THE PO­ETRY OF PER­SE­VER­ANCE

IN HER FIFTH COL­LEC­TION, THE CAR­RY­ING, PUB­LISHED IN AU­GUST BY MILK­WEED EDI­TIONS, ADA LIMÓN DIGS DEEP DOWN TO THE ROOTS OF WHAT SHE SEES HAP­PEN­ING IN THE WORLD TO­DAY— AND SHE IS DEEPLY TROU­BLED BY WHAT SHE FINDS.

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By car­rie foun­tain

In her fifth col­lec­tion, The Car­ry­ing, Ada Limón digs deep down to the roots of what she sees hap­pen­ing in the world to­day— and she is deeply trou­bled by what she finds.

ADA Limón is a North Star poet for me. She’s up there with Lu­cille Clifton, W. S. Mer­win, and Adelia Prado in a great in­flu­en­tial con­stel­la­tion. I’m drawn to Limón for the same rea­sons I’m drawn to the oth­ers: It’s as much for her sur­pris­ing and sub­lime de­par­tures as for the earth­bound truths they lay bare. And I have feel­ings when I’m in­side her po­ems. I sigh. I laugh out loud. I cry. A lot. I do, I cry a lot.

Of­ten when peo­ple hear of a reader hav­ing an emo­tional re­sponse to a poem, the en­gine as­sumed to be driv­ing that re­sponse is the nar­ra­tive sub­ject mat­ter: the fa­mil­iar­ity of it, per­haps, or the dra­matic imag­in­ing of it. It’s the com­pli­ment nar­ra­tive po­ets like my­self have come to dread—the re­lata­bil­ity of the poem. That hap­pened, or that could have hap­pened to me, thus this is a suc­cess­ful piece of art. And, of course, great po­ems like the kind Limón writes of­ten in­cor­po­rate emo­tional sub­ject mat­ter and nar­ra­tive. But fo­cus­ing on sub­ject mat­ter alone doesn’t do pow­er­ful po­etry like Limón’s jus­tice. What drives her po­ems—what makes her new col­lec­tion, The Car­ry­ing, so mov­ing and mas­ter­ful—is her dex­ter­ity with voice and dic­tion and her gift­ed­ness with metaphor. It is her deep well­spring of sur­pris­ing and evoca­tive im­ages and her syn­tac­tic su­per­pow­ers. Most of all, it’s her in­tel­lect and in­tel­li­gence. The po­ems are keen re­flec­tions of a mind con­stantly at work, see­ing and won­der­ing and mov­ing to­ward mean­ing but not al­ways the mean­ing to which the poem and its reader thought they were headed.

The Car­ry­ing, pub­lished in Au­gust by Milk­weed Edi­tions, fol­lows Limón’s four pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing Bright Dead Things (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2015), which was a fi­nal­ist for not only the 2015 Na­tional Book Award, but also the Kings­ley Tufts Po­etry Award and the 2016 Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award. It was also named one of the top ten po­etry books of the year by the New York Times. Her ear­lier books in­clude Lucky Wreck (Au­tumn House Press, 2006), This Big Fake World: A Story in Verse (Pearl Edi­tions, 2006), and Sharks in the Rivers (Milk­weed Edi­tions, 2010). Limón, forty-two, serves on the fac­ulty of the low-res­i­dency MFA pro­gram at Queens Univer­sity of Char­lotte in North Carolina and the 24 Pearl Street on­line pro­gram for the Fine Arts Work Cen­ter in Province­town, Mas­sachusetts. She splits her time between Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, and Sonoma, Cal­i­for­nia.

We had this con­ver­sa­tion over the course of a week, just as the first ad­vance copies of The Car­ry­ing were mak­ing their way into the world and just after I’d swal­lowed my copy whole.

