The Food I’ve Eaten, The Weeds I’ve Picked, The Loves I’ve Had: An Interview with Ada Limón

Interview conducted by Megan Arlett

Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and was named one of the top 5 poetry books of the year by the Washington Post. 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. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the online and summer programs for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky.

Among its multiplicity of awards, Ada’s book The Carrying was named a finalist for UNT’s 2019 Rilke Prize, a prize intended to recognize a book by a mid-career poet that demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision. In November 2019 she visited Denton to read from her work and, after returning home to Lexington, was generous enough to expand upon some of the ideas and thoughts she’d spoken of during her time with us.

Megan Arlett: When you visited us in Denton, you spoke about your earlier books and feeling like that version of yourself did well with the poetic tools you had at that time. What tools in your toolbox do you feel like Sharks-in-the-River-Ada and Lucky-Wreck-Ada used best, and which tools are you glad to have now discovered? In a similar vein, is there anything you feel like you’re still trying to stock your toolbox with.

Ada Limón: Doesn’t that seem so long ago. Denton with our drinks under bistro lights and good conversation and a big table full of poets. Let’s see, I do remember saying that! The one part of me that feels consistent in my early work until now is the sense of questioning. Those early poems rarely provide answers and they are still interested in the interrogation, the relationship to the world, the strangeness of it all. I also think that they are interested in mystery to some extent, yes, there is personal narrative or story of the self, but also a sense of the unknowable. Sound, too, is at play with those earlier poems. I’ve always been driven by sound and rhythm and how a pattern can shift something around within your mind, your body. What I am working on in my later work is making a connection, and a balance, a balance of clarity and musicality and mystery all working at once. I think that may be the project of my life—how to write poems that reach outward and inward at the same time.

MA: I know you cite Elizabeth Bishop as an early and continued influence on your writing. Of course, her work in received form is that kind of top-of-my-head-taken-off-poetry, but I’m always most delighted by her playfulness and rule breaking. I constantly return to “The Map” and how she sets up this strict rhyme scheme that she then totally abandons for a stanza before coming back to it. Or, in “Arrival at Santos” when the “S” at the end of Glens Falls literally falls onto the beginning of a new stanza. I noticed, particularly in Bright Dead Things, that kind of subtlety of form: the fourteen lines of “State Bird,” the couplets that often close your poems either with slant rhyme or a kind of sonic resonance, and there’s a four-beat line that I think quietly pervades that book. With all of this in mind, I’d love to know more about your relationship with form and Bishop, not necessarily received form, but the influence she has on choices you make at that level.

AL: Thank you for this. I think Bishop’s sense of sound was brilliant. She is known for being the “great eye” but for me, she always seemed to be the “great ear” and the patterns she made in her work always felt like something she had recognized in the poem, rather than forced into her poem, into a form. She wrote, and the pattern emerged, and then she wrote toward it. I feel that way, I am not interested in creating a pattern for the sake of a pattern or a form for the sake of a form, but I’m interested in how something surprises me on the page. How a sudden rhyme or form or repetition can appear and it’s as if the page is trying to tell me something, making me focus on what it is that the inner life of the poem is revealing. That’s one of the great joys of writing. Discovering what the poem wants to do and following it.

I first read Bishop in high school because the poem “One Art” was on a test. I thought it was the most beautiful and complex thing I had ever read. I didn’t know what the form was, but for some reason, describing the poem, talking about it, came naturally to me. I still remember, at 15, being able to describe the poem in some detail and marveling at the punctuation, the parenthetical statement, the exclamation point. It was so exact. I was in awe. After that, I thought that writing poetry was a type of magic that I desperately wanted to have access to. “One Art” was a game changer for me. It’s a poem I still look at and learn from. The truly great poems are like that; they become our teachers.

MA: You give a lot of interviews (thanks, again!). Do you remember the first times you spoke about your work this way and could you speak to how those conversations have or haven’t changed over time? I’d also love to know how you see these exchanges with regards to literary community and the work we do as poets outside of the work on the page.

AL: First of all, thank you for honoring me with your time and your wonderful questions! My first interviews were around when Lucky Wreck first came out (so 15 years ago!) and I suddenly had to talk about poem making. And worse, my own poem making. I found it really difficult. It’s a skill I’ve had to learn. I can distinctly remember talking with a friend in Central Park and him asking me about my endings, he liked how the endings of my poems worked and he wanted to know more, and I just couldn’t speak. I was entirely frozen. I finally admitted to him that I’d much rather write poems than talk about writing poems. He was shocked. The truth was, I didn’t have the language for it. I knew what I was doing when I was alone at my desk, but I didn’t know how to share that with anyone. But the interviews helped me find language, and they helped to build a broader community, reach folks that can’t come to a reading, or simply just connect with prose as opposed to a poem. The thing I fear, and have always feared, about interviews is that I have to come off as having some sort of wisdom. I’m not sure if I even believe in wisdom.

