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From the Archive: An Interview with Ada Limón

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The following interview with Ada Limón was conducted in 2018 by Anastasia Nikolis as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Ada Limón. Photo credit: Lucas Marquardt

Line breaks are the most identifiable feature of poetry. One of the most notable tools that a poet has at her disposal is using the line break and the stanza to group words and make meaning in new and surprising ways. Many of your poems in both Bright Dead Things and in The Carrying don’t use those hallmarks of poetry and favor the format of prose poems—single verse-paragraphs of text. Can you talk about which poetic tools (perhaps grammar, repetition, sentence length, alliteration, etc.) you use to guide your writing when you aren’t thinking in terms of where to break a line or a stanza? How do you think about the relationship between poetry and prose? How would you recommend a reader approach a prose poem as opposed to a lineated poem?

I think of poetry as the compression of language. A pressure cooker. Something distilled. And so whether or not the poem is lineated, what I am most interested in is the way the language is holding its truth. Have you ever been in a room with a couple you don’t know very well, but suddenly, by witnessing only one interaction you are able to discern so much about their entire relationship? That’s poetry to me, the moments in life where everything is revealed. A poem doesn’t have to have line breaks to do the work of revealing; what it does have to do is expose life in a new way, unearth a larger thing through one small moment. A reader only needs to know that the biggest difference between a lineated poem and a prose poem is pacing. The prose poem moves faster. It doesn’t have the line breaks to slow it down so it’s supposed to read like you’d read any piece of prose. The speed allows for a sort of surreality to take place, for the pressure cooker to get turned up.

I often think of Bright Dead Things as a book about placedness. About feeling displaced, trying to find one’s place, about making one’s place in Kentucky, New York, California, and in less concrete places, too. In The Carrying, that theme recurs in poems like “Against Belonging.” Thinking about lacking place or trying to make a place naturally fits with carrying, since a displaced person often needs to carry their associated people or belongings with her. Interestingly, The Carrying seems to talk about a different kind of carrying—not a carrying that occurs because the carrier has been displaced, but a carrying that occurs precisely because the carrier has found a place. These different acts of carrying—placed and displaced—seem to have starkly different implications and results. Can you talk about how your conceptions of place and carrying changed across the two volumes? 

Thank you for this question. I think landscape is incredibly important to me as a writer, as a person. The way we are influenced by what is around us—the trees, the cityscapes, all of what enters the pupil or ears or nose or mouth on a daily basis. I’m interested in how we can really look at place or feel a place and not just insert ourselves, but rather let the self also be part of that landscape. In Bright Dead Things I was dealing with the idea of displacement for sure, but also how odd it is that your brain follows you to all the new places; it comes loaded with all of its knowledge and judgment and confusion whether you like it or not. There is no real starting fresh, anew. In The Carrying I was most interested in how to approach a poem from a place of acceptance or a place of silence. I was curious about how to create poems that moved from stillness. The Carrying comes from a quieter brain, even though it’s perhaps a heavier book. It’s a book that goes down and in rather than out and up.

One of the central questions your poems seem to ask is how we carry something abstract, and how that differs from carrying something physical. In “The Vulture & The Body,” one might carry grief instead of a child. In other poems, like “What I Want to Remember,” a memory of a good time with a friend is held (carried?) in the hopes it will displace a less pleasant memory of something else. Did you discover these different modes of carrying while you were writing, or beforehand? How do we learn from the physical world to manage the more abstract? How do we learn from the abstract to manage the physical?

There’s a way that the abstract becomes the physical. We see the abstract manifest into a physical issue all the time. How depression or anxiety can cause physical pain or chronic illnesses. Changing an outlook can literally allow you to see colors more clearly. The grief of something can manifest into back pain or headaches or stomach pain. I suppose in some way, I have always seen them as united. The way the mind and the body are connected. In that sense, I wonder if there is a difference at all between the physical and the abstract. That might sound like my mind is too poetic, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t see them as separate. What is real? All of it is real. To be in the present moment is still to be holding on to all of these memories and desire. In The Carrying I was curious in exploring the way, as artists, we use the abstract and the physical as equals, as equal tools, and how do I take that artistic notion and place that into what one presumes is “real life.” It makes me think of the sacredness of making things. I may not be carrying a child, but I am carrying a memory, a poem, so many loved ones—dead and alive—and I am full. It’s not to say that those things are equal, but it is to say they are both real, both powerful.

The Carrying also encourages us to think about the many ways we can carry things—as transport, the way the woman carries cocaine in her breasts in “Bust,” and also as holding, the way the speaker remembers the story about the same woman as she goes about her day. The book also suggests the way language itself can be a carrier or a transporter. While reading the volume, it felt important to keep in mind that the Greek root of metaphor is “to carry across,” which suggests transport across the distance of comprehension. But it also feels important to bear in mind the way words carry weight and significance, holding meaning over time, as we are reminded in “Bust” with all of the different ways of referring to breasts. Holding and transporting aren’t at odds necessarily, but they do have very different purposes. How do you think poems in particular serve these purposes simultaneously? When is it more important for a poem to hold and when is it more important for a poem to transport?