Car­rie Foun­tain: Ada, your book blew me away. Even the sec­ond time I read it—“Come on, Foun­tain, get it to­gether”—I could hardly do any­thing but cry and sigh and gasp at the art of the po­ems, es­pe­cially the very sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tions on which they open at their end­ings. It’s a gift. There are read­ers out there right now ready for, wait­ing for, need­ing these po­ems to change their lives.

As a maker and a reader of po­etry col­lec­tions—these weird books that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily nar­ra­tive or even in­her­ently lin­ear, but also aren’t ran­dom in terms of tone or sub­ject mat­ter or voice—one of the things I ad­mire most is how full The Car­ry­ing is and how com­plete and col­lected it feels as

an artis­tic ges­ture. There is so much here of the world, of the beauty and re­spon­si­bil­ity and heart­break of go­ing through life in a hu­man—a wo­man’s— body, and deep ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions about life and legacy and fate. So, how did you make it? You know: How? And how did you know when you were fin­ished, when it had gone from a group of po­ems to a col­lec­tion?

Ada Limón:

Oh, Car­rie, thank you for this. It’s odd, the mak­ing of a po­etry book, isn’t it? We write one poem at a time. One small poem and then, hope­fully, an­other one comes. With The Car­ry­ing, I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing long pe­ri­ods of painful si­lence, feel­ing com­pletely over­whelmed by the de­gen­er­at­ing state of the world, but then I would be re­minded of how writ­ing can bring me back to the world, into my be­ing. In many ways the po­ems in The Car­ry­ing were an­swer­ing the ques­tion, “Where do I put all this?” The po­ems came in fits and starts, and some­times they’d flood over me, and some­times I’d stare into the abyss for a long time won­der­ing if I’d ever write again. When I fi­nally had about thirty po­ems, I re­al­ized I was writ­ing some­thing real, mak­ing a com­pli­cated liv­ing thing. Then I started to push my­self to plunge fur­ther, to be as ve­ra­cious as pos­si­ble and fol­low the craft, fol­low the song as far as it would take me. Be­fore I even re­al­ized it, the man­u­script was nearly done. To be to­tally hon­est, the book still ter­ri­fies me. But maybe that’s a good thing?

Foun­tain:

I think I know that ter­ror, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing feel­ing that maybe it’s a good thing, a good sig­nal about the par­tic­u­lar qual­i­ties of the art you’re about to re­lease into the world. I’d love to hear you say more. Did you feel this with your pre­vi­ous books? What is it about The Car­ry­ing that ter­ri­fies you?

Limón:

I think what scares me the most is that I’m writ­ing more about the body and from a place of phys­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity. In my pre­vi­ous books I have been open to an emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity, but in The Car­ry­ing I ad­dress more of the frailty of my own body. I also think this book is more overtly po­lit­i­cal than other books I’ve writ­ten. I feel like some part of me has lost in­ter­est in play, in po­etry for the sake of play, and now I want only to get to the root of things. This book feels driven by a se­ri­ous en­gine. I’m not say­ing it doesn’t have hope. I do have hope, too, but much of the po­ems are writ­ten from in­side the well with only a glim­mer of light com­ing from the earth’s sur­face.

Foun­tain:

“I want to only get to the root of things.” How per­fect a sen­tence to de­scribe these po­ems. So many roots in this book. Aside from the po­ems that are about fa­mil­ial roots, and the po­ems that lo­cate the body as a place where things may or may not take root, there are also so many ac­tual roots. One of the po­ems I’ve re­turned to again and again, “The Bury­ing Beetle,” ends with these lines:

I lost God awhile ago. And I don’t want to pray, but I can

pic­ture the plants deep­en­ing right now into

the soil, want­ing to live, so I lie down among

them, in my ripped pink tank top, filthy

and cov­ered in sweat, among red bury­ing bee­tles

and dirt that’s been turned and turned like a

prob­lem in the mind.

Even in these haunt­ing lines from your poem “A New Na­tional An­them,” we find some­thing dark and vi­o­lent tak­ing root be­neath the sur­face:

Per­haps, the truth is, ev­ery song of this

coun­try has an un­sung third stanza,

some­thing bru­tal snaking un­der­neath us as we blindly

sing the high notes with a beer slosh­ing

in the stands hop­ing our team wins.

