Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Ada Limón InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses, which Dani Shapiro calls, “Searing, lucid, tender, and wise.” The memoir tells the story of mom’s return to horseback riding after many years away. Charting how she finds her way back to herself not only as a rider but as a mother, wife, daughter, writer, and woman. Alternating timelines and braided with historical portraits of women and horses alongside history’s attempts to tame both parties, The Year of the Horses is an inspiring love letter to the power of animals—and humans—to heal the mind and the heart. Says Lisa Taddeo, “Gorgeously written, wry but loving, heartbreaking and, most of all, roving. . . . The Year of the Horses is a memoir of power and beauty and pain that moves across the world like the beautiful horses that carry it.” The Year of the Horses is out now from Tin House. Before we begin today’s conversation with Poet Ada Limón, I wanted to mention the animals in this conversation. The conversation itself is about, among many other things, how to represent animals in one’s work; but more importantly, how to be in engagement with animals and with the non-human world at large in our lives, and how to carry that engagement into our work, as well as about writing at a time of ecological precarity and human dominion over the earth. Long-time listeners know that I have brought up my cat Ewok in these intros before multiple times, especially if she made a cameo in some fashion during the interview itself. If you listen to a lot of conversations with Ada Limón, it isn’t uncommon to hear her dog snoring beside her as part of those conversations. You may have noticed that I haven’t brought up Ewok in a while, and that is because she died last summer during Portland’s heat dome where the temperatures reached a previously unfathomable 118 degrees. After nine months of mourning and with her purple heart-shaped name tag now dangling from the boom arm of my microphone, and a little tuft of her fur here on the desktop with me, we adopted another cat, not a kitten but a six-year-old of mysterious origins, a cat who needed some immediate medical attention. Because we were both fully formed personalities on either side of the species equation, the first month was largely figuring each other out. But this has ultimately resulted in a hard one but very real bond, an obvious one both ways. Her name is Soleil and I bring her up because while Ada’s dog who starts barking while we’re talking, and Ada steps away to bring the dog to another room—all of which is cut from the final audio so you would never know—there’s a point in the interview where Soleil goes bonkers. It’s from the hallway from the other side of the door, so it is faint, and because it is faint, it might even be mistaken for a clock alarm going off or something else. But I make the counter-intuitive decision to then invite Soleil into the recording studio to see if she’ll chill out. You won’t hear me do that, but at some point, Ada asks how she’s doing and I point her out. I left that part of the conversation in the final cut. It’s fitting because one of the questions we ask is about how to be with other creatures where they have the space to live on their own terms and how to represent that in language on the page. Soleil definitely set the terms. But in the end, I think she enjoyed the conversation as much as Ada and I did, and as much as hopefully you will too. This conversation isn’t only about animals and nature and poetry. One of the many other things we discuss is the Argentinian Poet Alejandra Pizarnik, an important poet for Ada and one who figures in this latest collection of hers in multiple ways. For the bonus audio, Ada contributes a reading of multiple poems by Alejandra Pizarnik. This joins bonus audio from many iconic poets: Rosmarie Waldrop, Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Nikky Finney, Douglas Kearney, Natalie Diaz, Arthur Sze, and many others. The bonus audio is only one of many potential benefits of becoming a supporter of the show and joining the Between The Covers community. You can find out more about all of this at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s animal inflected conversation with Ada Limón.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet and fellow podcaster, Ada Limón. Limón studied theater at the Drama School of the University of Washington in Seattle with a minor in dance, and then pursued an MFA at NYU, studying poetry with Sharon Olds, Phil Levine, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, and others. She lived in New York for 12 years working at various magazines including GQ and as the creative director of Travel + Leisure. During this time, her first book of poetry, Lucky Wreck—which was also the name of her band—was picked by Jean Valentine as winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize. Her second book, This Big Fake World, went on to win the 2006 Pearl Poetry Prize. Her three books since then, and the fourth which we are talking about today, have all come out with Milkweed Editions: Her 2010 collection Sharks in the Rivers, her 2015 National Book Award finalist, Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award finalist, and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Bright Dead Things, and her 2018 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award finalist, The Carrying, which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry that year, and was named the best book of the year by nearly everybody. Limón was also a judge for the National Book Award in poetry in 2013, the year Mary Szybist took home the trophy. For a long time now she’s been a resident of Lexington, Kentucky and teaches in the Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency MFA program. Her writing has appeared everywhere from Pleiades to The New Yorker. She’s received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She’s also the host, taking over for US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, of one of poetry’s most high profile podcasts, The Slowdown, where every weekday, Ada chooses a poem by a different poet and creates a moment of reflection through an engagement with it. Ada’s here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest book of poetry from Milkweed called The Hurting Kind. Publishers Weekly in its starred review calls The Hurting Kind, “Tender and arresting. An ode to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that characterizes the natural world. Limón’s crystalline language is a feast for the senses, bringing monumental significance to the minuscule and revealing life in every blade of grass.” Serena for Books Are Magic’s Most Anticipated Books of Spring says, “In this tender and intimate new collection, Limón asks what it means to be ‘The Hurting Kind’. . . to be both perceptive and permeable to the delicate strings that connect us to each other and to the world around us. All I can say is Ada Limón never misses! Each poem is a stone in the poet’s hand being turned over and over to reveal its quartz-qualities, its secret radiances, its prismatic reflections. Lucid, as ever.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Ada Limón.
Ada Limón: Thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you for that beautiful introduction.
DN: I wanted to get a sense of what makes your latest book distinct from the others by looking at what you’ve said about past books that made those books departures or tangible evolutions from what came before them. For instance, you have this great post on your blog called On Art & Anxiety that you wrote in 2015 on the eve of your book Bright Dead Things coming out. In it you say that these are your most personal poems to date and also the most open; the book where you don’t hide. You say that the “I” in these poems is actually you; that you kept asking yourself what you were scared to write and writing it. Then you ended up, because of that, with a book of poems about such true and personal things that they were things that you might not even have said to a good friend. You say it was your first book that was containing real love poems, and the first book you didn’t write for poets but for yourself, your friends, and your family. With the book that followed it, The Carrying, the one we’re going to talk about, you could say you hid even less; that you revealed more of the you within the “I” in that you explore, quite deeply among many other things, infertility and what it meant that your desire to and your attempts to have a child didn’t manifest. You talked about this fifth book as an arrival of sorts to a mode that felt completely you, very close to how you see the world; that it doesn’t feel performative but simply authentically who you are. Thinking of these books and your sense of having, through the process of writing five books, found your way toward maybe a poetics of authenticity, poetics like a second skin, tell us about The Hurting Kind, how it either extends this trajectory or how it departs from this trajectory, and what gives it its own particular identity in your mind.
AL: What a beautiful question. It’s making me think so much of what it is that we do every time we make a book and how we shift from the idea of making one poem, one poem, one poem, one poem, and then suddenly, a book starts to manifest and you start to realize, “Oh, something’s coming together.” I think it’s a great question because I was curious too, like, “Is this a continuation?” Of course, in some ways it is because it’s me and there’s no question about that, that it’s me. I feel like with this book in particular, one of the things that I was really interested in was what it was to de-center the self in some ways. I think with both Bright Dead Things and The Carrying, there was an autobiographical element, and there is certainly in this. But I think I was curious as to what would happen if I thought of the poems more as exploration of the world and witnessing the world and me being a part of that and interconnected in the world; as opposed to me being the great “eye” and “I” and maybe in some ways pulling back from that, and not only being witness but letting myself be witness, and maybe getting a little smaller in these poems. In doing so, honoring the ancestors, the friends, the animals, the people around me. I think in some ways, it’s definitely still a continuation of the books. It’s also a departure in the sense that I don’t want to say it’s a pulling away from the world, it’s a writing from a different place in the world. Instead of feeling separate in any way, it’s writing from a place of feeling a part of everything. I do think that’s new only because I think it’s a new thing that’s happened to me.
DN: Speaking of new things that have happened to you, another way you were framing the two books before this one was as two books that you couldn’t imagine having written if you’d still been living in New York working full-time in a different field, and that having moved to Kentucky not working in the magazine industry, not taking a full-time teaching position, but having more time and space to really be a writer, is the atmosphere that allowed those two books to come into being as they did. In light of that, I wanted to hear about how, if at all, the pandemic, sheltering at home, or quarantine, played a role in regards to changing your poetry or shaping this collection. For instance, I was wondering as I read it if the backyard garden, which is where some of the dramas get foregrounded in this book, if perhaps that was a result of being at home more, of focusing more on us finding the world within a smaller space I guess, but also in a larger way, did the pandemic at all find a way to influence the forms of your poems or the ways that you wrote them?
