The Poetics of Praise: A Conversation with Ada Limón

May 11, 2022   •   By Yvonne Conza

THE HURTING KIND, Ada Limón’s sixth poetry collection, embodies the interconnectedness of survival and surrender. Her book arrives at an auspicious time. Having just witnessed the hard edges of a pandemic, the world now finds itself ensnared in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Limón’s opus, a poetic sonic composition of observation, shifts between the tense positions of witness and watcher. Rather than end tidily with a conclusion, she leans into actionable hope. How could Limón have anticipated that current history would speak in harmony with The Hurting Kind? Today, more so than when I first read it, a line in the title poem hits me harder and with greater poignancy — “Now teach me poetry.”

Over the phone and by email, Limón shared her flourishing interest in the interrelatedness of flora, fauna, and human nature.

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YVONNE CONZA: What poetic elements guide or inform you the most from the beginning to the end of a poem? 

ADA LIMÓN: In general, each individual poem is guided by a different poetic element with its own sense of music, sense of image, line break, formal constraint, or silence. But if there’s one thing I am drawn to over and over, it is the sonics of a poem and how that musicality can deepen the emotionality of the poem. I compose my poems out loud, or rather read them out loud, as I write them, so they are both a visual and an auditory experience. For me, the poems exist very much in the body, so putting them in the mouth and in the chest, in the lungs and on the tongue, all of that is as important as seeing them as simply words on the page. They have to work in tandem for me to feel like the poem is complete. It’s not about performing them, it’s about hearing them, feeling them, as living things rather than only written things.

Your collection, for me, works against isolation, American individualism, and a reductive, simple summary of life and death. Does this resonate with you?

I do think this is a book that works against isolation. As a culture we depend on what we do and what we make to define us, to define our lives, but I was curious about challenging those definitions. Could life be less defined by doing and more defined by being? The same is true of mortality. I was intrigued by the idea of writing past my own death, or the death of a loved one, of making a book of ongoingness, of a continuation that denied the generally accepted terms of death as an ending.

In writing these poems, I was very much interested in the recognition of the interconnectedness of all beings. How witnessing the animal or being witnessed by the animal is a true and vibrant experience, is connection, is living. I was working toward an understanding of what defines life. 

The Hurting Kind roots into lively, rebellious, storytelling poems — in flight — that, like spring, summer, fall, and winter, have their own distinctive light, temperature, and weather patterns that overlap and repeat in a deeply emotional experience. What was the guiding principle for choosing a poems seasonal” placement?

I love this question. I remember when I first began to organize the book, I resisted making it a personal narrative arc. It feels bigger than me. This book praises the human stories and the nonhuman stories and, even though I was working with the narrative “I” and yes, yes, yes, it’s all me, I still wanted to decenter myself in some way, become the receiver as well as the speaker. Suddenly, as I was organizing the poems, I realized it had to be in seasons, because the world continues without us. When I am grieving, or when I am distracted, or when no longer of the earth, spring will still come, and winter too. The seasons may look different in our climate crisis, but the earth will find its way to continue. I needed the poems to be a cycle. When you get to the end, you may begin again, the way the seasons do. Just when you’re about to take something for granted as fixed or immovable, a leaf sprouts, or falls, and here we are small and human and part of something much larger all over again.

Your mother created the artwork for all your books. How did that collaboration come about? What is the process between the two of you?

The collaboration with my mother is always one of the most satisfying experiences after putting together a manuscript. When I had a draft of the book, I sent it to her. She asked me for some big overall words that I thought the poems centered around. I mentioned things like ongoingness, and interconnectedness, praise, the natural world, and surrender. We talked a lot about mortality and grief and the silence the last few years have given us whether we wanted it or not. She then went to her studio in downtown Sonoma and started painting. She did quite a few, and they were all wonderful. It was so hard to choose. We agreed the gray palette was interesting, striking in a subdued and hushed way. She showed me this one, the one with the gesture of a bird, the movement of something on the horizon, and it seemed undeniable that it was the cover. The downward movement of the bird, the idea of piercing the skyline, and the bright seam along the horizon that offers some sense of hope, all of it was exactly what I had hoped for the cover. It really moved me to tears. It still does. She’s an incredible painter and it’s the only time we collaborate so it’s a very powerful experience for me, for us both.