There’s so much go­ing on in these po­ems un­der the sur­face. Many of them make their turn down there, below. Is this some­thing you were work­ing to­ward ac­tively as an or­ga­niz­ing

metaphor, or was it more a sub­con­scious thing—a thing be­neath the sur­face—or was it co­in­ci­dence? Tell me what it means to you to “get to the root of things” in po­ems.

Limón:

In your po­ems I al­ways see the trem­bling thing un­der­neath. I sup­pose the main thing that I mean by “the root of things” is that I am most in­ter­ested in the process of writ­ing po­ems as ques­tions, as a trou­bling of the wa­ter, send­ing down the echo sounder and see­ing what comes back. But also my ob­ses­sion with phys­i­cal roots is true too. Trees, trees, and trees. No one has ever called me a na­ture poet, but na­ture is what I re­turn to most fre­quently. The earth below our feet, the wa­ter that moves through us and con­nects us to the oceans and rivers. And how we are na­ture too, even in our own de­struc­tion. How the hu­man an­i­mal is also an an­i­mal.

Foun­tain:

It makes me won­der what a na­ture poet is, if you’re not con­sid­ered one. It isn’t that there’s not enough na­ture in your po­ems. I’m laugh­ing think­ing of the na­ture quota set by… Gary Sny­der, Mary Oliver? Count­ing how many birds alight on branches in early morn­ing, how many vis­tas, how many species of cacti named.

But then again, your po­ems aren’t con­tained wholly in na­ture—not con­tain­able by any cat­e­gory, re­ally. Your po­ems con­tain the nat­u­ral world, but also the world-world, the world of high­way over­passes and torn pink tank tops and your funny friend Manuel— who’s my friend too! And be­yond the im­age level, your po­ems aren’t “about” na­ture. I read “The Bury­ing Beetle” to my hus­band, and the two of us dis­cussed it at length, its many turns and ges­tures. Nei­ther of us ever talked about it as a na­ture poem.

Still, I’m in­ter­ested in these la­bels be­cause I think they’re some­times more about who gets to write what, or who is ex­pected to write what. I think that’s chang­ing—the lines are blur­ring, the cat­e­gories are widen­ing, there are more voices—but not fast enough.

Your poem “The Con­tract Says: We’d Like the Con­ver­sa­tion to Be Bilin­gual” ex­am­ines this, doesn’t it, in a sear­ing, hi­lar­i­ous way? The world some­times wants to tell po­ets what they as po­ets, es­pe­cially women, es­pe­cially writ­ers of color, should write about. Your po­ems and your pres­ence in the world of po­etry up­ends these ex­pec­ta­tions in such a won­der­ful way. You’re you. You’re Ada. You truly con­tain mul­ti­tudes. I think this is im­por­tant and in­spi­ra­tional for the gen­er­a­tion of po­ets com­ing up.

When my first book came out, some­one in a re­view called it “fake ecofem­i­nism.” It was a man, shocker. An­other guy—in the Har­vard Re­view— said the po­ems were ob­sessed with my “body parts.” Back then I was hurt. I felt ashamed. There were only one or two body parts in that book. Most of the po­ems are about the con­quest of the New World. Still, I heard that re­view and I just took it in. I didn’t know any bet­ter. Maybe I was too much: too sex­ual, too conversational, too wo­man. And at the same time, maybe I wasn’t enough—not in­tel­lec­tual enough, not valid enough, not a man’s wo­man poet.

