"The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress"
An interview with Ada Limón by Grace Cavalieri
This interview by Grace Cavalieri was recorded at The Library of Congress in 2022 when Ada Limón took office as U.S. POET LAUREATE.
Grace Cavalieri Interviews Ada Limón
Limón earned an MFA from New York University and is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the New Yorker, Harvard Review, Pleiades, and Barrow Street.
Grace: This is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. I'm Grace Cavalieri, and with me is the twenty-fourth Poet Laureate of the United States, Ada Limón. Congratulations again, welcome again, a million, million, million congratulations to you.
Ada: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here with you today.
Grace: Ada is the author of six books of poems, and hosts the podcast, The Slowdown. But today, she's ours. And here's Ada.
On the black wet branches of the linden,
still clinging to umber leaves of late fall,
two crows land. They say, "Stop," and still I want
to make them into something they are not.
Odin's ravens, the bruja's eyes. What news
are they bringing of our world to the world
of the gods? It can't be good. More suffering
all around, more stinging nettles and toxic
blades shoved into the scarred parts of us,
the minor ones underneath the trees. Rain
comes while I'm still standing, a trickle of water
from whatever we believe is beyond the sky.
The crows seem enormous but only because
I am watching them too closely. They do not
care to be seen as symbols. A shake of a wing,
and both of them are gone. There was no message
given, no message I was asked to give, only
returning like the bracing, empty wind
on the black wet branches of the linden.
Grace: The voice of Ada Limón. How you read. I want to start by talking about how you accepted adoration the night of your inauguration. I cannot forget how you stood there while people just poured love on you, and you were so unflappable. What did you feel?
Ada: You know, it felt like a moment of healing. Because it felt like we had been through so much together, as a community, as artists, as people who have been so isolated, and so divided from one another through the last couple of years, through the pandemic, through so much that we have gone through. And for me it just felt like a moment where it wasn't about me, but it was about poetry, and making art, and a togetherness, and a sense of community.
Grace: Well, there you stood in your red suit, and you were just so unflinching, and so calm. Now I think you're right. There was no ego in that at all. It really was about something else. It was about coming together.
Ada: That's how it felt to me.
Grace: I now understand that. But I couldn't understand how calm you were, because you took yourself out of that. Oh wow. That's a good answer. Well, it was a night to remember, I'll tell you that. It was a night to remember.
Ada: It truly was.
Grace: I've never seen, ever, seen the audience act like that in my life. Well, I want to start with your poetry, and I want to start with This Big, Fake World, my favorite book. I knew you studied drama, and this shows it. Can you just sum up a little bit of the construct? I know you can't read from it, but just tell us a little bit of the rubric of it.
Ada: Yeah, I'm so glad you love This Big Fake World, because it is also one of my favorites. In fact, it's my stepfather's favorite as well. And it's my second book, but I was writing it at the same time as I was writing my first book, Lucky Wreck. And the construct of it is that it's a story in verse, and it's about a man, our hero, who is the man in the grey suit, and he falls in love with a woman at the hardware store after his wife leaves him. And it's about a marriage that's full of tumult. And then he falls in love, and he doesn't know how to act around the woman at the hardware store, and yet he's madly in love with her.
Grace: It is – the locus is the hardware store, but it is so funny because the antihero in literature is so effective. And that is it. And where did you get the idea for the drunk Lewis who writes letters to President Reagan? Whatever possessed you?
Ada: Yeah, well I had this idea of someone who wasn't just obsessed with Ronald Reagan, but really needed to write him letters. And so I wanted this person who clearly had an addiction issue, and was obsessed with writing letters to Ronald Reagan, what they might look like, and wanting sort of a simple life that he believed was the life that Reagan had, and portrayed in his movies. And so he becomes a sort of antihero/elucidator of the story.
Grace: The funny thing is that you are so humorous! You should get the Mark Twain Award for this. It is… actually there's hard humor in it, and there's real social commentary…
Ada: Thank you.
Grace: …and it's really hard-hitting about relationships. I don't think it's getting enough notice.
Ada: I really appreciate that, thank you for that.
Grace: Why can't it go on stage?
Ada: Hm. That's a good idea!
