Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Jessica Alberg, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ada Limón about her book Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Ada is sitting at her desk when the surprising March snow begins to gently fall outside her window. Our phone call begins with discussion of weather, and thusly of place. We continue this by discussing beginnings.
Jessica Alberg: What is your title process for your poems?
Ada Limón: I am obsessed with titles, beginnings, and endings. I feel like poetry is hard to access for a lot of people and I want to make it as easy as possible for someone who is perhaps not a poet but just a reader to enter a poem. I want them to be enticed and intrigued and at home from the first get-go, and so a lot of the openings of my poems, like we were talking about setting, really focus on grounding people in place. Then the same thing with the titles, I want to give an idea of what I’m really going after, like I have this discussion with people all the time that sometimes I feel like poems just need to say the thing. They just need to say the thing. They dance around so much. So with titles I’m really trying to intrigue and entice but also to ground and draw in.
JA: I was particularly fascinated by how your work flirts between description of scene and honest experience of emotion. You have a straightforward way, which isn’t at all shy. Can you explain the importance and significance of having work such as this, and the creation of honesty within poetry?
AL: I think that I’m very interested in not just being honest but also excavating what I truly mean in a poem, and I think that in some of my earlier work and in some really great contemporary work there’s so much obfuscation happening. Sometimes it’s in the name of beauty, sometime it’s in the name of song, and sometimes I feel like it’s unnecessary and with my poems, especially with this book, I wanted to write a book of poems that wasn’t necessarily for poets. I didn’t necessarily need it to be for other poets; I wanted it to be for anyone who wanted to read and for anyone who picked it up. So because of that it made me feel like I really wanted to connect in a way that was straightforward but still bowing down to the beauty and the song as much as possible. I still wanted to bow down to the poem and have the rhythm and have the beauty and the song and the dance of the poem really work. But I was really interested in leaning into the audience and saying this is what happened, this is the truth. I’m not quite sure if this is one of the reasons why but I feel like when you deal with a home death there is so much hiding we do in our culture around what I call the big-ticket topics. We don’t talk about death that often. We don’t even really talk about sex that often; we’re obsessed with it but we don’t talk about it. So I wanted to take these otherwise taboo subjects, or at least subjects that aren’t discussed as openly and as often in conversation, and tap into them. I think that was partially because I didn’t feel that people were doing that. When my stepmother died I [wondered] why don’t more people know this? It felt as though the world and society had been keeping secrets from me. And so I lost all interest in keeping secrets.
The other thing is selfishly I get to connect with people who aren’t just poets. Not only do I get to hear from them and get feedback from them but I also feel like the work is of significance, it’s not isolated in it’s own world. Now, I love poets and I certainly want other poets to love my work and I love their work. I think this is an incredible time to be a poet. I think some of the best work is being written right now. I really do. When people ask me who I’m influenced by I always say my contemporaries. I’m always reading new work and I’m blown away all the time. So of course I’m not saying I’m not writing for them, but it’s just that I’m trying widen the net a certain amount, and not assume that the person on the other side of the window or the door is familiar with all of the history of American or European poetics.
JA: One of your most extended themes for the book is a love of life. What makes you value life so much?
AL: I think that’s very true. I think that after I lost my stepmom I was really coming to terms with the fact that every one of us, all of us, our days are numbered and what that means isn’t this terrified doom and gloom of oh my god we’re all going to die, but instead: how can we really appreciate this gift of this moment in time? Even when things are really terrible and things are really hard and it seems like our society, our country, our citizens, are going off the deep end—somehow there is still a grace in living; still looking out the window, and being kind to your neighbor, and holding your love one’s hand or taking the dog for a walk. Sometimes that can be enough. That to me was essential in this book, partially because I was writing it for myself. I was writing to myself in a way to constantly recommit myself to the world.
JA: I was especially entranced with your use of identity in part 4, where you seem to be asking if one should confine their identity to one specific thing be that a man, woman, or animal. For example your poems: “The Whale & The Waltz Inside of It” or “Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs.” Could you talk about this? Also, do you often find your thoughts within your poems or have the thoughts and find the poems?
AL: Yeah I think I deal a lot with identity, it is a topic that I revisit, or it revisits me. I think that’s partially because we live in a society where everyone wants you to check a box and you mark the box Latino or you mark the box African American and I just find it so limiting. Finally gender is becoming more fluid; finally we’re able to look at things with more of that gray area. For me a lot of those poems are giving me permission to be the many other things. To be this thing that has many other colors and many other abilities, and has both a male side and a female side, and has loved women and has loved men, and identifies both Latino and Caucasian, and what that means. It was a lot about permission for me, it was not just identity but permission.
JA: You’re very strict in this collection with your punctuation and capitalization—did you ever think about experimenting? If so why did you resist?
AL: I’m going to be super honest here: because I wanted to be as clear as possible in these poems, I felt like it wasn’t the place to play with punctuation or capitalization in a way that would obscure or confuse a reader. I wanted everything to be clean, clear, concise, and harmonious. So it felt like these were really digestible for someone who might or might not be going through the same things I was in this book. I love experimental poems, and other poems in other books that I’ve done. I like reading work that does that. But for me, I was really trying to do something different and in some ways all the experimenting I was doing was how far I could plummet and still pull myself back up. And that was experimentation enough. Because I was taking such big emotional high dive risks for myself I needed the anchor of those good old capital letters and those good sentences and the sentence structure. Those were going to be my rope ladder while I was plummeting down into some of the scarier subjects.
Ada sees that it’s beginning to snow again.
JA: In creating this collection did it tell you something about yourself you did not know already?
AL: I think that on the completion of this book I realized two things. One of them was that I was more courageous than I thought I was. The other thing was that I really needed to teach myself that courage. I needed to say these things and in the process of writing this book I realized how much I was longing for some of this honesty and brutal truth, and also joy and light and life and re-commitment to this world and gratitude. And how I really needed to know that all of those things could exist in one moment and in the same universe. And I think I am reminding myself of that everyday.
Ada Limón grew up in Glen Ellen and Sonoma, California. A graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at NYU, she has won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry. Her most recent collection of poems is Sharks in the Rivers.
Jessica Alberg is currently earning her MFA in poetry from the New School. She has a MsC from the University of Edinburgh and her writings have appeared in The Stafford Archives and Crosscut. She specializes in dark poetry and archival research. On her days off she is out hunting for new knick-knacks for her apartment. You can follow her on twitter: @JessicaAlberg