Exploring the Heart of Poetry with Ada Limón

Ada Limón read last friday at Java Bardstown with Jessica Farquhar and S. Whitney Holmes as part of Catch Up Magazine’s third issue release party hosted by Speak Social. Keep Louisville Literary re-connected electronically to ask Ms. Limón about her exuberance and love for the poetic craft:

Keep Louisville Literary: You’re not only a well-respected, busy poet, but also a true believer in the power of poetry (see Ada’s article in Guernica). You’ve mentioned that poems help you get through bad days, and I for one feel the same way. Why do you think poetry (especially new, experimental, or non-traditional work) remains under the public radar as compared to popular fiction? Could you share with our readers a few titles which have lately come to your rescue?

Ada Limón: I think the reason why poetry isn’t as widely read as let’s say, popular fiction, is because it’s not marketed correctly. No one knows what to think of poetry. What does it do for us? A lot of people’s initial reaction to the idea of poetry, is that it’s difficult, that they won’t “get it.”  I think that’s totally heartbreaking, but also totally understandable. No one wants to read something that makes them feel stupid, or left out, or not good enough. I certainly don’t. I think, sometimes, people have the misconception that poetry is an antiquated art form designed more to muddle meaning than to inspire or entertain us. It’s ingrained in human nature to crave stories, we want them read to us as children, to be told around the fire, we want to see ourselves, our lives in these stories, and to have a sense of both escapism and transformation. People don’t know that poetry can do that, because they have the preconceived notion that poems take a tremendous amount of work to even comprehend, let alone be moved by.

But the truth is, good poems, poems that have a sense of truth and play and yes, even a sense of story, can take us outside ourselves, transport us, and leave us changed (for the better)…and they can do all this in a brief period of 3-7 minutes. How awesome is that? If I told you that you could take 7 minutes a day to read a piece of writing that would let you feel something real, connect you to the world, and give you a deeper meaning of your own life, wouldn’t you want to do it? Good poems, in my opinion, say one thing, and one thing well. They say, “Me too.” We all need someone to say that to us. Your heart is broken? Me too. You’re poor and unhappy, but you want to go on? Me too. You feel alone when people are all around? Me too. That “Me too,” aspect of poetry is incredibly powerful; it’s the engine of empathy that we need so much. So, in my opinion, poetry needs a new slogan, something that will change what people think of poetry.

And as writers, we need to make sure we’re talking to the reader. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you’re a poet that writes poems just for yourself, that’s great, but then don’t be upset if people don’t understand them or feel shut out by them. If you want poems that sound great, but don’t necessarily have a lot of narrative meaning, that’s awesome, but they better sound amazing, so the music rises above the need for clarity. If you want poems to connect to people, if you want poetry to become more popular, that’s part of your job as a poet writing today, that’s part of your contract with the work.

And lastly, I think the other problem is that people believe poetry lives on the page. It doesn’t. It may exist on the page, but that’s not where the life is. The life of a poem is in the mouth. Pick up a poem or Google one, or whatever, and read it out loud. That’s when you’ll see the skeleton really start to dance.  Often times, poetry is marketed or viewed as something precious, beautiful, and elitist. But really, poetry is meant to be read in whispers in dark bars and read in open fields; it’s meant to turn you on; it’s meant to break your heart when you need it, and heal it when you need it. It’s something you need to read out loud to yourself, to your friends, to your lover, to your dog. It’s real and human and full of the biggest stories of all: the rich messy stories of the human heart. In some ways, poetry is the more obvious choice, even the easier choice, for an occasional reader. Want to read something that resonates deeply, transports you, and makes you feel something real…all in the time it takes to find the remote control stuffed in between the couch cushions? Read poetry!

Here are a few of my current go-to poems (there are SO many, I’m just listing the ones on my desktop at the moment).

This one. Especially after Sandy. “Thanks,” W.S. Merwin: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20492

This one. For heartbreak. For life. “Faint Music,” Robert Hass: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178697

This one. For joy. “To Be Alive,” Gregory Orr: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/381

This one. For America. For race. For fathers. “Enlightenment,” Natasha Trethewey: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15623

This one. For nature. For the moon. For mothers. “Facts About the Moon,” Dorriane Laux: http://poemsoutloud.net/audio/archive/laux_reads_facts_about_the_moon/

This one. For fathers. For sons. For work. “In Colorado, My Father Stacked and Scoured Dishes,” Eduardo C. Corral: http://poems.com/poem.php?date=15442

This one. For words. “Vocabulary,” Jason Schneiderman: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/23178

This one. For New York. For grace. “New York Poem,” Terrance Hayes: http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/295/3320

KLL: Your first two books, both published in 2006, won prizes in 2005. Can I embarrass you for a moment to ask about that experience? It must have been an exciting year.

