I’ve been reading Ada Limón’s poetry since 2005, when she won the Autumn House Poetry Prize for her first collection, Lucky Wreck. That book anthologized the complicated feelings that can arise in relationships. The opening poem, “First Lunch with Relative Stranger Mister You,” heralded a kind of writing that spoke to me: “We solved the problem of the wind / with an orange. / Now we’ve got the problem of the orange.”
Since then, all of Limón’s books have found a home on my bookshelf, each volume a heartfelt reckoning of what it is be alive. In her collections, I find a grace that demonstrates her versatility and wisdom as well as a “surrendering.” She explains that the central question of her work is, “How do we live in the world?” Yet she’s a poet as comfortable with questions as with answers.
Limón’s most recent collection, The Carrying, is scheduled for release by Milkweed Editions in August. She is also the author of Bright Dead Things, Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. Bright Dead Things was named a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times.
Limón spoke to me on what was, in New York City, a cloudy day. At my kitchen table, the curtains in my emptying Brooklyn apartment blew back and forth, giving the interview an airy, ghost-like feel. I was about to move to Arizona, and knowing that Limón used to be a New Yorker herself, I wanted to ask not only about The Carrying, but also about her new life, what it means to wander and to take risks.
—Diana Delgado for Guernica
Guernica: You used to live in New York, and now you’re in Kentucky. Has that move changed you as a writer?
Ada Limón: I really believe that New York City is the best city in the world. I adore it. But I think it got really difficult to be an artist there. Primarily because I didn’t have two things: time and space. Every artist is different, with different needs, but I needed to have green around me. I needed to have more of a connection to the natural world. I needed to have free time in which, not just to write, but just to be and to discover who I was again.
My time in New York had been beholden to a company. I was a Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Again, great company with great people. But I needed time, not just to write, but to just be and to play and to wander and to get lost and to have a whole day not knowing where it went. Those little things were really essential for me to write the last two books, Bright Dead Things and The Carrying. I don’t think those books would have been written if I had not taken that risk and tried to find more breath in my life.
Guernica: You mention “risk.” What risks did you take in The Carrying that you haven’t before?
Limón: The big thing about this book for me is that it deals with the body, particularly my own body. I think that kind of honesty is a little scary for me. I also think that this book is very much set in the present, which is another kind of vulnerability. I’m not recasting anything that’s happened in the past; rather, I’m living in the mess of the moment. And that is a little bit more of a leap for me in my own work.
Guernica: I sense, in all of your books, there is an unsaid struggle—can you share a little bit about what that struggle is?
Limón: Yeah, I think that the main question that I’m always asking is: how do we live in the world? How do we live? Because with the amount of loss and suffering that is all around us all the time—our own inevitable demise, the inevitable loss of loved ones, the damage to the planet—how do we live in that reality, yet still do the daily work of praise and presence and gratitude, without driving ourselves mad? I’m constantly trying to look for that balance. Like, how do I see the big picture and hold the world’s pain, and at the same time see all of the bright edges of joy? I think that’s at the center of my question.
Guernica: An epigraph from Joy Harjo’s seminal poem “She Had Some Horses” opens your book. It utilizes the last line, “These were the same horses,” which has always signified, for me, that in the world you encounter everything—suffering and joy—and that they exist in the day-to-day together.
Limón: Yes, and that’s what impresses me. I’m in awe of people, of our capacity to suffer greatly, and yet to go to work and still be kind to one another: to lose a parent and then brush your teeth and get your kids to school. The human capacity for that ability just blows my mind.
Guernica: Yes, and that’s there in your poems. There’s a marveling at our ability to endure the hardest things. Can you share a little about your process and how you respond when you come across something that you feel might be a poem?
Limón: I was just thinking about this the other day, so it’s interesting that you ask. I’m currently in the Northwest, in La Conner, Washington, for the Skagit River Poetry Festival, which starts tomorrow. My father used to live about 30 minutes from here with my stepmother—a woman who was my stepmom for 26 years and who passed in 2010. And I went up to the woods to visit where we had put her ashes, yesterday by myself, and then I was having all these memories and thoughts. I think one of the biggest instincts for a poem, for me, is the question: where do I put all this?
I mean, it’s really simple but very true. There is so much feeling that is moving through me almost all the time, and probably many people have this happening to them, but for me, I feel it. It can be a little intimidating and overwhelming sometimes, and the poem feels like a place where I can put all of that—not necessarily to let it go, but to let it have a different life and give me more space so the next thing can come along.
Guernica: Continuing this notion of process, can you share the first book of poetry that had an impact on you?
Limón: It wasn’t necessarily a book. It was a collection of poems I read in an undergraduate class at the University of Washington in Seattle. I remember poems by Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Joy Harjo, and Muriel Rukeyser, and being like, who is this? It was women poets. And women poets were huge, huge, to me in the beginning, and then of course Phil Levine and Larry Levis. I feel like those were some of the first poets who opened doors and gave me permission. I wasn’t there yet; I couldn’t possibly do what I’m doing now. But they gave me the sort of vision of what could possibly be, and it was really magical.
