This interview with poet Ada Limón, first published on Knuckle Twenty-Nine (a now-extinct blog) in December 2010, is the first in a new series I'm beginning called Interviews with Poets.
Now, more than three years later, Ada is working on a book of essays and a novel, and her new collection of poems, Bright Dead Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. She works as a freelance writer and creative writing instructor while splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California (with a great deal of New York in between).
She also keeps a great blog.
Below is my interview with Ada in its original form.
Books, Blogs, Love Poems: An Interview with Poet Ada LimónADA LIMÓN, originally from Sonoma, California, recently published her latest book of poems, Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions) in October 2010. Her first book of poems, Lucky Wreck, was the winner of the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize, and her second, This Big Fake World, won the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize. She received her MFA from the Creative Writing Program at New York University and has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the recipient of the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry and recently moved back to California after working for years as a travel magazine writer in Brooklyn, New York.
Allison Leigh Peters: Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your latest book, Sharks in the Rivers. It was such a pleasure to read. Was there a particular reason you chose to publish with Milkweed Editions, and did you feel any freedom publishing with an independent, nonprofit press? Also, how did the selection for the cover art come about, and did you have a hand in selecting the book cover’s tranquil aesthetic?
Ada Limón: Thanks so much. It thrills me that you enjoyed it. I am very proud of the book and feel very close to it on many different levels. I am such a fan of Milkweed Editions. I find them warm, attentive, and creative. I was so very pleased when they chose to publish me. My dear friend, Alex Lemon was the one who had me meet with their editor and it was an instant connection. I’ve enjoyed working with them more than I can say. I love all my presses, but this experience has left me feeling amazingly supported.
All of the covers of my books are paintings from my mother, the painter, Stacia Brady. She painted this specifically based on the poems in Sharks in the Rivers. We went through a couple of cover options, but we all agreed on this one. I love the energy and buzz of it as well as the dark calm. I really feel as if it represents the work very well, and was so happy to be able to collaborate with one of my favorite artists.
ALP: Sharks in the Rivers certainly maintains several themes and motifs, some being water, fire, God, memory and history, honesty, names, physical space (land, highways, rivers), the temporality of life, returning, erasure, birds, bruises, love and beauty, etc. Do these themes or motifs form themselves organically in the text as you write, or are you often conscious of how you’re brining these ideas together? Do these overarching ideas help you make sense of the collection as you’re compiling the book?
Limón: With this book, in particular, I was very aware of the themes of water, change, and giving in to the wild of life’s push and pull. I began putting this manuscript together as a full book from the very beginning, and in doing so, noticed how all the poems were speaking to each other. The themes that I wanted to explore more thoroughly were expanded upon, and the poems that didn’t speak to those themes, or add anything new, were removed. Both my editors were very helpful with this process. It’s tricky to keep exploring the same motifs without repeating yourself and I wanted to make sure each poem was doing an entirely new thing while furthering the thrust of the book.
ALP: This book is divided into four different sections: the first two and the last being small collections of individual poems; the third section a poetic sequence. Each section is introduced with an epigraph. What was your idea behind this physical structure of the book? Like a music album, one song may flow into the next; the songs are ordered specifically in a way that is to suggest, perhaps, a storytelling through music. How do you feel the organization of a collection of poetry plays a role in the reader’s interpretation of the poems a whole set? Is there a story being told here?
Limón: I absolutely believe that there is a story being told here, I wanted the poems to flow and weave in a way that kept the readers interest and also unfolded into some larger opening. And it’s not always a literal story being told, but it’s a blend of following the music and tone as well as the personal narrative. For example, a long, heavy poem will often be followed by a smaller, simpler poem. I wanted these to act as breath, as ease, in between some of the more complicated denser poems. I love thinking about the audience when putting together a book, it’s like walking outdoors after being inside too long.
ALP: Some of your poems have dedications. “Marketing Life for Those of Us Left” you dedicate to Jessica Yen, who died of cancer in 2006; “The Crossing” you dedicate to Cynthia Limón, who died of cancer in 2010. These poems must be dear to you—how do you begin writing a poem for the memory of someone gone? How much of the inspirer’s personality or memory shines through, and how much is your own voice and memory?
