Trust Poetry: Ada Limón Interviewed by Lauren LeBlanc

The poet on the power of naming, the freedom of writing, and when to carry and let go of grief.

Ada Limon Cred Lucas Marquardt V1

Photo by Lucas Marquardt.

An American poet, now living in Lexington, Kentucky, Ada Limón was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and the 2016 National Book Critics Circle awards for poetry with her fourth collection Bright Dead Things. It’s only fitting that some of the poems in her new collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions) is a series of correspondence between herself and fellow poet Natalie Diaz. With the knowing directness of a letter, Limón’s poems speak to the marrow of our everyday condition. She grapples with fertility, hard fought acceptance, and empathy all the while admitting, “I don’t know how to hold this truth,/ so I kill it, pin its terrible wings down/ in case, later, no one believes me.” The Carrying is a vital collection for a noisy, brutal time. The power of Limón’s unflinching examination of grief and loss is only surpassed by her love of beauty and compassion.

Lauren LeBlanc Your collection opens with a poem that remarks upon the imagined desire to be named in response to Eve’s act of naming others. With this silent request to be named, you immediately ask the reader to recognize a yearning to be seen. Is poetry an act of naming for you?

Ada Limón I love this question, because I am, in fact, obsessed with naming. The idea of putting words to the ultimately unsayable is fundamentally the poet’s insurmountable task. But there’s also a hubris to it as well, isn’t there? Who am I to name anything? On whose authority? Shouldn’t the world be given its chance to name me? Still, I do my best to use this one small skill of language to offer something to the world.

LL Generally speaking, poetry demands a certain precision of language and commitment to form. How did you come to poetry and what about poetry makes it different from memoir, essays or novels? Is there anything that it doesn’t satisfy that you’d like to explore elsewhere?

AL I love poetry for numerous reasons, but one very essential reason is that poetry is the only creative writing art form that builds breath into it. It makes you breathe. It not only allows for silence, it demands it. We enter the poem with our own breath. For me, it’s also very simply about the units, the building blocks, of poems. The units of poetry begin with just the syllable, and then the phrase, then the line, then the stanza. It’s as much about the ear as it is the eye and it’s as much about the images and narrative as it is about pacing and rhythm. No other art form quite has that same mix of chaos and control. I love writing essays and I even write fiction from time to time, but the musicality of poetry, the breath and mystery and exactness of poetry, always wins.

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LL Is there still an element of freedom to uncover in a discipline known for its constraint? Does poetry help unpack your mind or complicate it more?

AL I am most free when I am writing poems. There’s a quote from C.D. Wright that says “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside of us that would be free and declare them so.” There is so much we hold in every day. Going to the post office and smiling through the small aches of human existence, trying to acknowledge the suffering of the world while still buying dinner and admiring the wind coming up through the streets. We worry ourselves into small knots of grim thread most days, but poems give us a little way of noticing that there is also beauty in surviving and living and even thriving. So in a way poetry both complicates and simplifies. Complicated because life is messy and hard and simple because we are all going to die and so we get this moment to make something that might last.

LL So much of The Carrying is an exercise in the daily work of living with loss—often an incredibly physical experience. In your poem “The Vulture and the Body,” you observe dead animals on the road while driving to a fertility clinic, the impact of which leads you to ask, “What if, instead of carrying/ a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” Is poetry the way that you carry grief? How do we live with grief and sit with things that are not easily resolved (if ever)?

AL I think poetry is a way of carrying grief, but it’s also a way of putting it somewhere so I don’t always have to heave it onto my back or in my body. The more I put grief in a poem, the more I am able to move freely through the world because I have named it, spoken it, and thrown it out into the sky. Everyone has grief that they carry and sometimes we have anxiety and depression about anticipatory grief. The thing that I’ve found that helps is knowing we are all in this, someone has gone or is going through the same thing. Poetry helps us with that too. Writing. Reading. As James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.”

LL You write about the challenge of trying to conceive—a delicate topic that many people shy away from. Birth and death are universal experiences yet they are so shrouded in mystery. What does it mean for you to write about these very common issues that are often endured in silence? Was there a moment where it felt imperative to do so?

AL It was absolutely an imperative for me. I couldn’t hold all that insanity inside of my brain and body. What shocked me most was that I had friends that had gone through fertility treatments and they didn’t really talk about it, which I understand. It’s private, you may not want anyone to know you’re trying in case that puts more pressure on you. I get it. But the whole experience is so surreal, I kept thinking, why don’t we talk about this all the time? At least with each other. I found some sadness and also frustration in how I would treat my body when I thought I might be pregnant versus the way I would treat my body and myself if I knew I wasn’t. I felt almost magical when I thought I was carrying a child, like I was powerful and strong. And then suddenly I’d feel weak and powerless and ineffectual all at once. This intrigued me. Was I really feeling that way? Or was it how I was taught and told to feel? I still don’t know, but that’s what writing does for me, it allows me to try to explore those feelings.

