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Ada Limón, the US Poet Laureate, on "The Hurting Kind" REBROADCAST


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An undated author photo of poet Ada Limón, courtesy of the Milkweed Press

An undated author photo of poet Ada Limón, courtesy of the Milkweed Press

courtesy of the Milkweed Press

At first, Ada Limón wasn’t able to write poetry during the pandemic. And then she wrote a poem called “The Hurting Kind.” From that flowed the rest of her new book of poems under that same name. We talked to Limón, the poet laureate of the United States, before an audience in April 2023 at the Literary Arts space in downtown Portland.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross, in for Dave Miller. And we’re coming to you live from the Literary Arts space in downtown Portland. Ada Limón’s poetry just seems to be made for this time, through plain and loving language. She finds joy and even sacredness in the mundane and every day, like hearing the call of a sparrow or taking out the trash. She also beautifully captures the agitation and anxiety that comes with being a human right now, when our leaders are telling us the emergency is over, but we’re still feeling something like a threat. Ada Limón’s poetry lives in that liminal space between serenity and grief and many other intersections. Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry and her latest is called “The Hurting Kind” and she is the poet laureate of the United States. Ada Limón, welcome to Portland and welcome to Literary Arts. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Ada Limón: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Norcross: I’d like you to start with a poem that gets at that idea of living in peace and nervousness at the same time and in a space that you call ‘between the ground and the feast.’ It’s called “Not The Saddest Thing In The World.” Could you read that for me, please?

Limón: I’d be honored. Thank you.

[Reading the poem: “Not the Saddest Thing in the World”]

‘All day I feel some itchiness

around the collar, constriction of living. I write

the date at the top of a letter, though

no one has been writing the year lately

I write the year. Seems like a year you

should write, huge and round and awful.

In between my tasks, I find a dead fledgling,

maybe dove, maybe dunno to be honest,

too embryonic, too see through and wee.

I don’t even mourn him, just all matter-of-

fact-like take the towel, plant the limp body

with a new hosta under the main feeder.

Seems like a good place for a close-eyed

Thing, forever close-eyed, under a green plant

in the ground, under the feast up above. Between

the ground and the feast is where I live now.

Before I bury him, I snap a photo and beg

my brother and my husband to witness this

nearly clear body. Once it has been witnessed

and buried, I go about my day which isn’t

ordinary exactly because nothing is ordinary

now even when it is ordinary. Now, something’s

breaking always on the skyline falling over

and over against the ground sometimes

unnoticed, sometimes covered up like sorrow,

sometimes buried without even a song.’

Norcross: I love that line. I go about my day, which isn’t ordinary exactly, because nothing is ordinary. It’s like everything has been elevated to something meaningful. How did you learn to be awestruck by such things?

Limón: I think I’ve always been interested in what deep attention does to the mind. So if I’m looking really closely at something or deeply paying attention to the moment, it becomes almost surreal. And I think there’s a beauty in that and I love living in that idea of wonder and the idea of awe and those moments that can open for us, if we’re really present, and we think about what’s happening in our bodies and our minds just even in this moment, it’s exceptional and strange. Being alive is really weird and I think about that a lot, the human experience is super bizarre. And, I think even as a kid, I felt that, I was very aware of that. And so I think it has always been something that has kept me writing poetry, is coming back to, to those moments of the strangeness of the life experience.

Norcross: How do you get yourself into those spaces in such a noisy world?

Limón: I think it’s, it’s very interesting right now to find moments of peace and quiet. And if it’s not sort of audio, then it’s also the visual, right? Like there’s no way to sort of get away from the phone screen or the computer screen or sounds, even those of us who are like, ‘I’m gonna take a walk,’ they’re like, and ‘I’m also gonna call my parents’ or ‘I’m gonna call a friend’ or ‘I’m going to listen to a podcast.’ All of those things are great, but I also think it’s really important to find those moments of silence and quiet. Even if it’s just for a minute. And every time someone says to me that they have trouble writing, I think when was the last time you were just quiet for a second? Because if you can find five minutes of quiet, the voice that comes to you, I call it the voice underneath the voice. That is where the poet lives. And it’s a little hard to dig out sometimes amongst like the chaos and the noisiness of the world.

