As the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, Ada Limón is an ambassador in the world of beautiful words. His poems use clear, everyday language. But they have as much literary weight as accessibility. Limón has written half a dozen books of poetry, and his most recent work is “The Hurting Kind”. She is also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and numerous other accolades.
Limón was born in Sonoma County and now lives among the hills and horses of Kentucky. KQED forum host Alexis Madrigal spoke with Limón about his new Poet Laureate position and how to read a poem.
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: In a 2008 essay, you were living in New York and thinking about regional poetry and wondering if you were, in fact, a poet from Sonoma. And then you said, “I think I’d call myself a California poet. That definition is too strict and it smells like old wine.” Do you now see yourself as a Sonoma poet?
ADA LIMON: To be honest, I think the place I feel most at home is in Sonoma. It’s like a place where I belong deeply. But I also feel like there’s a part of me that now that I’ve lived in so many different places…I feel like there’s this kind of feeling that I belong to America. I think the landscape of the United States is something that I really feel connected to. And now that I’ve lived so many places there, I feel like I can talk about it. But, Sonoma still feels like home.
Do you feel that coming from these different places, living in these different places, the contrasts stand out more?
I think one of the things that I really love about being in different places, even while traveling, is this idea of getting to know the natural elements of each place. When I came to Kentucky I really hoped to move back to California permanently, then I fell madly in love and married my husband and live in Kentucky and learned to love him.
But I think the way I know how to like something, or how I can understand it, is to explore the natural landscape around me. Many of the poems in the book are about me taking in the landscape around me and looking at the old barns and amazing horse pastures everywhere. It was important for me to understand – how to love a place, to name the plants and animals around me.
Let you read “A good story”. This is your most recent collection.
It’s a poem that started for me at a place where I feel like there were so many poems that dealt with trauma. And I think it’s extremely important that we write and read poems that are difficult and that deal with difficult things. But I also really wanted to write about tenderness and to be grateful for those moments when tenderness was offered to me. That’s where this poem comes from.
It reminded me of a time when my sister’s ex-husband silently made me a bowl of mac and cheese, while I cried in my sister’s lap. What is the literary infrastructure that makes this pack such a punch?
Thanks for that. The poem is in couplets and there are actually long lines in the poem that kind of allow it to move a bit faster.
The line length of a poem really determines the pace and speed of reading the poem. A shorter line is going to be a lot slower if you’re thinking of some sort of Emily Dickinson, it’s going to read a lot slower because there’s breath in it.
This slight pause after the line break will make you read more slowly, then a longer line will read a bit faster.
You can think of Whitman, then the mid-length line is more for conversation. You can think of Shakespeare. It’s supposed to be read a little fast, but at the same time it’s in couplets. So you’re going to pause after each of these verses, which gives you that little moment of pause.
It has this kind of rhythm that comes and goes.
The last line is then on its own, which kind of allows it to stand out a bit.
The other part of this poem is that it deals with time.
A student asked me, “How is it that you can jump from the present moment to the past or the future so easily in your poems?” And I said, well, this is going to sound weird, but I think time doesn’t exist. I say my stepfather told me a story. And then he does this thing. But at the same time, it feels like it’s happening in the moment because it starts with a hard day. And what does the hard day require? The tough day requires a good story and sometimes that good story isn’t something that’s happening right now. But maybe it’s a memory like you were talking about. The person who fed you macaroni and cheese.