What is Enough for a Poem? An Interview with Ada Limón – Michigan Quarterly Review
Header Image Ada Limón Headshot

What is Enough for a Poem? An Interview with Ada Limón

Ada Limón, a current Guggenheim fellow, is the author of five poetry collections, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Her fourth book, Bright Dead Things, was named a finalist for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program and lives in Lexington, Kentucky. 

Maia Elsner: Ada, it was so wonderful to hear you read last night. So moving and special…. It’s one of those readings that I know I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life. I’ll keep coming back to it – so thank you! It was really such a gift.

Ada Limón: I try to be very present when I read. You know, there’s a thing that I do before, where I literally put my hand on my heart. And I imagine all the people that I love. And I just say ‘be present during this.’ Because I think sometimes when we read a lot, it begins to be by rote. And I don’t want that. You know, I would like to be in my 80s, and still be present for all the small moments.

M: I love that we are talking about love. It is making me think about something you said yesterday about how there are too many love poems in the world for people who don’t deserve them — the bad partner gets a whole book, whereas the friend just gets a coffee — and you asked why don’t we write love poems about our friends? It reminded me of this Borges quote, that I keep so close to my heart, ‘la amistad no es menos misterioso que el amor,’ ‘friendship is not less mysterious than love.’ I know your new book The Hurting Kind is full of love poems to friends and family, and I was wondering if you could talk a little about that?

A: Of course! I think writing for loved ones feels very different, because instead of centering myself and being like, this happened to me and this person was there, I wondered, what if I could just observe and honor an experience of theirs? And almost, you know, try to behold someone and give them that feeling of being beheld. I think with the pandemic, and the distance, this felt like a really important impulse to follow, you know? 

All the poems started differently. With the poem for my grandfather, ‘Heart on Fire,’ it started with the idea that I get to do this. Right? Because he would have never chosen art, because he had to do other things full time. He loved dancing and singing in the church and all those kinds of things, but he would never pursue any of it, because that’s not what you do when you cross a border. And so I think I began with the thought that I get to do this because he sacrificed art. The hard part about those poems was thinking, how do we represent someone’s story in an authentic way? And in a way that doesn’t colonize their experience. So if they told you a story, and you want to tell it — how do you do that without owning the experience for yourself? I think that was the hardest part — really making sure that I was doing that work and not trying to own the stories.

M: What you say about your grandfather is so beautiful. It makes me think of my grandma in Mexico City, who would just recite poetry at the table — it would just pour out of her mouth — and she didn’t get to be an artist, but I did learn my love of words and language from her. Yesterday you said that The Hurting Kind was a book for others, which is such a beautiful way of thinking about a book, and that your work as an artist was to try and decenter the self. And I was just curious to know a little bit more about how this happens. How you did this? And how does it feel now that you’re about to birth this new book into the world?

A: I think the idea of decentering…it’s just a really interesting thing. I mean, it’s not a new idea: so many of our poetic heroes have been doing it forever. What is it to be the ‘I’ and not the ‘I’? Sharon Olds has that wonderful poem ‘take the I out’ and then she says ‘but I love the I.’ And I think there’s that push and pull between what it is to honor this human experience, but also, try not to make yourself the hero of every story. Even if you put a dog in the poem, it will take the center off from you. 

And I think that it is important to remember that we are in a collective experience. I mean, more so than ever, even though we’re divided in this globally divisive world, it feels like on so many levels, it’s so important to really honor those connections. 

I think when I first started writing, I was like, I’m definitely the only person who’s ever experienced this. And then when it finally dawned on me…I still remember in 2010, when I’d just lost my stepmother, and I was on the subway back to work. And I thought, Oh, my God, everybody loses someone. And it really hit me that everyone on the subway had watched someone die, or was going to, and they were going to die themselves. I could not love everyone in that car more, and it really affected me. I feel like it shifted who I was.

M: Thank you for sharing that, Ada. I think connectedness is one of the things I really learn from your work, how you write about the relationship of the human to the non-human, of landscape and animals. I’ve had so much fun rereading Lucky Wreck and This Big Fake World and Bright Dead Things this week, and it feels really special to return to your earlier work now that The Hurting Kind is about to come into the world. 

In ‘The Ladybugs get bolder every year,’ the speaker thinks ‘how pleasant to be no longer human, no heart/in the brain, no scalding for lying on the floor/but also sad too, how these clear wings hidden in the hull/reminds the living body where it cannot go.’ It feels like those poems about insects in your first book are really thinking about what the imagination can do in relation to this very hard world we live in, and also the limits of that, what the imagination can’t do. And I feel like that links back to you in the subway being connected to all these people. How do we live in this vastly complicated world, together, with all the things that happen to us?