Then, by the time I put out my sec­ond book, which is a lot about hav­ing my first child, I’d some­how un­bur­dened my­self from that worry. I think I’d be­gun to di­vest my­self—rather or­gan­i­cally—of my own in­ter­nal­ized misog­yny. I’d be­gun sell­ing off the lit­tle acre of pa­tri­archy between my ears that I’d so long cul­ti­vated with­out know­ing. And with that, my read­ers changed. My ideal read­ers changed. I wasn’t writ­ing to sat­isfy Mr. Body Parts any­more. In fact, I was look­ing him in the face and say­ing—kindly, be­cause

of course—“Maybe these po­ems aren’t for you. That’s not my prob­lem.”

Some of the most pow­er­ful po­ems in The Car­ry­ing are about in­ti­mate things, women’s things: try­ing to get preg­nant, com­ing to terms with not get­ting preg­nant, the many ways we’re forced to change our idea of what our lives will be in the child-rear­ing de­part­ment. Even the love po­ems here— and there are so many, so lovely—are about the ten­der, weird, spe­cific qual­i­ties of mar­ried love.

I won­der: Do you feel there’s been a shift in the way women’s voices are read in po­etry, es­pe­cially women of color? And maybe all this is a round­about way of ask­ing, Who is your ideal reader? Do you have one? Has it changed?

Limón:

I think you’re right. The use­less­ness of po­etic and stylis­tic cat­e­gories is be­com­ing more ev­i­dent as po­etry and the world con­tinue to evolve. The idea of di­vest­ing our­selves of our own in­ter­nal­ized misog­yny, of grant­ing our­selves per­mis­sion to write about what­ever world we live in, of si­lenc­ing the grouchy goa­teed hip­ster critic in­side that writes cheeky snark from his par­ents’ base­ment in or­der to prove his own in­tel­li­gence, that’s some of the heav­i­est work we do. Si­lenc­ing that good-ol’-boy critic that lives in you and scares you into think­ing, “Should I take the ‘I’ out? Should I erase my be­ing?” I’m still work­ing on si­lenc­ing that dude. Daily.

When Bright Dead Things came out, I was ner­vous about the fact that it spoke about “the body” and loss, and I wor­ried that it would be seen as sen­ti­men­tal. For the first time in my po­ems, I wasn’t think­ing of writ­ing to prove any­thing, to show off for­mal ac­ro­bat­ics, but rather I was writ­ing the po­ems I needed for my own sur­vival. I was dis­avow­ing my­self from a “project” and just work­ing on what mat­tered to me. I had no idea what would hap­pen once those po­ems en­tered the world. It was thrilling to see peo­ple re­spond fa­vor­ably, but it was ab­so­lutely not what I was ex­pect­ing. Still, there were re­views that spoke of “iden­tity” be­ing the driv­ing en­gine and even “shal­low iden­tity verse,” which seemed to be say­ing that if I wrote about be­ing a wo­man, be­ing Lat­inx—or, oddly, even if I didn’t—by de­fault my po­ems were be­ing driven by only a sense of alien­ation or, worse, ma­nip­u­la­tion. I main­tain that this does not hap­pen as much to men.

It’s funny that you brought up a re­viewer writ­ing “fake ecofem­i­nism” about your work, as I re­ceived the de­scrip­tor “bo­gus fem­i­nism” in a par­tic­u­larly neg­a­tive re­view, writ­ten by a man. I don’t think of it any­more, and I do like what you say about, “Hey there, this isn’t for you.” I hap­pen to like the ocean and black-and-white movies, but it doesn’t mean we all have to. You can go on lik­ing slushy ma­chines and Fox News. I do think there’s been a shift in how we not only read women, but also how we talk about the work. It’s slow, how­ever, and it’s frus­trat­ing, but it’s shift­ing. I think, for me, it all comes down to per­mis­sion and ca­pac­ity. I’m giv­ing my­self per­mis­sion to write the po­ems I want—as dif­fer­ent as they all are—and I am fo­cus­ing on the hu­man ca­pac­ity to hold within us so many dif­fer­ent things at once.