Guernica: Earlier you mentioned that while in New York, two of the things that you really needed were time and space. You have those things now. How do you occupy them, now that you have time? Now that you have space?
Limón: One of the biggest things that’s changed in the last 4 years, because of the success of Bright Dead Things, is that I travel constantly. So my time has diminished a little bit, but I try now to build in my own time. For example, I came up here early, because I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to be up in the Northwest for a day or two. So I build that time in, because I know myself and know that with this travel, with so much talking to people and lecturing, and classes and workshops, that I need a lot of alone time. Now that I know that about myself, I just try to build it in, into everything.
In terms of space, I’d say we have a half-acre backyard. It’s not huge, but I have a garden. I’m growing strawberries, basil, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, cucumbers, and peppers. Any herb that you can name, we have it. That has been a real gift to me. Oh, and my sweet grass that I’m growing. It’s not a huge space, but it’s this place I get to tend to. Spending time in the garden, in the green space and in the air, has been very healing for me. That sense of connectedness has been essential in finding the next step forward.
Guernica: Speaking of next step forward, I read online that you were working on a novel. What has that process been like?
Limón: First, let me tell you that I love to write. And I learn the most about writing while I’m writing. I learn a great deal from reading, but it isn’t until I try it that I learn what I’m good at and what I fail at and what I need to improve on. So I will say yes, I have finished one novel and a second young-adult novel, but I don’t think I’m going to put them in the world. I really loved working on them. They’re both over 300 pages, and I like the world-building in particular. I love playing in language that goes to the end of the page. I loved working in sentences, dialogue, character—all of that was such a pleasure and a joy for me.
If anyone ever asked me how my novel was going, I was like great, I love it, it’s so fun. Everyone else, if they’re a novelist, would be like, “Oh my god, it’s torture. It’s horrible. How do you do this?” I think part of the reason is that I wasn’t allowing myself to think this is going to be a bestseller. I just wanted to figure out how to do it. I don’t think they’re bad, but I don’t think they’re great. I might do something with them, but I might not. They were a really wonderful learning process for me; they made me smarter.
Guernica: These ideas about finding joy in the writing process and that everything that you write shouldn’t require a readership is interesting, because in order to sustain a career as a writer, there’s that force pushing you. But it shouldn’t prevent you from creating something joyful for yourself.
Limón: And learning, right? That’s how you learn, through the failure of it. For me, it was really about the learning process, and also the wonderful escapism that both the novel and the young-adult novel offered me.
Guernica: Is there a project that is calling you? What do you want to you take on next?
Limón: I’ve been writing essays, and I’m finding that I’m really enjoying that. For me, the big questions always remain the same. They don’t really change. So I’m just still trying to figure it out, and I’m at ease with that. There’s not really a project on the horizon, as much as more life.
Guernica: I like that. I really do. I have to ask, because I’m always wondering this: was there another career or profession that you feel that you could have been involved with? What would that have been?
Limón: I’m such a creative person that I immediately go to making music, or being in a band. But then I think, is that a career?
Guernica: It is! Maybe I meant “passion.”
Limón: Well, I was in a band in Brooklyn for a while, and I loved it. I loved writing music and the collaboration process, you know, like you’re figuring it out and suddenly someone is harmonizing. There’s a surprise and joy in making music that I miss. Not to say that I can’t do it again, but it’s a little harder. In New York, everyone you know is a musician!
Guernica: What was the name of the band?
Limón: We were named after my first book. We were called Lucky Wreck.
Guernica: I love that.
Limón: Yes, it was fun. The other career that I sometimes think about is a naturalist or botanist. [Spending] time in the natural world, figuring out how plants work, would have been something that I enjoyed.
Guernica: I kept returning to “The Raincoat,” my favorite poem in The Carrying. That poem builds toward a reckoning of the self. It shook me.
Limón: Thank you for saying that. “The Raincoat” came out of a real experience, but also a surprising moment when you realize that you’ve spent all this time thinking that you deserve this grace, and then you realize that it was a gift. I think about the unsung labor that parents do, and that mothers do, and that women do. I was, at the time, trying to have a child, and now we’re not trying to have a kid anymore. We are very happily child-free. But I think there was an overwhelming sense of wanting to praise that work, and I was surprised that I hadn’t really thought about all the sacrifices. That they just seem to go so unnoticed, almost as if we deserve it. And then what a realization when you think, Oh, no, that was a sacrifice. That was something that she was able to do for me. And I felt like this poem was a way of giving back to her, my mother. And I know that she cried when she read it. That was recognition that I could give to her, a way of telling her that I saw her.
Guernica: Do you have a favorite poem in The Carrying?