A: Oh, I love that question. Because I remember maybe six years ago, I was visiting a college in New Jersey, and a young boy came up to me, and said ‘I asked all the visitors, what’s the question you always have?’. And I said, ‘ Oh, um… how do we live?’. And, it took him aback. And I was like ‘I want to know how we live. How do we live?’. And I mean that in a curious way, but I also mean it in a wondrous way. Because sometimes I think — wow, we do this! And other times I think, how do we do this. It is out of sheer amazement that the question comes out of me — because it is really remarkable to be alive. But the ebbs and flows are just so intense. And I think acknowledging how hard it is, is actually part of the wonderment. You know that’s part of the awe. And I don’t think I knew that until I had experienced my own realization about mortality.

M: Yeah, that’s extraordinary. I was going to ask you how we hold on to wonder in the face of all the tragedy around us. But your answer also reminds me about surprise. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about control and how we try so hard to plan all sorts of things, and then often the universe takes us in a completely different direction, surprises us. Yesterday you spoke so beautifully about how sometimes poems are smarter than we are. And the task is really to listen. I was just wondering whether there are moments in this new book in which you’ve been surprised? Whether there has been some sense of discovery in the writing process, of finding something that you didn’t know was going to be there?

A: Yeah, very much so. I feel like some of the surprises were actually when I realized that the epiphany wasn’t there, you know, that I didn’t have the epiphanic moment, that it wasn’t like, now I realize… which is of course a human experience. That’s not false. We do have that happen. Like what happened to me in subway car. With poetry, I’ve always waited for that feeling – like oh, this is the point. But I felt, when I was writing The Hurting Kind, there was a sort of a softness. The point was just watching, and just witnessing. And a question, can that be enough? And I think that that was surprising to me: the question, what is enough for a poem? Does it have to have this or that turn? The volta, the big volta — does it have to stick the landing like Simone Biles? Does it have to do those things? I don’t know. 

And I think with this book I wondered what it would be to let that witnessing sometimes be enough to make a whole poem. There’s a poem called ‘Swear on it’ in the book, and it’s very short, and it talks about watching the American linden tree above the streetlight. And it just says, ‘so much taller is the tree. So much taller is the tree’. And I think that was the surprise that came for me, and I needed to know that: that the tree was taller than the street light, and that was important. And I was shocked by that realization — what is it to just witness, observe, watch, listen. And not always turn it into something, which is hard because we’re makers, right? And, instead, just let myself be a part of it.

M: That’s so beautiful. I was just reading Susan Sontag, and she has this essay ‘Against Interpretation,’ where she basically says that there’s a big problem when we approach any kind of art with the purpose of puzzling out meaning; there’s a kind of violence to that, and she advocates for us all to see more and hear more and feel more. And I feel like that’s really in conversation with this soft witnessing you’re talking about. It makes me think about ongoingingness, which you were talking about yesterday, as something The Hurting Kind explores. It strikes me that there is such an expansive generosity in that conception of time. There’s a kind of witnessing of the self, and the world around us, still in the process of becoming, not yet finalized. I’m thinking also about the beginning of the pandemic, and how people thought it would bring a rupture to all our norms, our ways of living. And then as time has gone on, it’s really just been about the act of waking up in the morning. And the next day, we wake up in the morning, and the day after that, we wake up in the morning, and I was wondering whether you had thoughts about how ongoingness is alive in this book?

A: Right, right, I love that. I think as a younger poet, there was always this focus on what was right in front of me, you know, it was always about that next good bright thing, the reading and this and that. And I think now it’s really about what is it to live as long as possible, to survive in this world, that is very hard. And I’m going to experience losses, right, as they come. 

And, you know, it’s funny. You get to a point in your life where you think you’ve survived your 20s, and you’re like, oh, good, okay, and then you got your 30s, and then you kind of get to this spot where you’re like, oh, I’m in a better place, I’m not as worried about money, I got my career. And then right, at that point, your parents start to fail, and you’re like, Oh, no – I just settled for one second, please don’t get sick, you know, please just be okay. And then, of course, you start to age. And I think that sense of ongoingness, of what it is to write past yourself, what it is to write past just this moment…I think in that kind of work, the question is how do you remain totally present? How do you keep being totally present in the moment, but then also have a sense of fullness, and the idea of the mystery of time. 