What a fascinating question. I don’t know if I think there is a way of quantifying what is more important when, but I do know that there are times when a poem only needs to point out something. It only needs to say, Look, Hear, Feel, Be. And other times it needs to loop and wobble and interrogate and maybe even transform the moment into something larger. We need both, however. If poems were always just transforming ordinary events into something more, I think we would distrust them. If they were always trying to give us something, to answer something, to offer something, we’d eventually push them away. I am wary of perceived wisdom, of the wise poem. I have no wisdom to offer. I can only wonder and worry and keep at a thing until it unfolds or pries open enough for me to see inside. Sometimes a poem is only saying this is what is inside me right now, and I cannot control it, but I can describe it and maybe describing it might make me feel like I can control it. And sometimes a poem comes back and tells you something you had no idea was there, no idea was important. One hopes it’s like that for the reader, too. One hopes that they won’t come for answers or wisdom, but for an exposure, an excavation, an opening.

Naming comes up frequently in The Carrying. In the very first poem, “A Name,” naming is a plea for acknowledgment, and in “The Dead Boy” in which a boy loses his name in the speaker’s mind because the circumstances of his death are more powerful. Can you discuss why naming is so important throughout this collection? And, since finding the right words to describe an experience or an object is its own kind of naming, what is the relationship, for you, between naming and finding the right words to construct a poem?

This is very true—naming is essential to me in a way that I am still discovering. Whether we believe in Lingualism or Language of Thought theories, the way we organize our thinking, the way we engage with the world, is in how we engage with a sort of naming, identifying what we see around us. I think a lot about how many languages are dying and how quickly they are being erased and what that means for the world. Even as a child I have names for things that aren’t really names, but markers, a way of owning them. There’s a hubris to naming, too. Who am I to name anything? Maybe a thing would rather tell me its name than be given a name by me. But how we own our experiences, how we recast, how we retell our stories—there is an incredible power in that. It is both a way of seeing and a way of being seen. It’s also the way of restructuring power, too. Who is allowed to tell their story and why? No one person has to own the naming—it is free—it is yours.

There are a handful of poems in The Carrying that come from your collaborative project for The New Yorker with poet Natalie Diaz, “Envelopes of Air.” Many of these poems center on the theme of how the body fills space and moves through space. I am thinking of the way the body learns to readjust itself like the leaves do after feeling the rush of a train move through the air in “Sway,” or how the body wishes to be “untethered and tethered all at once” after touching the Pacific Ocean in “Sometimes I Think My Body Leaves a Shape in the Air.” You open “Sway” by asking “What is it about words that make the world fit easier?” But these poems also make me ask, what is it about words that make it easier to fit in the world?

Thank you; this goes back to the earlier questions as well. Why is it that writing our experience or “naming” helps. It helps because it gives us a place to put everything. Poetry, for me, is the answer to the question, “Where do I put all of this?” Natalie Diaz and I, while we were writing our exchange, kept coming back to the idea of what it is to be a body, what it is to be something moving through the world while the world is moving through you. To not just be a human that is dominant and in control, but also a part of nature, the universe, and embrace that unknowing, embrace the mystery of being. Writing and reading offer that exploration a place, and it does make you feel less alone. Writing to Natalie Diaz was one of the great pleasures of my creative life because there were always new questions, a new way of looking, and she was guiding me as much as I was guiding her so that it was a dance, two brains dancing without answers. It also gave us a place—the page—where we could be very vulnerable because we trust one another. The letter-poems were always only meant for each other and because of that, we were able to explore issues without thinking about a larger audience. Writing those poems truthfully made it easier for me to be in the world. I feel grateful for her words every day.

Poems often encourage us to read them through to the end, only so we can start back at the beginning. This attribute lends poetry to subject matters that we think about over and over (and over and over) again. Subjects like those that power your work—like love, grief, memory, childbearing, and more broadly about what makes a life feel full—are subjects that we don’t arrive at a conclusion about quickly or easily, and are impossible to separate into such easily demarcated categories. How do poems—writing them or reading them—help us to grapple with these kinds of complicated subjects? How do poems help us when we have that feeling, “I am always in too many worlds”?

Most poets I know, at one point or another, get asked the question, “What are your poems about?” And the truth is, as you say in your astute questions, all of the subjects are the same. We are all writing about the same things: grief, death, love, sex, desire, dreams, being alive, loneliness, nature, gratitude, pain, mortality, mortality, mortality, and so forth. How do we have answers to those big ticket topics? We don’t. We can only return to them again and again and dig our finger in the wound again. It seems after we surrender to that, there’s a way in which the poems are saying: I am here, I am here. That’s their great gift: we are simply shouting or whispering that we exist, and in doing so someone else might open a book or read a singular poem and think, “Oh wow, I exist too.” Sometimes that is all it is, and sometimes that is exactly enough.

Ada Limón is the author of five poetry collections, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Her fourth book, Bright Dead Things, was named a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, she serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.