Limón: Once they’re born and out in the world, I feel like they’re all my little children. I care for them all deeply. And it always depends too, because there are poems that I wrote when I needed to write [them]. And depending on what my mood is or what’s happening in the wider universe, I’ll lean into those poems. I really never plan a reading. I always go and bring the books and think I’ll read, like, 10 or 12 poems. And then I just feel what the audience wants and what I want and what the mood is and what the air is saying and what happened today or in that week in the news and the overall feeling that everyone is going through in the room. And then I work my way through the poems.
Guernica: I like that, because it allows for the process of discovery. No constraints. Can you share a book that you’re reading that the world should know about?
Limón: I’m reading Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America by Gregory Pardlo (Knopf). It’s his new nonfiction book. It’s fascinating. It has so much about danger and fragility of the male ego, as well as exploring what it is to be black in America. I’m finding it very well done. I’m not finished with it, but I’m really adoring it. In terms of poetry, I’ve been reading so much! I’m trying to picture my nightstand—I’m sure your nightstand looks like mine—which is, like, twenty books. As a new poet coming up, I’m really loving Analicia Sotelo’s book Virgin (Milkweed).
There’s one book that I will add. It’s by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed). She’s Native American and also a botanist, and she has this wonderful book of essays about our relationship with the planet. I highly recommend [it].
Guernica: That’s a great title. In The Carrying, there is this confrontation with mortality, as uncomfortable as it can be. In that discussion with the self on the page, what is your relationship toward that reckoning? And what you think happens after death, if anything?
Limón: That is so fascinating. I feel like we must be really connected. You know, there are four poems in The Carrying written to Natalie Diaz, and she writes back. And all eight of those poems are going to be showcased online in the New Yorker, in a new feature that they’re doing. And so she and I are writing back and forth, and I just started a new poem to her last night, and one of the questions in the poem is, what happens with our dead?
I keep feeling like there are different phases with our dead. I feel like, at some moments they are literally all around us. They become parts of the trees; they become everything. And then there are some parts where they couldn’t possibly be more gone. I feel them both. Those days when they’re there, connected in everything, and all that you want to do is to be out in the world, touching every leaf of every tree. And then those days when they’re very gone, and it feels very isolated. From my own experience, I feel like sometimes they’re here, and sometimes they’re doing their own thing.
Guernica: They’re busy.
Limón: Yeah, they’re busy making their own rules, living the life that they wanted to live. I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in a heaven, but I do believe that we’re all connected. And when I say we’re all, I’m including the plants and the animals and the trees and the bodies of water. Because of that, how could they not be part of that world? Also, what a blessing, if I die and know that I can be part of that, even just go into the soil and become part of the earth, or even become ash, and become part of the wind. I think that would be a real honoring.
Guernica: Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask you about?
Limón: You didn’t ask me about fertility, which I’m interested in because I’ve only been interviewed by male authors and they’ve asked me about it. I kind of love it, and I’m also like, well, should I bring it up?
Guernica: I did read that in the book. At the very end, the last poem, there is a—well, maybe I don’t know if I want that, and I have all these other things, and maybe that’s good.
Limón: I know! I kind of love it. Because men always ask, how are you doing with that?
Guernica: Is there something else that you wanted to share about your new book?
Limón: One of the things that I’m really excited about in The Carrying is that there’s something about the fifth book. I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to say that I have five books. But there’s something about the fifth book that feels like it is so completely me. And it’s vulnerable, but it’s also steady. I think there’s still strength and weakness in it, and it’s very close to how I see the world. And that, to me, is something that I feel I’ve been working towards. It doesn’t feel performative. It just feels like my authentic self. At first I was really nervous about it, and I’m just moving out of the fear and into this joyful celebration of that, just this week. I’ve just been like, okay, you know what, I’m glad I did this. I’m glad I wrote this book. I mean, I hope everyone reads it. But beyond putting it out in the world, I feel like I did a good job. Does that make sense?
Guernica: It does. This book is almost not really about poetry; it’s about life. Suddenly you see a self emerge on the page and you’re able to finally answer: who am I?
Limón: Thank you so much. I feel like that’s one of the things that I realized that I should love about it.
Guernica: Absolutely. Related to this, I taught at Columbia recently. I told my students, I want to make t-shirts that say: POETS NOT POEMS. Because poetry is about the poet, not the poem. It should be about the emergence of the poet through the poem, and it becomes about that evolution. The poem is a product of who the poet is, and that should be where the discovery and learning happens, through the poet.
Limón: Right, and that’s where the great destruction of the ego is so important. Because the poem sometimes wants to perform our ego. But the poet, being most authentic and most attuned and connected to the universe, is not interested in the ego. So the battle is there.
Guernica: Yes, I completely agree. That’s the reason why I like the book, because it’s just like this is what it is.
Limón: Yes, I feel like it’s surrendering.
Guernica: It is a surrendering.