A Conversation with Ada Limón
BY LOIS CARLISLE
The author of four collections of poetry, most recently her Milkweed Editions collection Bright Dead Things (named a National Book Award Finalist and Top-Ten Book of the Year by The New York Times), superstar Ada Limón hardly needs an introduction. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California. Interview Correspondent Lois Carlisle was exclamation-point happy to pick Ada’s brain, and you’ll see why below.
Hey, Ada! Thanks so much for speaking with me. It’s not often you get the chance to hear from someone who has accomplished so much in such a short time. Let’s start with a heavy-hitter: Who are you reading right now?
I am seriously loving Major Jackson’s Roll Deep. And I just finished reading the new Larry Levis book, The Darkening Trapeze… he’s such a force. There’s a poem in the book called “Poem Ending With a Hotel on Fire” that begins, “Poor means knowing the trees couldn’t care less.” I can’t tell you how happy I am that we have more work from Levis in the world. My friend Jennifer L. Knox’s book Days of Shame and Failure is just stunning. And Dawn Lundy Martin’s book Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is shattering. I also have to say I’ve been devouring fiction lately. I’ve just read Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life and was destroyed by it. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was excellent, and Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles is insane and marvelous and makes me wish I could write short stories.
Speaking of Levis, where did the choice to use his words as the epigraph to Bright Dead Things come from? Was it like a song stuck in your head?
You know, it actually was stuck in my head like a song. It’s always hard to steal away one of Levis’s lines because the whole poem, “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand,” is just flattening. It’s one of his long strange poems that winds around so beautifully and that quote I took for the epigraph is the ending. It’s always tough to start a book with a quote from a fantastic poet, but I loved this ending as way to choose this moment in time even if this moment is terrible or horrific or worse, ordinary—“Me, I do, it’s mine.”
In Bright Dead Things, you alternate between very organic images of life and mechanized images of mortality. I’m thinking specifically of “The Riveter” and “Relentless.” Why this treatment?
I think that’s true. After being a part of my stepmother’s home death, I become keenly aware of how the body functions all on its own. It seemed so strange that even after a person was so clearly gone, breathing could continue, and the heart would just go on pumping away. It was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Her body was both killing her and making her survive at the same time. I think that changed how I thought about the body from then on. I saw it as a mechanized system that has a mind of its own. But the body isn’t our everything, is it? We are so much more than skin and bone. I think Bright Dead Things has a great deal to do with me coming to terms with this strangeness and praising both the machine and the mystery that makes up a human animal.
Did the move to Kentucky alter the way that you view the machine of yourself?
I think the move to Kentucky was a paradigm shift for me in the sense that I was so driven by my job and by New York’s frantic pulse that I rarely slowed down to breathe and think. In Kentucky I was suddenly flooded with time and with that time came the wildness of the brain. I also think that it was a time when I was really grieving the loss of my stepmom and learning to embrace mortality in a new way, in a way that ignites rather than terrifies. I spent a lot of time walking and thinking and worrying. The book began when I needed to write myself out of that worry.
Was poetry your first method to navigate loss?
I think I have many different ways to navigate loss and big changes. I sit in silence a great deal. I feel utter despair. I go to bed for days. I clean the house over and over and organize things and make room for what’s next. I drink wine with my loved ones and hold them closer. I cry and recover and cry and recover. I get angry and full of rage and I am a useless child and a greedy adult. I turn mean and grumpy and sour. I don’t care about anything, even my work. Grief can be very destructive for me. Poetry comes after those initial necessities, those rages. But when poetry comes to me, it’s usually a way of making sense of the unimaginable. I don’t have answers; I’m simply searching for them.
You grew up in California. I can imagine no greater shift in landscape in the continental US than to go from there to New York City, then to Kentucky. What have these spatial transitions taught you about perception and preconception?