Norcross: You’ve written, it’s my secret work to be worthy of this infinite discourse where everything is interesting, because you point it out and say, isn’t that interesting? That is power actually. But when you think about it, isn’t that what poetry has always done, kind of elevated the obvious?

Limón: Yeah, I think that it’s always elevated the moment it’s elevated. It’s, it’s, making what we know strange again to us, it’s allowing us to witness it in a new way, and I think that so often we’re taught that we have to kind of numb out to the world in order to get from one moment to the next, right? If we felt everything all the time, we would just be lying down on the floor and giving up. So I think there’s a part of us that knows that in order to protect ourselves, we have to shut down some elements because we have to get from point A to point B, we have to go to work or we have to go to school or we have to do a project. We have deadlines, we have obligations. We have to make a living, all of those things. And yet I feel like poetry turns on that part of us that recognizes that we are deeply feeling people and that we are actually really noticing and paying attention to the world. But sometimes it’s so hard to stop and do that, because if we do, we’ll recognize all of the grief that we’re experiencing, some of the joy that we’re experiencing and that can be overwhelming. So poetry is a way of turning it on. It’s a protected space for those feelings.

Norcross: When did you first fall in love with language and, and who or what put you on the path to becoming a poet?

Limón: I always loved poetry. But I also loved songs. I always wrote songs when I was a kid. I had a big Labrador named Dusty, and I would just write songs and sing them to my dog. And she, I think, very much enjoyed them.

And then when I was in high school, I was 15 and there was a poem that was on a test. It was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. And I remember reading it and thinking, ‘oh, this is a love poem’ and it was extraordinary. And I remember my high school English teacher, Mrs. Layal, was so surprised because I asked her if I could keep the test so that I could keep the poem. And Elizabeth Bishop remains one of my favorite poets, poets to this day. She was also a poet laureate.

Norcross: You grew up in English speaking houses, but your grandfather spoke Spanish.

Limón: Yeah.

Norcross: I don’t see any literal Spanish words in your poetry. But is that language in there in some way?

Limón: Yeah. I mean, I think that it’s interesting because I knew him, his Spanish was almost always in song, because he was a great singer, he had this really deep, beautiful voice. And so like the Spanish I recognize the most is always in song. And he sang quite a bit and so I think it’s, it’s in there and it’s a different kind of musicality. But I think the way that he sort of sang back to the world, is part of what I’m doing, is singing back to the world.

Norcross: There’s a, there’s a poem in your book, “The Carrying,” it’s called “The Contract Says We’d Like The Conversations To Be Bilingual.” Could you read that for us, please?

Limón: Sure. I wrote this poem thinking about the difference between representation and tokenization.

[Reading the poem: “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual”]

‘When you come, bring your brown-

ness so we can be sure to please

the funders. Will you check this

box; we’re applying for a grant.

Do you have any poems that speak

to troubled teens? Bilingual is best.

Would you like to come to dinner

with the patrons and sip Patrón?

Will you tell us the stories that make

us uncomfortable, but not complicit?

Don’t read the one where you

are just like us. Born to a green house,

garden, don’t tell us how you picked

tomatoes and ate them in the dirt

watching vultures pick apart another

bird’s bones in the road. Tell us the one

about your father stealing hubcaps

after a colleague said that’s what his

kind did. Tell us how he came

to the meeting wearing a poncho

and tried to sell the man his hubcaps

back. Don’t mention your father

was a teacher, spoke English, loved

making beer, loved baseball, tell us

again about the poncho, the hubcaps,

how he stole them, how he did the thing

he was trying to prove he didn’t do.’

Norcross: Many organizations, and it has to be said, including the one that I work for are on a path for diversity, equity, inclusion and safety. And that includes hearing some uncomfortable truths about racist expectations. Do you regularly feel like you’re only allowed to tell certain stories about yourself?