Grace: We expect a play from you before you before you're out. I think you'll be a little busy for the next few months, but I think a play is in your future. Do you?
Ada: That would be wonderful. That would be wonderful.
Grace: lso, I thought to myself, how freeing is it to work with persona?
Ada: I love being able to write in character sometimes. Because I think it's, you know, as artists that deal with the dark night of the soul if you will, I think sometimes it's nice to take a break and be in someone else's body, in someone else's shoes, in someone else's mind. And I think it's also a way of observing the world that's slightly askew. And I think poets can do that really well from inside ourselves, but it also adds another layer when we can do that inside a character. I really love the freedom that persona can give you as an artist.
Grace: And you can get away with murder. I mean you get them to do all your dirty work, right?
Ada: That's true.
Grace: You can be as mischievous as you want. And this is showing you at your best with mischief, this book.
Ada: Thank you!
Grace: So, I think we're going to be waiting for that drama. But back to poetry, and this is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, with Ada Limón. I've been waiting all night for this. Let's have another poem.
Ada: Yeah. This is a poem for my husband. Against Nostalgia.
If I had known, back then, you were coming,
when I first thought love could be the thing
to save me after all—if I had known, would I
have still glued myself to the back of his
motorcycle while we flew across the starless
bridge over the East River to where I grew
my first garden behind the wire fencing,
in the concrete raised beds lined by ruby
twilight roses? If I had known it would be you,
who even then I liked to look at, across a room,
always listening rigorously, a self-questioning look,
the way your mouth was always your mouth,
would I have climbed back on that bike again
and again until even I was sick with fumes
and the sticky seat too hot in the early fall?
If I had known, would I have still made mistake
after mistake until I had only the trunk of me
left, stripped and nearly bare of leaves?
If I had known, the truth is, I would have kneeled
and said, Sooner, come to me sooner.
Grace: That is Ada Limón. You know I taught that poem, and the one thing that I thought was significant was the sticky seat. Because if it had just been a regular seat, we wouldn't have had a sense of time. We wouldn't have had a sense of how often it was. Just that one ajective, "sticky," gave us a whole perspective of time. Isn't that interesting?
Ada: Yeah, and I think also that adjective there is the idea of being stuck.
Grace: Ah. I didn't think of that.
Ada: And the idea of also, you know, it's clinging to something you may not need, or it clinging to you. And before you are ready you are ready to let go of a situation, sometimes you need to get unstuck.
Grace: Did you think of that after the poem?
Ada: It's always hard to tell with me when I write, because sometimes I think the poem is wiser than me, and it's making decisions that I'm not aware of as I'm crafting the poem. And so, did I think "sticky" was a good adjective? Was it true? Yes. But there was a reason why that was the word. And so I wonder if it was so much that I thought of it afterwards, or if the poem thought of it for me.
Grace: Well just for backstage gossip, was the seat sticky?
Ada: It was.
Grace: Okay. I would like to think of you as a ten-year-old. That's when we start writing poetry. I've had so many poets on and they all say, "You won't believe this Grace, but I wrote as a child. And I say, "No!," because everyone says they did. Did you look in the mirror and say, "I will be the Poet Laureate of the Unites States when I grow up?" Did you say that at ten years of age?
Ada: Oh no! But that would have been so wonderful! No, I did not say that. I did know I wanted to do something in the arts world. I loved to perform. I loved to create things, whether it was songs, or dances, or poems, or any of those things. So, I definitely had the full-tilt artist pull, if you will, even at seven, eight, however old I was. But I always, you know, I wrote songs a lot for my dog. And I think that that was always part of how I entered the world was through language, and the languaging of music.
Grace: Did you ever talk into your bedroom mirror, and do dialogues?
Ada: I did not.
Grace: Okay, so you started with music as a performer…
Grace: … and that lyricism is still with you. But what is there that is still with you that is that ten-year-old? That's still with you. What does she want? How much of her is still there? All of her?
Ada: I think there's a lot of her that's still there. I think there's some parts that I'm still learning to let go of. I think that the parts that I cherish, that are still with me, is that sense of wonder; that sense of the awe of the natural world; what one can find when you sit in silence under a tree, stare at blades of grass; the small world that the small world that goes unnoticed; the strangeness of the world, the weirdness of our life experience. That is still with me. I have yet to grow out of that. I think life is a very, very strange thing, and that is definitely with me. I think some things that I could let go of that are still with me as that ten-year-old is the need to please everyone.
