was interested in, but my own suffering. I thought suffering kept things interesting. How funny that I called it love and the whole time it was pain.”
This kind of internal whiplash, in which quiet everyday moments become the unwitting prisms through which we suddenly start to see our true selves, is a hallmark of Limón’s work. Over the course of six collections of poems, she has proven herself adept at balancing whip-smart emotional observation with graceful descriptions of the natural world. Limón’s is a universe populated by men (good and bad ones), horses, plants, and the occasional errant cat. After her last collection, 2018’s “The Carrying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, she established herself as the rarest form of American poet — the kind that resonates with an audience that does not normally pay attention to contemporary poetry. Her elegant narrative poems are keenly observed, remarkably accessible, and pack an emotional wallop. When I mention to Limón that more and more of my fiction-reading friends started getting into poetry over the past three years, she posits her own theory on why poetry, particularly in our current cultural moment, feels like a balm:
“We’ve all collectively experienced so much over the past few years — a huge racial reckoning, climate crisis knocking at the door, the enormity of the pandemic, which has only exacerbated the level of wealth disparity in our country and around the world. And it just feels like it’s hard to think about what we even value at this point. It’s all so much — and there’s so much information to try and consume and absorb, so much has shifted in the world, but poetry remains the place where you can go and be reminded of what it is to be a person, of how much of our experience as human beings is shared. Poetry allows for the asking of all these big questions simultaneously, but also for a kind of stillness and a reckoning with our own soul. Not to sound cheesy, but I think we need that right now. There are so many people in crisis right now, but it’s not just a crisis of money or health or war, it’s also a crisis of How do we live? How do we really live right now? And I think poetry, at its best, can sometimes offer the answers, or at least provide a pathway to how we answer those kinds of questions.”
Given the breakthrough success of her previous book, the release of “The Hurting Kind” comes with a certain expectation, both for longtime fans and for Limón herself. Having spent the better part of the last three years holed up at her home in Lexington, Kentucky, the prospect of going back out into the world to give readings is both exhilarating and more than a little daunting. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we know nothing,” she says. “But I want to give this book a life. I want to go out and celebrate it. But more than anything, I just want to go out and see some faces again.”
From reading so much of your work, I know that you were a country person who became a city person for a while, and now are a country person again. I always related to that element in your poems — the push and pull between the rhythms of urban life and a more pastoral, rural life.
Every time we think about going to a larger city of some sort, it feels like there’s a resistance, I think, because I’m so attached now to green, and to a landscape of green, and growing things, and that slowness of the country that’s so different. Every time I go to Brooklyn, every time I arrive at JFK or LaGuardia, I feel like I’m home. And yet, I don’t know, I’m just drawn to having a little bit of that space and that time.
Full disclosure, I also did an MFA in poetry. That being said, I’m still genuinely perplexed as to how other people make poems, or the process by which a book of poems comes into being.
I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me, every time I’m putting something new together, it feels like the first time. It’s the same way from poem to poem. It feels like every time I write a poem, I think, What is a poem? What even is a poem? — which I love. I think it adds to the mystery and the mercurial nature of poetry in general.
Books happen when I generally start to see something, when I feel like there’s a tension that happens, or a communication happening between maybe 20 poems that I’m just writing one poem at a time. Also, I’m always only writing one poem at a time. I really believe in that effort. I’m not very much of a project person. I love people who can do that. People who can do things like write 500 poems about the letters between Frida Kahlo and her lovers. I love that, but I’m not that person. I’m one poem at a time. It’s all I do. And it’s all I focus on. And it’s the whole world to me. And finishing a poem feels like I’ve completed some enormous task that’s never been done before.
And so a book, usually with 20 poems or so, is where I start to feel like there’s some vibration that’s happening between them. And then, from there, I start to look at whatever is happening and think, maybe I write toward that a little bit and see how it goes. Let’s say if there’s a poem, and I see some animals in it, and I realize, Of course, during the pandemic, the animals have become more important than ever, so let’s look at that. I was alone so much so that the animals became my companions, not just my dog and my cat, but the trees and the fox and the squirrel. I mean, it just felt like we were in this together. Sometimes I didn’t even see neighbors for weeks, but the animals were always there. And so, when I noticed that, instead of going, “Oh, no, I’ve already written a poem about this. I shouldn’t do that,” why not lean into it a little bit more? I think I make collections by leaning into the obsession and leaning into the thread and starting to pull at it, as opposed to being like, “Oh no, I’ve done that. I need to push away from that.”
Poetry can hold a bunch of truths at once, and that’s really important right now. We can grieve for what is happening in the world, but we can also go to the grocery store, because we have to go eat something.
