In September, Ada Limón assumed the role of American Poet Laureate, succeeding Joy Harjo, who had held the position since 2019. Limón, who also teaches and hosts the podcast Slowdownis the author of six volumes of poetry, the most recent being The hurtful kind. In its announcement, the Library of Congress said of its latest nomination, “Ada Limón is a connected poet. Her accessible and engaging poems enliven us… They speak of intimate truths, of the beauty and sorrow that lives, in a way that helps us move on. Oprah Daily Books Vice President Leigh Haber reached out to Limón to find out where she finds inspiration and what her hopes are for her new office.
Leigh Haber: Congratulations on being named American Poet Laureate, Ada. When you started, did you ever dream that you would become one of only 24 to be appointed to this position? Wow!
Ada Limon: Thanks a lot. No, it was never even on my radar. We poets tend to keep our heads down – perhaps for the sake of preservation – and write word by word, line by line, just trying to be in the world as artists. To tell the truth, I’m still processing everything.
Who gave you the news?
Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, told me on Zoom. It was surreal. It felt like all the selves in my body were spinning in a million directions. I went totally silent. And then there was a moment when I realized, Oh, that requires an answer. I thought of the poets who preceded me, of the work they accomplished, of the foundations they laid. They collectively pushed me to say to myself: Climb on this occasion. Find your words. Find your breath. Finally, I replied, “Yes, I would be honored.”
Ever since Rita Dove was named Poet Laureate in 1993, it seems whoever holds the position has had a mission. For Dove, it was about “bringing poetry back into everyday life”; for Tracy K. Smith, to use poetry “to seek to bridge many kinds of divides”. Have you set yourself on your mission?
The work is about elevating, celebrating and talking about the role of poetry. The poet laureates who came before me have done an incredible job of reminding people that poetry exists, that it is a presence, that it is there. As a result, poetry is everywhere. Young people are more and more delighted. I want to build on that, but I also want to talk about the power of our art form, what it has the potential to do.
What is an example?
I truly believe that poetry can be a tool to reconnect us with our humanity, with what it is to be a person who processes grief, rage, joy, love, despair and hope. . I see him as the only one capable of exploring all these emotions at once. Also, in the midst of our climate crisis, reading and writing poetry can mend our relationship with our planet, helping us to feel less estranged from it. A deep attention to poetry about nature and animals can reconnect us to the earth.
In your latest collection, The hurtful kind a lot of your attention is slowing down, watching the birds, feeling the moments pass from your backyard in Kentucky. But about ten years ago, you were writing poetry on the side while running a large department at Condé Nast in New York. Then, when your mother-in-law died of cancer at age 51, you changed your life. How has quitting and stepping away from corporate life changed the way you write?
It’s such a beautiful question because grief affects us all, but in addition to sadness, it can propel us through the world in surprising ways. Seeing my mother-in-law die puts everything into perspective. This prompted me to ask, Alright, who am I? Who do I want to be? What if I only had that time left? For me, that meant becoming a full-time artist.
How do you reconcile your public role with the self that needs solitude to compose?
The artist who makes and writes a poem is calm, tender, receptive, distracted – totally in my feelings. While the person who goes out and does readings and performances is hopefully generous and gracious and thinks of each other. There are many facets to the self.
What made you love poetry?
While writing my first sketch of a poem in a college class, I thought: These are my words. It was like freedom. Poetry leaves room for both breath and mystery. Poetry is wonderful.
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