I get very attached to landscapes. The Sonoma Valley, where I was born, feels like not so much like a place I’m from, but a place where I belong. But when I moved to New York City, I became addicted to the pure energy and drive to create in this sparkling cityscape that’s unlike anywhere else. Finally, when I moved to Kentucky (which was a move I struggled against at first), I realized how much green beauty there can be in a place. I think I’m still learning about how to be in the world, but one thing that these big moves and transitions have helped me with is to recognize that every place has something unique to offer. And no matter what new locale you’ve decided to call home, you’re still dragging yourself and your baggage around in the world. Moving can be a restart button, a time to reevaluate what kind of human you want to be and what you want to offer out to the world.
I also realized my own biases were deep. I worked in the magazine industry for a long time and you tend to think about the New York market and the L.A. market and in between is a whole country that often gets lost in the national conversation.
I’m in love with “Down Here.” “I hate it for you,” is a phrase everyone in the South has grown up with. That and “bless your heart.” Did you find regional language working its way into your poetry? What have the vernacular changes taught you?
Oh, thank you so much. As someone who loves language (and is frustrated by its limitations), I’m always hearing some phrase or landing on some new word that’s pushing me into a poem. I love accents, too. I can listen to new accents in new places forever. It feels like I’m being let in to another world. I am in love with long road trips where you can stop and hear someone speaking in an entirely different vernacular than you did just five hours before. There are all kinds of terrible problems with our country, but traveling it makes you realize how large it is, how insane it all is, and how sometimes it’s a miracle we all get by at all.
Moreover, why Kentucky? Not knocking it—just curious.
Ah, yes. My partner, Lucas Marquardt, is a horseracing reporter and also owns a business called ThoroStride, where he takes confirmation videos of thoroughbreds prior to auction. He had wanted to move to Kentucky and I had wanted to move home to Sonoma, California. We were lucky to compromise—we live mostly in Kentucky, but we have a small apartment that friends have lent to us in Sonoma, so we can go back and forth. After four years now, I’ve really grown to love Kentucky and the people and the writing community.
Did you find the southern attachment to place playing a role in your work?
Oh, I think I’ve always been attached to place. I’ve always found creeks and trees to be far more reliable than people. Even as a child, hiding under the tree limbs was a much-preferred spot over the swing set. I think that sense of place and landscape and setting has always been really essential to my work.
They say death and moving house can cause the same level of emotional stress—did you find one feeding the other? Or placating it?
I think that suffering a family death actually encouraged me to change my life. I knew I had wanted to dedicate myself more to my creative work, but I didn’t know how to do it. After Cynthia died, I felt an obligation to live the best that I could. To really honor my time here, but move forward. What the move did, however, was allow for more space for me to really grieve. That aspect was unexpected. And that’s how so many of the poems in that second section were written.
You worked at Martha Stewart Living for a time, I believe. What did you do there? What sort of jobs has a National Book Award Finalist held?
Oh, there are so many jobs! I worked for the National Arts Club, Martha Stewart Omnimedia (I was the Events Manager). I was also an events person and talent wrangler for Brides Magazine, the copy director for GQ, and the Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Now, I freelance write (copy and editorial work), and work as a creative writing instructor for the low-residency Queens University of Charlotte MFA progra and the 24Pearl Street online program through the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. And I’ve had visiting teaching positions at New York University and Columbia University.
What’s the turn feel like to go from judging the NBA to being a finalist?
Being a judge was harder work! I really enjoyed doing it, but it’s a relentless amount of reading and a great deal of intense discussions. The joy of being an NBA finalist after participating in the judging is that I know how hard it was for the judges to pick their top ten and then their top five. I know the work that goes into it. The honor felt very real to me because I could visualize what was happening behind the scenes.
Could you talk about the appearance of horses in Bright Dead Things? You—pardon the pun—start out of the gate in “How To Triumph Like a Girl” with what can only be described as the most badass lady horse of all time. Where did she come from?
Thank you! It’s hard not to write about horses if you live in Kentucky. But the truth is, they appeared in my earlier work, too. I find them fascinating. They are so gigantic and powerful. Perhaps they are what I want to be, what I need in my darkest moments. “How To Triumph Like a Girl” is specifically about the Kentucky Oaks race—the day the fillies race—and a horse named Zenyatta. She’s my all time favorite racehorse. You can look up her races on YouTube; she always comes from behind and just looks like she’s having the most fun doing it. I think I try to channel her when I’m feeling lost.