Limón: I never start out thinking I will write a poem dedicated to someone, or in someone’s memory; like most poems, they come to me when they need to be heard and I try to listen. “Marketing Life for Those of Us Left” began as a poem about work in magazines, and ended as a poem celebrating Jess and this life we are left with. “The Crossing” was taken from a direct conversation between my stepmom and I, long before she died. Now, it holds an even more intense emotion for me because of her passing. Both of these poems started as poems that were simply trying to get at something truthful.
ALP: I’ve noticed you often write love poems. I love love poems. How do you feel the function of the love poem has changed over time, if it has, and how do you think love poems interact with the dialogue of contemporary society?
Limón: I love love poems, too. I like writing about the “big ticket stuff”: love, death, fear, sex, obsessions, letting go, the universal hum. Those themes have been around forever, they keep returning to us as basic human desires and questions. I think poems surrounding these themes will always interact with contemporary society as reminder of what we cannot control, what we cannot tame or solve.
ALP: One of these love poems, “Crush,” was published in The New Yorker in the summer of 2009. I remember reading it in an issue lying around the office where I was working at the time, and my heart melted with the last two lines. What was your initial reaction when you found out “Crush” would be published in The New Yorker?
Limón: First off, thank you for saying that. I’m really glad you were moved by that poem. Well, let’s see…I received the call from Paul Muldoon at about 8am on a Saturday morning. And I think I was asleep from all the champagne by noon. It was wonderful, really. My best friend and I went to our local for brunch and mimosas and soon, thanks to her, everyone kept buying me glasses of champagne to toast to The New Yorker. I was tingly in more ways than one. The response to that poem was by far the biggest response I’ve ever received from a single poem, I think I got about thirty or forty fan letters that were all so moving and kind. It was overwhelming.
ALP: In Sharks in the Rivers, you made some light edits to “Crush,” omitting a comma or two and a word here and there. Why did you choose to do this? Were these changes you wanted to make as soon as you saw the poem in The New Yorker? What was your intention with some of these changes—if there was a specific significance behind them—such as the omission of "like" in the third line of the poem?
Limón: The edits to that poem were intended to just clean it up a little. I loved how it appeared in The New Yorker, but for the book I just wanted it to be a tad smoother. I give the credit to my editors at Milkweed.
ALP: You received your MFA from New York University’s highly acclaimed program. How do you feel the MFA can strength one's capacity as a writer? That being asked, do you think an MFA is necessary for a writer to be a successful? At what point in one's academic and writing career do you think it's important for someone to venture out and apply for MFAs? As a young writer yourself, do you have any advice for hopeful grad school applicants, writers and poets?
Limón: I don’t believe it’s necessary to go after an MFA in order to become a good writer. I can tell you that for me, it was a truly a defining time in my life and in my work. I was working with teachers who I simply adored: Phil Levine, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, and many others. It was also a time that I met some of my closest friends and colleagues that still read and edit my work to this day. Finding those teachers and those lifelong friends was essential to me becoming the writer I am today. It gave me the discipline and the community I needed. If you think you’re able to find those both on your own, and I think that’s certainly possible for some, then an MFA isn’t necessary.
Here are a few pieces of advice that I can offer anyone who is applying to graduate school for creative writing: 1) Make sure that the schools to which you are applying have teachers you really want to study with—that you like their work, and their reputation as professors. 2) Do your research on the cost. Graduate school is expensive, and you will mostly likely never make much money as a writer, so make sure that you are doing this because you love it and not because you expect this to make you any kind of significant income. 3) When you are applying, make sure that you’re applying with poems or work samples that don’t have any typos. As simple as this might sound, the more presentable and professional your work is, the more likely you’ll be able to get to the right round of readers. 4) Apply to a lot of places and think of where they are located. How you write and what you write will be influenced by where you write. 5) Lastly, once you get in, do the work. Almost all the professors have office hours, so go to them, all the time, and bring them tea and questions. Go to all the readings and lectures. One of the most important things a program can do for you is give you access to great artists. Take advantage of it all. Soak it up.
ALP: How do you feel the workshop process is beneficial to your revision and completion of a poem? Is there a specific workshop style that you find works best for you? Have you been to any particularly wonderful writing workshops or conferences in recent years?
Limón: I don’t really workshop my poems anymore. But I do believe they were very helpful when I was learning the craft. I got something out of every one of my workshops. Learning to read your poems out loud, spending time lingering over poems, and finally learning to examine your own work—your fallback words, your easy outs, your obsessions—is incredibly useful.