AL: I think like most people, there was no way around it, there was no way to not have it affect you. I was lucky in that I wasn’t an essential worker or someone who needed to work every day and be exposed to the virus. I was able to stay home. In that staying home, I do think there was a deepening of a silence, a deepening of what it was to reframe being alone. I think in some ways, it made me wonder if I even believed in aloneness or if I even believed in loneliness. Because I think the more I sat with it, the more I recognized that these trees and these birds, they’re part of my community; my houseplants, my cat, my dog. My husband had to travel a lot for work so he was gone. It was pretty much me alone in the house. I think there was a moment in which the garden became more alive, the bird feeder became more essential to my well-being and my daily practice; my friends. I also think on that same level, if I didn’t believe in loneliness or aloneness, I did believe in missing; missing certain people, missing certain things, and missing certain pleasures. I think, in some ways, the book became an invitation to explore what that missing was; and realizing that missing was a way of loving, and so making poems that became offerings and letters and reaching out and so I could send my father a poem and say, “I miss you. I wrote this poem for you today.” Or I could send my stepfather a poem and say, “I miss you. I wrote this for you.” They became like that, they became letters, they became a way of reaching out, a way of connecting. That was really authentic and wasn’t, again, thinking necessarily about who was going to read it except for the person who it literally was written for. I think there was a reimagining of what it was to be in the world as a being, and whether or not I was lonely or if I was just separated, and if I could bridge that distance with poetry. In the same way was true with that witnessing of animal and plant life was, was there a way of exploring that separation, the distance between human, plant, and animal, and understanding that it’s never something I’ll figure out, understanding that it’s never something else being like, “Oh, and now I know why we are separate,” but also exploring that connection. I don’t know if I would have had that time, space, breath, and urgency if it wasn’t for the pandemic because I think I was urgently looking for connection as a way of survival, as a way of overcoming anxiety, as a way of not feeling like, “Okay, let’s just lie on the ground and give up.” I don’t want to say desperate, but I think that connection was not just like, “Oh, I’m going to spend the day looking at the feeder,” it was like, “I’ve got to do something, what do I do?” That was part of it.
DN: Some of what you said reminds me a little bit of when you were talking about the 15th anniversary reissue of your debut, which you described as being written under the atmosphere of post-9/11 New York, and how you were simultaneously feeling this connection with your fellow New Yorkers and a sense of feeling very isolated at the same time, which makes me wonder if maybe this question, not in the same way with the pandemic, but if this question of the self and the collective and bridging that gap or using missing as a form of love and then as a result a form of connection, if that might be a through line from then until now.
AL: Yeah. I think that’s a very true observation because I do think poetry is the way that I connect. I know it’s not for everyone. Sometimes it’s a way of exploring something unknown, or unraveling some sound or some lyrical exploration. But at its whole, at its core for me, is a way of connecting and sometimes it is a way of just connecting with myself like, “Oh, right, I am a human being, I am breathing, I am living in the world, and that’s enough.” I think that was important too. But I think that is very true, I write poetry that matters to me on a level in which it does something for me. I don’t always know if it will do anything for anyone else but I know that I will feel better or more whole, because sometimes it’s a harder poem and you don’t really feel better, but you feel maybe more whole afterwards. That’s really important to me. It’s important to my process of art making I think in general, is that it means something to me and that it’s not always really about the audience, which is a hard thing to say because, of course, I want to reach people. But I think when I’m writing just individual poems, that’s not really a part of it yet. Oftentimes, the audience I’m reaching is like my mom, a few friends, or just writing on a human level, one person to another.
DN: The book takes us through the four seasons opening with spring. I was hoping to begin, as a beginning to explore your poetics further, if we could hear the opening garden set poem Give Me This, and then the poem A Good Story.
AL: I would be honored to read those poems. We’re just getting to spring in Kentucky, so I’m excited to see if my groundhog comes back. I bet she will.
DN: I bet she will too.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Give Me This]
AL: Then A Good Story is a poem I wrote for my stepfather.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called A Good Story]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ada Limón read from her latest poetry collection, The Hurting Kind. I want to make what will seem like a detour from tomato thieving groundhogs and kindness through pizza to Alejandra Pizarnik. But I promise that I actually have a unified theory of groundhogs, pizza, and Pizarnik.
AL: I’m so excited.
DN: [laughs] First, I want to ask you about her though. She’s one of the poets you’ve done an episode around on The Slowdown podcast. When you were on the 92Y’s Read By poetry podcast where guests are asked to choose a poet and then read poems by them, you chose Pizarnik, and you talked about how helpful reading her was during the pandemic. Then you read poems from Extracting the Stone of Madness. But here also in your new collection, there is a poem in it called “I Have Wanted Clarity in Light of My Lack of Light”. The title of the poem is in quotes and it turns out to be a line from Pizarnik from a poem called Fragments for Subduing the Silence. The poem that follows is written after her. Perhaps most notably, your book opens with an epigraph from her as well. Talk to us about Alejandra Pizarnik; what is it about this Argentinian-Jewish poet that you are compelled by and want to engage with both by sharing her work and having her work shape yours, and even open the collection with her words.
AL: Yeah. Thank you for that. So wonderful to honor a poet. Alejandra Pizarnik is really a fascinating character to me and a fascinating poet. But one of the things that I find really true in her work is that she’s as interested in the music of language as she is in the silence. I’m so intrigued by the idea of what it is to really shape poems around silence and what that means. I think that there are so many times where, when we talk about poetry, we only talk about the language and the images. I’ve been a poet that has often said that one of the things I love about poetry is that there’s breath built right into it. I’ve said that for years but I hadn’t really talked about how silence begins to shape the poem itself. She believes in that. I also think that in her work, you notice a pushing against a wisdom and pushing against a figuring things out. In doing that, I think she becomes such a witness to the world in a way that feels not like an authority but part of the world. I think her work meant something to me as I was putting this book together but also just as reading it during the pandemic, is that it made so much room for silence and it also made room for mystery.
DN: The reason why I bring her up is because the epigraph from the poem Pido El Silencio or I Ask for Silence translated by Yvette Siegert. Because when I think of the groundhog in your garden who’s destroying your tomatoes, which is the opening image of the collection, you aren’t focusing on what you’ve patiently grown and nurtured and which is now being stolen before they are ripe. Similarly, and more explicitly in a good story, you have lines, which many of your poems do, that invite us to see them as a facet of your personal Ars Poetica, lines like “I used to like the darkest stories. Now, all I want is a story about human kindness.” In the first poem, you take joy in the joy of another after eating your food even at your own expense. The second, you take joy from being fed by another when you were emotionally unmoored. The Pizarnik lines in the epigraph go, “Though it’s late, though it’s night, / and you are not able. // Sing as if nothing were wrong. // Nothing is wrong.” This poem almost feels like it imbues words with magic like it’s a spell to me; though it’s late, and though you are not able, sing as if nothing were wrong, and then that declarative, that mysterious declarative “nothing is wrong”. I recognize that gesture throughout your work, not just in this collection, of no matter what dark place you are in or dark place you go to in the poems, this word magic move, I would call it, sing as if nothing were wrong, nothing is wrong. I wondered if that felt right to you, that part of your poetics, that regardless of whether you’re writing about a failed dream, a death, a chronic illness, a mercy killing of an animal, that you say, “This too, this horrible thing too, almost like a yes to it, this unwanted thing,” and somehow in doing that, something happens like that last line of the epigraph.
AL: Yeah. I think that’s so true. Thank you for deeply reading that and pointing that out to me. You’re such a great reader that’s why I love this podcast. I’m so interested in what it is to live in balance with those things because that is what it is to live. I’m also interested in what it is sometimes for artists to only go towards the suffering. I think there was a time I thought that’s what I should do, that that’s what was required of me, was to look only towards the trauma, the suffering, the hard parts. That’s also what I saw being valued and what I saw being praised and so I thought that’s what poets should do, that’s our job is to go into the darkness, go down into the bottom of the well. But I think as I’ve aged, I just don’t believe it anymore. I don’t believe it anymore and I don’t believe it’s what we should do as human beings. Life has always been hard. It’s particularly hard now, especially if you take to consideration the climate crisis. We are at a different place than we’ve ever been. But I feel like there’s something in this life that is always asking us to recommit to it and I’m interested in that. I’m interested in that ongoingness. I’m also interested in what life looks like without me in it; if something were to happen to me in that sense of what continues, and it’s like, “Oh, the tree would go on and the birds would go on.” I don’t know, there’s a beauty in that. I feel like we spend so much of our life looking for connection and searching for a community and wanting to feel aligned with something. I just wonder if maybe what’s more true is that we are already in community and we are already connected. The distance between us is made up of Earth and we’re part of that Earth. That might sound a little out there.
