Q&A: U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón

by
Rigoberto González
12.14.22

This past fall Ada Limón began her tenure as the twenty-fourth U.S. poet laureate, succeeding Joy Harjo, who served three terms. Limón’s main task during her 2022–2023 term will be to raise awareness and appreciation of poetry at a national level—a responsibility that she is more than ready to undertake, given her already prominent role engaging the public through her podcast, The Slowdown. Limón is the author of six poetry collections, including her three most recent from Milkweed Editions: The Hurting Kind (2022); The Carrying (2018), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Bright Dead Things (2015), nominated for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. A Guggenheim fellow, Limón recently discussed her new role.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón. (Credit: Shawn Miller, Library of Congress)

You are part of an impressive lineage of poets to hold this position. What were your initial reactions to the invitation?
I’m still not used to the news. I never thought something like this would happen. It wasn’t on my radar because it wasn’t the kind of gift I thought would be offered to someone like me. I always thought of the laureateship as something that was offered to professors, and since I’m not a full-time professor—I think of myself more as a rogue poet—it was an extraordinary surprise. There’s a big part of me that’s still surprised. I also feel like there’s an intensity to the position because of the time that we’re in. I know every poet would probably say that, but it truly feels immense because we’re dealing with the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, with one crisis after the next with the pandemic. So it feels like a particularly fraught and chaotic time to accept the position. It feels like it comes with a weight, with a huge responsibility. At first I was a little scared by that responsibility, to be honest, particularly because I value my freedom. But then I thought about the people who had this position before me and how they handled the role with such grace and such power. I thought of Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Tracy K. Smith, and Natasha Trethewey, and then every part of me reminded me that this was not just about me, that it was about poetry, the national conversation—the global conversation—of poetry.

Have you received any words of advice from former poets laureate? Is there anyone in particular serving as a role model for your tenure?
It’s interesting because I have reached out, or they’ve reached out, so I’ve been in touch with a number of former poets laureate. Each of them has given me incredible advice in little bits and pieces during our conversations. But something that Joy Harjo said really stuck with me: “There is no position. There is no position to fill. It’s you,” she said. “You make it what you want to make it.” And that really transformed the way I think about the position. I said to myself, “You can think of it as a constraint or you can think of it as possibility and expansion.” So I chose the latter. And Joy was the one who gave me that gift.

What is helping you shape your vision for this role? How are you approaching it differently from or similarly to previous poets laureate?
They’ve all been amazing; they’ve all done incredible jobs. The biggest thing they’ve done is to do the groundwork of letting the American people know that poetry is here, that poetry exists. I’m thinking about Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project and Robert Hass’s Watershed initiative, and Gwendolyn Brooks holding office hours. I don’t have to shout anymore that poetry is around—they’ve done that. And that for me is an incredible advantage. I think my job is a little different because of their good work. My job is to talk about the power of poetry—to talk about what poetry does. I get to say, “Here are some of the things that poetry can do for us as a suffering human race, as people with emotions.” So I’m grateful that previous poets laureate have set the foundation for me to talk about what poetry’s possibilities are.    

As the country is slowly resurfacing from pandemic shutdowns and quarantines, how will poetry facilitate our return to social and community spaces?
There’s so much I can say about that, but the first is that I really want to honor the fact that during the shutdown, during the heart of the pandemic, poetry saved a lot of people. It certainly helped a lot of people. I know it helped me. In my community, we were sending each other poems, we were encouraging people to start writing poetry again, to start reading poetry again. So the poetry community was able to thrive even in isolation, and that was really beautiful to me. Poetry became a kind of anchor for people who were feeling completely alone and distraught, and full of anxiety and fear. But as we move forward to more public and social settings, I think it’s important to recognize that poetry will be one way to tell each other about what we’ve been through. We’re very quick to move on from whatever it is we’ve experienced as a nation, as a world. We just say, “Okay, next.” Poetry allows us to deepen the conversation. It allows us to express the grief of the situation, to celebrate the moments of resilience. Poetry will also allow us to come together, and not just to facilitate a way to move forward, but to help acknowledge our individual experiences with the pandemic.   