A lot of art over the past few years has really struggled with trying to take in the totality of everything that is happening — which is mostly all terrible — and say something big about it. What I love about a poem is that it can just as nicely do the opposite, almost like looking through a pair of binoculars and focusing in on just one thing.
Yes, I think that’s so important. Last year, I was teaching virtually. And it was so interesting because I was completely alone. My husband is usually away during the spring for work in the horse industry, so I’d be completely alone, and then with poems and poets on this little screen, and then completely alone again.
One of the things that struck me was that there was so much tension about writer’s block, and not being able to talk about anything. My theory, I don’t know if this has any truth to it, is that it feels to me that writer’s block happens not when we don’t have anything to say, but when we have too much.
The gift of poetry is that you can go small. Like, I’m just going to stare at something on my desk. I’m going to be Neruda and write an ode to my socks. I’m going to get so myopic. And, in that focus, everything is there. You have to trust that the world is there, the wreck of everything is there, and the mess of everything is there. It’s not that you’re shutting the world out, but that you’re realizing that the world is made up of many, many, many different things, most of them small. At least for me, showing that attention and giving that attention to objects, to living things, to animals, to nature, is a way of loving the world. And I think I needed that so much over the past few years. And I continue to need that so much right now.
It’s nice to remember that. I think the tumult of the past few years could, at times, be paralyzing. I resented it when people would say things like, “Unemployed and stuck at home? Now’s the time to write that novel!”
I think that was true for me too, in the beginning of the pandemic. I think that I can write out of grief. I think that I can write out of sorrow, and I think that I can write out of love, and even rage, but I don’t know how to write out of terror. I don’t know how to write out of that. I don’t know how to write out of fear. And I don’t know how to write out of anxiety. Those emotions are very silencing for me. And so, I, like most people, had to get through that, in order to even be like, “Okay, I’m going to write a draft of something about this water glass.” That’s going to be enough.
I know that being considered “accessible” can almost be pejorative in the poetry world, but I think it’s wonderful that your work crosses over to so many people who might not otherwise read contemporary poetry.
I love that. I do find it to be true. And I’m not quite sure why that is. I will say this though — I got my MFA in creative writing at NYU and I loved it. But as a young person in my early 20s, I felt the pressure to write for other writers, to write for other poets. It’s natural; those are the people workshopping the poems with you. That was your audience. Your readers were other poets. That’s how you become trained.
It wasn’t until I had some distance from the graduate program, and I think, honestly, getting out of New York, that my voice could really develop and change. Not to say that my first three books don’t have that same connection, but I think with “Bright Dead Things,” I really started writing poems that were for everyone. And by everyone, I mean for nonpoets. They were poems that I wanted to give to a friend, or they were poems that I really wanted to give my stepfather, my mother.
And it felt like this thing of like, Oh, I could do this. I could write poems for nonwriters. And not in a way that feels like a dumbing down, but in a way that feels like genuine connection. And I think that maybe what came from moving out of New York City and moving to Kentucky, and experiencing a loneliness that came along with that, was that I was in deep need for connection. Those poems were my letters. Those were my way of saying, “Hey, I’m out here. I miss you all.”
It became a deep need to communicate to other humans. And it wasn’t as much about the acrobatics, and the craft work, and the proving my mettle on the page, which I loved doing too, but that was a different stage of my life. I don’t regret that work, but I feel like it became more important to communicate, and to create something authentic, than it did to simply write for only my poetic community. Even more importantly, when I moved away, it felt like, Oh no, I need to write these for myself. I need to save myself. This isn’t about being clever. This isn’t about being funny. And it might not even be about being in front of a crowd. This is for me. And maybe that was also part of it, that I wasn’t doing readings. I wasn’t hanging out with poetry people. I was just living, going for walks, and writing poems. Everything shifted. It was like, Oh, these are poems about what matters to me.
Something I think is interesting for more successful poets is that when you go out to do a reading or talk about your work, it’s never just about that. You’re almost always also being asked to kind of be an ambassador for poetry itself. In fact, I’ve already basically asked you to do that in this interview.
Right. I always find that interesting. The nice thing is, though, I feel that something has changed, where I don’t feel like I’m being called to defend poetry as much as I used to be.
I can’t speak to the entirety of all poetry, but I can speak to what I think is happening right now in relation to how and why people are reading poems. I think it has to do with the idea of seeing that mirror, seeing that poems allow for complication, for mess, that they leave room for unknowing, mystery. I think poetry can hold a bunch of truths at once, and that’s really important right now. We can grieve for what is happening in the world, but we can also go to the grocery store, because we have to go eat something. We can be heartbroken, and also see a friend and have a cocktail and be joyful for a second.
At the same time, poets are often called upon to speak about trauma. And to process it.