DN: It doesn’t at all.
AL: Oh, thank you, but I feel like to me, part of that is that the thing is if nothing is wrong, nothing is wrong, I think there is that moment in which like “This is it.” If I live my life only for tomorrow, I will be deeply unhappy. If I live my life only for yesterday, I will be deeply unhappy. What is it to be in this moment? Then in order to be in this moment fully, I need to know that it’s not easy, but that also there’s something good and I also don’t want to feel guilt—we use that phrase guilty pleasures and we think about the guilt of “I’m having some joy” even though we are watching a real human terror when we think about what’s happening in Ukraine, pandemic, climate crisis, all of these things. You can’t even line them up, you can’t even say them all out loud. But I also know that there’s a bird trying to live its life and I also know that there’s some beauty in someone feeding someone, and someone helping someone, someone being at someone’s bedside as they pass, or being at their bedside as they give birth. I think there’s something that we need to pay attention to there and I don’t know if I can name it, but I know it feels like it’s not the easy answer. It’s not like, “Oh, this is the summing up.” I think I have that line in one of my poems like, “You can’t sum it up.” That feels true to me in the sense that I’m always asking, “How do we live?” What has been making the most sense to me in terms of how we live is we have to live in this moment and we have to live in deep appreciation for all the things. That’s not to say any of it is easy and it’s also not to say that suffering isn’t a part of all of this. But there’s also another part too, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I feel like too often, artists are asked to lose sight of that, artists are asked to be the person living in the well. I don’t think that’s fair. I think we get the light too. I feel like part of this book is reclaiming both sides and I want the light too.
DN: I don’t know where this connects with your trajectory and whether this still reflects where you are at now, but Matthew Zapruder has described you as a high-level duende enabler. [laughter] You have a lecture called On Duende & the Ladder: Mystery and Hope in Poetry where you say, “Lorca defined Duende as having four distinct elements: irrationality, earthiness, a close awareness of death, and the diabolical.” Your craft lecture is about how to balance these elements. When I hear you speaking now, not about this but just more generally, your craft lecture was about how to balance the dark and the light within the poem, which feels to me like perhaps you’re saying that in a different way. But can you talk to us a little bit about balancing the dark in the light in a poem?
AL: Yeah. It’s funny because we talk about it like what is it to write the craft of poems, the balancing the dark and light in a poem itself. But really, it’s the work of a life, it’s not just the work of the art. It’s really just, for me, how can I do it as a living human being and get up in the morning, have struggles, have pain, and then still be like, “Yeah, okay. Let’s do this.” I think that needs to be witnessed in poetry. I feel like one of the things that I think I push against is the commodification of pain and trauma in poetry. That’s not to say that I don’t think it should be there because I think there’s a lot of really important really healing, really powerful, and really change-inducing poems that have come out of exploring trauma and pain, not just for the readers but for the writers themselves; so I don’t want to say that that’s not incredibly important because it is. But I really feel that if we’re going to embrace our full humanity as artists, we need to embrace the funny parts, the humor, the idea of ongoingness that we still do this. It’s always amazed me that we do it. I am someone who finds everything weird, someone who finds just our ability to keep going and the absurdity. Thinking about this, how we’ve all been living through this pandemic and all of us with different circumstances, of course, and those of us who could stay inside, those of us who were working every single day, and those of us that were on the front lines, all of these things, but there was this absurdity of, “Okay, I guess, I’m going to a friend taking a COVID test and a pregnancy test.” These wonderful, “What’s going on?” A friend doing these things of trying to figure out how we can best support one another. Then also finding out someone was sick and then also planting the garden. All of these things were happening at once. When I think about balancing the dark and the light, I think it’s also a level in which it’s that recognition of so much is happening all the time, that it’s all happening at once. I’m never walking around with one feeling, very rarely is there just one feeling moving in my body. It’s usually a lot of different things and a lot of different thoughts. I think my poetry and my art and my life is curious about that. What is that complexity? It’s not just about balance and it’s not just about the two forces of light and dark, but it’s also about what is it to embrace that sense of wholeness and what is it to find that sense of wholeness in the work and in life and leaning into that. Because I think as I’ve aged as an artist and as a person, I’m just more and more suspicious of things that make it easy, sum it up, or just say, “This is the thing” or “I figured this out.” I think there was a moment when I was in my 20s and even 30s where I was like, “Yeah, I figured this out. This is how life works.” [laughter] I’m like, “No. I don’t know anything now.” There’s something in that I think that surrender to that, that surrender to the chaos of life, the surrender to like, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 15 minutes,” used to really pain me and distress me. It felt unfair. It felt like that wasn’t how life should be. Now, I think not only is it how life is, it’s also what I want more and more to work towards surrendering to as I continue.
DN: It just makes me think about I’m sure I know more than I did several decades ago, but my experience of aging day to day as much as I feel like I know more what I’m interested or not interested in, it does feel like a process of unknowing for me in a good way.
AL: Yeah. I love that mystery of like, “Oh, I used to know so many things for certain, and now I’m suspicious of anything.” Even if I think, “Oh, I know this,” I immediately question, “Do I? Do I really know that? I don’t know.” I think giving in to that actually has been a real delight for me because I think honestly, when I first started out as a poet in my young 20s, living in New York, studying with people like Phil Levine and Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Agha Shahid Ali, they were wise to me, and they were wise and their poems were wise. But it wasn’t that they were necessarily doing that, it was that their poems had some kind of wisdom within them. I think as a kid looking up to that, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to write a poem and I’m going to try to be wise,” which is like, “What do you do with that?” Of course, it’s hilarious now to me. It’s like I’m trying to have some epiphany, trying to have some like “And then I realized this moment,” and of course, comparing myself to a poem that Phil Levine wrote at 70. [laughs] Like, “Huh, how come I can’t do that?” [laughter]
DN: I love that. I want to spend an extra moment with something you said at the very beginning of your last answer, which was to learn how to balance dark and light within a poem is really a life practice and it’s about doing that in your life, practicing how to do that in your life, day to day, moment to moment. Because in your duende class description, you not only talk about balancing dark and light, but you also say you talk about balancing it and then ending the poem by conveying a sense of hope to the reader, which perhaps connects us to the Pizarnik epigraph ending too. You rarely leave the reader in a place of helplessness, anger, bitterness, or fear even if you might travel through those things in a poem. You’ve talked about how you think of poetry as having a healing power. I know you call yourself an atheist and you have this wonderful poem in an earlier collection, What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use, which is about this. It’s also about naming where you say to a friend that you believe in the connection we have that we all have with nature and to each other, and your friend calls this god and you refuse to call it god even though you’re both recognizing the same phenomenon. The reason why I bring this up is because this gesture of yours, which I do think runs through much of your poetry; one that I have trouble finding words for, but let’s say a repeated affirmative yes, it has the feel to me of a spiritual practice; the way certain practices are ritualized and repeated. For instance, Rachel Zucker, the host of Commonplace, she did a roll call of past guests of the show during the pandemic, brief check-ins. In yours, you talked about meta-loving kindness meditation, a daily practice of yours that begins with an offering to yourself, then an offering to a difficult person, and then an offering to all beings everywhere; one that you described is like a prayer, and ascending out of something positive into the world when you yourself might be feeling the opposite, helpless, confused, maybe even despairing. It’s something you practice every day. I guess I wondered if you feel like poetry is this for you in some way. Because when I read the poems, I don’t want to suggest that they’re the same, they go to very different places, but the gesture of them feels like a ritual to me. I don’t know if that makes sense.