Limón: Yeah, I think that any time anyone has an idea about me or what I should do or who I am or what I’m allowed to write about, my first thought is I wanna do the opposite and I just become all elbows about it. And as soon as someone is like, well, you are doing this and this is the art you make, I think, now, I’m not gonna make that art anymore. I’m gonna do something entirely different and I’ve always been that way.

I’m also very aware of what it is to represent my Mexican ancestry in a way that really cherishes and honors and upholds the legacy of my people, but at the same time makes room for that there’s many different ways to be Latinx, like there’s many different ways to be Latina, so that, it’s, it’s not just one thing. There is no, there’s no one way to be an artist in this world and there’s no one way to be a Latina in this world. And so I think I’m making space, hopefully for all the different multiplicities of those identities.

Norcross: Ada, I heard you say that you were raised by atheists. I mean, that, that actually surprised me because I, I feel in your poetry a reaching for the divine, whatever that is. So, what, are you rebelling against your upbringing a little bit?

Limón: No, I think that there’s a lot of different ways to talk and think and feel about the sacred. And my mother, in particular, really didn’t believe in organized religion. She still doesn’t. And so as a kid, that was not part of our conversation, but we talked deeply about witnessing the world, what it was to be connected to things, what it was to find a sense of wholeness within the natural world, to have a feeling like there was something larger at play and that could be the planet. That could literally be the mysteries of nature. And it could be the fact that we are part of nature and all of that was just as sacred as any of the sacred texts, right? So that was a big part of it.

So I think that if there is a searching in my work, it’s not for an organized religion or religion in general, but as a way of finding wholeness and making sense out of the deep question of our own mortality and how one lives on this planet to their fullest and how one looks after one another and themselves, at a time when it’s not just chaos we’re up against, but also our own internal struggles. So I think there’s always that, those questions there, that curiosity. And I think one of the best things that my mother taught me was that to live in the questions can be beautiful, to not always have to surrender to someone else’s answers can be beautiful.

Norcross: If anybody has questions for Ada Limón, I would love to be able to entertain a few of them. And if you could introduce yourself to us and ask your question, please.

Audience Member: So I have a quote from you from a while ago and it reads, “I suppose in my life, I have never done things the ordinary way. I’m either deep in the bottom of the well or nowhere near the water.” So I’m curious about how your sensibilities and your sensitivities are informed by this.

Limón: Yes, thank you. I don’t remember saying that, but I believe it. And I think that for me, I’m very aware of having always felt a little bit different. And I think that I witness things in a different way and sometimes it has disturbed me. I pay it, like a deep attention can be also hard, right? Because it means you’re witnessing everything all at once. And if we felt, like I said, everything all at once, it can be really intense. And so I have felt a life of intensity. I think that what I have done with that and how I have worked with that is to create some equanimity and space around that intensity. So that actually that deep attention and that deep feeling has become a gift, instead of something I have to push against. And I think when I was younger, it was overwhelming and now I’ve added more space around it, so I can appreciate that, as opposed to feel like it’s holding me in some kind of trap of high energy emotion.

Norcross: We have a class from Woodburn High School who’ve joined us here today. So glad to hear a question. What’s your name?

Audience Member: My name is Bella Mendoza and I guess my question is, growing up as a Person of Color, you have these certain expectations to follow a more traditional career. And I guess my question is, how did you choose to follow your career or what were your parents thoughts on you following a career in literature?

Limón: Yeah, that’s really beautiful. I appreciate that question. And I think that’s very true. I know that my grandfather, when he came from Mexico, he was from San Juan de Los Lagos in Jalisco. I don’t think choosing art was an option for him, right? And he really chose a steady job. He worked for Con Edison. And I think that my father and all of his siblings were similar. Everyone was about finding that really steady job that would protect and preserve their lives. And I think partly, I had the opportunity to expand that idea of what the options were because my mother was an artist, she was a painter.