Grace: But when you look at her you can say, "Look what we did, honey. Oh, just look what we did! Look where we are now!"
Ada: She would be so excited. She is, in me, so excited, and so thrilled. She's doing cartwheels and wearing her legwarmers.
Grace: Let's have two more poems. In a row. Ada Limón at the Library of Congress, and we are so lucky.
Ada: This is a poem that probably refers to that ten-year-old. I Remember the Carrots.
I haven't given up on trying to live a good life,
a really good one even, sitting in the kitchen
in Kentucky, imagining how agreeable I'll be—
the advance of fulfillment, and of desire—
all these needs met, then unmet again.
When I was a kid, I was excited about carrots,
their spidery neon tops in the garden's plot.
And so I ripped them all out. I broke the new roots
and carried them, like a prize, to my father
who scolded me, rightly, for killing his whole crop.
I loved them: my own bright dead things.
I'm thirty-five and remember all that I've done wrong.
Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented
the contentment of the field. Why must we practice
this surrender? What I mean is: there are days
I still want to kill the carrots because I can.
Grace: And another
Ada: And this is a poem I wrote for my mother.
Grace: Do you think that Bright Dead Things has more of your childhood in it, or The Carrying?
Ada: I think they're probably equal. Yeah. That's a great question. I'll have to think about that. The Raincoat
When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She'd say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I've been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
Grace: Am I glad you read that one. I'll tell you why. Because for thirty years I was mad at my father. Because he was an immigrant and didn't want his daughters to get in trouble, and he was very strict. And then after all that, I realized all the things he did, how he made me breakfast, and when you wrote that, you speak for so many people that say, you know what, just think - They drove me to school, they did this, and at the time I didn't even know it. So that is a very popular poem of yours. I don't know if you know which ones are the most read or not, actually.
Ada: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, sometimes people will share them and put them on social media…
Grace: Oh yes.
Ada: …but oftentimes people will come up to me and say, "Oh, I see this poem everywhere," and I think I had no idea that a particular poem is being shared. You never know. And I certainly – I mean I don't write them with that intention. I love to connect with people, but when I'm writing them, like for that poem in particular, I was really writing that poem for my mom.
Grace: Of course. Of course. And I'm tight with your mom because I love her art…
Ada: Isn't she wonderful?
Grace: …on the front of all of your books. Yes! She rocks!
Ada: She does rock!
Grace: I'm not kidding!
Grace: Well the reason people like your work, and I'm going to tell you now why, is because you are prismatic. There is something for everyone. You have so many facets that there's not anyone who cannot relate to something. You dance in a honkytonk bar, and you know the name of every bird and animal on earth. And there's love, there's loss, there's longing, but there's actual situations. Did you know about being faceted? Did you know that is the reason you have a big audience?
Grace: There is just something for everyone.
Ada: No, but that makes sense. I mean I think that it goes back to what I was saying earlier about the idea of strangeness. That looking at those experiences whatever they may be, whether it's just looking out the window at a bird, or whether it's rethinking a childhood being driven back and forth from back appointment after back appointment, thinking this is something I went through, and then realizing, oh no, my parents were going through that. Not just driving me, but financially, trying to make it work with their waiting tables, and night jobs, and all of these things. And I think that it is that looking at the world deeply, and with a sense of both insider and outsider.
Grace: That is a good point. Also, among all of those, you are a great noticer. Not only your interior world, but you just notice blades of grass; you notice the bird feather; And just the watchingness of you. And I think if you didn't do that, you'd be on Mt. Olympus and we wouldn't care. That's the problem with people on Mt. Olympus. They don't have enough edges for each of us to cling on to. I want this edge about the raincoat. Somebody wants this edge about your husband. So, it's good to have a lot of edges. And now we'd love to hear another poem. Ada Limón at the Library of Congress. I'm Grace Cavalieri, and I'm extremely happy.
