In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
Victoria Richards, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ada Limón about her book The Carrying(Milkweed), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
The intimacy in ambiguity is worthy of exploring in The Carrying by Ada Limón. How much are humans able to carry? Why are we always striving to grow what will eventually die? What is identity? This interview with Ada Limón took place over the phone.
Victoria Richards [VR]: Did you know what The Carrying was going to become and the themes that it would explore before you wrote it?
Ada Limón [AL]: No. Everything for me happens poem by poem. Very rarely do I have an idea of where something is going to go. It’s not until I have about 40 or 50 poems when I start to think “oh, it’s taking shape and now I know it might have potential for something more.” I had to put all the poems together and really lay them out and look at them. And then I would add poems to that after I felt like I had the book and it was in a good place. Then, from there I gave myself prompts to explore the theme fully.
VR: How do you write thematically without mental blockage? How did you manage to write around a particular theme without the poetry sounding forced or robotic?
AL: I really have to ask myself the big questions. “What are you leaving out? What are you not saying?” And those questions get to the heart of things and often times you find that you’re leaving out large subjects that you’ve somehow deemed in your mind aren’t worthy of a poem or aren’t poetic subjects. Usually what it ends up doing is leading me to a place where I’m utterly surprised by the outcome.
VR: In reference to the poem “Mastering,” did you find it difficult writing about an intimate conversation between a friend and yourself without embarrassing them?
AL: I don’t want to self-censor when I’m creating, but after the poem is created and I feel like there is something worthy in it of being published, then I make the effort to reach out to that person and run it by them and just say, “Hey I wrote this… if this hurts you in any way please tell me… if it’s okay I’d like to send it out… if not I would understand.” I’m a big fan of asking permission. I know that not everybody is, but I just think we do a disservice to the art form if we claim that we are the only people who have the right to tell a story. Just because I’m a writer does not mean I get to write everything, especially if it involves someone else’s trauma or experience. For example, in the poem “Mastering,” it’s a good friend of mine. So I asked him straight up. And he said “I don’t remember it that way at all but at the same time I would never censor your poem. I think it does really interesting things. It may not be for me the truth of that afternoon but it’s true in some way.” That was enough for me. That was good permission.
VR: In “The Raincoat” the speaker has an epiphany about the relationship between mother and child. Why do you think self-realization is so hard to channel in adolescence but seems to come later in adulthood?
AL: I think that as we grow older, we gain perspective about what life means. Things shift and change at each age when things get thrown at us. We experience joy and trauma then come to a new consciousness and that consciousness I think offers every step of the way some new revelation. I’m growing still. As a child, the great freedom is to not think about everything. You get to be selfish and the one who is taken care of. There is beauty in that, too. There is beauty in the person that gets to play. The person who gets to think, “Isn’t this a joy for my parent to get to drive me around. I bet this is what they love more than anything.” What a selfish, beautiful thing! And not all people get to have that in their childhood. I’m very aware that as we discover our own limitations and privileges, they open up new avenues for poems, revelation and self-awareness.
VR: The phrase “a woman by a river indestructible” in the poem “Wonder Woman” is such a beautiful way to connect nature and growth. You write, “Invisible pain is both a blessing and a curse”. Why has that been the case for you?
AL: For me, the blessing of invisible pain is that you get to hide it and practice this wonderful delusion with everyone else that you feel great and you’re fine. I have friends who have visible disability issues and everyone acknowledges what they’re going through. They walk into a restaurant and everyone is like “oh this person is disabled in this way.” So, the invisibility is a kind of mask that you can wear and take off. We can sort of disappear in an ablest world. The curse of it of course is that no one knows your suffering and there are times when you’re in pain and you actually have to speak it and say it out loud and be vulnerable. You have to give it language and that can be hard.
VR: Is it important for you to know your origin or where you come from in order to create life? Was identity an important theme for you in The Carrying?
AL: My main questions around identity are all questions as opposed to “this is who I am.” I feel like sometimes when we give ourselves too many labels and monikers that we end up being limited, even things I take pride in like being Latinx and being a woman. When I wrote the poem “A Name,” it is very much about what it is to not know who you are, but to actually ask the world who you are. And instead of saying “This is my world and land” to say “Land and nature I belong to you. What am I? Name me back.” It’s less about the conscious, rigid identity and more about a fluidity and tenuous quality that we have with the great “I am.”
VR: What do you think makes us want to grow things? Why do we fear humanity yet want to reproduce at the same time?
AL: There is a level where we are all very desirous to leave a mark on this world. I think there is always a part of us that is always thinking about legacy. What a better way to soothe and feed the ego than to propagate… to increase… to become more of. All of those things come from a place of identity and my ability to claim more of myself. I’m very interested in what it is to grow things in a garden just for the sake of growing them. I’m very interested in what it is to also allow for a kind of mystery about ownership and the need to be producing all the time. It’s like you finished one book and the first thing someone asks you is “what are you working on next?” I had my book in my hands for maybe like fifteen minutes and someone was like “So are you going to read from the new book or are you going to read new work?” And I was like, “This is my new work it literally just came out yesterday.”
VR: “Maybe this letter is to say, if it is red where you are know there is also green, the serrated leaves of dandelion, lemon balm, purple sage, peppermint, a small plume tree by the shed.” These lines are very striking and universal. Did you ever think to end with this poem?
AL: The order felt very natural to me. It felt like it told someone a narrative of my life over a four- or five-year period and that poem in particular is a letter to Natalie Diaz and is so intimately related to her, her work and who she is. When I chose to end on the poem “Sparrow, What Did You Say?,” I wanted it to be open on some level. The way that the book ends is really an ambiguous place. I wanted there to be permission for mystery and not like “here is the answer and this is the way things worked out and this is the way one should live a life.” I really wanted it to be, “whatever happens could be a good thing.”
VR: “Sparrow, What Did You Say?” could mean many things.
AL: With lots of books that we read lately there has to be this narrative arc. We expect someone to start at point A, go through B, and end at C. That’s just not how life works. Nothing works in a linear way. Time is not the arrow we perceive it to be. I wanted there to be fluidity. It’s not an answer. I know right now that my husband and I are not going to have children and I am at peace with that decision. But I wanted someone to have that opening there, to have it be whatever it needed to be so that there didn’t seem like a right or wrong answer but instead that this is just life.
Ada Limón is the author of, most recently, The Carrying and Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2015 by The New York Times. Her previous collections include Sharks in the Rivers, Lucky Wreck, and This Big Fake World. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review, among others. She also works as a freelance writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Victoria Richards is second year MFA poetry student at The New School and has been published in the Inquisitive Eater. She is a 2018-2019 Teachers & Writers Collaborative Editorial Associate and a connoisseur of all things Black girl magic. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog.