Ada Limón is the author of several poetry books, including the National Book Award finalist Bright Dead Things, which was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by the New York Times. This year Limón released her fifth book, The Carrying, to wide acclaim, including being named a Best Book of Fall 2018 by Buzzfeed. Since the release of The Carrying, Limón has been traveling extensively for poetry events but was able to take some time out for Cleaver to discuss the new book and aspects of craft in her poetry. She lives in Lexington Kentucky. —Grant Clauser
Grant Clauser: All of your books, including the new one, include some mix of past events and present. Does a certain amount of time/space between events and the writing about the events affect your approach to it?
Ada Limón: Sometimes I write right in the white heat of the moment. Sometimes I need to do that just to work through what I’m trying to process. Other times I wait and need significant distance. Usually, the perspective changes with time. Writing about the present moment allows some freedom, however; there’s a familiarity with the moment that doesn’t need to be unearthed so the poem can come from a very authentic place without much need for research or personal mining of a certain event.
GC: When you wrote Bright Dead Things you worked for a media company (I think) in New York City. How did the change in environments from NYC to Kentucky affect the writing of your newer poems?
AL: I was actually already living in Kentucky by the time I wrote Bright Dead things, but I had just left New York. I was the Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Moving to Kentucky gave me two much-needed things: time and space. My writing changed significantly because I was able to have long moments of silence and breath. I was also surrounded by wild things, green trees, grasses. The landscape gave me a new mode of writing.
GC: In the new book, noticed recurring images of recovery, repair, rebuilding, remaking (such as in “Dandelion Insomnia”). Did that kind of theme-building happen spontaneously or does that come to the surface once you begin sorting poems into a manuscript?
AL: I think you’re right about those themes, and I do think they occur naturally. It’s usually because there is something big that I am going through. I am feeling some overwhelming need or question and the poems reflect it. Even when I’m unaware of what the I’m processing, the poems tell me. When the book starts to come together I look at what it is that I’ve been writing toward, and then I’ll start to give myself prompts so that I can go deeper into those themes—push myself further.
Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things.
GC: The Carrying opens with a poem in which Eve is naming animals and ends with you thinking to yourself about the name of a bird. In between, there are other instances of naming or coming to know things. Is naming a kind of understanding or a kind of possessing or does it mean something different in your work?
AL: Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things. Who are we to reach out and name something without language? I think that’s why I see the Eve in the poem trying to get the animals to name her, she realizes that they may have more wisdom.
GC: In “The Last Drop” which comes almost at the end of the book, there’s a feeling of resolve–that even the struggles in life are good. Could you talk about that and how it fits in the scope of the book? (one of my favorite poems in the book, by the way)
AL: Thank you! I wanted to get to a place where I was accepting of the mess and whirl of my world. That poem is all true, and I was feeling overwhelmed by everything: the horrid disease of Alzheimer’s, the death of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, her cats we were adopting, all of it was so much. And a month before our wedding, so this prose poem was a way for me to accept and absorb all of that without being too overwhelmed by it, it gave me a place to put it and a way to talk about it. I’m glad you like that poem; it’s one of my favorites too.
GC: This book shows a wide variety of lines lengths and stanza choices. Some are dense and some use a lot of open space, but the single stanza poem and couplets seem to be used most frequently. What attracts you to those forms, and how do they work differently for you?
AL: You know, I am always guided by what the poem wants. The poems that want to be slower have shorter line breaks, and the poems that want to be faster have long lines, the fastest are prose poems. The couplets usually are quieter, and they tend to be dialogues of a sort. I love working with form. My first book has a crown of sonnets. I’m interested in how form can both constrain and free you at the same time. It allows for each poem to operate differently.
GC: In “The Leash” and other poems there’s a kind of snowball effect (more in the single stanza poems than others) where the poem gathers emotional weight as it rolls down the hill. I imagine the hardest part of that kind of poem is how to end it. What are the challenges you go through in that kind of composition?
It’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind.
AL: Ah yes, you are not wrong about that, it’s all about the ending with the poems that have a certain kind of momentum or guided unraveling. The biggest challenge I face with poems like “The Leash” or “Bust” or “Dead Boy” is trying to make sure that everything is working together and that any tangent you go on still brings you back to the core of the poem. And then, of course, the ending, it’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind. You have to listen to the poem at that point and follow the poem’s instincts and not force an ending that might feel inauthentic.
GC: The poem “Trying” travels an obstacle course of subjects and emotions to get to a kind of resolve. What’s the key to maintaining control in a poem that operates like that? Or is control not even a consideration?
AL: I think it’s less about control there and more about release. “Trying” is a very natural poem, so that it has to feel like it’s effortless—even though of course it’s not—and it has to move in a way that feels like the mind moving. So you have to let go a little, allow the poem just to be and not worry it away. Poems that take place in the world of the now and the world of the body can easily get won over by the mind, so it’s more about releasing them before the mind turns it all into an intellectual project.
Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great.
GC: In “American Pharaoh” the line “racing against nothing but himself” seems prescient to other moments in the book—that you can be successful when you measure yourself against yourself, not the judges, not the other horses, not society. That seems like a good lesson for everyone, but could that be especially important for poets who are constantly measuring their success against others?
AL: Oh I think any time we can have a lesson about not measuring ourselves against others, it will be highly beneficial. For the most part, I think the poets I love and admire are always trying to out-do their last poem, they want to get better, to get deeper, smarter, realer at all times. But, of course, when awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write. We write to connect, we write to figure out the meaning of life, to feel better about our world, our being, we write to make sense of the mess, to question, to rail against something, we write to save ourselves (sometimes from ourselves). So in some ways, you’re very correct in drawing that parallel between poets and the horse, our only enemy is time itself.
When awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write.
GC: Can you tell us one of the best bits of writing advice you’ve received from a teacher, mentor or friend?
AL: Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great. Which I think is very true once you’ve reached a certain amount of success. And it makes me keep my head down and do the work. Nikky Finney once told me, at a particularly tumultuous time of my life, “know the elders are there doing what they do and be at great peace.” I think of that often too. These help me a great deal because they are both about trust and surrender, and I know I need that. I need to surrender and I need to trust this work. This work that is such a privilege to get to do in the first place.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Reckless Constellations, The Magician’s Handbook, Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He works for a New York media company and teaches poetry at random places. Find him @uniambic. Email craft essay queries to email@example.com.
Ada Limon author photo credit: Lucas Marquardt