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