U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limon | Credit: Randy Toy Photographicaction.com

Catching up with the United States Poet Laureate during National Poetry Month is a challenge, as you might imagine. But Independent writer David Starkey (Santa Barbara Poet Laureate 2009-2011) spoke to Ada Limón, the current (24th) U.S. Poet Laureate on Zoom ahead of her appearance at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m. A native of Sonoma who currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, Limón has penned many books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Carrying, winner of National Book Critics Circle Award; and, most recently, The Hurting Kind. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

I think you’re really one of the best poets writing about the natural world right now, so it’s no surprise that your latest book, The Hurting Kind, is divided into four sections, each corresponding with one of the four seasons. Could you talk about why the flora and fauna around you are so important as subject matter for your poetry?  I’m always looking at what connects us, and what binds us to the world. I feel like every time I’m feeling untethered, or like I’m somehow isolated, and I’m floating out into space, the thing that brings me back, always, is the natural world. It’s that feeling that, “Oh, right, I am not alone.” As chaotic and sometimes terrifying as humans can be, it’s also nice to be able to return to that connection when you’re feeling in fear of humanity.

Which happens all too often! Some of your nature poems remind me of those by AR Ammons and Charles Wright, where your backyard is like this whole world.  It’s very easy for all of us to think of the natural world as intentional visits to national parks, or pocket parks, or whatever it is, when in reality, even in urban settings, nature is all around us. I remember very clearly living in New York City and running my fingers along this grass that was in a raised pot on my way to a temp job, and I kept thinking, “If this grass can come up and live inside this city, maybe I can, too.” So really focusing on the nature that’s around us, I think that’s super important: It helps us notice not only our connection to nature, but the fact that it’s connected to us. And it can be as simple as the weeds growing in your backyard, or the storms coming.

‘The Hurting Kind’ | Credit: Courtesy

I recently taught a poetry workshop at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and it struck me how difficult it is to write about flora, rather than fauna. Yet you do such a superb job of that in a poem like “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” or, in The Hurting Kind, in poems like “Invasive” and “In the Shadow.” Could you talk about your approach to writing about plant life?  I think there’s a couple of things. One of them is to start with wonder and curiosity. It’s important to notice how the deep-looking and attention can shift the thing that you’re looking at. But I’m also very curious about the history of plants. If I can find that information and look it up, I love to do that. Of course, I always laugh that the poet’s research can take away from the poem itself because we can spend three hours finding out the history of magnolia trees, instead of writing our poem. But I love to find out why a plant was named, whether it’s a native species or invasive, and that kind of helps me have a better understanding not just of the plants in my own backyard, but how plants work together on a larger scale. We poets love the language of science and the language of biology, and sometimes it’s easy to lean into that and let that solely be our musicality. It’s striking that balance between the wonder and the facts themselves about the plants.

I wanted to ask you briefly about your formal education as a poet at NYU. You worked with a lot of poetic luminaries in your MFA program.  I had a really wonderful time at NYU. It was very seminal to my life as a poet and an artist. I think often of how much I learned from poets like Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Of course, it was about having marvelous teachers and mentors, but it was also about creating the community, and I’m still friends with a lot of the people that I went to school with, and we grew up together in the poetry world, and now when we see each other, it feels like we’re still connected. It was not only the teaching by true masters, but the ability to laugh and feel very at sea with other poets that are trying to make poems and bring them into our heroes.

I can remember from my own MFA experience, that feeling of being able to be lost.  And kind of admit, “I don’t know what’s happening.” You think you go into an MFA knowing how to write a poem, and you leave thinking you don’t know how to write a poem. There’s a lot of learning and unlearning at the same time.

I was really struck by your poem “Joint Custody” in The Hurting Kind, where you talk about the benefits of having two families and being raised in two households. What other experiences do you feel have shaped your journey as a poet? I mean, the really crucial experiences?  That’s a tough question because it’s kind of like, “How are you who you are?” But I want to try and be as truthful as possible. A lot of it, for me, is that I have always felt a little like a person who lives on the edges. Even though I was in theater, and even though I’m on stage a lot, and behind a podium, I have felt a sense of otherness in me. And it’s allowed me sometimes to be a watcher, a noticer. I think that’s essential to making art because you go on stage as the performer, but then you are also the maker, and the receiver. It’s really important to honor the artist in myself, and I think that comes from just living on the edges a little bit — life is tremendously weird for me.

What do you think accounts for that feeling of otherness?  I was always aware that I was someone who noticed almost too much. If someone said, “Oh, we went on a walk and it was fine,” I would say, “Well, at the beginning of the walk there were three manzanita trees….” So I know that I am a noticer, and I have a very good memory. Sometimes my dear friends and loved ones can be a little scared by my memory, but I’m a recorder. I can’t help it. I’ve always felt a deep attachment to the world. Because of that, sometimes you have to go, “Okay, I can’t weight everything the same way.” But I can get very lost in my own memories as well as my own imagination. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Even as a kid, I could sit for a very long time and not be bored. Looking at trees and looking up at the sky felt just as interesting to me as doing other things.

“It’s really important to honor the artist in myself, and I think that comes from just living on the edges a little bit — life is tremendously weird for me.”

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of other U.S. Poets Laureate over the years, and I love hearing their stories about connecting with communities that they didn’t think would be interested in poetry. Do you have any stories like that?  I’m always so excited when it’s someone’s first poetry reading. I really want to be a caretaker of that experience, so that they feel the impulse to go to more poetry readings. And then, it’s almost the opposite of your question, but I’m surprised that people don’t know how many people are reading and writing poetry out there. It’s almost shocking that people don’t know poetry is very alive and vibrant. It feels like there’s been a whole resurgence, and no matter where I’m traveling, people are coming out.

Another thing I’ve heard from talking to U.S. Poets Laureate is that it’s sometimes hard to do your own writing when you suddenly have so many other responsibilities. Has that been an issue for you?  If I’m totally honest, I have to write to feel okay. They’re just drafts, so it’s maybe harder to polish. But writing is such a big way of living for me that I have to do it.

For your reading in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, April 25, what can people expect when they come to Campbell Hall to hear you read?  Hopefully people can come and realize that a poetry reading can be both serious and joyful, and that there’s humor, as well as the deep work of grief. That all of those things can exist in a poetry reading. And then I also hope that some of my poems will inspire them to write their own poems, and maybe to read more poems, and maybe to write a poem about the natural world.

The last question I have for you is this: Is there any question interviewers never ask you that you wish they would?  I don’t hear a lot about the public self and the private self. That’s so interesting to me as someone new to the role — now it’s been like seven months — trying to understand the bifurcation of the public performing self and the private, tender artist that wants to be home writing poems, but that also loves doing the performing. I’m really interested in how to bring those two roles together, how they can feel at ease with each other. I step off the plane and into the home, and how do I then become the artist again, and how do I go forward? That’s a really unusual transformation that a lot of artists have to do.

You’re like a rock star when you’re out there in the public eye.  There’s lots of cameras, and there’s lots of interviews, but then you’re home, and you’re like, “I just write poems. I just look at trees.”

UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Ada Limón: Why We Need Poetry on Tuesday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.


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