Ada: The Unspoken
If I'm honest, a foal pulled chest-level
close in the spring heat, his every-which-way
coat reverberating in the wind, feels
akin to what I imagine atonement might
feel like, or total absolution. But what
if, by some fluke in the heart, an inevitable
wreckage, congenital and unanswerable,
still comes, no matter how attached
or how gentle every hand that reached
out for him in that vibrant green field
where they found him looking like he
was sleeping, the mare nudging him
until she no longer nudged him? Am I
wrong to say I did not want to love
horses after that? I even said as much driving
back from the farm. Even now, when
invited to visit a new foal, or to rub the long
neck of a mare who wants only peppermints
or to be left alone, I feel myself resisting.
At any moment, something terrible could
happen. It's not gone, that coldness in me.
Our mare is pregnant right now,
and you didn't even tell me until someone
mentioned it offhandedly. One day, I will
be stronger. I feel it coming. I'll step into
that green field stoic, hardened, hoof first.
Grace: So we have motion, always motion. Like the romantics, they start in one place, and they end up in another place. And we always have an idea at the center of your poem. And there's an intellectual idea, but there's a colloquialism that allows us to own that idea. That's a lot of stuff to do, and I'm sure you don't do it consciously. It's a lot of balls to juggle. I wanted to talk about language a bit because of course that's your gift, but at this time in history you may have noticed that our language is being coopted, and we don't know sometimes the same words are being used that are not true. I kind of think, I wonder if you believe this, that a lot of people are going to poetry because they can trust the words. I mean, it's not propaganda and it's not persuasion. What's your take on that?
Ada: I think that's really true. I think sometimes it's sometimes very hard to trust language. But one of the things that we trust about poetry is that it's where the questions live, and it's where the wonder lives, and it's about an unknowingness. And I think there's that great Yate's quote about, "The argument that we have with another is rhetoric, but the argument we have with ourselves is poetry." And I think we trust that because we trust that there's a mystery there; an unknowingness. And so much of rhetoric, or marketing, or anything that's trying to be packaged and sold to us is a false wisdom. And it's false because it has the answers. And if you think you have the answerrs, we know better.
Grace: That's the point. That is the point. But how then does a poet find a truth in herself to be the compass? What does it take to get rid of showboating, and writing for effect to find the kind of truth you've found? What do you do? How do you do it?
Ada: It's a wonderful and large and marvelous question, Grace. I think for me it has a lot to do with silence. Most of my poems come out of a moment of deep quiet and silence, and what that opens to me – what I'm listening to and what I hear in the dark. I also feel like there is a sense that I am always trying to find ways to love and surrender to the world. And I think my body and my mind, and often my much-worried heart, can be at odds with finding a kind of peace, and can be in chaos. And so finding that silence, and that way of re-loving something is often where poems begin for me.
Grace: That tells me quite a bit that I intuited but did not have the language for, and that is, when you walk into a room, you bring a stillness with you. And there is that that you operate out of. And also there is no resistance in your poetry. I mean it is surrender. It is surrender. So resistance, I don't know if you and I have the same idea what that is, but it's a grinding to make someone feel something that's not there. Let's have another poem.
On the top of Mount Pisgah, on the western
slope of the Mayacamas, there's a madrone
tree that's half-burned from the fires, half-alive
from nature's need to propagate. One side
of her is black ash and at her root is what
looks like a cavity that was hollowed out
by flame. On the other side, silvery green
broadleaf shoots ascend toward the winter
light and her bark is a cross between a bay
horse and a chestnut horse, red and velvety
like the animal's neck she resembles. I have
been staring at the tree for a long time now.
I am reminded of the righteousness I had
before the scorch of time. I miss who I was.
I miss who we all were, before we were this: half
alive to the brightening sky, half dead already.
I place my hand on the unscarred bark that is cool
and unsullied, and because I cannot apologize
to the tree, to my own self I say, I am sorry.
I am sorry I have been so reckless with your life.
Grace: Can you believe you wrote that? Can you believe you wrote that? That came through you!
Ada: I had an experience with that tree. Me and that tree wrote that. Me and that tree!
Grace: That is so clear. How about form? You know it all. You've used form although it's imbedded, we don't say it's metric. And I'm interested in the crown sonnets you did. I think it was Lucky Wreck. Why did you do that? Did you find that the theme needed to be carried forth? First of all, tell everybody what a crown sonnet is.
