COMPOSE: Your poems “We Are Surprised” and “The Noisiness of Sleep” feel intimate and tender. How autobiographical are they?
ADA LIMÓN: My confession: most of my poems are autobiographical. The strange, twisty narrative of the inner voice, the voice underneath the voice, is always what fascinates me and keeps me writing. “We Are Surprised” is about moving to the country after so long in the city; it’s also about love and loss and how sometimes the two go hand in hand. “The Noisiness of Sleep” is an exploration of the mind’s fast-paced buzz in the middle of the night. I was interested in riding the brain waves if you will. We all have the moments when too much of the world comes in and floods the quiet space of sleep. It’s not a bad moment; it’s just a normal maddening human thing. And again, it’s also a love poem in some ways as well.
C: Was “Torn” prompted by an actual dead snake? How did the poem come to you? How did it evolve?
AL: You are correct! This poem began with a real dead snake. It was cut in half and yet both parts were still moving. The image was so gruesome and powerful, that I began to wonder about the divided self, the parts of us that we both deny and miss. There was a moment in that poem where I realized, with great tenderness, how the snake was trying to connect again to its other half. Or at least it seemed that way. From there, the image just continued to unpack and unpack until it became more of a study of how hard it is to love every part of our crooked selves.
C: It’s hard to even articulate this question but your poems often seem like the opposite of a prayer or a supplication. Rather, they feel like an answer, a revelation. Is that how you see them?
AL: I’ve always been a fan of that saying that there are really only two prayers: thank you, and please. I’m not a praying person, but I think that same quote can work for poetry. Thank you and please is all I’ve got. There’s also this sense, for me, where I want my poetry to connect to people and truly affect them. I want my poetry to help people recommit the world we are living in, to the ugly mess and beautiful strangeness of it. I don’t provide any answers in my poems, but I hope to ask the right questions and reveal the right truths that make people feel like they aren’t alone. I’ve said before that the most important words, for me, in poems are the words that aren’t written, the words that say, “me too.”
C: You grew up in what you’ve described as a working-class family. Can you talk about your parents? Were you born into a bilingual family? Had they been in the U.S. a long time, or were they recent arrivals?
AL: My grandfather on my father’s side was from San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico. He crossed the border as a child in 1917 after his family’s land was confiscated by Pancho Villa’s troops during the Mexican revolution. I was not raised in a bilingual family. My grandfather rarely spoke Spanish even. He worked hard to assimilate into U.S. culture, growing up in a foster family, and eventually graduating from college. I have always identified with Mexican culture, but like many of us, I am not only one thing. I’m many things. I’m Irish, and Scottish, and German too. Part lion. Part dragon. Depending on the day.
My parents were divorced when I was young (8), so I identify very much with the divided self (to go back to the poem “Torn”). My father and stepmother were a bit more well-off monetarily, with more traditional careers, owning a home, etc. My dad was an elementary school principal and my stepmom was a speech pathologist. It was a home with a bit more of the small luxuries (cans of cola!), but not by much. In my other family, my mom was an artist and my stepdad was a waiter up until I went to high school. (I used to think my stepdad was famous because everyone in town knew his name.) I think I was very lucky in this regard, to have experienced different lifestyles. First, to have four parents that loved me and, second, to have an expanded view of what it means to be successful. I have great respect for the choices each one of my parents made. I don’t doubt that they made choices that were right for them. I never wanted for anything, I was supported, but I also grew up knowing that I needed to work incredibly hard to get what I want. I think that’s a real gift. That’s something you can’t get with an education, or a trust fund.
C: It’s wonderful how your sense of identity developed separate from your language. No one expects German Americans to speak German, or Italian Americans to speak Italian. And yet it seems our image of Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, seems fixated in the recent past and ignores the last two centuries (at least) of Mexican cultures and peoples woven into the identity of the U.S.?