AL: Yeah, it does make sense. All writing to me, the act of writing, feels like a way of connecting. I said that before, it feels like a way of connecting. Loving Kindness Meditation, which I first learned from Sharon Salzberg in New York City at the Tibet House, got in 2006, maybe 2005. I remember thinking that it seems so obvious like, “Okay, first, you’re just kind to yourself and then you’re kind to a friend, and then you’re kind to a group of loved ones. You work on the enemy which is supposed to be the hardest and then it’s to all beings everywhere.” I was really doing it on a regular basis and I was feeling the shift to me. I kept resisting it because I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to try this. I’m going to try this.” I was willing to try anything to feel better as anyone who’s in a desperate place with either their physical or mental health will know. I suddenly recognized how hard it was to offer the love to yourself. That seemed like it should be the easiest. That seemed like, “Yeah, I would like to feel good. May you be happy. May you be healthy.” All these things, like yeah. But then there was this strange part of you that would resist it like, “No, send it to someone who needs it.” I was fascinated what was happening in the mind in this practice. I do feel like there’s a part of writing now—and I think maybe for most of my life, I actually don’t know—that has always been a way of praising. Even if it’s the suffering thing, it is the shining a little light on that suffering thing and that hard thing, that thing that maybe we don’t talk about; the sick friend, the sick parent, the sick self, what is it to talk about that? In talking to it, isn’t there a way of bringing light to it? I feel like too often we think that poetry shouldn’t be healing, that it should be craft, it should be this serious endeavor in which we work at the line breaks, the caesura, the prosody to make this beautiful and undeniable thing. I think poetry can be that for sure, but I also think it can really save us. It’s strange not to go ahead and go for it. If it helps, I thank god if it helps, do it. I find myself leaning to that so much. I think that if there is that ritual—to go back to what I said earlier about making things that matter—it is about what is it that I want right now? What is it that I need? What is it that I want to share? To take that seriously but to take the act of praise seriously and to take the act of healing seriously and take the act of whatever recommitment to the world I need at that moment seriously, that may mean laughter, that may mean writing a poem about my friends, all of us being at war or getting stoned in college. It might mean a lightness. I think sometimes, if I’m really actively writing, I do think I’m more open to the world, I think I’m more present in the world, and I do think it’s like a meditation. It’s a different practice for sure but I think ritual is the right word for it. Yeah, I don’t think you’re wrong there.
DN: I would like to spend some time with naming, quite a bit of time with naming actually. You employ naming and listing often in your poems. Naming and listing is within your poems but the act of naming is also something you engage with as a topic or a theme over and over again from different angles, much like we just referenced the poem about whether the connection to nature is god or not god. But before we do, I was hoping we could hear two different poems in the collection that have to do with naming. I was thinking The Magnificent Frigatebird and Drowning Creek.
AL: Great. Thank you. How’s your cat by the way?
DN: So far so good. Do you see her?
AL: Oh, she’s adorable. She’s so intense too. She’s like, “What is happening?” I love her. This is The Magnificent Frigatebird.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called The Magnificent Frigatebird]
AL: Okay, Drowning Creek.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Drowning Creek]
DN: We’re listening to Ada Limón read from her latest collection, The Hurting Kind. One of the great things about your book opening in your garden and often being set there is not just us finding the entire world there and also your entire interior world there, but also it evoking the mythic garden, the Edenic garden, the place where language and naming begins. Not only does God speak the world into being, he also many times repeatedly, perhaps much like you do, pauses and declares it good. He speaks light into being, declares it good. He separates water from the land and calls it good. He creates plant life and calls it good, and so on. But also this is the place where Adam was tasked with the naming of the animals and you could say that the fall from Eden is a fall also related to language and cognition, that by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that through the development of abstract thought, the ability to live within representation beyond what we perceive in the immediate moment, that is what separated us from nature. I was hoping maybe you could just spend a little time with us about naming for you, why you both continually name but also wrestle with names.
AL: Yeah. That’s a wonderful question. I love all of that background you gave and it makes me think so much about what my own philosophy is when it comes to naming and language. I think that for so long, I was really delighted what it was to know a name of something. It would make me immediately more attached to the thing like, “Oh, what kind of tree is that? Oh, that’s a hackberry,” and I would say, “Hackberry, never even heard of the hackberry. What a great name.” Then the American linden seems so serious and tall. The silver maple and how different it is from the sugar maple. It made me feel more connected, more attached, and also more like I was doing that work of noticing, like, “Oh, now I’m noticing when they pop up again.” And “Oh, what kind of tree is this?” During the pandemic, and then maybe even a little before, I’d just walk around my neighborhood and just try to name and identify all the trees, which is a wonderful thing to do just in my own little neighborhood. There’s the same three crows. We think about birds being so migratory and living these lives that are much larger than ours, but very often, birds are local. You walk out, you see the same three crows. That really made me feel like knowing their names, or what we call them at least in the English language, was a lovely way of witnessing them. But then I also think that I think of the limitations of names; what is that already if we’re using English or Spanish, we’re already using the language of the colonizer, if we’re using a native language, even then, what is the language that the bird would like to be called? What is the name that this flower is going to be called? We always feel like we have some dominion over plants and animals and naming is a little bit of that ownership. I love the way it makes us connected but I’m suspicious of how it gives us ownership, control, or a knowledge that we may or may not have because knowing the name is not the name that the tree came up with. I would love to know if the tree had its own name. I bet it would be amazing. Or maybe it would be like George. [laughter]
DN: I doubt it. I have so many questions about naming, the garden, and language in relationship to the non-human. But first, we have a question for you about language from a fellow poet and podcaster, Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Pádraig Ó Tuama: Hi, Ada. It’s Pádraig here. I hope you’re very well. It’s lovely to send a message to you via David. I’m really interested in the way that your poems so often reference language, but underneath language, there’s this question about understanding. Sometimes your poems establish understanding between the voices with translation or communication, and other times, I see that you show how language is a tool of manipulation or where translation is a tool of manipulation; a certain performance of something that’s keeping maybe someone’s imagination of diversity called as “satisfied”. I see the way that you hold language, and underneath it, put all these layers of understanding to ask what’s really happening in language. I see you do the same thing in The Slowdown, where you hold up the language of a poem and then explore the layers of understanding underneath it. I’d love to hear you talk about some of the layers that you see underneath language and how it is that you’re interested in those personally, and as an artist, as well as in your wider work as a public communicator. I look forward to hearing your answer and look forward to learning.
AL: What a wonderful question that is. Lovely to have him in our space today. I adore his work on his podcast and as a poet, as a human. I think one of the things that I’m very interested in is we talk about what it is to honor language, to work with language, to have that be our tool. But I’m also really interested in the failure of language. I think our reliance on it is sometimes too much so. How often are we thinking about identifying something as a way of owning or even identifying ourselves as a way of figuring out who we are? I’m suspicious of that. I think that every time someone says, “I’m X, Y, and Z,” I think, “No, you’re so much more than that. You’ve got so much going on.” I think that too, when we think of standing in the woods and we think, “Oh, yeah, this is the elm, this is the hemlock, this is the redwood,” that’s great, wonderful. But then what is it to just be with them, to be in silence and communion with the trees, to just be in awe and wonder, to not be interested in identifying but instead to be interested in listening, to not be talking back but to be receiving, to be holding the world? I think sometimes as human beings and as artists, we think our job is to do that naming, is to do that valuing of language. I think part of our job is to understand how it fails, to understand how much larger the world is beyond language. We always say if we’re experiencing something incredibly beautiful or incredibly moving, we think “I don’t have words for this. I don’t have words for this.” That’s beautiful. I live for those moments of like, “I don’t know the language for this.” That’s not a failure as a human being, it’s just that language doesn’t offer us that. I’m really interested in what goes beyond language and what is the silence between two people, what is the look between two people, the touch. What is it to touch tree, the heat that comes off the bark? Those moments are indescribable. Of course, I spend my life trying to describe them, but I find the work, as Pádraig said, the underneath work, the layers underneath it, that’s really the work. Language can do so much, but on some level, it’s always going to let us down a little bit, which sometimes is a way of getting into a poem because you think, “Oh, there’s no way I could write a poem,” but then if you think of it, “Ah, it’s never going to get it right anyway.” You can start, allow yourself to begin. [laughter]
DN: Yes. This is going to seem like a strange pivot, but maybe not as strange as groundhogs and pizza to Pizarnik, but this year, there’s been a new monthly series on my show called Crafting with Ursula, where writers come on the show to engage with questions of craft in their own writing in relationship to the writing of Ursula Le Guin. Of course, some of these conversations as would be expected are about science fiction and fantasy, about imagining future livable worlds or questions around imagining alien species. But many of them have become about the human in relationship to the non-human, both in the world itself but also how we represent it in our writing, how we place the human in a narrative or within a poem, and also how we include or exclude everything that isn’t human. In addition, her worlds are very much about naming and the magic of spells for Le Guin is word magic, of knowing something’s true name, which is not the same as its name. Because of this and all these questions we’re raising now, she’s doubly on my mind. What I’m going to do, if you’ll indulge me, is I’m just going to play a five-minute segment of Le Guin as a lead-in to some questions. It’s part of a speech that she gave at an ecological conference, but then she re-read it for me the time she came on the show to talk specifically about poetry. I’m going to play that and then we’ll talk a little bit.