Then I think the other part of it was the encouragement I had from my dad, who was my elementary school principal. So he was in education his whole life, very serious about creating security. I think that he really saw in me that it meant everything to me to explore the arts. My mother and my stepfather were all in, I had to win over my dad a little bit. But honestly, I think he saw how much it meant to me and he also knew that I knew there was no safety net. I wasn’t someone who could fall back on money. I wasn’t someone who was gonna be like, ‘oh, you can’t make your rent, here is this.’ He knew that I was going to do my best to also have other jobs, and I think he trusted me with that, and so I feel really grateful that they trusted me with that, but it wasn’t without convincing and proving myself in many ways, being that straight A student, being the person that made sure that I got on the dean’s list so I could maintain my scholarship. All of those things were really important.

I think in that way, the freedom of being an artist also came with the responsibilities of knowing how to take care of myself and knowing how to pay my rent and make a living. And I think actually money is something that artists don’t talk about enough. But I think there’s a way to do it and to find the balance of making art and finding security. And I think that some of us, especially those of us who are first generation or second generation, have to find that way.

Norcross: You spoke about the support that you had from your mother and your father, but also stepmother, stepfather. And I, like you, had two sets of parents and it took me a little while to recognize the gift that that was. And in fact, you have, you have a poem that speaks to that it’s called “Joint Custody.” Do you mind reading that, please?

Limón: I would love to.

[Reading the poem: “Joint Custody”]

‘Why did I never see it for what it was:

abundance? Two families, two different

kitchen tables, two sets of rules, two

creeks, two highways, two stepparents

with their fish tanks or eight-tracks or

cigarette smoke or expertise in recipes or

reading skills. I cannot reverse it, the record

scratched and stopping to that original

chaotic track. But let me say, I was taken

back and forth on Sundays and it was not easy

but I was loved each place. And so I have

two brains now. Two entirely different brains.

The one that always misses where I’m not,

and the one that is so relieved to finally be home.’

Norcross: What do you mean by two brains?

Limón: I think that I’ve recognized in my life, it’s not unlike code switching or switching languages or, depending on who you’re talking to - I had two families. And so I knew how to walk into one family and adjust to the rules and walk into another family and adjust to the rules. And I actually think that has given me a huge gift on how to be in different communities, on how to be flexible. I don’t think I recognized that as a skill, until years and years later, that that was actually something that made me who I am, was that I could be in this sort of abundance of parenting and watch this set of parents do it this way and watch this set of parents do it this way and be without judgment, but just be within that and move fluidly. And I actually think, there were a lot of lessons that were learned from that, that have made me who I am.

Norcross: An abundance of parenting. It was overwhelming at times, wasn’t it?

Limón: Yeah.

Norcross: Another question.

Audience Member: I’m Charles Sanderson and I have the just amazing pleasure to work with brilliant inspiring students down in Woodburn, Oregon. And despite the vast majority being multilingual, because of white supremacy and colonization, they often come to me with really damaged linguistic self-esteem. So I’m curious, what would be strategies to help repair linguistic and literary self esteem and then fortify it?

Limón: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. I think one of the things that we forget is that the way that we come into this world, like all of our language, our musicality is incredible, like it really is. And if you think about the different languages, if you think about Spanish, OK, Spanish is also a colonizing language, right? And if you think about English, colonizing language. When I was in Mexico recently, on stage with me was a poet who read in Nahuatl and a poet who read in P’urhepécha, to hear the original native languages of Mexico was incredible for me. But it reminded me that that kind of musicality that we have, no matter what, if it feels broken to you, it’s also your own music. And that kind of switching in between, I feel like there’s a way to praise that.

I think about, a lot in bilingual text now, there’s so many great poets. I think about Eduardo C. Corral, Natalie Diaz, who are working and switching back and forth, so that it’s very seamless between languages. So I think that is part of it, exposing them to that kind of work, to recognizing that it’s not broken. It’s actually a singular music that can make them not only better readers, but better writers because they live in two worlds, and maybe sometimes even more worlds than that. And I don’t know, for me, it’s taken me a long time to understand that all of that can be actual, not just gifts but tools that can improve your own ability to actually witness the world, because a lot of people can only see things one way and many of us can see things many different ways. And that’s a superpower.