And that’s just fascinating to me, because at some point, I’ll be gone. And hopefully, my poems will survive. And that’s very interesting to me. And when I think of ongoingness for myself, I think it is really about belonging. It is about how we get the earth to continue. It is not just about when I die — hopefully at a very old age, in good health in my sleep — but when that happens, I hope we have some tools to help to repair the world. And I don’t want to forget about that. And I do wonder if being a child-free person is also part of that sense of ongoingness, because my legacy in my life will be different. It’s not that I will leave this for my children. It is that I will leave my work, but I’ll also leave whatever generosity I can give back. And I think that’s important too — what do you leave beyond yourself? And also how can you continue that? How do you propel a sense of generosity, a sense of giving back, a sense of we can get through this? 

M: Yes… I always think about identity as being collectively constructed, how each conversation we have changes us in some way. We are like a tapestry stitched by all the people who have been kind, by all those who have been generous, and also the people who haven’t been kind, so that sometimes we have to unstitch or rethink, and it makes me feel very humble because I just think, without all these people I wouldn’t now be the person I am.

A: Right! And those little pushes in one direction or the other, those little corrections. Of someone just taking five minutes to say something to you. And how later, you think oh, that person said I could do this, or they said you could do both of those things, or that you don’t have to choose – whatever it was, some offhand thing. And you’re suddenly like, wow that stuck with me.

M: Yes – and sometimes it is as simple as a smile. One thing that I love in This Big Fake World is that so much of it feels like a celebration of tiny moments. In ‘There is a Woman at the Hardware Store,’ the story’s hero is being asked direct questions by the woman working in the hardware store, and his mind is just elsewhere: ‘“Would you like your receipt?”/And he is gone, his imaginary/feline hiding under the dock/from an imaginary dog.’ It was so satisfying for the reader to rest there, in the elsewhere of the hero’s mind. It’s like your poem, ‘Give Me This,’ about a groundhog stealing tomatoes, ‘taking such/pleasure in the watery bites’. There is so much joy in this small moment, and I love how the poem just holds on to it and doesn’t let it go. 

A: Yeah, I think about that incredible Milosz poem, about the end of the world, and the speaker’s just bending over, threading and wiring tomatoes. And it’s just amazing, because its such a small moment and I’m like of course, there is no other way the world ends. This is it. This is it. How many times have we been in war? How many times have we’ve been through this? I mean, humanity is humanity. And there’s a sense that if we don’t watch closely, we’ll miss it. The overwhelm is so real right now. I feel it in my heart. How do you choose what to be worried about? 

M: Yes… You know, my first poetry teacher said this thing to me that I’ll always remember. In winter, we think everything is sleeping. And then there’s the sudden burst of spring, but the thing is that actually it is in winter that all the preparation happens. There are all these bulges and knots. And she just said, who are we not to notice. Here we are on this strange, beautiful, endlessly complicated planet for a brief moment. And it really stayed with me as a statement on witnessing. And I sometimes think, given the violent history we have inherited, that we’re still living, sometimes what’s extraordinary is that intimacy is still possible. That actually we can find friendship and that these amazing moments of connectedness can happen.

A: Yes – that it happens! I find that so amazing. Like we were talking about last night, I really am a person who finds most things strange, and I can’t get over that. And I don’t want to. And I do think that’s why so many people are trying to lean into ways of changing their brain. They’re taking either psychedelic mushrooms or these ketamine treatments, and the question is, how do I reset this in some way? And I think a lot of what I hear on podcasts talking about trying to feel better — and those podcasts are all useful and wonderful, and I’m so glad they exist — but I always think, oh they are talking about poetry. Right? Because that’s what poetry is. It doesn’t just point out the world. It makes it strange to us again. So that we can remember wonder. 

M: I remember yesterday you told a story about a poet-friend who lost their bag, and looked everywhere for it and finally the bag appeared under the table. It was so close. And you asked, how do we write about stories that are finished? Because that story is complete: he found the bag. And maybe the more interesting question is, why was the fact that it was so close important? Why does that story still haunt him? What did it mean to him? In other words, what is unfinished about that story. You just spoke about strangeness, and I wanted to ask you, whether you can say something about how unknowing features in your own poetic practice?