Are your poems feminist poems?
Without a doubt my poems are feminist poems. I always say my two favorite “F-words” are feminism and forgiveness. There’s a great deal in this book that’s dealing with how to be a woman in this world. But also how there is so much power there, underneath and often unrecognized.
If I could get technical for a moment—how was the decision made to organize the final collection? What was left out or cut from the final copy? Will those things make appearances elsewhere?
There were some poems that didn’t make the cut for sure, but nothing that was removed by my editor Wayne Miller. The final collection was essentially what I submitted with a few (very helpful) fixes. I organized this book into sections and had a clear idea of what each section could be, so anything that didn’t fit in those sections was left out. But also, I cut anything that didn’t seem to forward to the book’s energy at all. I wanted this book to feel very complete.
As someone who grew up in a place with a heck of a lot of nuisance possums, you’ve managed to redeem the whole species for me in “In The Country of Resurrection.” With a mercy killing! Of someone else’s roadkill, no less. How do you manage to humanize interactions like that? Moreover—and in all seriousness—how do you choose which roadkill to make sacred? Possums and snakes are not the most sympathetic creatures.
Growing up, I just hated to see roadkill. I still do. I don’t like the idea of random death for no purpose. I’d see dead jackrabbits with their ears flailing in the wind and burst into tears. Dogs and cats were the worst. I lost my beloved cat to a highway and I haven’t owned a cat since. I think those poems with dead animals were all related to the idea of inevitable death. The idea that all of us, no matter how young, no matter how healthy, and no matter what type of beast we are, could be taken off this planet in a matter of seconds. It’s not so much that roadkill is sacred; it’s that survival is sacred. Even the snake. Even the possum.
Let’s rewind for a minute and talk about the success of your first two collections of poetry. Your case is unusual in that they were released almost back-to-back AND met with acclaim.
Thank you! Yes, Lucky Wreck and This Big Fake World came out within six months of each other. I went from having no books to having two. It was bizarre! Also, both of them were just ordinary submissions to poetry contests. I was just sending out and sending out and sending out. Finally Lucky Wreck got taken by Autumn House Press and then about four months later Pearl Editions called to tell me they wanted This Big Fake World. It was a freak poetry accident of the highest order. I still don’t know how it happened, but I’m glad it did. It gave me the validation I needed to not give up. Neither of them had big reviews in big places, however. Even Sharks in the Rivers was well received, but it didn’t get reviewed in the larger journals. But that’s okay by me. I write because I can’t NOT write, and I write because it gives me a purpose for living; being published is a welcome side effect that helps me find the courage to continue.
Do you think there’s a formula to getting to where you are now?
The best part about poetry is that it’s one of the most authentic of art forms, because there is very, very, very little money involved. No one can sit down and say, “I’m going to write a million dollar poem.” And because of that, you just do it because you need to do it. You do it because there’s something singing or screaming inside of you that demands attention. If any kind of career that comes out of that, than great, but if it doesn’t than you still do it. You still have to bow down to the poems first. There is no formula for being a poet, except maybe having another job that can help pay your rent, and reading everything you can get your hands on, and not letting the thought of a publishing get in the way of creating the work you want to leave behind as a legacy.
Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry. Her most recent book Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2015 by the New York Times. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program (Latin American & Charlotte) and the 24Pearl Street Online Program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as freelance writer, splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California (with a great deal of New York in between).
Lois Carlisle is a junior at the University of South Carolina, where she studies history and heavy sarcasm. She is spending the year at the University of Warwick in Kenilworth, England. There, she is studying scones, Kate Middleton, and even heavier sarcasm. Previously, her work has been featured in The Bad Version, The Weekender, and Misfit Quarterly. Lois was a 2013 YoungArts Finalist and United States Presidential Scholar in the Arts semi-finalist for Poetry. When she’s not talking for the journal, Lois is googling pictures of the hairy-chested yeti crab.
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