Norcross: I’m struck at how you live in the convergence of lots of different worlds, English and Spanish like we spoke. But this family and that family, city and country. I mean, what do you find interesting in these spaces where things converge?

Limón: I find it always, like anything that’s sort of the ‘between’ spaces, that feels to me where all of the interesting stuff happens, right? It’s like everything that’s the cracks between things. Where nature collides with human existence, all of those things to me are where we get to witness our effect on the world and where we get to witness also where two things kind of come together and have a conversation, and sometimes it’s tough conversation and sometimes it’s a good conversation.

I think often, when I lived in New York City, I remember following this little girl who kept asking her dad, ‘what kind of bird is that?’ And he’d say ‘a pigeon’ and she’d be like, ‘what kind of bird is that?’ And he says it’s ‘a pigeon’ and ‘what kind of bird is that?’ And he’d say ‘it’s a pigeon.’ And she just said, ‘oh, when am I ever gonna see a real bird?’ And I thought, no, I was like poor pigeons and then I kept thinking about pigeons where they were cliff dwellers. Like that’s how they can exist in these cities and stand on these high rises, that’s an amazing skill.

I don’t know, I feel like I’ve always been someone who gets excited about how we survive together. And I think that as the climate crisis continues, we’re gonna have to think of ways that we can survive together more and more and envision a different future. And I don’t know, I think we need to think about those spaces of collision and be really bearing witness to them in a true way.

Norcross: We talked about your city and country lives a little bit before the break. You lived in New York. Now you live in Kentucky. How did that change of scene affect your poetry?

Limón: Oh, I mean, hugely. So, I loved living in New York, but I hadn’t realized how much it was all about the hustle culture. And to live in a very little apartment in Brooklyn…

Norcross: Talk about trying to find quiet.

Limón: Yeah, and I had to work all the time and I just worked all the time and I kept thinking like, how can I not get ahead? Like, how come I don’t have more money in the bank? And so that was really difficult and so I love New York, but leaving it for a place that allowed me a little more space, a little more ease was, was actually a really great decision. I think what that change of scenery did for me really was allow me more space to write, allowed me more quiet and I’m forever grateful for that. And, the book “Bright Dead Things” really came out of that transition.

Norcross: There are a lot of animals in your poetry, including and especially horses. Is that a product of living in Kentucky?

Limón: Yeah, everyone always says like, ‘what are the horses a metaphor for?’ And I’m like, ‘no, they’re actual horses.’ I live in Kentucky and so I look out the window and I see horses. Also my mother was a caretaker on a 40 acre horse ranch growing up. They were all retired police horses from San Francisco and she was the caretaker on the ranch. And so I grew up around horses and yeah, they’re, to me, a very mysterious animal and they’re sort of unlike the kind of pet - there’s no, no sort of dog or cat element to a horse. A horse feels like a wild thing. But they’ll also kind of tell you what it needs and there can be such a communion. So, yeah, I have a lot of poems about them and I think a lot of it is because I feel like I could never know a horse truly. And that feels like people. You could never know a person truly either.

Norcross: You have a beautiful poem in “The Hurting Kind” that’s about horses, but it’s clearly about something else. It’s called “Foaling Season.” Do you mind?

Limón: Of course.

[Reading the poem: “Foaling Season”]

1

‘In the dew-saturated foot-high blades

of grass, we stand amongst a sea

of foals, mare and foal, mare and foal,

all over the soft hillside there are twos,

small duos ringing harmoniously in the cold,

swallows diving in and out, their fabled

forked tail where the story says the fireball

hit it as it flew to bring fire to humanity.

Our friend the Irishman drives us in the Gator

to sit amongst them. Everywhere doubles

of horses still leaning on each other, still nuzzling

and curious with each new image.

2

‘Two female horses, retired mares, separated

by a sliding barn door, nose each other.