Where do you think the state of American poetry stands in the present moment and where does it need to go next?
The nice thing is that I actually see poetry happening. It’s a really vibrant moment to be alive and writing poetry, not just in the U.S. but on a global level. What I’d love to see more of is further work in translation from around the globe. Poetry readers always benefit when we have other languages involved, and other cultures and communities involved, and there can be that deeper connection. I would also love poetry to move into public spaces even more, and I like the idea of getting poetry off the page and beyond the schools and into the streets of the community. As we continue to expand our contemporary poetry world, I’d also like to work on expanding the canon. And what I mean by that is that now is a good time to go back and take another look at the foundational poets that opened doors, that crossed borders and sang the unnamable before they were even given a chance to be published or pulled into the light.

You’re a poet who is not completely entrenched in academia, though you do occasionally teach. This might be an interesting turning point in how we perceive the role and identity of the poet laureate.
I agree. I have been thinking about it and I do have a rogue sense of being a poet because I’m not part of the academic world. I mean, I do get to visit schools and I get to teach at the Queens University of Charlotte low-residency MFA program, but I’m not part of any day-to-day structure inside an institution. I don’t have those boundaries. I’m not sure yet how this will influence my role as poet laureate, but we shall see.

You’re a popular award-winning poet and one who has been consistently engaged in service to the literary community, most recently with your curation of the podcast The Slowdown. How do you hope to strike a balance between your personal and artistic commitments and those to the public?
I think about this a lot, particularly because my speaking invitations have suddenly increased. It’s hard to say no because as poet laureate I want to do anything I can for the community. However, I want to make sure that I keep writing, and there are two reasons why: One is that it’s what keeps me healthy; it’s what keeps me sane and keeps me whole and connected. And as much as I love to talk about and read poetry and visit people and sign books and shake hands, if I’m not writing I feel untethered to the world. I must make time for that, and I will make time for that. Secondly, I would love to model for future writers and artists what it is to be a public figure that also does the work. I want to model what it’s like to be a working artist. Taking up responsibilities doesn’t have to mean that the art suffers. I certainly don’t want that to happen to me. So I keep my notebook next to me, and I write something in it every day. I’m very much focused on making new work because it reminds me of who I am. And if I want to embody this role in a real human way that signifies not just the power of the position but the power of the human being behind it, I better be writing.    

You are the first Latina to become poet laureate. Given the current political climate, why is it important for you to hold such a public position?
Anytime that we Latinos are first anything, we have this initial moment of excitement, and that’s followed by a moment of sadness because we think, “How is it possible that it has taken so long?” So I go back and forth between feeling wonderful that I’m the first and then feeling that we still have far to go. But it’s significant in a few ways. One is that I will show that the American artist can come from anywhere. We are polyethnic and multilingual. Our influences are not only Whitman and Dickinson—whom I love—but also Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Octavio Paz and Gabriela Mistral. I’m thinking of all the Latin American poets that I sought out as a young person because I was desperately looking for anyone with an accent mark over their name. I connected with these poets through translation. And I think it’s very important to remember that American poetry is not one thing, it’s a multiplicity. It’s growing and evolving. If there’s one thing that I can be truly proud of, it is that—in a time where representation in the media is an important fight—now our voices and our stories are also being represented in poetry, not just our faces.

Have you made any concrete plans as poet laureate?
My problem is that I want to do a million things. I’m still gathering my thoughts about a particular project I have in mind. But what I can share with you is that I want to encourage people to both read and write poetry, I want to make poetry accessible and surprising, and I’d like to focus on what we can do both as individuals and as a community. The challenge is that I am only one person, and as much as the Library of Congress is incredibly supportive, it does have a small staff. So I have to come to terms with what’s possible and what can be less of a singular project and more of an initiative or a movement. That’s what I’m interested in. Something we can all do together.

You’re going to be an inspiration to many. What inspires you?
I’m completely in awe of the human spirit, what people overcome on a day-to-day basis. I know so many people who are doing so much and are still managing to make art. They are caring for loved ones; they are moving through the world despite physical challenges. Human resilience and our ability to overcome always surprises me. And inspires me. And whenever I am losing hope, I visit a school and I come across young people who are marvelous and smart and capable. They’re so courageous in terms of what they want for the future. So young people really inspire me. And lastly, nature. The way that nature always finds a way, the way that nature comes back. I think about those dandelions coming up from the sidewalk cracks. I’m the one who’s rooting for those dandelions. The secret flourishing that nature does despite the crisis we’re in—that inspires me as well.

 

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Correction: An earlier version of this interview incorrectly stated that Joy Harjo served two terms as U.S. poet laureate.