LL From my personal experience with fertility, I felt that nothing prepared me for the disconnect of the lack of a clear endpoint. Vaguely bound by cycles while living outside a schedule with no idea of when to call the whole thing off left me feeling unmoored. How did this experience of time affect your relationship to others and your idea of family? Where does it play out in your poetry?

AL I understand that completely. It seemed like it could go on forever. An endless loop of calm or crashing waves. One day, after the drugs were making me feel unwell and it felt as if the whole thing was just too much, I walked in and told my husband that I might be done. He said he was too. We stopped fertility treatments that day and I never looked back. I think that the unknowingness of it all was maddening. I couldn’t live that way anymore. I wanted an answer. I got one. The answer was no. Which also meant yes, it meant yes to more travel, and more writing and more time and more sleep and a more mobile existence. I don’t think I could have published the book without an answer. Maybe I could have, the book leaves it up in the air a little. But it helps to know that we’re done with that chapter of our lives and are now living happily child-free.

LL Despite frustration and sadness, as one sees in your poem “American Pharoah,” you still stand back in awe in the face of “real gladness” —effortless physical prowess as the mark of an impressive thoroughbred. The ability to hold onto a sense of wonder is so important as a means to live through the very real challenges of modern life. How important was it for you to infuse your poetry with optimism?

AL It’s as important to infuse my poetry with joy as it is to infuse my life with joy. They are the same thing. My life. My poems. I lose joy sometimes. It makes me feel hopeless and it’s not a livable space. I need to point out the things that are good, that are worth living for, that make me laugh, the dog sleeping on my face in the morning, the smell of garlic and onions on the stove, the friend’s text that makes you laugh, the robin poking his head into the sprinkler, food and shelter, safety. When I was in college my stepdad told me that if I was being overwhelmed and depressed by the great sadness of the macrocosm that I could recover my wellbeing by focusing on the microcosm. I still do that daily, in my life, in my poems, I do it so that I can get up in the morning and breathe and want to go on doing that over and over as long as I can.

LL While you are so keenly aware of the limitations of bodies, you also concentrate on the ways we mask and attempt to escape our fates. Suffering from vertigo in New Orleans you remark in your poem “Wonder Woman,” that “Invisible pain is both a blessing and a curse.” Yet you close that poem with a woman “bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth, / —a woman, by a river, indestructible.” New Orleans is a city of physical erosion and historical pillage yet it’s also a home to carnival. How important is it to create and hold onto myths in order to survive?

AL I love a myth. I love magic. I love believing in the improbable act of tenderness and goodness in the world. My husband jokes that I have the movie tastes of a twelve-year-old. And it’s true, I love anything that allows us to see the triumph of the human spirit. There are days that I want to be a realist and look closely at the suffering in our lives, in our world, and then there are days where I want to believe the truth and beauty in the original stories, want to believe in an overwhelming power of magic that might heal us and set us free from our may burdens. I need the balance of both of those things to keep me going.

LLHow important is it to you to have a literary community? What did you lose and gain when you moved from New York City to Kentucky?

AL Some of my all-time favorite experiences of my life are staying up too late and talking about poetry with other poets or other poetry lovers. It’s like a drug. One person mentions a line of poem and then we have to look up another poem that goes along with it and soon we’re talking about books and meetings with older poets we admire and it’s addictive. I am grateful all the time for the community of writers that I call friends. I get to read their new poems and they do the honor of reading mine. I love it when a friends sends me a poem. I stop everything and read it immediately. I think poetry is something that really can only take place in the silence and isolation of the self, but we need to be reminded we aren’t alone. We need to have that friend that helps us to keep going. I am slowly building my literary community in Kentucky and, luckily, am still in constant contact with so many of my New York City friends. They are with me all the time. What I gained in the move to Kentucky is more silence and space and time for writing.

LL Recent poets such as Hieu Minh Nguyen, Jenny Xie, Danez Smith, and Layli Long Soldier shine, speaking as social outsiders with a profound yet complicated pride in their heritage. As someone who ordinarily turns to novels in times of great crisis, I’ve found poetry to be the most exciting and explosive place to find political and personal engagement. Is there something about poetry in particular at this moment in time that makes it possibly the most vital place for conversations about selfhood and community?

AL Poetry is so vital and flourishing right now. People are getting turned on by poetry every day. I can feel it and I can see it first-hand. I think there’s an essential need for stories that aren’t easy or simple or solved. There’s a need for an art form that allows someone to stand inside of it, that lets people lean in and see into a person’s life without having to commodify suffering or personal pain for someone else’s pleasure. I love memoirs and novels, but we often want something big to happen in those forms, at least the market does. We desire a great trauma and then a recovery, a massive fight and then a solution, but poetry, poetry doesn’t do that. Thankfully. What it does is live in the liminal spaces. It’s not interested in showing off wounds for coins, it’s interested in living, day to day, breathing moment by moment and staring out into the sea and noticing the small thing and saying the real thing and because of that, I believe it’s the most human type of art form. It is messy and complex and real and doesn’t have any answers for us, for that reason, I think it’s something we can trust.

Lauren LeBlanc, an independent book editor and critic, is also a senior editor at Guernica. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn with her family. 

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