Neither of them will get pregnant again,

their job is to just be a horse. Sometimes,

though, they cling to one another, find a friend

and will whine all night for the friend

to be released. Through the gate, the noses

touch, and you can almost hear—

Are you okay? Are you okay?

3

‘I will never be a mother.

That’s all. That’s the whole thought.

I could say it returns to me, watching the horses.

Which is true.

But also I could say that it came to me

as the swallows circled us over and over,

something about that myth of their tail,

how generosity is punished by the gods.

But isn’t that going too far? I saw a mare

with her foal, and then many mares

with many foals, and I thought, simply:

I will never be a mother.

4

‘One foal is a biter, and you must watch

him as he bares his teeth and goes

for the soft spot. He’s brilliant, leggy,

and comes right at me, as if directed

by some greater gravity, and I stand

firm, and put my hand out first, rub

the long white marking on his forehead,

silence his need for biting with affection.

I love his selfishness, our selfishness,

the two of us testing each other, swallows

all around us. Every now and then, his

teeth come at me once again; he wants

to teach me something, wants to get me

where it hurts.’

Norcross: ‘I will never be a mother.’ You have unflinching poems about your inability to have children and your eventual embrace and acceptance of that life. And that resonates with me because I am in love with a woman who went on the same journey. Can you talk about how your childlessness or maybe your child freedom, maybe that’s how you look at it, how does that show up in your work?

Limón: It was a very interesting thing to start writing about, because I think I had always envisioned, like many people do, that they will be parents. And I thought that that was sort of my journey. And then when it turned out not to be the case and we started to struggle, and went through all the treatments and all of those things, even during the treatments, I started to question, I wonder what would happen if I was OK with not being a mother, which I think I ask myself a lot of things like that, like what would happen if I was just OK with myself? What would that look like? What would happen if I really allowed myself to be free in my own body and in my own mind? I started to think about it even in those treatments that maybe, I could be fine either way. And that was huge.

Then when we decided to stop the treatments, that felt also like a power, like not continuing down that road any longer. And then it also felt like a choice even though of course, my husband will say, ‘oh, it wasn’t really a choice,’ but in some ways, I feel like we could have gone further and decided not to.

And then I think also, there’s many different ways to be in the world. And one of the biggest things for me was being child free has given me really a way of being an artist in a different way. I have much more time to write. I travel a ton. My husband and I are really inseparable. We adore each other. And I think that we have embraced being a family in a way that is without the child at the center, but it’s our love at the center. And I think there’s a real beauty in that, too.

I think that a lot of it is not dissimilar to what I was saying earlier about thinking about divorced parents or any of those things. It’s like, what is the moment where you can flip the narrative and stop listening to what everyone else says or what everyone else wants you to be and start listening to what it is you really want and think of it as possibility instead of limitation.

Norcross: Well, maybe the thing you really want to listen to is the birds in the quietude of a house that doesn’t have children in it. And you have a poem about that. It’s called “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”

Limón:

[Reading the poem: “Sparrow, What Did You Say?”]

‘A whole day without speaking,

rain, then sun, then rain again,

a few plants in the ground, newbie

leaves tucked in black soil, and I think

I’m good at this, this being alone

in the world, the watching of things

grow, this older me, the one in

comfortable shoes and no time

for dishes, the one who spent

an hour trying to figure out a bird

with a three-note descending call

is just a sparrow. What would I even

do with a kid here? Teach her

to plant, watch her like I do

the lettuce leaves, tenderly, place

her palms in the earth, part her

dark hair like planting a seed? Or

would I selfishly demand this day

back, a full untethered day trying

to figure out what bird was calling

to me and why.’

Norcross: That’s so beautiful and so much of your poetry is just rich with restorative energies of the natural world. And especially in a confusing and noisy and disconnected time. Where did you learn to love nature?

Limón: I think that I’m someone that has always really loved being alone and I’ve loved being alone in nature. And there was a creek across from the street growing up, called the Calabasas Creek. And it was my place to be away from anyone, away from my older brother, away from my family and I adored them, but that really quiet, secret space. And I remember watching like the minnows and the fish and the little creek snails and thinking how amazing that there was this whole world, this little world underneath the road and that everyone drove over the road and never knew about this world. So I think for me, it has always been a safe space.

