In this interview, Eliza Harris speaks with Ada Limón about her new poetry collection, the failure of language, and finding the will to begin again.
Ada Limón’s highly anticipated sixth book of poetry, The Hurting Kind, is out this month through Milkweed Editions. This collection is a testament to survival, to the will to go on and to the way the world goes on without us. In it, Limón roots for the underdog: the flowering weed, the heartbroken teenager, the falcon supported by a twig-like branch, “the thing almost dead / that is in fact not / dead at all.” Reading these poems brings the world into such focus that you can’t help but feel more tethered to it, receptive to its hurt and attuned to its wonder.
collection where she finds the faith to begin a new project, and why she doesn’t believe in aloneness.
This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity
Eliza Harris: I noticed a number of times in past interviews and podcasts where you touched on the importance of music in your life. I was interested to learn from The Poetry Salon that you came to poetry partly through reading record liner notes as a child, and more recently, for The Slowdown, you described singing along to songs as one way you’ve coped during the pandemic. I’m curious who you’ve found yourself singing along to, especially while writing this book, and are there particular musicians that have impacted your writing?
Ada Limón: What a great question to start. That makes me so happy. I need to be reminded of music sometimes. I love it so much, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Like it’s so emotional it swallows me. So most of the time I write in total silence. I also can’t write poetry to music because I’m such a mimic. Whatever I’m listening to, it’ll work its way in.
I always want to be much more hip with my music taste, and I do love a lot of music, but I return again and again to my old classics. Joan Armatrading is someone that I’m constantly returning to. I adore Rickie Lee Jones’s songwriting. In fact, when I took voice lessons at twelve, I came in with my sheet music of “Chuck E’s in Love” and I think my teacher was like, “Really? Okay,” [laughter]. Also, of course, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac—and Stevie Nicks as a solo artist. I swear I listen to men. Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and, as problematic as he is, I grew up on Van Morrison before he kind of jumped the shark. I find myself really drawn to those early seminal works in my life, so when I’m listening to music, it feels like I’m going backward. Which, I think, is also the emotional state that I like—that makes me feel connected to not just who I am, but who I was. I love that time-travel quality of music.
Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Armatrading are two people who very much influence my writing. They’re both really idiosyncratic in their delivery. You can’t hear a Joan Armatrading song and not know who it is. Same with Rickie Lee Jones or Stevie Nicks. I think that, as I was coming up as an artist, it was important to me to make sure that what I was doing was what I was doing. That doesn’t mean to make it about myself, but to make sure that I was authentic to myself.
EH: At the heart of this new collection is our interconnection with each other, our ancestors, and the natural world. I’m interested in that theme in relation to the pandemic and the isolation we’ve each felt. If you’re comfortable sharing, what effect has the pandemic had on your poetry?
AL: I was alone a lot. Like even right now my husband is away for work and I’ve spent a lot of the spring by myself. I was surprised by how I didn’t really feel lonely. I think that was because when I was deeply looking and deeply paying attention, I felt like I was in community with my birds and my squirrels and my bees. Just yesterday I had been alone all day and I was cleaning out the potato patch and I saw a spider this big. My first feeling was fear, and then I felt like we had this moment where he looked at me like let’s just pretend this never happened and I just put the dirt right back over. To me, that was like a whole encounter and exchange, and I think the pandemic has shifted that. What a gift that is, in that solitude and quietude, to realize we’re not really alone. It’s one of those things that starts to make you feel like you’re some kind of water witch living in the country [laughter]. But being at home deepened that feeling of connectedness—and that, really, I’m not quite sure if I believe in aloneness.
EH: There are also moments in this book where you express a feeling of deep separateness from the world. For instance, in “Sanctuary,” when you write, “I have, before, been // tricked into believing / I could be both an I / and the world.” Along with that feeling of community, does being such an attentive witness ever create distance between you and the world around you?
AL: That’s very true; sometimes the witnessing makes you feel so connected, and sometimes you just realize how separate your human life is from a tree life or animal life. I feel like acknowledging that separateness is also acknowledging that connectedness. In order to recognize that I am animal too, I have to take away the hubris that makes me believe that I understand the world of nature, that I understand the bird’s mind or the tree’s workings. Even though we have incredible environmental scientists and incredible knowledge of the natural world, every day we learn something new that’s mysterious and awe-inspiring. I think recognizing that separateness is also a way of showing respect, a way of valuing that isn’t about personification.
