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Getting to know Ky. writer Ada Limón, the next U.S. Poet Laureate

Kentucky writer Ada Limón will become the next Poet Laureate of the United States this fall.
Shawn Miller
Library of Congress
Kentucky writer Ada Limón will become the next Poet Laureate of the United States this fall.

Kentucky writer Ada Limón will become the next Poet Laureate of the United States this fall.

The 46-year-old Lexington resident spoke with WKMS News Director Derek Operle about her influences, her writing and her plans as she prepares to assume her duties in September.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Derek Operle: So first off, what was your reaction when you found out that you had been named U.S. Poet Laureate? What did that feel like for you?

Ada Limón: Well, you know, to be honest, I think my first reaction was one of speechlessness, which I know for a poet is not something that you want. We're supposed to, you know, have a way with words. And at that moment, all words left me. And I think I was feeling just incredibly overwhelmed with gratitude, and also a little fear, if I can be honest. And then, of course, I think, after the fear — not that I don't have the fear now — sort of dissipated, I was just feeling that really sense of enormous gratitude – not only for this position, but to all the people who have made it possible, all the Poets Laureate that have come before me. And I really feel like I'm part of a community and that this is for everyone. You know, not just for me.

DO: Who are your biggest influences, both in life and in poetry? What's, what's your poetry origin story?

AL: Yeah, you know, I started loving poetry, actually, as a teenager. I fell in love with a poem that was actually on a test by Elizabeth Bishop called “One Art,” which is an incredible poem. And I asked my English teacher at 15, if I could keep the test because I loved that poem so much, and I loved the form. It was a villanelle. And I didn't know why words repeated. I didn't know exactly what was happening. But I just knew I loved it and loved the poem. And so, you know, I will say, my mother is a painter, she's painted all the covers of all six of my poetry books, the paintings that grace the covers are all hers. And I did grow up in a household that really supported the arts. And all of my family members are creative people in some way, shape or form. And my stepfather, in particular, was an incredible influence on me. He was a short story writer at the time, and he doesn't claim to write anymore, but he does edit a lot of my own work. And he's my first reader. And so I had support in the household. I know not everybody has that, but I was very lucky to be raised by people who not only supported the arts, but really encouraged me to find my own path through poetry.

DO: You talked about living in a house where arts was supported, and were everyone you know, did some kind of creative act. Do you yourself do any other kind of art besides writing or what other sorts of hobbies do you have?

AL: Oh, I love that. You asked me that. You know, I love to dance. I still do actually some dancing at home and I also got my degree in theater. So my undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in Seattle is a degree in drama and so theater was a big part of my life, also dance. And then for a short period of time, I was actually in a band in Brooklyn called Lucky Wreck, named after my first book. And we were together for about two years and we, you know, played late night gigs all over Brooklyn. And it was really wonderful to make music. I was the songwriter and the singer.

DO: What kind of style of music was that? Is there an album somewhere out there?

AL: I wish. We definitely did some recordings, but we never made a full album. To this day, I think we'd still like to make it work. I think just like, you know, all musicians at some point, you know, you have those regrets, but then you also have that hope that at some day you'll still get into the studio and make something. It can happen, you know. But there's not an album. But yeah, it was just a beautiful way to make music.

DO: Talk to me about the themes that you find resonate through a lot of your work. What are the things that you keep coming back to in your writing?

One of the things that I returned to over and over again, in my own work is that way, that deep attention to the world, a deep looking, whether it's at a tree, a blade of grass, a building, whatever it is, and how if you look at it long enough, and really interrogate it can be transformed by your attention. And I think that's something that keeps coming back to me. I think the other theme or throughline to my own work is the idea of our interconnectivity through the natural world and through our ancestors, and the fact that we're not alone, you know, that we have this community in terms of the plants and animals and our natural world, but also those people that have come before us. And I think I try and I hope I continue to try to write a lot about praise, in my work, and to do the work of honoring.

DO: So it seems like, you know, a lot of your work comes from this kind of like shifted, global, worldly perspective, where it's all about that intimate act of paying attention. What do you think poetry, you know, at its most powerful, has the power to do? Or what do you see poetry’s role in society in 2022 being?

AL: You know, I think one of the things that I love most about poetry is I really do believe it can help us reconnect to our humanity and what I mean by that is that I think poetry really has the ability to remind us of emotion, and the full spectrum of human emotio – grief, love, longing, loss, happiness, joy, a moment of peace. And it can share those, you know, feelings, it can expose them within us as we read it. You know, if you feel like you've ever heard a song and suddenly felt so moved that you get up and dance or had it kind of hurt you because it reminds you of someone that you lost and feel stung by it. You know, good poems can do that same thing. And you can feel yourself moved and transformed in such a short period of time. I mean, a poem can be just a few stanzas, can be just a few lines. And you can feel yourself breathing and you can feel yourself reminded that you are, you know, a human being with all of these emotions living through you. And I think that's really important right now, because I think so many of us are compartmentalizing our feelings and we're moving from just sort of one chaotic event to the next chaotic event. We're all trying to make a living, we're all trying to flourish, if we can, if not just survive. And I think it's really important to remember that in a very brief moment, you can also be reminded that you are a complex, living, breathing animal moving through this time and space.

DO: One of the things the Poet Laureate is supposed to do – at least what's written in the Library of Congress description of the position – is to raise the national appreciation of reading and writing poetry and, you know, hopefully expanding the artform’s audience. For the past 20 years or so Poet Laureates have done this through big projects, like your predecessor Joy Harjo’s Living Nations, Living Words initiative that collected poems by Native writers in an interactive map and audio collection. Have you thought about what your project could be or if you'll have one?

