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Collage featuring a photo of U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón juxtaposed with archival images featuring Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, and Chilean Nobel Laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, all who recorded for the PALABRA Archive.
Ada Limón with achrival images of (clockwise from top) Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. Photo of Limón by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

Poet Laureate Explores the Library’s Historic PALABRA Archive

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This is an interview conducted by Catalina Gómez (Reference Librarian and Curator in the Library of Congress Hispanic Reading Room) with U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón. Written in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, this piece is also part of a series of blogposts that are being published in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the PALABRA Archive, a collection of poets and writers from Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, and regions with Hispanic/Latino/Latinx or Portuguese heritage reading from their works.

Catalina Gómez: How has Latin American poetry and/or literature played a role in your journey as a poet?

Ada Limón: When I was first starting out as a poet, I read everything I could get my hands on. I knew nothing, but I loved everything. I was lucky enough to work at Readers’ Books in Sonoma, California when I was in high school and I still remember finding Pablo Neruda, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Federico García Lorca on the poetry shelves. I was desperate to see anyone with an accent in their name. I cherished them. I learned from them. They had a strangeness, a texture, a different rhythm than anything written originally in English. They opened up a different world to me.

As my life continued as an artist, as a student of poetry, of course my curiosity grew. I wanted to know about the legacy of Latin American poetry. I found Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz and was overwhelmed by her brilliance. I loved Octavio Paz and Gabriela Mistral. I’ve worked for the Queens University of Charlotte Latin American low-residency MFA program for ten years now, and with the program I’ve traveled to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. I’ve been able to spend more and more time with the poets—both past and present—of those places. Their work, their lives, the vibrant Latin American poetic community, has changed me as a writer and as a human.

CG: What are some of your favorite Latin American authors in the PALABRA Archive, and why?

AL: Oh this is such a hard question because I love so many of them. There’s so much to be gleaned from each audio recording. I love the conversation with Borges. I mean, it’s Borges! To listen to his cadence, his laugh, his desire to meet Mark Twain, the sense of mischief and solemnity is such a window into his storied life. The reading from Raúl Zurita is a triumph. Francisco Segovia reading his poems is just incredible. And of course hearing Natalia Toledo read in both Spanish and Zapotec is a revelation! I mean, let’s be honest, hearing Gabriela Mistral read her powerful poems in 1950 at the Library of Congress is truly extraordinary and it left me somewhat breathless.

CG: What about your favorite U.S. poets in the collection?

AL: Another hard question because I could list them all. But I love the readings from Laurie Ann Guerrero, Rigoberto González, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and of course Juan Felipe Herrera is just pure joy. I adore him and his work. I was enraptured by all of the readings. Honestly, perusing the whole collection is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone looking to get a deeper understanding of Latinx poetry. There are so many ways to approach a poem and this collection allows for a rich experience of those different voices, styles, and imaginations.

CG: What do you think is unique about the experience of listening to a poem read aloud vs. reading it on the page?

AL: I think of poetry as a whole-body experience—whether you’re reading or listening or feeling it in your body, it’s connected to the whole bloodstream. It’s easy to think that poetry exists only on the page, or only in the mind, but that’s not true. It’s meant to be experienced through all the senses—like song, like dance, like visual arts, it’s alive in many different ways. What I love about the PALABRA Archive is how you can sense the spirit of the person: not just the artifact, or the remnant, but the real spirit of the human behind the words. We need more of that, that sense of the whole human being behind their creations. It allows us to know that poetry isn’t something reserved for a chosen few, but poetry is for all of us and it’s a deeply human endeavor.

The PALABRA Archive features a recording of Ada Limón in her first event after her poet laureate appointment was announced, in a reading and conversation with Argentine poets Laura Wittner and Daniela Auginsky (recorded in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and organized by the Queens University of Charlotte Latin America Residency). Two new recordings with Limón will be published later this fall:

  • A reading and conversation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Brazilian poets Beatriz Malchor and Paulo Britto. (Organized by the Queens University of Charlotte Latin America Residency)
  • A reading of “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa,” the piece that NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission commissioned the Poet Laureate to write to be engraved on the spacecraft that will be traveling to Jupiter’s moon in 2024. This PALABRA Archive session features Limón and Puerto Rican poet and translator Roque Rivera, and was followed by a conversation.

Stay tuned!

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