AL: Yes, I’ve always felt a bit ashamed that I don’t speak Spanish (I can understand a little and get by a bit). But, some of that shame is only because people have a perception of me that’s not always correct. We all do it, assume things about other people and their background, or put our own sense of identity on others. I’ve had this conversation a lot with people who are mixed race, especially in the poetry world, and I find it fascinating. It seems that in an attempt to encourage diversity and celebrate differences, there is still an overwhelming need for categorization. That’s hard if you’re someone with a diverse background. The “other” box is always looming over us. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel political or ignore the important work that I feel Latino writers need to do for the larger community. I do feel a sense of responsibility in terms of representation. But for me, what’s most interesting is how we come to find our individual voices, what speaks to us, what excellent weirdness crops up in our work? We’re all such bizarre animals and I find the noises we make so exciting.
C: I wonder if your experience of having four parents that loved you as a child doesn’t shape that aspect of your poems I’m trying to get to: bounty. You seem to offer the reader—if not answers—a sense of the possible, of what may lie unseen right next to us, or just beyond the horizon.
AL: That’s an interesting observation. I remember telling Sharon Olds, during a conference with her at NYU, that I shared all my early drafts of my poems with my parents. She looked at me like I was an alien. I thought I had broken some cardinal rule of poetry, until I realized she just couldn’t imagine doing that herself. I feel very lucky to have grown up with such a loving family, but also I feel lucky to have grown up in amidst natural beauty. Having grown up in Glen Ellen and Sonoma, California, where hiking in the hills was a normal childhood hobby, I not only have a connection to the wild, but also a connection with being alone. I am very comfortable being by myself, sometimes to a fault. The natural world—and that sense of being alone and alive—is perhaps what offers a great deal of what you call “bounty” in my work. That’s where I find so much acceptance and ease, especially when I am feeling anxiety, crushing mental fear, or paralyzing self-doubt that’s so common with artists.
C: In addition to Olds, you studied with Philip Levine at NYU. What was it like working with each?
AL: Olds and Levine were my mami and my papi. I had Phil Levine first, and he scolded me and was hard and tough and incredibly good at making me work hard. Then, I had Sharon Olds and it was like working with a unicorn. She was kind and caring and supportive and yet, without me even realizing it, she helped me with my endings like no one else. They were both amazing. I owe them so much. I hope by putting my best work out in the world, I will constantly be showing my gratitude.
C: In retrospect, what do you make of your time working on your MFA? Any advice for those who are working or will soon be working on their MFAs?
AL: I loved getting my MFA. I know people have a lot of mixed feelings about them nowadays. It was essential for me. I was coming from a theater program, and although I had taken three excellent creative writing courses, I wasn’t an English major. I needed the MFA to help me get up to speed. I did all the reading and even though there were many students who were much further along, I was able to participate in the discussions and eke my way along to a deeper understanding of poetry, a historical context, a real relevance. Without my time at New York University, I fear that I wouldn’t have ever done the real nose-in-a-book work that was required. I needed those guides to point out what I was missing. My advice for those getting an MFA now is: 1. DO THE READING. 2. ASK QUESTIONS 3. GET A JOB TO PAY FOR ALL YOUR LOANS.
C: Your first two books, Lucky Wreck and This Big Fake World came out in the same year, 2006. Can you talk about that a little?
AL: That was a crazy time. The two books came out about nine months apart, with This Big Fake World actually launching in January of 2007. I was working for Martha Stewart Living at the time and using any extra money I had to enter book contests. Both books won prizes in the same year. Lucky Wreck was the winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize and was chosen by Jean Valentine, while This Big Fake World won the Pearl Editions Poetry Prize and was chosen by Frank X. Gaspar. They are very different books with very different lives. I used to call them my girl and my boy. I think that’s because so many more men responded to This Big Fake World. I was never sure if that’s because it’s more of a story in verse, or if it’s because the hero of the story is a man. Either way, it was a real gift to have them come out so close together. Can you imagine? I went from having no books at all, to having two in the span of a year. I felt like I had won the lottery, well, without the money. I suppose, in my life, I’ve never done things the ordinary way. I’m either deep in the bottom of the well or nowhere near water. It was an extraordinary way to enter the poetry world.