What held you together as a person, daughter, friend, partner, and poet as you gathered thoughts, intentions, seasons, and a purpose for this collection?

As I was working on this book, I kept giving myself permission to write whatever poem I wanted to write. To not worry about a through-thread or a narrative arc (but, of course, those things exist in the book), but to simply write what I needed when I needed to do it. Some of the poems were praise poems and instead of fighting against that, I wrote more praise poems. Instead of thinking I had too many animal poems, I wrote more. I kept leaning into the obsessions rather than leaning away. What was important to me, also, was simply being able to send the poems to the people I loved when they were done. I have a poem for my two best friends called “Blowing on the Wheel,” and it felt good to finish a draft and send it to them. I did that with the poem for my father called “My Father’s Mustache,” and the poem for my stepdad and my brother and so forth. Sending the poems felt like sending letters, or gifts, or a combination of those things. During the isolation, it was important to work in memory, but also to let the poems actually do something, and in that sense, they were doing the work of connecting me with the people I love.

The natural world was also the thing that held me the most. I wanted to honor what it was giving me. I’d come outside after reading the horrific news and sit for a long time and watch the birds and that watching felt active, it felt like doing something. It felt like being a part of something. For many months, my husband was away for work, and so I was just at home with the animals. The more and more isolated I’d feel, the more and more I realized I wasn’t alone at all. I’d recognize the same three crows each morning and which tree they went to in the afternoon. I’d recognize the same mockingbird, and it felt like I was part of a community when, in reality, I had hardly seen any humans at all.

Throughout the poems there are witness/witnesses and watcher/watching that, at times, are announced, while other moments are left unsaid. What is at stake within those relationships? How are they functioning for you in the work?

While not all of these poems were written during the lockdown, some of them were, and I became fascinated by defining who we are without the eye of an audience. Of course, there were virtual readings and virtual teaching, but there was also something so interesting about being seen without a body, without being constantly conscious of being “you.” I attended virtual readings with my camera off, and it felt so secret and sacred in some ways. It wasn’t about me listening, I didn’t have to have a listening face, I could just listen, just experience the reading without the human ego, doing its human ego thing. So that was of course something at play for me. But in that releasing of human egoistic concerns, there was the recommitment to what it was to be seen as part of something, as part of the natural environment. To see a bird and not think only “I see a bird” but to remember also, “that bird is seeing me.” We are in an exchange with our world and that to me is a marvelous thing to surrender to. As a human, as a poet, I am not always at the center. Sometimes I’m just another part of the natural landscape, which can be another way of being free.

Alejandra Pizarnik feels fluid in your collection — her lines, included in the epigraph, are a tribute poem and as hovering presence. It makes me think of her poetic phrase: When the roof tiles blow away from the house of language, and words no longer keep that is when I speak. How do you address silence as a force within poetry?

Pizarnik, for me, is a poet that was interested in silence and interested in the failure of language. Her collections have always moved me because there’s something about the acceptance that the poem can only do so much, that the silence has importance and must also be part of the work. It’s not always about speaking or writing or making, it’s also about watching, listening, and being still. Perhaps that’s why her poetry collections meant so much to me during the pandemic: her poems are odes to silence.

She was also writing deeply feminist poems, and I think there’s a level in which her ability to create images that were, at once, archetypal, surreal, and true to the poem intrigues me. Her poems are interested in what the poem hides and what it unveils. She’s suspicious of performance, and yet her poems are masterful and clearly for an audience. I was so grateful when I found her lines guiding me through my work in this book.