Ursula Le Guin: To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it. Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beings — our fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things. Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocal — always at least two-way, back-and-forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way. In this view, we humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everything — all beings — including what we generally class as things, objects. Descartes and the behaviorists willfully saw dogs as machines, without feeling. Is seeing plants as without feeling a similar arrogance? One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk. I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination. What tools have we got to help us make that reach? In Romantic Things, Mary Jacobus writes, “The regulated speech of poetry may be as close as we can get to such things—to the stilled voice of the inanimate object or insentient standing of trees.” Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both senses of the word “for.” A poem can do so by relating the quality of an individual human relationship to a thing, a rock or river or tree, or simply by describing the thing as truthfully as possible. Science describes accurately from outside; poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates; poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility. By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty. Poetry often serves religion; and the monotheistic religions, privileging humanity’s relationship with the divine, encourage arrogance. Yet even in that hard soil, poetry will find the language of compassionate fellowship with our fellow beings. The seventeenth-century Christian mystic Henry Vaughan wrote: So hills and valleys into singing break, And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue, While active winds and streams both run and speak, Yet stones are deep in admiration. By admiration, Vaughan meant reverence for God’s sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. By admiration, I understand reverence for the infinite connectedness, the naturally sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.
AL: I love that. This is wonderful.
DN: Isn’t it?
AL: Let’s just sit here and listen. That would be wonderful.
DN: [laughs] Yes. I can imagine sitting by a fire for story time with Ursula for sure. Part of the reason I played this is because of the way she rescues the word reverence from the context of religious dominion over nature. That inspires the poem she reads near the end, which reminds me of your poem about the word god. But mostly I played it because of the lines, “It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way.” And then the final lines, “So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.” Because to me, it feels connected to something about your naming, not just the naming of The Magnificent Frigatebird as magnificent, or that the bird is not naming you in Drowning Creek, but Le Guin has a story called She Unnames Them, about Eve, removing the names from all the animals that Adam has named, all the animals except the yaks who are happy with their name. But in your last collection, The Carrying, opens with Eve naming the animals instead of Adam naming them. But what I think is most notable in that poem of yours is not the gender switch, which I think is notable, but that you also wonder if Eve ever wanted the animals to speak back, if she craved to be named by them. Both Le Guin, and your solution to naming, feel like they’re bi-directional, and that your Eve is rescuing naming from its worst self in a sense. Part of that is maybe related to this listening and not speaking and not naming, even though she is naming but she’s naming in a spirit of wanting to be named by that which she’s naming. I guess I wondered if any of this rang true to you, and any other thoughts that you had about what Ursula just read?
AL: Yeah, so true. It was really beautiful what she was saying. I feel like one of the things that I’ve been working with and just reckoning with myself is that our own just broken relationship with the land and with animals and plants, it does feel like it has become antagonistic, it’s become essentially a place of commerce. I’m very curious as to what we can do to heal that relationship. Because I don’t think we can even begin to heal our relationship with each other without witnessing and starting to heal our relationship with the land. That doesn’t mean that you are necessarily working the land or living in some rural setting. I think you can do that in the urban setting as well. Having lived in New York for so long, there are plenty of plants, trees, and animals which you can have some communion with. I feel like there’s a certain amount of, going back to that centering of the self, the centering of the human, making us the god, if you will, god in our image, all of those things, I find that really important to interrogate and question and pull apart, and figure out what it is that even as we look now at power structures in the human world, what is it to also pull apart the power structures between ourselves and the land, ourselves and the Earth? For me, I think it’s essential to working in poetry, of course, in my own poems, but I think it’s also how I want to be in the world. When we go back to that naming and renaming it, but also what it is to witness and then be witnessed, that it’s not always me that gets to go into the field and say, “You’re this flower. You’re this flower,” I am also an animal that the field gets to name. Even now I think often, we’ll say, “Oh, my bird is at the backyard feeder,” and then immediately think, “Well, that’s not really my backyard. My house is in their field.” [laughter] I question it. I question even how we speak about it. Turning that language or turning that relationship into reciprocity, I think, is key to how at least I want to live in the world and how I hope more and more people can do so. Otherwise, it’s so lonely, I think, to not feel connected to your own Earth.
DN: The question you posed about can we engage with structural power between us and other species, the fact that we have species supremacy now on the Earth. I think the statistic is something like 96% of the mammalian biomass on the planet is humans, our pets, and our livestock. Beyond your deep engagement with plants and animals, and this question around naming, honoring them, forgiving them for stealing your tomatoes, or celebrating them for stealing your tomatoes, you also have poems where you imagine yourself as a non-human, a horse in the poem Unspoken, a half-burned tree in Salvage, which makes me think of this question that you raise in The VS podcast with Danez and Franny where you’re talking about you wanting to write about animals without colonizing them. I guess I just wanted to hear more about—because this goes to the question obviously around power or structure—what are the parameters or what are the ethos, what does it mean to colonize an animal or a plant in a poem versus not? Because I think of the line in another poem of human animal reciprocity of yours called Sanctuary where you’re made whole, not by witnessing but here, you’re being made whole by being witnessed. The poem has the line, “I have, before, been tricked into believing I could be both an I and the world,” which makes me think that you think a lot about how to do this in a way that feels like right relationship, perhaps in the way Ursula was talking about poetry being not a technology but, like science, one way, we engage with these other beings in a way that might have the potential to do that.
AL: Yeah. I find myself speechless because it’s hard to explain, it’s hard to talk about what that is to feel that sense of reciprocity. As Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about embracing Sweetgrass, that quote like all flourishing is mutual to think of ourselves as being able to encourage some kind of flourishing in our own world, and not always to own. I’m interested in ownership. Of course, you feel like you own a home. I never thought I’d own a home and I love the fact that we have a place that is ours but I am curious about ours and my, an ownership. I think it’s wise to do that. I think it feels like the more we question what it is to feel like we are on some hierarchy, a higher level than the Earth, I think that if we don’t interrogate that, we already see where it has gotten us, and it will just continue, if we don’t start to realize that our relationship has to be reciprocal. But it also has to be a reimagining of what’s possible between us because of that broken relationship, the harm that has been done, and on a larger level, on the ways that we often feel like so much is dependent upon us, so much is oh, the mind, the chaos of the mind, I’ve got to get everything done, I’ve got to be right, I’ve got to be good, I’ve got to be smart, I have to make sure I have enough money for this and that and I need to call that person back, all of these worries and these troubles, isn’t there a way sometimes that imagining ourselves as the original animal, as an animal, we can let some of that stuff go for a second and start to remember that some of this is the evolutionary development of the brain that has the negativity bias. Some of this is just that we think we’re very evolved, but in that part, we’ve actually failed a little bit. Our brains are troublemakers. Even witnessing that, that that’s an issue with our own making and our own species. We can put that aside and be like, “Yeah, all right. That’s something that I can make some room for, some space for, and not take myself so seriously, not take myself so much so that the world revolves around me that if I make a mistake, the world will end.” That’s how we’ve brought up people to really believe that you are special, you are amazing, and in that specialness, so much is required of you, great things are required of you. We don’t give enough of a credit for just being. Just being, that’s enough sometimes. Let’s all operate at like 70%, 50%, see what happens. [laughter] I just feel like there’s so much pressure and I think sometimes, re-examining that relationship with the nature with the idea of ownership and rightness, we’re not masters. We are not masters of the land. We’re not the colonizers. We have to decolonize our brains to remember that, and it’s very hard because what we’re taught is that we’re in charge, and because we’re in charge, we can’t mess up. I worry about that. I worry about that for our mental health, for our young people that feel like so much pressure is on them. That’s partly because they feel alone. Would you feel that way if you felt more in connection to the world? I don’t think you would.
DN: I wanted to think about some of these questions about representing animals in human language, and wondering whether or not they’re related to some of the things you’ve said about transformation and metaphor. I’m going to quote you back to yourself now and then see if you think there’s a connection. “It’s easy to want the metaphor. It makes life easier. I was recently reading this book, The Happiness Hypothesis and the author says, ‘Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know.’ And, ‘It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.’ Then you continue: “This, I think, is a powerful argument for the necessity of reading, writing, listening to, and memorizing poetry. What if it can help us organize our weird life’s journey better? What if what it accomplishes is simply that life can be more easily lived, can be made beautifully clearer, can be shrunk to a size more swallow-able? When I was fifteen I understood loss by repeating the Bishop line, ‘I lost my mother’s watch once,’ which meant that great loss was still to come. Heartbreak was to me the Robert Hass line, ‘Bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.’ Homesickness was the Yeats line, ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.’ And so forth. If what Haidt says is true, then these lines are actually allowing me to understand my own life in a way that makes it more manageable.” You’ve also said that you love transformation. Here, you aren’t speaking of the transformation of metaphor thematically, but that many of your favorite poems have transformations in them or are about transformation; and that you are drawn to it, but that perhaps like naming, you also distrust it; that perhaps, similar to when you say it’s easy to want metaphor, perhaps it’s easy to also put a transformation in your poem that isn’t earned and that isn’t authentic to your life; that you keep asking yourself about the authenticity of what you’re putting in. I guess I was hoping you could speak to transformation and/or metaphor in that light; the attraction to it, and then maybe the easiness of putting it in there when it doesn’t feel totally earned.