Norcross: Ada, your poems are short and they’re short enough that you can read all six of your books in one day if you wanted to.

Limón: I don’t know, you’d have to recover from that.

Norcross: That’s a binge. Why so short?

Limón: It’s funny, for the most part I think “The Carrying” has some longer poems in it. I know there’s some poems that are multiple pages, four or five pages. “The Hurting Kind” is, I think, seven pages. But I think that poetry really benefits from a condensing of emotion and the condensing and crystallization of images. And I also feel like there are times where poems are kind of endless. If you’re really paying attention, you could just keep writing the poem forever. And yet, I love an opening and I love a closing. So if I keep writing the poem forever, I don’t get the pleasure of having an opening and a closing and if you love endings, like I do, you have to make poems that are short enough so that you can experience endings over and over and over again. So I think that’s a big part of it.

I also, on a very sort of logistical level, I love writing poems that people who are not poets will read and that’s a deeply personal thing. But I feel like if I can hand someone a poem and they can read it and experience it within one to two minutes and then walk away, maybe having shifted something even just a tiny little bit, that feels like a great pleasure.

Norcross: I heard you once say that everyone should read a poem a day, one. Is that a minimum recommended daily allowance or should you just stop with one?

Limón: At least one, that’s the required dose, I think, that the doctors recommend.

Norcross: In your, in your early book, “Sharks In the Rivers,” every section is prefaced by a line from a piece of music. What’s the relationship between melody and music and poetry for you?

Limón: Oh, yeah, I love music. I think in it, if I had many, many more lives and maybe I do, I would love to be a musician. I was in a band in Brooklyn for a while. We named ourselves after my first book, we were called Lucky Wreck, and I was the singer and the songwriter.

Norcross: What kind of music was it?

Limón: It was sort of, I wanna say, like a folky, singer, guitar, I’m trying to think of the genre. I guess, it was like folk music, alternative folk. And it was just such a joy. I loved doing it. But I also think that one of my favorite things about poetry is that it’s similar to music, right? But if you think about making a song, you have all of the elements around you. You have the guitar, you have the piano, you have the bass line, you have whatever instruments and they are gonna deepen the music and then you have the melody and the harmony. You have all the voices working together and with a poem, you have to make all the music yourself. And that is the way that you make a poem is that it has to be complete. It’s not waiting for music, it’s not waiting for the baseline. It’s not waiting for someone to make it a song. It is its song. And so I love that part. I love that the actual lineation makes a metric element of music. I love that the line breaks or can be staccato or can be faster. So I love all of that element of basically that, that the whole song has to be within the poem. And I don’t know, that’s always been my sort of comparison between the two because, as much as I love music, there is a real gift to making a song that’s the whole poem, all by yourself.

Norcross: The second section of the book starts with a line from a song from The High Strung and the line is, “I would leave it alone if I could leave it alone.’ Obsession, right?

And the first poem in that section flows from that nicely. It’s called “Crush.” Could you read it?

Limón: Oh, yeah. Has anyone here ever had a crush? I love crushes. I really do. They’re dangerous but they make really good poems. They can make good poems.

[Reading]

‘Maybe my limbs are made

mostly for decoration,

like the way I feel about

persimmons. You can’t

really eat them. Or you

wouldn’t want to. If you grab

the soft skin with your fist

it somehow feels funny,

like you’ve been here

before and uncomfortable,

too, like you’d rather

squish it between your teeth

impatiently, before spitting

the soft parts back up

to linger on the tongue like

burnt sugar or guilt.

For starters, it was all

an accident, you cut

the right branch

and a sort of light

woke up underneath,

and the inedible fruit

grew dark and needy.

Think crucial hanging.

Think crayon orange.

There is one low, leaning

heart-shaped globe left

and dearest, can you

tell, I am trying

to love you less.’

Norcross: Who’s that for?