EH: You’ve spoken in the past about learning the names of animals and plants as a way of honoring them, and you take great care to name the flora and fauna that appear in this collection. On the other hand, there are times in this book when names feel insufficient or inaccurate. I’m thinking of the poem “Calling Things What They Are,” where you write: “How funny / that I called it love and the whole time it was pain.” Could you talk about that tension around naming in your poetry?
AL: I think this is my first book that has a dedication to silence and to where language fails. That’s not a judgment. Language is important. I value it. It’s just that it can’t do all the things. Like in the last poem [“The End of Poetry”], I want physical touch. Language can’t provide me physical touch. Poems can’t provide me physical touch. They can save me and they can make my soul feel like I’m somehow less alone. But I think this book, more than my other books, feels very interested in the failure of language as well as its power.
And what names are we using too? Are we using English? Are we using the names of colonizers? Sometimes I feel like, with naming, there’s a little bit of ownership. Like, I know what this is, so now it’s mine. And in a way, that makes me feel more connected to it. I can say that this is a lilac and I know it, but I also think it’s important to smell it, and feel it, and experience it, and know that it’s more than its name. Even though there’s a kind of wonder in names, there’s a kind of failure in them too. As opposed to I am in a redwood forest, isn’t it also good to be like, Holy crap, look at these redwood trees! What are these things?What if I didn’t know what they were? I would be confounded. I don’t want to lose the awe. I think this is the first book for me that plays on both of those elements, the importance of naming and the importance of recognizing the failure of both naming and words in general.
I’m not quite sure if I believe in aloneness.
EH: I’m so glad you brought up the last poem in this collection, “The End of Poetry,” which concludes with the lines “enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high / water, enough sorrow, / enough of the air and its ease, / I am asking you to touch me.” Tell me about this title and how this poem came to be.
AL: That poem came out of that interest in What can poems do for me right now? I felt I couldn’t write another poem. We already know what the subjects are. It’s going to be the mother and the child, the father and the child, the stoic farmer. I was feeling super frustrated. I didn’t want a poem. I wanted a vaccine. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to move freely throughout the world. I wanted people to stop dying. Then of course it became this engine and I was like, oh no, now it’s a poem [laughter]. As soon as I got to that last line, I realized that what I need is to be held.
I think that someone said the title made it sound like there are no poems after this. I said, “Maybe there’s only no more poetry for the day.” I didn’t see it as “that’s the end of poetry,” more like it’s time to stop making for a moment and just be, and be touched. So that’s what “the end” meant. It wasn’t for a lifetime. It could even just be for an hour. But it felt like enough making.
EH: I read that title, “The End of Poetry,” as both the limit of poetry and the aim of poetry. Do you think there is an aim that underlies your poems?
AL: I love that you say the aim of poetry because I think that’s part of it too. Can the poem reach out and touch you in some ways too? Can it hold you? The poem says, “enough, enough, enough,” but it’s also asking, can it be enough?
For me, the aim changes poem by poem. Each poem has its own intention just like every minute has its own intention. But I am very interested in—and this is the legacy work of poetry, it’s nothing new—what it is to recommit to the world all the time, to choose it. I’m interested in how deep watching and deep listening are ways of loving. And I’m also interested in how making poems and making art will make me a whole person, a more connected person, a more grounded person—in art as healing. I feel like we’re not allowed to talk about that. Because I think the academic poets that we all adore want to keep that idea of “poetry is healing” kind of separate from the craft, separate from the seriousness of poetry. Which I understand, but I think that poetry heals me every day. So on a personal level, I am interested in how it can anchor me and give me a tool for living.
EH: I’m curious about poetry as healing in relation to the title of this book, which comes from a poem of the same name where you write, “I have always been too sensitive, a weeper / from a long line of weepers. // I am the hurting kind.” What does it mean to you to be “the hurting kind”?
AL: I think that to be the hurting kind is to be receptive and porous to the world. So many of us are the hurting kind, but we’re not allowed to be it. One of the things that I’m so grateful for in my life is that I get to be a poet. That is really extraordinary. I could cry thinking about it. And I think about how many people in my life have worked hourly jobs, have supported families, and haven’t had the opportunity to not only be creative or make things but even be allowed the conversation with their own hurt. I wanted to pay homage to those people in my life and those ancestors that didn’t get to do that. Part of that title and that poem is about witnessing them. Not just witnessing, but making them feel beheld. Strong emotions and that kind of intuitive porousness, the things that we’re allowed as poets, should be allowed to everyone. That is part of the work, to witness that we’re all the hurting kind and that we all should be allowed our grief and our joy and just our feelings. That’s where the title came from and where the book is from.