AL: Yeah. That’s really lovely. Of course, I love metaphor and, of course, I love transformation. I think part of that is because I still remember those first moments when a metaphor in a poem rang so true to me that I was taken aback, that it would make you gasp and think, “Oh, what? I know that. I didn’t think anyone else knew that. I thought I was completely alone in my isolation, in my own madness.” Then you think, “Oh, no, that person just said it so clearly, so true. Now I not only feel like I’m able to name what it was that I was going through, but also feel connected that there might be other people that are also going through that.” I think that’s incredibly powerful. We talk about it, like, “Of course, yeah. It teaches empathy.” But it’s really important, it really does work. I was a young person, it molded me, it shaped me, it made me feel like there were so many things that were possible. It also made me think that this life was really interesting. I think that I was someone who wanted a lot of stimulation. When I read poems, I felt like, “Oh, right, this is what it is. There’s all of this witnessing and all of this trying to make sense of something. That could be a life’s work.” That was really fascinating to me. I also love the way of that metaphor is how we describe things to people. If we’re not feeling well or nervous, we say we have butterflies in the stomach. It’s such a way of describing what that feels like. You can imagine them in there. It’s a good way of describing. We do it with doctors. We say, “Well, this migraine feels like an ice pick to the back of the neck.” This is how we describe our pain to each other; even our love. I love that. I do think it’s a way of organizing. I think I am always interested when people worry about metaphor and students will be like, “How do you get the right one?” I think it’s often just because we don’t accept that it’s just actually quite easy. We do it naturally. If you really think about it, that’s just how we think. This is like this or this feels like this. I think sometimes, it’s more of a forcing thing that we feel like, “Oh, in order to craft a poem, I must have this really fantastical metaphor that no one has ever considered.” In reality, I think if you’re really paying attention to the self and what your body is actually doing and wanting, you can move into a metaphor that makes more sense for you. It’s usually idiosyncratic to your own voice, into your own mind, because you’re already doing it, you’re already doing it in your brain. I think that’s something that I always stay true to is that it’s not something that you’re reaching outward for some strange metaphor that will make the poem better, it’s reaching out for a metaphor that you already know and writing it down. That’s a big difference for me. Then I think with transformation, it’s really easy to want every poem to have this epiphany. I would love that. But not every poem wants to do that and not every poem of mine certainly wants to do that. If I was having those huge transformational moments every day, I’d probably be laid up for weeks. [laughter] I think I would be on overwhelm. I think with that kind of consideration of when those transformations happen, those are poems that have stood out to us forever because we all go, “Oh, that was a moment in this poet’s life that they really traveled through their own emotional journey. Something hit them, something was shown to them.” You can’t force it. I think when you do, that’s when you get poems that feel performative or they feel a little false, they ring untrue. It’s like those things that we love. Just to go back, the metaphor I think is actually easier than we think. I think we make it harder on ourselves because we’re thinking about the audience before we’re thinking about the self. I think we need to think about what it really means, what is the comparative mind doing. Then in transformation, I think it’s really key to remember that sometimes, the poem just needs to be enough, it just needs to watch, it just needs to listen, it just needs to do that art of recording. Transformation will come in the next poem, but it’s not every poem. It couldn’t be.
DN: I picked out two more poems that jumped out to me as poems that are about fellow feeling with the non-human, but also poems where it’s really clear that you’re concerned about allowing these creatures to be themselves apart from you at the same time, like leaving them their own, in a way, interiority in a way in the poem. I was thinking of Cyrus & the Snakes, and Intimacy.
AL: Thank you. This is a poem I wrote for my older brother, Cyrus, and I was trying to figure out how to talk about his love of snakes. I came up with this poem.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Cyrus & the Snakes]
AL: This is a poem I wrote for my mother.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Intimacy]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ada Limón read from her latest collection from Milkweed, The Hurting Kind. I was recently listening to Alice Oswald’s latest Oxford lecture, and it’s called ‘A Lament for the Earth’ will address the challenge to nature poetry, which is very nuanced, so my my summary of some of it will certainly lose some of that in simplification.
AL: I’ll have to listen to it. I haven’t heard of it.
DN: It’s great. But she sees two types of nature poetry, that of the sigh, which is more well-mannered, the elergy, the ode, the pastoral, and that of the scream, which is related to the keen. I don’t know if you’ve read A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, but when she was on the show, we talked a lot about the Irish tradition of keening where women often who were denied literacy were composing and carrying laments for the dead in their bodies and then passing them down to other women body to body through time. But back to Oswald, she genders the nature of poetry also; from the sigh, which she associates more with men, versus the nature poetry from the scream. She says, “The former sees humans as mattering as little as the leaves on a tree. The latter sees each leaf as mattering as much as every human. The former, through elegy and obituary, gives perspective to the bereaved. The latter refuses replaceability.” Oswald says, “Keening dwells, howls, repeats. It does not just mourn, but expresses an altered state of mind, an amazed timelessness. Female lament is an attempt to articulate that unspeakable state. Traditionally, it has been loud, shrill, performative, oral, repetitive, disturbing, nonlinear, inconsolable. Its drift is against dailiness, against forgetting, against life itself, even to the point of stirring up revenge so that at least since the 6th century BC, there have been legal [restrictions] on its practise. Often this type of lament refuses to use human syntax. It adopts an interspecies language in which women shriek like birds or stand with arms raised, as if they’ve turned into trees. They do this not just by way of complaining, but as a means of communicating with beings which are outside time. The dead, for example, who need to be reminded where they are. Or the gods. So that almost inadvertently, keening speaks a kind of Esperanto in which trees, birds, corpses, gods, humans, and the earth itself can communicate across time zones.” I bring this up as an entryway into talking about death, and also about the body and the female body and poetry. I’m thinking first, of my conversation with Ross Gay, another poet who, like you, is often associated with joy, wonder, and delight, but also like you, a poet who’s very engaged with death where he says that joy arises from an understanding of that which we share in common, and that being that we’re all going to die; and that if we acknowledge this together, a softening happens and joy can enter the space between us. He says, “Joy is a grave feeling, a serious feeling, a feeling infused with the act of dying. The feeling of disappearing into and profoundly joining something.” I feel like you can say that your books and your poems are very death haunted, are run through with precarity. I’m thinking of these keeners shrieking like birds and standing like trees by the graves of their loved ones, and Ross’s notion of joy as a grave feeling. I wanted to evoke them as I ask you to talk about writing about death.
AL: I love all of that. That’s so wonderful. I need to know more about keening. I’m going to immediately go do a deep dive into that. I feel like one of the things that has really propelled my life and my art, has made me shift my life, and all of those things, was the death of my stepmother in February of 2010. She was not yet 52, or she just turned 52. I think going through something like that, a home death where you’re by that person’s side and helping that person, it does really put everything into perspective. I think so many people have gone through this now with the pandemic as we lose people on a daily basis. I think that it really surprised me—and even though I was in my 30s, early 30s when this happened—I think it really shocked me that everyone was going to go through this even though I knew it. Intellectually, I knew it. But it wasn’t only that I was going to go through it, my own body was going to go through it, but that everyone also was going to lose their parents and was going to lose the people they loved, friends. I don’t think I could have been more profoundly shifted. I think it’s one of the reasons I moved out of New York, and I think it’s one of the reasons I really committed to making art because I really felt like what was it to align myself with the way I wanted to live my life? I kept thinking, “What if I had only until 52? What does that look like? What do I want to have done? How do I want to spend my hours?” I think in that, at first, became, “Let me figure it out for myself what is it that I’m going through, what was it to witness this.” Then I think, of course, as we go through more and more deaths and lose people, I think that there’s a certain surrender that happens. That surrender I think can bring joy. I think there is a practice of giving in to mortality as opposed to trying to fight against it. Now I’m not saying I don’t want to live forever. It’d be wonderful to live at least until 100. But I think I want to be sure to realize that if I’m always going forward in a way that is like the next day is going to be better or the next day, or I will attain this, what am I missing? I want to be really clear that it’s not that I don’t fear it, I don’t have some supernatural power to not fear my own mortality. If I did, that would be marvelous, but clearly, like most people, I would like to be healthy and I would like to live for a long time. But I think that acknowledgement of death, the work of that—and it is work—only leads to praise. I think the more that we set it aside and feel like it’s separate from us and feel like it’s something that doesn’t have anything to do with us, it is almost mirroring our broken relationship with the land is our broken relationship with our own mortality because all of that is denial and all of that is not living fully and holy in which we’re animals, in which our time is short. My stepfather would always say, “Life is short even though sometimes it can feel really long.” [laughter]
DN: I love that.
