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US Poet Laureate and Sonoma Writer Ada Limón on Writing

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A woman with black hair and red lipstick stands against a dark purple background
Ada Limón attends Vulture Festival Los Angeles 2018 at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Nov. 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images)

As the 24th poet laureate of the United States, Ada Limón is an ambassador to the world of beautiful words. Her poems use clear, everyday language. But they have as much literary heft as they do accessibility. Limón has written a half dozen books of poetry, and her most recent work is "The Hurting Kind." She's also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and many other accolades.

Limón was born in Sonoma County, and now lives among the hills and horses of Kentucky. KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal spoke with Limón about her new post as poet laureate and how to read a poem.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: In a 2008 essay, you were living in New York and pondering regional poetry and asking if you were, in fact, a poet of Sonoma. And then you said, "I think I would claim myself a California poet. This definition is too tight, and it smells like old wine." Do you see yourself now as a Sonoma poet? 

ADA LIMÓN: To be honest, I think that the place I feel the most at home is in Sonoma. It does feel like a place where I deeply belong. But I also feel like there is a part of me that now that I've lived so many different places ... I do feel like there's this sort of sense that I belong to America. I think the landscape of the United States is something that I really feel connected to. And now that I've lived so many places in it, I feel like I can speak to that. But, Sonoma definitely still feels like home.

Do you feel coming from these different places, living in these different places, that contrasts stick out more?

I think that one of the things that I really love about being in different places, even just traveling, is that idea of getting to know the natural elements in each place. When I first arrived in Kentucky, I was really hoping to move back to California permanently, and then I fell madly in love and married my husband and I live in Kentucky and have learned to just love it.

But I think the way that I know to love something, or how I can figure that out, is to explore the natural landscape around me. A lot of the poems in the book are about me really figuring out the landscape around me and looking at the old barns and the incredible horse pastures everywhere. That was important to me to figure out — how to love a place, to name the plants and animals, that I'm surrounded by.

Let's have you read "A Good Story." This is from your most recent collection.

It's a poem that began for me at a place where I feel like there were so many poems that were dealing with trauma. And I think it's incredibly important that we write and read poems that are hard and that deal with the hard things. But I also really wanted to write about tenderness and be grateful for those moments that tenderness was offered to me. This is where that poem came from.

It made me think of a time my sister's ex-husband silently made me a bowl of macaroni and cheese, while I cried on my sister's lap. What is the literary infrastructure that makes that pack such a punch?

Thank you for that. The poem is in couplets and there are actually long lines in the poem that sort of allow for it to move a little faster.

The line length of a poem really determines the rhythm and speed of how the poem is read. A shorter line is going to be much slower if you think sort of Emily Dickinson, that's going to read much slower because it's got the breath in it.

That slight pause after the line break is going to make you read it slower and then a longer line is going to read a little faster.

You can think of Whitman and then sort of the mid-length line is more for conversation. You can think of Shakespeare. It's meant to be read a little fast, but then at the same time it's in couplets. So you're going to break after each of those couplets, which gives you that little moment of pause.

It has that sort of rhythm that goes back and forth.

The last line is then on its own, which kind of allows for it to stand out a little bit.

The other part of this poem is that it's dealing with time.

I had a student ask me, "How is it that you can go from the present moment into the past or into the future so easily in your poems?" And I said, well, this is going to sound weird, but I think time doesn't exist. I say my stepfather told me a story. And then he does this thing. But at the same time, it does feel like it's happening in the present moment because it begins with a hard day. And what does the hard day require? The hard day requires a good story and sometimes that good story isn't something that's happening now. But maybe it's a memory like you were talking about. The person that fed you macaroni and cheese.

We praise people so much for courage and bravery and strength and sometimes not for tenderness. In "The Hurting Kind," how do you think about celebrating the ability to hold grief or the ability to hurt? How does one actually do that?

I've been thinking about this a lot, and I feel like oftentimes when we come to a poem, it's not even so much that we have to feel a certain thing, right? You don't have to feel exactly what I want you to feel after a poem I've read or a poem I've given you by somebody else.

Maybe the important thing is just that you feel period.

And maybe that is something that we need to tap into, because I know for me, this is true. We've just become so numb to so much because there's just so much chaos and crisis in the world that it feels like every one of us is being shoved from one emergency to the next.

We have to compartmentalize, and of course, we have to go numb a little bit. But I think that there is a real danger in that. There's a real danger in living without feeling and swallowing everything to become sort of courageous and resilient. And listen, I love the word "resilience" and I want to be resilient. But sometimes I think we also need to be a mess.

We need to feel and maybe have someone give us macaroni and cheese while we cry. I think those are really important moments. It's what makes us human. It also is what makes us able to find strength.

There is power in that moment when you break down, that moment when you feel all the feelings and it feels like too much. That's important because that's where we get the courage to go on, and maybe pursue the action that we need to see in the world. But I do think we need to make space for breathing, for falling apart, for crying. And for grieving those that we lost, because we just, we move on so quickly.

We're asked to move on so quickly. And I think sometimes we aren't supposed to.

It feels like the river you grew up by, the creek you grew up by in Sonoma, it raised you in some way, thinking about the poem you wrote about the raccoon decomposing in the water with its little hand eventually turning to bone.

That's the Calabazas Creek. That creek is really important to me. Someone asked me one time where my poems come from and that creek was my first thought: "It's the Calabazas Creek." There's something about that area.

Sometimes with poetry, we're looking for the voice under the voice. It's not just the voice, but the thing underneath it. And that creek was underneath our life. The cars were going from the job and school and all of that. You could feel the rush. But there it was quiet. It was small. There were the little crawdads and little minnows. And there was all of this life happening. But it was like a secret life. And I think oftentimes my poems begin there.

In this new role as poet laureate, do you feel like you have to perform yourself and perform yourself in certain ways? How do you feel about being the first Latina poet laureate?

That's a great question. It's easy to feel that way, and I think that people will ask that of me. But I really hope I stay true to me and who I am as an authentic human being, full of complex emotions and identities and desires and needs and poems. If I want to perform anything, it's a poem and it's not an identity.

Through your life you've had a few different physical conditions that have conditioned you to think about pain in certain ways. How has that infused into your identity, to have been dealing with that since you were a child?

I have pretty intense scoliosis. And so, in fact, I just had an adjustment yesterday and I deal with it all the time. It is something that causes me quite a bit of pain. And I think a lot about mobility issues.

I'm trying to avoid some of the phrasing that makes me really uncomfortable. People will say, "Oh, you were in chronic pain." And I'm like, the only problem with the word "chronic pain" is that I would like to leave space for it not to be chronic. I'd also like to leave space for maybe someday it will all magically disappear. I think a lot about language, and the language of the body, but also that sometimes when you practice meditation, which I do, a lot of the wonderful teachers and guides will say, "Now return to the body." And I often think — what if the body is really not a happy place right now?

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Sometimes the most free I feel is when I'm in the mind, and not in the body. That's an interesting thing for me to explore in my own writing.

I do love that in your poems, your garden is growing and changing. That has been a real salve for you — the world may have issues, but on your plot of land, things are beautiful and green.

Finding some refuge in the natural world is really essential to remembering that I am part of nature as well, and that even my own mortality is linked to the natural world and the cycles of things. It feels to me like nature is one of our greatest teachers, and if you're paying attention, you get all of those incredible lessons right there up front. I'm always trying to figure out my purpose, what is the point to all of the big questions that artists and human beings have been asking since the dawn of time? And I think sometimes the answers are there, just watching the natural world. And that answer is that cycle.



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