Ada: It was a terribly exciting year. Let’s see if I can remember any of it? It was early March 2006 that Lucky Wreck was officially in my hands. I opened my first copy hiding in the kitchen of an event studio in Chelsea, while I was working for Martha Stewart. (I was the Event Manager at Martha Stewart Omnimedia at the time.) I couldn’t believe the book really existed…that it was mine, and in my hands.  My manuscript was chosen by Jean Valentine as the winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize; they just did a remarkable job with that book. I still remember the phone call I received from Michael Simms at my office; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was sure he’d gotten the wrong number. So, Lucky Wreck came out in March of 2006, and then only a few months later, I got the call that This Big Fake World was chosen by Frank X. Gaspar as the winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize. It was surreal. I still laugh that the awesome people I worked with at Martha Stewart must have thought that it was easy as pie to get a poetry book published since they watched me get two accepted within six months of each other. This Big Fake World was in my hands by December 2006. It was also the year I turned 30. Everything was changing…but also nothing at all. I felt this huge sense of validation as an artist, but I also still had to make rent, pay my student loans, break up with my boyfriend at the time, and learn to be a real breathing human in the world. All the big hard stuff was still there, but at least I felt like my work was out in the world; that’s a tremendously good feeling.

KLL: Follow up question— collections of any length can take quite some time to complete. Did you have a particularly productive and inspired year or were these collections both either in progress or collecting digital dust for some time before the awards?

Ada: The manuscripts for both Lucky Wreck and This Big Fake World were both circulating at the same time, that’s true, but they’re very different books. Lucky Wreck is a lyrical narrative collection focusing on autobiographical (and hopefully universal) events, while This Big Fake World is a story in verse and is entirely fictional. Lucky Wreck was a manuscript that came together over time and was a collection of poems spanning many years (I think only two poems in the book are from my graduate thesis), while, This Big Fake World was written during a seven month period while I was unemployed and was desperately looking for a life that was not my own. So, even though they were written around the same time, they were very different projects and in some ways I don’t think they ever overlapped. I never thought they’d both come out around the same time. I used to call, Lucky Wreck my girl, and This Big Fake World my boy, based on which readers seemed to relate to the books the most. I suppose Sharks in the Rivers is my spirit animal. The next book will be my heathen heart.

KLL: Reading the swath of your work that is available online, I notice that you can write very direct poems with beautiful emotional themes and steady metaphors, and also abstract, visceral and emotional assaulting poems. Both styles seem to come naturally for you; they read fluidly and feel sincere. For those poets and readers who may have trouble navigating styles, breaking out of their comfort zone, or only understand certain types of poems, could you please talk about your personal poetic, shifting between styles, and perhaps tell us about those things which you feel all good poems have in common?

Ada: First of all, thank you. I love to play with different forms and different styles of poetry. I feel like different times, different emotions, different subjects, all inherently call for different styles. Sometimes I crave the tension of a form, or the freedom of free verse, or the long line or the short line, but whatever poem I’m working on, I’m trying to get to some sort of truth. Not the literal truth, but something that rings true. We don’t say something “rings factual,” I mean truth in the way something sparkles and sings. I look for that in the poems that I love, that sense of something vibrating, opening, the original song.

KLL: You currently split your time between California, Kentucky, and New York. Could you elaborate on the differences between your three homes, or perhaps how your life as a writer changes with each location (i.e. does each place inspire your differently, or do you do different work in each place)?

Ada: Kentucky is currently our primary home, an apartment out in the country, with great neighbors, a fake fireplace, and places to hike and walk right outside the door. I have a home office where I write a great deal, do freelance marketing work, and spend many hours scheming up ways to make a living and make some decent art. It’s quiet and calm and a very homey home with cheap meals in the slow cooker and our sweet little loony dog wandering back and forth. I’m working on my fourth book of poems here now and revising my novel. The place we have in Sonoma was leant to us by our generous friends who wanted to help me work on my first novel (which is very close to being finished and is set in the Sonoma Valley). It’s a very special place and it’s where I first experienced what it was to write full time. It’s in my hometown and I feel deeply connected to the landscape and the people there. New York is my adopted hometown. I moved there when I was 23 and lived there for 12 years. Most of my coming of age was done broke and in Brooklyn. It’s where I wrote my first three books and where I worked with amazing people in the magazine industry. In many ways, it still feels like home. Currently, my heart is really hurting for those affected by Hurricane Sandy right now. The destruction the storm caused was really horrible, and it’s going to take a long time for the city to get back on track, but if any city can take a punch and come back swinging, it’s NYC.  All three of my places are very important to me, but primarily I’m happy if I’ve got my love, my dog, and my books.

KLL: We usually end with the “who are you reading” go-to, but since that was covered more or less at the start, I’ll ask this: did you bring books to sell at the Catch  Up party, and can readers find your work in Louisville or Lexington bookstores?

Ada: Thanks so much for this interview! Yes, I sold all the books I brought to the reading. And I’ve been told that Sharks in the Rivers is on the shelves in Carmichael’s in Louisville, and at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington. All three books are fairly easy for your local bookstore to order, or you can always get them on Amazon, or directly from the publishers. I’m thinking of setting up a Paypal account for the holidays so you can order signed books from me online. We shall see. Also, I’m teaching a rare online course this winter at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. I think it’s going to be a really great class; there’s only 15 slots so sign up here if you’d like to join us. Thanks again!

ADA LIMÓN received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at New York University where she studied with the current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine among others. Limón has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and was awarded the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press, 2006), was the winner of the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is also the author of This Big Fake World (Pearl Editions, 2006), winner of the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize, and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions, 2010). She is currently working on a book of essays, a novel, and a new collection of poems. She works as a freelance writer and splits her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California (with a great deal of New York in between).