Do you think about your legacy as it relates to the literary canon?

I do think about legacy because I can’t help but be benevolently haunted by the ghosts of poets I have loved. I think about the poets I go back to, return to, people like Lorde, Clifton, Pizarnik, Lorca, Bishop, Rukeyser, Levine, and what they meant to me as a new writer and as a writer now. It’s hard not to wonder if I will also be offering something to someone else down the line. It’s hard not to wonder if I offer something now. But it’s also, in general, about what I want to leave behind. I’d like to leave behind poetry that connects, that praises, that values that wild and indefinable mess that is the human condition, the human experience. Even when I was in graduate school, I had the idea that I wrote poetry that made me recommit to the world. Maybe my own poems will help others recommit to the world. Or maybe I’ll just be lost in the shelves of a library, and that’ll be okay too. I’ll just keep making poems until I can’t anymore. I’m thinking I’ve got at least 50 more years of poems in me? What do you think? Retire at 96? Do poets ever retire?

I’m not sure that a poet’s pension fund would make retirement possible. [Laughs.] What interests you in writing?

I’m interested in encouraging permission for others to write whatever they need to write. I think, for a long time, the literary community valued pain and trauma over other subjects, but I think that’s shifting. I’d love for poets who are just starting out to see the value in praise and honoring and in joy. It’s not one or the other; life is a balance between joy and grief, living and dying. It’s a balance I’m always working on in my poems, and in my life.

How do you negotiate the art of telling a personal story through a larger lens that avoids interrupting a poems flow?

I love telling stories. I love hearing stories. You can tell me about your dreams for hours. Or family histories. I’m all ears. But it’s hard to make a story into a poem. The key for me is that the story must not be complete, there must be something in it that I am still going after, that I am still interested in finding out, uncovering. I might begin with a story I know, but the question at the core of the poem might be, “Why this story and why now?” So, at the end of the day, the poem must win over the story. I have to bow down to the poem and listen for its engine and let the story I think I know transform into something else. That’s where things get interesting. That’s where storytelling and poem-making feel like a particular kind of illumination.

Is “the hurting kind” a collective identity? Ancestral — inclusive of fauna, flora and spirits?

I think you are right to read it as a collective identity. It’s the idea that so many of us are big feelers in a world that often regards feeling as weakness. I once had someone tell me that there were thinkers and feelers, and I was a feeler. I think he was being dismissive, but it alerted me to how and what we value. I think it’s necessary to recognize the sensitive among us, the conduits, the empaths, those that have been hardened by life, but have somehow managed to keep some part of themselves open to wonder and awe. My maternal grandfather would weep easily and tell you he loved you, and sometimes to think of him in the battle of Anzio and Cassino during World War II feels insane. We have too long praised strength and power over tenderness, over connectedness. Calling my book The Hurting Kind is my way of valuing those people, those ancestors, who were strong enough to be feelers, to love, to be tender, to be sensitive at a time when that was dismissed or even dangerous.

Can you offer advice about maintaining momentum in creating work without draining your soul for the sake of getting published?

I don’t know if I have any helpful advice, but I do know that the only true satisfaction I ever get as an artist is making the poem. When I finish a poem, I feel like I’ve climbed Mount Everest without oxygen. It’s that elation, when the poem teaches you something you hadn’t even realized was in you, or when it suddenly clicks and you realize why it was you stared at something for so long — there’s nothing like that type of creative energy. I think when I started out, I thought I’d feel that way about being published or winning awards, but the truth is, that original elation in the making, is really the key to everything. I’m not saying I don’t love getting a good review, or seeing a poem I’ve written in a great publication. I’m saying that joy is different. That joy is about recognition, which is wonderful, but the joy that keeps me coming back to the page, is the joy of the work, of the making.