A: When I began as a poet, I thought it was all about knowing. I thought it was about truth, and beauty. And every poem I read, felt wise to me. I could read Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton and I would find this deep wisdom. So I thought that’s what I should work towards, a knowingness. And then, the old cliché – and it is a cliché because it’s true – that the more you learn, the more you witness, the more you realize you don’t know. And I think I’m very scared now of certainty. Even when someone says, what’s your opinion about this? Often, I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t 100% know. And that’s because the world is changing so fast. And I can have a sense of morality, of course, and right and wrong, and goodness, but beyond that, I hope I can remain porous and open enough to not think that I know all the answers. And I think a lot of harm comes from that false certainty, that is so attached to our egos, when not only are we completely convinced that we’re right, but to be proven wrong would be almost deadly. And I don’t ever want to be in that position.

M: That makes me think a lot about storytelling and the way we can return to stories and give them different endings and different versions as a way of thinking through the lack of certainty. When we were talking about kindness before and your legacy around generosity, I was thinking about your poem in The Carrying called ‘The Raincoat,’ where the speaker sees ‘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.’ Those poems about chronic pain were really moving to me as someone with chronic pain. I was actually sent ‘Wonder Woman’ by a very dear friend, with whom I talk a lot about pain, and the ways we can care for each other in better ways. In that poem, there is a sense that the myth of indestructibility is something necessary in the context of our own frail bodies, and I was wondering whether you have any thoughts about the role of myth to survival? 

A: Well, first of all, I’m really sorry that you suffer from chronic pain, as someone who deals with that on a regular basis… It was a really big thing for me, recognizing how many people go through it. Now, when I walked through the airport, I think, oh, I can walk, and I am lucky to be able to do that. And every time I get a little mad that it’s so long to walk from one gate to another, I think not of me, right, but the person who is in too much pain to get there fast enough.  And I think that has been important to me. To think not just about my own pain, but how many people are in it. I remember being very frustrated with my body when I had bad vertigo. And it comes out of nowhere. And I was just hurting everywhere. And I was feeling so frustrated. And I thought, I just want out of this thing, and my husband very kindly put his hand on my back, and said, think about how many people can’t even move their limbs or can’t …. And in terms of myth, it was about remembering that all of us have at our core this mythological undying, bright star of the self that isn’t dealing with our crooked spine and our swollen bodies or whatever it is that we’re experiencing. And remembering that and fostering that and taking care of that. It does feel like that’s the core of myth. That there’s something that goes on, past the body. Remembering that and helping it flourish is important to me.

M: That’s so beautiful. I wonder how can we let her shine more – the mythological undying sparkling thing? Is your writing process a way of opening up to her?

A: Yeah! I think it is – even when we think about language, it is hard for me to say ‘chronic pain’ and sometimes I don’t say it, and I worry about the word ‘chronic’ because I feel like it gives up on the possibility that it may end. And I always want to say – no, it could end. Sometimes I don’t have it. And those days I’m like – I’m going to do a cartwheel. And sometimes those days come all in a row. And I still maintain that maybe one day I’ll find an answer or some answers. Even that languag-ing…of course anyone can use it, and sometimes it helps to have that identity and sometimes I just want to focus on that inner self – the self beyond the self – who is wiser than me, who is more connected than me. That isn’t all ego, that doesn’t care what she looks like. That doesn’t have a moment in the mirror thinking, oh – my belly, or doesn’t lay there in bed thinking: why does it always hurt? That person is just so powerful. And I’d rather work from that place. It’s that separation we were speaking about. That noticing awareness. The awareness – yes I’m in a body, yes I’m grateful for my body, I took care of my body. But I’m also not my body. Just like I’m not my mind. There is a core of who I am – that thing underneath all the things.

M: Thinking about self-compassion, and accessing the self within the self, I was wondering how you look back on your own work? I often think of poems as people, and there are the ones you get along with immediately, and others that take a little more getting to know, and I just wondered what it is like for you to reencounter the self who wrote those collections?

A: I love that question. Very early on I made a promise to myself. I was on a radio show, my first book had come out, it was in Pittsburg and it was probably the first show I’d been on, and they said they’d just had a well-known poet on, who didn’t want to talk about their early collections, because they were embarrassed about them. They said that and then we went live. And I remember thinking, am I going to look back on this and be embarrassed? And I made a promise to myself in that moment that I would never ever be embarrassed about my work and I would hold it with the dignity it deserved. That said, you change. I am a different person today than I was yesterday. I’ll be a different person tomorrow at the airport. We are always changing. But there is still a through line – I’m there all the time. Now I look back and think, she did a really good job with what she had. It’s like looking at photographs and not being hard on yourself – she was so young and she was doing this. That moment was so key for me.