It is such a weird thing. Along with the mental negativity bias that we have naturally ingrained in us as humans, I think that there’s a certain level on which we can value trauma and traumatic experiences, and hold them up in poetry, because poetry does it so well. It is a place for that. It can exist there. And I do think you can heal from it too. I think there’s an amazing amount of healing that happens by writing through your trauma, which I don’t think we talk about enough.
But processing pain is not the only thing poetry can do. It goes back to everyone wanting to pinpoint; this is what poetry does best, right? Like chocolate is better than vanilla, whatever it is. Like it has to be this one thing. It doesn’t though. That’s the gift of poetry — it has the capacity for that trauma and it has that capacity for joy.
I feel very strongly that we need to make a place for that. I think it’s particularly with poets of color, that people are asked to write about the pain of their experience. They can write 20 incredible poems about flowers, but the one about bullets is going to go get published. I feel like I’m conscious of that because I feel like there needs to be an appreciation for the capacity that poetry has for all of those things, but also the capacity that poets have, that we laugh, that there is joy. And I think that’s really essential to being an artist, to recognize that we’re not living at the bottom of the well. We go down to the well, sure, but we bring a ladder with us. And the ladder’s our craft, and the ladder is our survival, and the ladder is our light, and it’s our joy. And then when we write all that hard stuff, we climb back out. And we’re like, “I brought this ladder.” And I think people forget about that.
In my writing workshops that’s something that a lot of my students really struggle with. To write about your deepest trauma, and share it with a roomful of people, is somehow easier or less embarrassing than to write about something that really brings you happiness. And it’s so interesting that somehow talking about joy in a very pure way, in a way that’s not being ironic or snarky, is somehow more difficult or exposing than to talk about pain.
That’s such a great point. I love that you said embarrassed because I think that’s a perfect word for it. I feel like that with my students too. I think there’s also shame and guilt attached to it, that there is a certain amount of Who am I to be happy when the world is a disaster? Right? Am I allowed to sit in the sun when the climate crisis is causing destruction? How can I have all of these things at once?
That’s really essential to being an artist, to recognize that we’re not living at the bottom of the well. We go down to the well, sure, but we bring a ladder with us.
One of the things I ask my students to do is this — I'll say, “One of the hardest poems to write in the world is a poem about contentedness. Just contentedness, not even joy. A poem that just says, I’m okay right now. Today we are trying to write that poem.” And they’re like, How do you do that? Most of the time, there’s a certain equanimity in which we live. I can’t even tell you how many times in a poetry class you say, “Today we’re going to write a poem.” And people immediately think, Okay, I’m going to write about the saddest thing that’s ever happened to me. That’s their first thought.
And those aren’t always good poems. It’s often the poems that appear more simple, more grounded in the everyday, that are somehow the most illuminating or profound.
That’s what I love about working on poetry. I mean, I love reading it, but working on it? It’s so amazing, especially that moment of not quite knowing what it’s going to give you. But knowing, if you pay attention and you follow it, it’s going to expose some part of yourself to yourself. I never get sick of that feeling, and looking at it and going, “Oh, that’s what I’m going through.”
Your podcast, “The Slowdown,” is great for this very reason, in that it really helps unpack these very uncanny moments of illumination in other people’s poems, particularly for an audience that might not read a ton of poetry on their own.
I really enjoy doing it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun. It’s also just great to celebrate poems. It’s fun to talk about your own poems, but it’s really nice to talk about other people’s poems. It’s funny though. A couple of months after I started working on the podcast, my producer said, “Okay, topics we’ve already covered: grief, death, and the moon. Maybe we start looking at other topics too.” I laughed so hard at that. So we started a shared folder called “Hope and Joy Poems” where we could share other ideas. And it’s remained empty.
There’s still this idea ingrained in people’s thinking that there’s a right way and a wrong way to read and understand poetry. People have anxiety about “getting” it or that they aren’t experiencing it in the right way. Your work does so much good in helping dispel that notion.
I remember reading a poem and someone in the audience later saying, “I didn’t really listen to it. I have to read it again. Because when you started reading, I went to this other place, and I started thinking about my grandmother.” And I was like, “That’s perfect! My job is done. You had a whole emotional, full experience listening to my poems, even if the words just sort of washed over you. That’s enough. You don’t have to recall a single line or image from my poem. But if it transported you into a deeper emotional journey, I’m golden. That sounds wonderful.”
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Caroline Tompkins is a freelance photographer based in Queens, New York, working for editorial and commercial clients. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Tompkins received a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she now teaches a class on photography theory. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, with her work featured on the BBC, Vogue, and Apple, among many others. She has served as a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and Vice Magazine, and is currently a senior photo editor at Vice.com.
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