AL: Yeah, I definitely would like to do a project. The things that I'm thinking about right now is, I would love to have people discover poetry in unexpected ways. I'm thinking about poems in public spaces. I would love it to be linked, perhaps, to natural spaces to green spaces to pocket parks, urban green areas, or some times where someone can just have an unexpected interaction with a poem because I think so often we think, ‘Oh, somebody has to seek out poetry.’ But sometimes poetry finds us and I would like to make sure that there are poems in places that might surprise us. And I would love it to be free, of course, but available to everyone. A real access. I'm not quite sure yet how that's going to look, how it's going to come to fruition. But I definitely want to do a project. And I would like it to really elevate and promote poetry in a way that feels very democratic and, you know, available to everyone, not just people who are seeking out poetry, you know, but people who might be surprised that they find something in poems without expecting to.

DO: Obviously, you don't start until the fall. But what are your goals as Poet Laureate?

AL: You know I think one of my goals is to, of course, elevate poetry as an art form, but also to remind us that poetry is not just about something that exists in an academic space, but that poetry is available to all of us. And it's such an amazing way to find breath again. I would want to promote poetry as a tool to help us reclaim our humanity, to help us remember who we are, and to help us reclaim our, you know, for the lack of a better word, soul. And then I would also really like to, for us to recognize that poetry can help us repair our relationship to the natural world, to remember that we're connected, because I think so many people have felt so isolated for so long. And I think that if there's sort of an unsaid third aspect of my intentions as Poet Laureate, it would be awkward to remember that the poetic legacy of the United States is a global one. And that it's not just Whitman, and Dickinson, but that we have influences from all over the globe, from Spanish speaking countries to, you know, all of these places that I feel like we need to recognize as our literary legacy. It's not just, you know, this sort of the two greats that we always claim as our starting points in poetry. So those are sort of three elements that I would like to explore more as Poet Laureate. Even as a poet growing up in the MFA program, I was really taught like, ‘Oh, it was Whitman and Dickinson.’ And then I remember as you know, someone with Mexican heritage being like, ‘Well, what about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz?’ You know, what about Phyllis Wheatley, who was writing poems as an enslaved person? You know, all of these things, I think, are really important. And I think we won't expand the canon if we don't really start to praise the amount of poetry that's coming from, again, from many different sources in many different voices.

DO: You're from Sonoma, California, but you've lived in Lexington now for over 10 years, I believe. How has living in Kentucky influenced your writing or tell me about your connection to the state? What makes it special to you?

AL: You know, I think Kentucky is such a beautiful state. I often think that one of the things people don't recognize about Kentucky, if they haven't been here, is just how gorgeous it is. You know, as you know, there's a lot of just physical beauty in the landscape. I moved here because of my husband's work in the thoroughbred industry, but I really have grown to love Kentucky in so many ways and I think the natural landscape is a big part of that. But also it has a wonderful literary community, and a literary legacy. But there are so many great writers that have come from Kentucky, and that live in Kentucky now. And I think it's so important to remember that writing doesn't just happen on, you know, the two coasts as we think of New York and San Francisco and LA. And I think it's incredibly important, I think, for all of us to remember that there's poetry in Kentucky. But yeah, Kentucky for me has become such a beautiful home, it's allowed me to have a little more space and time to write. But it's also really allowed me a very generous writing community that I get to surround myself with and be inspired by all the time.

DO: What, what for you was one of the hardest things about writing poetry?

AL: For me, what's hard about writing poetry is always a little different. It depends on the poem. Sometimes what's hard about writing is that I feel overwhelmed by the emotional content of the poem, you know, sometimes I'm working through something and writing it just as reliving a kind of pain. And then sometimes what's hard about it, is that I really want to get something right. I really want to honor a person in the right way, or honor and experience in the right way and stay true to what it was that I was, you know, experiencing in that moment I'm trying to write about, and to recognize that sometimes I will fail. Sometimes you can't translate exactly what it was that you want to translate on the page. And so I think one of the hardest parts about it is to go easy on yourself a little bit, and to recognize that some days the poems will come. And sometimes they won't, or some days, the poem will come and it's not very good. I think a lot of it is about taking care of the self in some way and making sure you don't just give up.

DO: You've talked about the democratization of poetry being a really important thing and something that you're pursuing as part of your duties as Poet Laureate. What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about poetry as an art form?

AL: Oh, that's a great question. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about poetry. One is that poetry is a problem to be solved. Right? That it's full of mysteries that only other poets know. I actually don't think that's true. I think it is a place for mystery, and it can hold space for an unknowing. But you don't have to actually know what a poem is about or figure everything out about the poem in order to enjoy it. I think we have to think of it more like music or like song making. And it's not that we think, ‘Oh, this song is about this and this is why I like it,’ right? We don't think ‘I've figured out that song and that's why I appreciate it,’ right? We like the poem or the song to wash over us and sometimes I think we have to allow for us to maybe not understand every aspect of a poem, but still appreciate its music, if it inspires or ignites some emotion, and it's not about, you know, sort of serious explication. Instead, it's about a connection. And I think that can be enough.

DO: So you're saying sometimes a poet is just jamming?

AL: Yes, sometimes a poet is just jamming and sometimes we just have to listen and receive it in a way that isn't about the intellect, right? It's not always about ‘How do I solve this thing?’ It's not a math problem. You know, it's an experience. And sometimes I think we just need to allow ourselves to appreciate something without maybe knowing everything about it, or even the backstory or even some of the references … just allowing ourselves to appreciate.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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