Ada: Yeah, a crown sonnet is where you write one sonnet, and then the next sonnet begins with the last line of the previous sonnet. A full crown is fourteen. I technically wrote a half crown, which is seven. But some people will say a crown can be seven. But it's a wonderful exercise, and this crown came about when I was trying to find a way, again it was a story in verse, It was about a couple that were dealing with addiction issues, and what I did was try to figure out how I could write this poem, and I had all of these images. I didn't know where it was going. And then the first couple lines came to me and they started to rhyme, and I realized it was a Petrarchan sonnet. And I thought, oh here we go. And so when I got to the end of the first sonnet, I realized that with addiction, right, where there is this sort of formal trap being set, and I realized they couldn't get out of it because of the rhyme scheme, and because the crown itself was forwarding the momentum. And so that's how I ended up with that crown of sonnets. That the form dictated not only the content of the poem, but it also gave these constraints that mirrored the constraints of a couple living with addiction.
Grace: How long did it take in the making?
Ada: About seven months.
Grace: Every day?
Ada: I wouldn't say every day. But once it came together, then it was fidgeting and fidgeting and fidgeting and fidgeting.
Grace: So you obsessed some of the seven months.
Ada: That particular poem was very obsessive yes.
Grace: Do you like it?
Ada: Yes, and I'm very happy I did it. And there are times where I set out to write another crown. To be honest, I feel like it actually came out so full in its own fruition in that form, that I worry about approaching another crown, because that feels like it was so innate, as opposed to, oh I'm going to sit down and write a crown. Instead it just came.
Grace: I understand that completely. In other words, you did it. It doesn't have to be done again. Maybe. Well, I think you're going to have a very interesting year. Do you have an idea of what you're going to do as Poet Laureate?
Ada: Well one of the things that I'm really looking forward to, as we were talking about earlier, is I would love to, just to be sure that I do come back and celebrate the library and be here at the library, I think with the last years of the pandemic, and even though of course we're still living through it, I would like to make sure that poetry office has a little life in it, and bring the Poet Laureate back to the Library of Congress.
Grace: Oh yes, it's been closed up. The shutters have been closed. And this is a great way to celebrate the end of the pandemic with you. Ada Limón wrote The Carrying, Bright Dead Things, Sharks in the Rivers, that was about New York I think; Bright Dead Things is about Kentucky – Big Fake World which is highly dramatic; The Hurting Kind, which is full of forgiveness, that is such a book of forgiveness. And an animal in every poem, and I think The Carrying has an animal in every poem. So, she's something else. She really rocks the world. Let's have a final poem.
Ada: Oh yes. I'll close with the last poem of my most recent book. And it came right at the beginning of the pandemic when isolation was troublesome, and when I was very forsaken, I think, by poetry. And then this poem came. The End of Poetry.
Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower
and snowshoes, maple and seeds, samara and shoot,
enough chiaroscuro, enough of thus and prophecy
and the stoic farmer and faith and our father and tis
of thee, enough of bosom and bud, skin and god
not forgetting and star bodies and frozen birds,
enough of the will to go on and not go on or how
a certain light does a certain thing, enough
of the kneeling and the rising and the looking
inward and the looking up, enough of the gun,
the drama, and the acquaintance's suicide, the long-lost
letter on the dresser, enough of the longing and
the ego and the obliteration of ego, enough
of the mother and the child and the father and the child
and enough of the pointing to the world, weary
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.
Grace: The beautiful voice of Ada Limón. This is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. The program is produced by Forestwoods Media Productions. Post production by Mike Turpin, MET Studios. We wish to thank the Library of Congress for making the program possible. Funding is provided by the Snippet Fund, Natalie Canivore and Sandy Jackson Cohen. Our engineer is Mike Turpin. I'm Grace Cavalieri.
This interview was originally conducted at the Library of Congress, November 2022, and was broadcast on The Poet And The Poem, public radio station WPFW-FM. It was first published in the American Poetry Review in 2022. It has never been seen online.
Poet Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts The Poet And The Poem and is a frequent contributor to Beltway Poetry Quarterly.