C: While on the one hand it must have been wonderful to have someone answer back with an unequivocal “yes,” at the same time, was there another side to your (and I don’t use the words lightly) so very-well-deserved success? Or at least to your understanding of your definition of success?
AL: I think there was a great sense of validation. But, because I am full of aforementioned self-doubt, I couldn’t help but think it was also some weird fluke. The title of the first book, Lucky Wreck, seemed to sum up so much about how I felt about that time of my life. Even though the books came five years after graduate school, and even though I had worked consistently and submitted obsessively, there was still some part of me that felt as if I had found the heads-up penny. But yes, below all that brain-noise, there was a sense that I had been validated as a writer, which is something I hope everyone gets that chance to feel. External validation can serve as a catalyst to become even braver as an artist. It’s a shove off the cliff in some ways, and it made me better. I was a new kid given a pretty nice parachute.
C: Is there a quality, a state, a moment without which you find a poem incomplete? Or the reverse—what must one of your poems possess or achieve for you to consider it “successful”?
AL: For the most part, I feel finished with a poem when both the language and the narrative are working in harmony to form surprises, energy, and openings. What I mean by this is when I feel like the poem is working beyond me. It’s no longer something I’ve made, but has its own will in the world. If I can read it and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that!” then I know it’s complete. I’m also very obsessed with sound, so the sounds have to feel as if there is no other choice. In terms of energy, when a poem begins to vibrate on its own, I can tell. It just builds, like a song, or a painting, you can feel it moving on its own. It’s my favorite magic.
C: Other than that sense of “me too,” what do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you are writing?
AL: I have a big thing about endings. I don’t know what it is, but I really think endings just make or break a poem for me. When I see a good ending I die with envy. (Chop off the reader’s head! Stab us in the neck! Make us ring and ring!) Also, have a big thing for finding the right balance. I love it when a poem is working on many levels, when it’s got that exciting music and sound work (oh rhymes!), but also has that great plain language that gives it the guts, the “I am a real human being writing this, not a robot” part, and then finally, I like a poem with a lot of capital H (Heart). I’m a fan of the “big ticket” stuff; I like a poem that’s not scared to raise the stakes while also making sure it’s not too manipulative in how it uses its emotional currency. I ask a lot of my own work and fail a great deal, but I’m always trying to get it right. I’m always trying to balance that egg upright at the end of the table so it’s sturdy enough that I can slam the door shut without it shattering.
C: You’ve been asked to judge quite a few contests lately, including the National Book Awards. What has the judging experience been like?
AL: My National Book Award judging experience was really extraordinary. I loved all my fellow judges, I loved the books we read, I loved the respect and honor we gave each volume of poetry. And, sure, some opinions differ and you can love a book that doesn’t make the list, but for the most part I thought of it as a very good lesson in “poetry as service.” It’s a great deal of work—the most I’ve ever done in a short amount of time—and it’s all taken very seriously. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was a true honor.
C: Are you working on a new book of poems? Any other projects?
AL: I am finishing up a new book of poems that should be out in 2015 from Milkweed Editions, called Bright Dead Things. I’m really excited about this book as I feel like it includes some of the tougher poem subjects that I haven’t tackled in previous poems. I mean, I write about the same things all the time: love, death, how to be alive, horses, birds, love, death, and then those things all over again. But I think this book is a bit more expansive and I hope it connects with people in a real way.
C: It’s a huge question, but why do you write poetry?
AL: I write poetry to help me reconnect with the world. I write to feel grounded, and alive, and real, and breathing, and right here. And hopefully, as I work on that process, my poems might help others do the same. I’m not saying that they offer a tonic or a salve, but I am trying to wave from my own leaky boat.
About the Author
Ada Limón is the author of three collections of poetry, Sharks in the Rivers, This Big Fake World, and Lucky Wreck. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Harvard Review, TriQuarterly Online, Poetry Daily, and The New Yorker. She has received fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and won the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry. She served as a judge for the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry, and is part of the 2014 faculty for the low-residency MFA-Latin America for Queens University of Charlotte. She is currently finishing her first novel, a book of essays, and a fourth collection of poems. She works as a writer and lives in Kentucky and California.