Over time, I’m learned (hopefully) how to talk about my own work and poetry in general. I am amazed at the new generation of poets and how articulate and brave they are when they are talking about their own work. I learn just by watching them interrogate their own process. For me, and maybe this is because I started out in a different art form (my undergraduate degree is in theater), there’s still a fear that in talking about poetry, the magic of it, the ethereal mystery of what happens when a poem moves through the body and to the page, will disappear. Luckily, so far that hasn’t happened. I’m a big believer in the ways poems can change a person, because I’ve had that experience. And I’ve seen it happen to others. Do I know why that happens? As I’ve aged and grown as a writer, I’m more inclined to say this: I don’t know. But oh how I love that it does.

MA: With community in mind, what have been the most important and defining editorial relationships for you?

AL: My friendships are everything to me. Both in and out of the poetry world. I don’t think I could be who I am and do what I do without the support and care of such good friends who look out for me and read my poems and gently push me in one direction or another. My early readers of my poems mean so much to me. My stepfather and my mother read every first draft of every poem I write. That might sound strange to some, but my stepfather was a writer and he has known my work since the beginning so when he says something is or isn’t working, I trust him implicitly. In terms of editorial relationships, Wayne Miller has been my editor for Sharks in the Rivers, Bright Dead Things, and The Carrying, along with Joey McGarvey and now the marvelous Lee Oglesby with Milkweed Editions. My books would not be the books they are without their expert guidance. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever made anything alone.

MA: My roommate’s cat (Marvin, chaotic neutral) knocked a mug of coffee onto my copy of Bright Dead Things last week which has led to some cool new patterns and images to accompany the text. I know that your mother is the artist behind your book covers and, when I read your work, I’m always thinking about art-making, collaboration, and acts of creation that refuse the idea of an artist as a solitary hermit in a cave waiting for the inspiration lightning to strike. What has your mother’s engagement with your art taught you about it? Did you imagine your books differently before and after seeing those images?

AL: Oh Marvin! Thank you for this question. All of the covers of my books are paintings from my mother, Stacia Brady, but it’s interesting because they came after the books were finished. I’d give her my manuscript and she’d paint toward the poems. Sometimes I’d give her some words or themes that I thought were swirling in the poems and she’d write that down on her studio wall and paint thinking about those words. I have always wanted to be able to make paintings or drawings or do any sort of visual art, but I have no skill for it. But what I’ve noticed, or what I think about, is how making something is always in relationship to something else. I’m not making a poem out of nothing, I’m making it out of the trees I’m seeing, the food I’ve eaten, the weeds I’ve picked, the loves I’ve had, the dead I grieve, the sounds I hear, the way my body feels, the dog at my feet, the white noise of the fan, the smell of sweetgrass, all the poems I’ve ever read, all the music I’ve heard, all of that is working through me and those are my materials. When my mother responds to my words, she has that too, moving through her, it’s powerful. My books don’t quite feel done until she completes the cover.

MA: How do other forms of making energize your writing practice? Gardening, of course, is full of those kinds of craft metaphors and is all through The Carrying (production editor Scott Ray and I both had frustrating experiences with zucchini growing last summer). I’d love to know if you’ve had any forays that weren’t fruitful or were frustrating in a way that has been informative.

AL: Yes, great question. Also, incidentally, a rabbit has just eaten all of my zucchini, so I will have none this year. I love to make things and there are times that I get inspired and write large projects that end up failing. Or rather, it’s not what I wanted to make when it started, and yet I’ve learned so much from it. I’ve written three works of fiction now and they are all books that I’ve enjoyed writing immensely, but I don’t think I’d want to release them into the world.  They’re just not good enough for public consumption. And so? They sit in my basement in their orange boxes and I have no regrets. They were good friends while I was making them. They pulled me through to the other side with words and the imagination. I love them, my little failures. But yes, I also write songs and sing and can strum along to some easy chords on a guitar. For a few years in Brooklyn, I sang in a band. I still make music with my old bandmate. All of that brings me joy. There’s something about making something just for the joy of making something. We don’t do that enough. We are interested in selling and marketing and producing. But what about play? What about just playing for the sake of playing? I want to keep doing that for as long as I can. The freedom to play, to get messy, to screw up, even to fail, all of that fuels my poetry.

Megan Arlett was born in the UK, grew up in Spain, and now lives in Texas where she is pursuing her PhD at UNT. She is an editor at the Plath Poetry Project. The recipient of two Academy of American Poets Prizes, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2019, Best New British and Irish Poets, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and Third Coast.