Limón: Nice try.

Norcross: I don’t need names.

Limón: I remember when I wrote that poem. It actually is one of a few poems that I wrote backwards. I walked into my apartment in Brooklyn and there were three persimmons in a bowl and there was one orange and I was laughing that there was sort of this color between them. And then I was thinking, ‘oh, there’s one left’ and then I thought, ‘oh, I’m gonna build this poem backwards from that.’ And I had the phrase, ‘Dearest, can you tell I’m trying to love you less?’

Norcross: That brings up a great question, which is where do you find inspiration? I mean, in a bowl of persimmons and a bird? Is everything potentially a poem?

Limón: Yes, I really do think that everything is potentially a poem. I honestly think that if you’re a poet or an artist of any kind, the biggest thing about our lives is that we just don’t get bored. We just don’t get bored. Because everything is interesting. Everything, if you look at it close enough, if you talk to anyone deep enough, it’s interesting. Like I always think about what it is to just stare at a little square of space for a while and see what happens to the mind and go, ‘Oh, wow, that’s happening there. Oh, look at that crack on the floor. I wonder where that . . . oh, that’s all of these things.’ And I think that it begins to, like I said, make things strange again and I much prefer that kind of strangeness and wonder to the numbness that it’s easy to kind of adopt as we move through the world.

Norcross: Let’s talk about the pandemic. It forced a lot of us to slow down and think about what we value. Was it a good time to be writing poetry?

Limón: No, no, it was not. I think that poetry has always, and hopefully will continue to be a lifeline for me. So, poetry really helped me so much, both reading it and writing it, through the pandemic. But I think, like many of us, I was feeling really isolated. I was feeling really separated from my family. My whole family is on the west coast and here I was living in Kentucky and not being able to drive over and see them and just worrying about everyone. I think that I had a lot of worry and like many people, I can write from sadness. I can write from having a crush. I can write love poems. I can write happy poems, joyful, honoring. But if I’m really scared or anxious, that’s actually a really, really hard place for me to write from.

So I had to kind of train myself to write again, because honestly, the anxiety was kind of silencing me, because I just kept thinking what happens, what if I lose someone, ‘what if?’ And I kept thinking about everyone in the healthcare industry and it was hard to kind of get out of the self for a little while or get out of the brain, I guess, enough to pay attention to things. And once I started that and started looking at the birds again or started to look at the natural world around me, I could find my poems again.

Norcross: How are you a different writer now, having gone through the experience?

Limón: I think that I have a little bit more interest in the collective as opposed to the individual. I think that I’m very interested in all the things that we all go through together. You know, what the human experience is like, even though we’re all individuals and we all have different experiences. But there [are] similarities: we’re all gonna experience loss, we’re all gonna eventually die, we’re all going to experience sort of the ebb and flows of life, all of those things. So I think that’s a big part of it.

I think the other part of it is that I’m very interested in letting go of stories that aren’t useful anymore. It was a time for me to reflect on the fact that there are a lot of things that people have said to me that I just don’t need anymore that aren’t true anymore, in terms of my identity, in terms of who I am as an artist, in terms of what it is to be child free. And that’s huge. So, yeah, I think it was a big moment of reflection. And I hope I hold those lessons dear and keep learning them.

Norcross: Last question and I’m sorry, we only have about a minute for it, but it’s forward looking because you’re part of this project with NASA. You’re writing a poem that is gonna be engraved on this probe that’s gonna fly by Jupiter and see if there’s good conditions for life on one of its moons and that’s gonna go up next year. What do you think that poem is gonna be?

Limón: It’s a pretty incredible thing yet to think, yeah, I’m sending a poem to space. I actually just finished the poem and they asked me if I would write it in my handwriting because they were going to engrave it on the Europa Clipper, in my own handwriting. So this is what will be going to space in October of 2024. And it’s just a huge honor.

Norcross: Oh, that’s so cool. Ada Limón, it was a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Limón: Thank you.

Norcross: And thank you so much to Literary Arts for hosting us today.

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