I will say that I have friends who hate to write or can’t imagine loving one of their own poems and that’s okay too, they are still driven to write because something in them is compelled to get to the truth. And that matters. I have a different relationship to my work in the sense that I actually take pleasure from the process and can feel really good about finishing the poem. I don’t think every writer or artist is like that. You have to find the thing that compels you and that keeps you coming back to the act of creating and be sure to nourish whatever that is. It may also change as you age. You could start out writing poems for, say, revenge, and 20 years later write poems for empathy or understanding. I do think we have to remember, whatever our process is, we are in charge. We can change our process and change our writing just as much as we can change who we are.

The collection ends on a very specific line/action/intention: I am asking you to touch me. In many ways, this returned full circle to the book’s dedication to Brady, your stepfather, who urged you to never lose your own voice. In writing this book, did you feel that you were urging others to never lose their own voices?

I love that you say “full circle” in this question, because I really did intend for you to finish the book and then start it again, or at least want to start it again. “The End of Poetry” felt like the natural last poem for this collection, because it ends on action. I wanted that poem to end on getting up, on doing something, on reaching out. Someone said to me once that “The End of Poetry” felt like the last poem I was going to write, and I laughed and said, “No, it’s just the last poem that I was going to write that day.” That poem, in particular, speaks to the failure of language, the failure of forms and structures, and how in the end, human touch is so essential, or at least connecting with someone else. I love poetry, but I also love the world and the humans and animals in it. So the end of the poem, and therefore, the end of the book, is really offering an encouragement to go out into the world, to seek connection with others, to live, live, live.

And yes, my stepdad, Brady, to whom the book is dedicated, was a huge influence on me as a writer. He still is. He was very concerned when I went to graduate school that studying poetry in a formal way might make me lose “my voice” or the real me. And I’ve always held his encouragement close to my heart. Of course, I let myself experiment and play and allow myself to be influenced by a current movement or a a current obsession, but at the end of the day, I believe the biggest thing I can offer in my poems is to be the complicated human I am, the imperfect breathing machine that wants to point over and over to the horizon and say, “Look!” As my parents age, and as my grandmother ages, it feels more and more important to praise them, to acknowledge that I didn’t write six books on my own. I may write them alone in my office or at the kitchen table or on the patio, but there’s a whole pit crew in my heart and in my mind while I’m writing. I’m forever grateful for them. I couldn’t have written these poems, or had this life, without them.

In my fifth reading of your collection, “Instrumentation” landed as a darling — so wisely constructed, almost quiet and yet instrumental.” Every poem in this collection is an instrument played, listened to, and crafted to vibrate: 

that thing that beats back at the sky and says I’m still here even though clearly the donkey isn’t here or the horse isn’t here just the teeth and the jaw making music like a res-urrection or haunting or just plain need.

Did you have a favorite? Or a poem that still taps at you on a different level than the others?

I’m so glad you mentioned that poem. I was really drawn to the idea of what it was to literally play an instrument of bones. And then of course, it felt like that’s what poems are doing, we are playing our own bones, our ancestors’ bones, the bones of those we’ve lost, and yet we are still making music. I really appreciate you mentioning that particular poem.

At the risk of sounding trite, all of the poems in The Hurting Kind are important to me. They move me in different ways because they appeared to me or came to me at different times when I needed them. I am attached to them because of what they saw me through, what they helped me through, the work they are doing to keep me alive and praising in this hard world.

What were you feeling as you were creating The Hurting Kind?

I do think it matters how you felt when you made it. There were many feelings that were present during the writing of The Hurting Kind. There was grief, and fear, and isolation, but the biggest thing of all was a feeling of wanting to praise what this life has offered, wanting to offer something back, to honor this passage of time. I needed to acknowledge that no matter what happened with my life, I was doing the work of loving, of noticing, of bearing witness and being witnessed. These poems for me were acts of survival and surrender.

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Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Longreads, The Believer, Electric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Ex/Post, and elsewhere.