I don’t know if I have an ideal reader, but I know that with The Car­ry­ing, I’m writ­ing for some­one who per­haps has gone through the same things as I have, or sim­i­lar things. Per­haps the older you get, you re­al­ize that so many peo­ple are suf­fer­ing in so many ways and you get tired of priv­i­leg­ing your own pain, or imag­in­ing your own iso­la­tion. I sup­pose, if this book is for any­one, it’s for those who have both strug­gled and searched for a way back into the world.

Foun­tain:

This isn’t your first rodeo by any stretch. The Car­ry­ing is your fifth col­lec­tion. You’ve been at this a while now. We’ve talked a lit­tle about how this book feels dif­fer­ent now, as it makes its way into the world, but I won­der, too, how has your writ­ing prac­tice changed over the years? What have you learned about your­self as a

writer, and what con­tin­ues to evolve?

Like you, I’ve writ­ten for a long time now. I’ve writ­ten se­ri­ously and with pur­pose for twenty years. I’ve writ­ten a failed novel, a messy draft of a YA novel, and po­ems, po­ems, po­ems. So many words, and all the while I hope I am get­ting to be a bet­ter, smarter writer ev­ery day. Speak­ing of which, I’ve only just started I Am Not Miss­ing—your new young adult novel—and I’m ob­sessed with Mi­randa the half-Mex­i­can girl who is the story’s pro­tag­o­nist. She’s won­der­ful.

One of the things I’ve learned this far into a life in lan­guage is to be grate­ful about all of this. I get to read and spend time with words as a vo­ca­tion. Yes, it’s work, and there is so much fail­ure and so much get­ting it wrong. But still, we are so lucky. I wish peo­ple talked about that more. Just to be able to do this work, to meet peo­ple along the way, to cel­e­brate other writ­ers, to live in a life of words? I can’t tell you how grate­ful I am for that gift. As corny as that sounds, I don’t know where I’d be with­out po­etry.

Foun­tain:

I’d love to hear more about your fic­tion writ­ing. So many times, while read­ing your po­ems, I’ve thought, “I’d love to read Ada’s fic­tion.” I have this feel­ing only for my fa­vorite po­ets, the ones who re­ally take me to a place and time. This isn’t about the nar­ra­tive qual­ity, but rather it’s about a sur­pris­ing, spe­cific im­age and invit­ing voice. Do you have a yen for writ­ing fic­tion?

Limón:

I love that you ask that. I do love to write fic­tion, but I’m not sure if it’s my strong suit. I think I need to keep prac­tic­ing and keep learn­ing. Right now, I think I write very “po­etic” fic­tion. You know, there’s a lot of a wo­man stand­ing in a field think­ing about other times she stood in a field. All my plot shifts are emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal. What I love most is de­scrib­ing—both the land­scape and the hu­mans and their in­ter­ac­tions. I

love di­a­logue, too. But I think I’m a lit­tle too sat­is­fied when noth­ing hap­pens. That’s what I ad­mire so much about your work. You’re this ex­quis­ite poet with an ex­cel­lent ear, and an in­ter­nal en­gine of un­rav­el­ing drives your po­ems, but you are also able to write a real story. I Am Not Miss­ing just moves so well and real things hap­pen, big things. I’m en­vi­ous of your sto­ry­telling abil­ity. Maybe I’ll get there some­day. Maybe my char­ac­ters will stop day­dream­ing and go on a real ad­ven­ture one of these days.

Foun­tain:

I know The Car­ry­ing is hot off the presses, but I can’t help but want to know what you’re work­ing on now. Where are you headed?

Limón:

I think I will work on nap­ping next. And gar­den­ing and breath­ing and wan­der­ing. It’s been a wild three or four years mak­ing this book, and I might rest my poem brain a bit. That said, I just wrote a poem to­day. So maybe po­ems will just come even­tu­ally? I am also work­ing on some per­sonal es­says. These days I’m just try­ing not to rage too much at the world while still stay­ing ac­tive and aware and work­ing to­ward truth. On a good day, I just work on be­ing a real per­son who wants to make real liv­ing things and give them to the world.

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