AL: When I was 16, I’d be like, “Yeah.” But I think that acknowledgement of mortality, and I mean that in a real way, I don’t mean just like, “Yeah, of course, we’re all going die,” but I think like what is it to really think about that and to hold it in your heart, and maybe even weep about it and just be like, “I don’t want to lose anyone,” and I don’t, I really don’t. But what it does after you’ve done that initial shock and grief, it just makes you want to love, it just makes you want to praise, and it makes you want to get on your knees and go, “Oh my god, look what I get to do. Look what I get to be a part of.” I think it’s at the core of who I am, but I think it’s very much a threat of my poems as well.
DN: This notion of death only leading to praise, and part of the reason why I wanted to bring up death in order to complicate the notion of joy and even the notion of praise is that it feels like earnestness, wonder, and joy are easy to make fun of or look down on, perhaps because of the most facile versions of these things which we also see in the world. In the spirit of a more complicated look at these things, I wanted to take a look at both sentimentality and accessibility. You had a conversation a couple years ago with Carrie Fountain on her podcast. In that one, it became quite a bit about sentimentality and a gendered double standard around how heartfelt emotional work is received or dismissed. Similarly, in your conversation with Mike Sakasegawa for Keeping The Channel Open, also years ago now, you spent a good deal of time on questions of accessibility. That one wasn’t necessarily gendered when you were discussing it, but the subtext of both of these conversations feels like a grappling with a critique of certain types of poetry and/or a critique around how certain words are weaponized against certain poetries. To return to your On Art & Anxiety blog post—which is seven years old so I don’t know how much this reflects where you’re at or not, but I still feel like it’s useful for other art makers to hear—you talk about how, if you write from your gut, if you stop trying to hide, and you write with the goal to connect, to, in some ways, be direct, that you are often grappling with the fear of not seeming intelligent. You say it’s a big fear for a lot of women in particular, and particularly if you’re writing about your feelings and how the word feelings makes you think of the words naive and dumb, and how it is viewed entirely different when men write about their feelings that they are being brave, and that when women do, they might be seen as overly emotional, needy, or whiny, and worst of all, that it’s simply easy to talk about one’s feelings. That’s just what happens for women. Maybe when you write from your feelings, you’re not even using crafts because of that. Daniel Slager, your editor and Milkweed’s publisher, in discussing the great success of your poetry in the world, the ways in which you are one of the exceptions to the lack of commercial success for poetry collections, he says, “In the poetry world, the whole notion of being approachable or readable can be a curse, because it’s often thought to be antithetical to sophistication artistically—a stupid dichotomy, really, although at times there’s something to it. But Ada just transcends that, in such a beautiful way, with so much integrity. Poets’ poets love her, and people who don’t read that much poetry love her.” I wonder if any of this sparks any thoughts about your own career, your poetics and aesthetics, and/or speaking to other poets around this question of being emotionally direct and, for lack of a better word, reaching to connect whether that’s increasing readability or accessibility or not, but the desire to write a poetry of connection with the reader.
AL: Yeah. I love that because I think these are really big topics. I think that it’s an ongoing issue that we have with poetry about what is valued, what is important. I think it’s shifting, to be honest, I think there are some elements to which people are starting to defend what it is to have sentiment in a poem, to use maybe language that before felt maybe not as serious as intellectually apt to poetry. Just from a personal perspective when I first started out in poems, I really thought that a lot of what I wanted to do in my own work in graduate school was to prove that I knew craft and to prove that I was smart. I think that I am not as interested in that anymore. That’s probably because I don’t think I am. [laughs] I don’t think I’m wise. That’s partly because I thought that’s what poets did was to have a wisdom. Now I don’t believe that. For me, it’s been always interesting to hear people say, “Oh, you are my gateway poet,” or “You’re the poet that brought me to other poems. But for some reason, I could get into yours more than I could to other people’s.” It’s a beautiful thing. I’m not 100% sure why that happens. I love it. I honor it. It feels like a gift. But again, I didn’t write Bright Dead Things for anyone else really except for me and my friends. Partly though, I’ll say this, is that I do write for people that aren’t necessarily poets, and that’s important to me. I have a lot of friends that are poets and they read my first drafts. We have that wonderful relationship that gives editing and reading first drafts. But I grew up at a time in poetry, especially in New York where it felt like everything was about a cleverness, a sarcasm, an obfuscation. At first, I thought, “Yeah, I could do that.” In some ways, I think obfuscating is a little easier than being direct. But I did wonder about why you would go to a poetry reading and someone would describe their poem and you’d be laughing and you would think, “Oh, that’s going to be so fun to listen to this poem.” Then they would read it and you’d be like, “Oh, that doesn’t have anything to do with what they just said.” It would be like it would be the human self that told the story or introduced the poem, then a robot self that would read the poem. I was just interested as to what would be if you just maintained the human self on the page. I think that has been my work is that what is it to be who I am on the page. I think that the big thing that maybe people don’t discuss enough of when we talk about accessibility and sentimentality is that saying the thing directly doesn’t mean that you’re not using all elements of porosity, doesn’t mean that you’re not leaning into music in a huge way. As you know, I’m incredibly musical in what I write. I think sometimes, what people find accessible, or that they somehow find something in it, is actually the music. I think that when we talk about language, failing, and giving space for silence, music is the thing that takes over when language itself is letting us down. I’m a big fan of that. Surrendering to that music, listening to that music, and watching that unravel however it goes feels like something really essential to my work. I sometimes wonder if that also has something to do with it in terms of what people are drawn to because I don’t shy away from the musicality.
DN: Some of this notion of your career moving away from the performative and the clever towards something that feels more real for you, and also this question of directness and intelligence, reminds me of when Forrest Gander picked one of your poems to be on The New Yorker podcast and then discusses it with Kevin Young. They pick it, yes, or Forrest picks it, yes, because of the way it portrays the human and the non-human world. But he also picked it even more because of the ways this poem is in conversation with other poems and literary history and with the making of meaning. He sees this poem of yours’ privacy in conversation with very specific poems by Wallace Stevens, and then later with a poem by Ezra Pound. He talks about the long Os and U sounds—words like one, come, crow, closely, both, know, only—that these sounds, according to linguists, across many languages are connected to deeper emotions. Then Kevin brings in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems, and Gander weaves in Lorca, and Kevin talks about how he loves how your poem is thinking with us out loud. Then Forrest calls this thinking visceral thinking, which I really love. But if you come to this poem with no knowledge of poetry, you don’t know who Wallace Stevens is, you don’t have any orientation to literary history, none of these engagements with other poets is obvious or pointed to someone who you don’t need to know a reference or know that history when reading it. The language is the language we encounter day to day. The vocabulary doesn’t require us to go seek out a dictionary. The imagery, immediately, we can engage with it. I guess I wonder if this is related to when you say you don’t want to hide because that all of this so-called intellectual thinking, all that you know about poetry in this way is there in this poem, but it’s behind this visceral thinking I guess or this visceral feeling thinking. Is that right, that part of the poetics then is not to show off the lineage of the poem?
AL: Yeah. I think it’s partly not just to show that here’s what I know, and you can only receive this poem if you have prior knowledge of other poems. I never loved that when I was growing up as an artist. I didn’t mind doing the work. Of course, I would go to the library and find out who they were talking about, who they were referring to. I remember Frank O’Hara would always mention so many wonderful artists. I would look up and go to find the paintings and to figure out, “Oh, he’s talking about this painting. That’s why this poem is so amazing and that’s why they’re in tandem.” But you don’t need to know that in Frank O’Hara. I loved his work partly because there almost felt like there was this effortlessness and it felt like it was deeply human. But, of course, at a craft level, it’s doing so many interesting things, it’s bringing in so many different references, but you don’t feel like you have to know all of those things in order to get the real heat and marrow of the poem.
DN: Could we hear that poem that was picked, Privacy?
AL: Yeah, absolutely.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Privacy]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ada Limón read from The Hurting Kind. When I was talking to Rabih Alameddine, after our conversation was over, we were chatting for a while, while not recording. Somehow we got onto the topic of the poetry group that he’s in with you. It’s called The Poetry Unicorns, probably the most amazing poetry group I’ve ever heard of. [laughter] It’s fitting I guess that I’ve randomly brought Ursula Le Guin in that I’m also going to bring some unicorns into this conversation. Two of these unicorns have questions for you and they’re both coincidentally, in some fashion, about revision and drafting. They’re not the same, but I’m going to play them together, and then you can answer as you see fit.