ALP: How did you get started writing poetry? Do you have favorite poets you read, and has your own taste shifted or grown throughout the years? Have you had interest in exploring other genres in addition to poetry?
Limón: I first started writing poetry when I was in grammar school. I’d write songs and poems and read them to my Labrador, Dusty. But I didn’t become serious about it until college. I just fell in love with it. I’d walk around with lines of poems in my pocket and poetry books. I felt at home in that world, a real sense of belonging I had never felt. Now I'm working on writing a novel, and it’s such a strange journey. I’m enjoying it very much, but it’s different from writing poems. It takes much more discipline and time. But the overall rule is the same: be truthful.
ALP: Take us into your creative process. How does a poem start? Do you usually write on paper or on a computer? Do you write in an office or in a more personal space or out in the woods, by the river? Do you often find yourself experimenting with meter or specific forms?
Limón: I work mainly on the computer when determining the final structure of a book. However, I often write new poems longhand in notebooks or on the back of napkins or anything I can get my hands on when the poem comes into being. I love writing outdoors; in fact, since I’ve been working on the novel, I write outdoors on my tiny porch a great deal. It’s wonderful. However, I think it’s important to work with as few distractions as possible. Silence and isolation are essential to listening to where a poem needs to go.
I love playing with poetic forms. I hope to work more in form soon. There’s something so amazingly satisfying about creating a poem in form, like putting your imagination into a wonderfully complicated puzzle.
ALP: How did you come about writing your first book? What sort of obstacles did you find as you began writing? Did you have these poems already written to compile, or were you often writing “from scratch”? Did you face any certain challenges in getting published?
Limón: My first book, Lucky Wreck, was written as a complete manuscript as well. Once I had the first seven poems or so, I knew it had the potential to be a whole book with repeating themes. So, yes, I wrote within the manuscript as opposed to just piecing it together as individual poems. However, there are about eight poems in Lucky Wreck that were inserted from earlier writing periods that just seemed to enhance the movement of the book. I had the same issues that anyone with a first book has. It just takes a long time. I sent it out to many places and was diligent at making sure the manuscript was constantly out to contests, making the photocopies, paying the postage, meeting deadlines, writing cover letters, over and over again. When it finally won, I could hardly believe it.
ALP: Where do you find inspiration for your writing? Does imagination play more, less, or just as much of a role than experience when writing a poem? How does this figure in to the kinds of poems you write?
Limón: I think most writers would say that their experiences are largely influenced by their imagination and vice versa. The play between the actual and the magical is essential in opening up the creative process. The dream world, the mind’s wander, the universal mysteries—are all part of the real joy of writing. I believe that tapping into the quiet place of fantasy is just as truthful, if not more so, than reporting the real facts of an event.
ALP: We're facebook friends, and I follow your blog. (Huh?) Has technology changed poetry? If it has, how? How does social networking, media and other applications or perceptions of one’s “real” life—for example, your blog, website and Facebook—intersect with poetic artifice and imagined life? Does the advancement and socialization of technology require some peace between everyday communication and meditated communication?
Limón: I think technology has affected poetry, mainly in the way that it has brought together a lively poetic community. I feel much more a part of a larger poetic movement than I ever have, thanks to Facebook, websites and blogs. When I was first studying poetry it was a very isolated practice, and now, while the work itself will always require isolation, it feels at least as if I’m not alone in this odd and wonderful infatuation with words.
ALP: In a recent interview with the Academy of American Poets, you talk about the “quiet” space that the art of poetry offers us in our loud, coming-at-you world. In this mash-up culture in which we live, is there no escaping the postmodern? Is there a way contemporary media and social networking can coexist with and even influence poetry for the better? Poets have gone through the “personal,” the “confessional,” the “anti-confessional,” the “post-confessional,” etc.— What, in your opinion, is now the future of poetry?
Limón: I believe poetry will keep changing, will keep a constant dialogue with the world, keep finding its voice amidst the mayhem and mess. I’m sure whatever movement happens next, it will be in direct relation to our need to “over-share” on the internet. But just like any art form, it will change and move and alter along with the world. As long as we need answers, we will need someone to ask the right questions. That is the poet’s job. Blindly raising our hands to the world, saying, “I need, I desire, I want.” And listening carefully when the world says, “but you already have it, look around you.” I don’t think the cycle of desire and gratitude is going to change anytime soon, so poetry will just go on asking and receiving, thanking and rejoicing, in its continuous, strange and sensual conversation with the world.