M: Yes, though sometimes so hard! Just thinking about The Carrying, there is such a sense of the precarity of human life, but also a will to live. There’s a drive to resist oblivion. You spoke yesterday about how poems have to communicate, and I was wondering about where you draw the line between speech and silence? There is such a hyper-visibility to writing, and I wonder how you navigate that in your own work? The need sometimes to be less visible.

A: Yes – I mean, I never thought I would be visible as a poet. Sometimes the way we go into poetry is to allow us to write our intense observations of the world – our songs and our narratives – and then not have to be in the room when someone reads them. We like that. And then when Bright Dead Things sold almost 50,000 copies – which is kind of insane – there was more visibility than I was ever interested in. You don’t go into poetry in order to be known. But I really want to honor that. I think if I can be in any way someone’s first gateway drug to poetry – I’m all in. I can’t tell you how many people say you’re the first poet I ever read, or your reading was the first poetry reading I ever went to… And I can’t think of a better thing. But in doing so – and I’m still learning this – especially from Natalie Diaz who said that when she won the Pulitzer she stopped looking at her emails because there were too many and everyone wants something – you also have to protect yourself. You have to have your days at home, not always giving a part of yourself. You have to retain privacy. 

People are surprised cause I am such an open person, but I am also actually a very private one. I remember in college, my boyfriend at the time introduced me to a friend of his. And afterwards he asked, what did you think of her? And this person said, she is a very private person. And I remember feeling really seen by that. Because I’ll share and tell my stories and want to hear yours, but at home I am goofy, and funny, and I sing at the top of my lungs. I do little dances with my dog, and my husband and I laugh a lot and that kind of private joy is something I always want to protect. And sometimes I want to do that in my poems. So that you don’t get to see everything. I always think of Rebecca Lindenberg, who is fabulous – Love and Index is one of the greatest books ever written. She was saying how important it was for her to be able to make a narrative, to find form for her grief. And so for me it’s about always feeling good about what I’m doing. Even with visiting and touring. I want to be fully here and present and enjoying it, otherwise I don’t want to do it.

M: Yes, boundaries are a huge part of that.

A: Exactly. And I was just thinking about napping, which is really really key for me. Even if you are not really sleeping. Lying down. We don’t talk about how essential that is. Cause everyone will tell you how lucky you are. People will say that to any rock star. But they always have a team around them who are protecting them. Even as poets, we have to protect what we put out into the world.

M: Yes, I’m thinking about all those invisible networks of care that are there, standing behind so many of us… Unfortunately, I think we are nearing the end of our time, but I just wanted to ask one last question: what is bringing you joy at the moment?

A: Oh I love that. Well always my dog, my cat and my husband. Always, always animals. It’s funny I listen to a lot of podcasts and I’m always trying to learn something. And lately I’ve been turning off the podcast and playing music really loud and singing along. And it’s like – don’t always be taking notes. Sometimes just dance. I’ve been doing that as I cook every night. My husband doesn’t cook – he makes a great Martini though, and a Manhattan. But just making space for play. Like you with pain, I need to do something every day to move my body. But it’s always been a hip workout or yoga, and then over the pandemic I found all these dance videos, hiphop fit. They are 30-minute videos on youtube for free. And when I don’t feel like moving my body, I just think ok, I’ll try to dance. And my husband will come downstairs and I’ll just be giddy. Just getting out of my head, getting back into my body, back into what it is to be a weird human moving around. Just playful. I had lost sight of that. What it was to dance and sing – all the things I loved as a kid.

M: To be silly.

A: Yeah – to be silly. Life is so serious, you know? We have to play.

M: That reminds me of one time I was visiting my mum, and I had very little time at home, and she had a haircut booked, so I accompanied her, and she immediately started joking with the guy cutting her hair. And I was like, mum you are so joyful! And she said, you know, Maia, the minute I turned 50, all I wanted to do was laugh, because that is what life is really about. And I just thought – wow, I also want to dance through life laughing.

A: Yes – it’s very true. I mean I laugh all the time. Even in hard moments, when thinking how intense life is. Sometimes my husband and I break out in hysterics. And I think this is our shot. I don’t know about reincarnation – I don’t know if we get to come back. But I’m not going to risk it. I’m not going waste this shot.

M: What a beautiful way to end this interview – on laughter – and may there be more of it.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M