Rabih Alameddine: You have this talent or skill to make your work sound as if poems come to you fully formed. And you write them down, smile at their fabulousness, and then take a stroll in the meadow to pick wildflowers again. We all know how silly that notion is, but then, lo and behold, I came across this amazing poem of yours. I know one should not read a poet’s poem back to her, but I must. I must. What I Didn’t Know Before. “What I Didn’t Know Before was how horses simply give birth to other horses. Not a baby by any means, not a creature of liminal spaces, but a four-legged beast hellbent on walking, scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way to another horse and then suddenly there are two horses, just like that. That’s how I loved you. You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two computers swinging in it unwieldily at your side. I remember we broke into laughter when we saw each other. What was between us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.” I read this poem and I thought, “Wait a second, is Ada telling us that poems come to her fully formed ready to run? Is she? Basically, darling, the question is how much editing do you usually do with the poem?”
DN: Our first unicorn, in case you didn’t know—you know—but in case our listeners didn’t know, is Rabih Alameddine. Here’s our second unicorn.
Victoria Chang: Hi Ada. It’s Victoria Chang. How are you? I hope you’re well. Here’s my question: Once you visited one of my classes—and I remember so vividly what you said about revision—you said that you read your poems aloud and revised them based on how they sound; their musicality, lyricism, and rhythm. When I read your poems, I definitely feel and sense this as well. I’m curious to know then, if sound may be your primary revision, propulsive crystal, or whatever metaphor you want to use, then what is it when you draft a poem—and of course, it doesn’t have to be one thing—is it imagery, sound again, narrative, all of the above, or something more abstract like strangeness, mystery, or emotion?
AL: I love both of those. Oh, it just makes me want to hang out with them.
DN: Me too. [laughs]
AL: I know. Wow, I love that. I wish poems came out fully formed. Sometimes I think they do come out more done than I expect. Usually, that’s because it’s something that’s been moving in my body for a long time before I put it down on the page; either if it’s the language, the music, or the image, so that by the time it comes out, and I’m actually writing, it’s somewhat complete. Those are the days where you have to go play the lottery or something because it’s so rare. But it does happen. I love the question about revision because I think that for me, I revise definitely for sound, and that is true. Because I do compose out loud, I do write and read out loud almost everything so that by the time I publish a poem, I’ve read it probably at least 50 times out loud and I’m just listening for things that feel off or maybe too neat and maybe it needs to be distressed a little bit. Or maybe there’s some rhyme that went in that I want to actually land on harder. But it really goes into the song quality for me. But I think when I’m first starting to write, when I’m actually composing, I’m interested in finding something out. I’m interested in discovering something. Often, it starts with an image and then I want to know where it leads me. I’m always asking myself, “But why? Why does it matter?” It’s just a constant series of questions that I’m asking myself and then the poem unfolds on that level, which is like, “How does it come to me?” If even like you take a poem like Rabih read, it’s that question of “I remember knowing really well that that image of the horse coming out of a horse, horses being born, is so amazing to me.” But I didn’t know what to do with it. I really just thought I would start with that image and be like, “It’s so bizarre; a horse just comes out of another horse.” Then I thought, “Oh, no. That’s what it is.” What comes out fully formed? And it wasn’t poems, of course, it was love. It surprised me that that’s where it went. A lot of it is just asking myself, “Why is this image haunting me? What does it do?” It’s that interrogation that will lead me to some poem, hopefully, or maybe a draft, or maybe something that gets tossed in the trash.
DN: As we start coming towards an end, I wanted to return to the beginning. We began with you moving away from performance and obfuscation, and we’ve returned to that notion. But this idea of writing towards what feels authentic to you where you not only feel like you aren’t hiding but where you’ve said the result is the I in your poems is “really you”. I want to stay with this question of authenticity and language with you again. In that spirit, you’ve said that you’re nostalgic for the days when it was fun to be clever. As you’ve said in this conversation, you don’t have that urge anymore. When you were on The Poet Salon podcast, you talked about how you feel like play is a part of your life but less and less part of your poetry. What’s fun about, as I’m sure is probably true for you as a podcaster too, is having so many different poets on the show with totally different poetics. Because I think of other conversations with poets with different poetics who don’t put performativity and authenticity at odds, for instance, or prose writers who feel like fiction gets to truths that non-fiction can’t get to for them, for instance, or the various ways one could relate to naming; naming as violence, naming as maiming, naming as a scream over the world that prevents communion, all of which I think you engage with as part of it. But on the other side of the ledger, Audre Lorde saying, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought.” Or even thinking back to Oswald and keening, or Forrest Gander who talks of an anthropologist who told him that every human culture studied has three things: some sort of laws about incest, some sort of ritual regarding how we treat the dead, and poetry, and that poetry was often associated with shamanism and healing, as well as visionary experience. Because I think of shamanism when I think of this notion of the I in a poem really being you. It makes me wonder if there’s a way we can prepare ourselves to speak where what we did say would be speaking either a true self or speaking from the Earth through oneself; where a word could be for us in the right circumstances or maybe with the right preparation, the way a leaf or a piece of fruit would be for a tree, something that we produced and then somehow, it was a portal of authenticity or connection. But really I bring this all up because I’m curious about you as a gatekeeper and a curator via the podcast, because probably you and Pádraig Ó Tuama are the most high-profile and far-reaching curators in the audio format in the anglophone world. I know for sure, you curate poets based on a wide range of backgrounds, looking toward representation and diverse representation. But I was curious, do you do this with poetics? Is it simply that you pick poems that you love, or will you pick clever poems or poems that mystify, obscure, and perform?
AL: Yeah. What a wonderful question. Yeah, I have been accused by all of my poet friends as being the person that likes all kinds of poetry. In some ways, I think that they laugh at me. I can defend any poem, I really think I can. Unless it does outright harm. [laughter] I feel like when I read for The Slowdown, I’m reading just far and wide just something that hits me and sometimes I have no idea what the poem is about. I really am like, “I don’t know what this poem is doing, but I like it,” and so I’ll have to read it 20 times to figure out how I’m going to even introduce it. But I want to leave space for those poems. I want to make sure that they’re included because my poetics as an artist are different than my poetics as a reader. I’m someone who is really receptive to being read to. You just read me a poem and I’m like, “Yep, I love that.” I am that person. I have friends who are distinctly the opposite and could pick apart anything. I’m on the other side going, “Well, but don’t you see, this is really wonderful?” “Oh, this is interesting.” For me, it’s really about finding the pleasure. I don’t have to work so much, at least for me, I don’t feel like I need to work at really finding diverse backgrounds because I think if you’re just reading a lot and you’re reading the work that delights you, that just comes. We’re lucky that is the case now. For me, it’s really just about finding the work that challenges me sometimes, that delights me, or sometimes that I find really is very different than my own personal style when I write. Sometimes that’s refreshing, like, “Oh, this is not something I would do.” I would love to just talk about it, read it, and feel what that is to give life to a poem that is maybe distinctly at all, it’s from my own poetic impulse.
DN: I’d love to end with the poem, Lover. But before we do, I know that when you sold The Hurting Kind to Milkweed, it was part of a three-book deal. I was curious if you could just talk about what we can expect next from you, and then we can go out with Lover.
AL: Thank you. Yeah, the next thing will be an anthology I’m working on called Beast. It’s all animal poems. I’m putting it together now. I’m really trying to work on poems that are really about the animal. It’s hard because we often are turning into everything becoming about anthropomorphizing or about the self. I’m curious as to what it is to make sure to find these poems that really celebrate and honor the animal. Then the next thing after that will be a New & Selected, which is terrifying, but I have some time for that. [laughs]
DN: It’s definitely a landmark.
AL: Yeah. I know, but landmark, even the word landmark sounds scary. [laughter] I just want to make poems. I’m excited about that too. But it’s an intense experience to think about, somehow representing your own legacy and work.
DN: Yeah. I can’t imagine. I can try. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] Could we hear though, the poem Lover?
AL: Yes, absolutely.
[Ada Limón reads a poem called Lover]
DN: Thank you, Ada, for spending this time with me today.
AL: Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure.
DN: We’re talking today to the poet, Ada Limón, the author of The Hurting Kind. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Ada Limón’s work at adalimon.net and at slowdownshow.org. For the bonus audio archive, Ada contributes a reading of several poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, which joins contributions by everyone from Layli Long Soldier, to Pádraig Ó Tuama, to Jorie Graham. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers where you can check out a wide variety of potential benefits, including the bonus audio, of doing so. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.