EH: The covers of your books are so emotive and fit them each so well. It was lovely to learn that all of your covers are paintings by your mother. Could you talk about that collaboration? What is it that draws you to her work for these collections?
AL: Thank you! She’s a marvelous artist. I love her work. For our process, first, she reads the book and we have a conversation about it. The big words and phrases that come up she’ll write right there on the studio wall in her beautiful handwriting. With The Hurting Kind, that included the spectrum of human emotions, interconnectedness, grief, and the natural world. Then she’ll paint from there. That’s been our process for all six books. We work really hard to find the right painting, and we try different ones. But this book was the easiest. As soon as I saw it, I thought, This is it.
EH: What was your experience of creating this collection compared to your first book of poetry?
AL: Now I begin in a very private way. I say, I’m the reader, or my husband’s the reader, or my family and friends are the readers. I can’t think of a reader that I don’t know on the other side until I start to put it together. Right now, I’m actually writing a poem a day for April, but the only way I can do it is in my journal so that I don’t make them too precious by typing them. I need them to be just mine.
Now I need to work at shutting out the audience, whereas, with my first books, I needed to work to realize that there might be one. To ask, who am I connecting with? Who’s out there? My work is about connection, so now I need to tell myself, Just connect with the people you trust so that you can truly be the artist you want to be.
EH: I can feel that vulnerability and directness in the book—it’s almost like an intimate correspondence. It reminded me of your poems written as letters back and forth with Natalie Diaz. Were there people or places that, more than imagining as a reader, you were actually writing these poems to?
AL: You know, I hadn’t thought about that connection. I was so interested in what it was to create that intimate space with Natalie that I wonder if partly shutting out that audience need—the what’s next, what’s next kind of thing—and really focusing on what would be a poem that I could send to my family or to my friends was informed by that initial letter project.
I think on a real level this was an intimate book written for my beloveds. Because I was alone, like so many of us. And I just said I don’t believe in aloneness, but that’s part of it. I was in community because I could send them a poem. My best friends that I missed, I sent them “Blowing on the Wheel.” They were gifts.
So many of us are the hurting kind, but we’re not allowed to be it.
EH: So many people, after they finish a project, are haunted by the question How will I ever make something this good again? Where do you find the will to begin again?
AL: That’s totally true. I’ll finish one poem and be like, That’s it, I’m never going to write a poem again. That’s the last poem. I remember feeling that after finishing The Hurting Kind. It helps that I’m forty-six now. I trust that I’ve been doing this for over twenty years and the poems do come. A lot of it is just about faith, that the next artistic project, that thing that ignites you, will come. Even writing these little poems for poem-a-day has been a really delightful thing for me to do because it’s no pressure. It just reminds me that I love making poems. You have to find the pleasure in the making.
I think it’s also good to take breaks between projects, if you feel like it. Unless something really exciting comes. Sometimes the only way you know one project is done is because you get really excited about something else. But really allow yourself to enjoy finishing something, because I think we live in a society where everything’s based on production—and if you’re not making, are you an artist? What’s your value? That commodification of busyness. I’ve gotten very suspicious of all that stuff. It’s probably because I live out in the country now, but there is a part of me that feels like, just go sit, and read, garden, call the people you haven’t called in a while, finish the project you need to finish, do the work that makes you money, do whatever you need to do.
EH: What’s on your horizon, either in terms of work or life outside of work?
AL: I actually have a book coming out with Scribd that is a linked lyric essay about trees. Then I’m working on these little poems for poem-a-day and I’m also putting together an anthology of animal poems called Beast that will be coming out through Milkweed. That has been really fun to do. Not too far off, I have to start putting together my new and selected, also through Milkweed. I can’t really wrap my brain around that yet, but at some point I will begin to think about it. How is that for hesitancy? [laughter].
But those are far off. At least in my mind, they’re far off. I’m sure my publisher is like no, they’re not far off.
EH: [laughter] Well whenever they do come out, I look forward to reading them.
AL: Thank you, it was so lovely to talk to you. I’m going to go play some Joan Armatrading now!
Eliza Harris is an editorial assistant for Catapult, Social Media Manager + Assistant Poetry Editor forDIAGRAM, and Director of Communications for The Speakeasy Project. She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and is now based in Seattle, Washington. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @elizaeharris.