Ada Limon On Poetry Collection, 'The Carrying'
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Ada Limon's moving and deeply personal fifth collection of poetry, "The Carrying," chronicles simple joys and profound heartbreak. In one poem, "Mastering," she delves into her own struggle to get pregnant. She describes an encounter with a close friend, a man who unwittingly pours salt in that wound.
ADA LIMON: (Reading) He leans in, tells me the real miracle, more than marriage, the thing that makes you believe there might be a God after all is the making of a child. He stares at me, but I'm not there anymore. I don't say we've tried a long time, been sad, been happy, that perhaps the only thing I can make is love and art. I want to tell him that's enough, isn't it?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ada Limon spoke with us from our member station WUKY in Lexington, Ky., and I asked her about a question she explores throughout the collection - what does it mean to be a woman?
LIMON: As a society, we often add so much value to motherhood and mothering. And it's amazing and lovely. And there's so much unsung domestic work that goes on with motherhood. But there's also this other part of womanhood that sometimes gets ignored, which is we, too - those of us that are childfree - are creating and putting things into the world. And I felt like going on the journey with fertility treatments really made me look into myself and the way that I actually held some of those truths and some of those false truths about what was valued.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think some of the most moving poems were about your own mother and what you learned about motherhood through her. You know, you write in "The Raincoat," (reading) my God, I thought, my whole life I've lived under a raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel that I never got wet.
Tell us about her and why you included her in this collection.
LIMON: I think, like many women, once they start to think about either childbirth or child rearing, the idea of their own legacy of motherhood in their relationships sort of comes to the forefront. My mother is a very amazing person. She's an artist. In fact, she's the painter that has done every single cover of my book. She's done the cover of this book, "The Carrying." I realized that there were poems about her that I had never written. And I asked her permission because I didn't want to be sharing the story, especially in the poem "The Real Reason" - that deals with the death of her unborn child in an explosion and the fact that she's covered in burns over half of her body. And so I sent her two poems. And apparently, my stepfather came home. And my mother was in the kitchen crying and thought they were beautiful and called me right away and made me, of course, cry, as well, and then feel like I had permission to share her story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, the complexities of being a woman and a woman of color are also really evident in all these poems. I have to say it was the stuff that really kind of struck me reading this. You have this one poem called "The Contract Says We'd Like The Conversation To Be Bilingual." And it's sort of arch and funny and very pointed. Can you tell us what it's about?
LIMON: Yeah. Well, like most poems about tokenism versus inclusion, it was inspired by a real story - you know, someone asking me to perform at a reading and then just casually asking for it to be bilingual.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As if it's that easy.
LIMON: And not - right. And not knowing anything about my own history. I wasn't raised with Spanish in the household.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're of Mexican descent, right?
LIMON: I can understand it pretty well, but it suddenly made me realize maybe what I was being brought to that stage for. And the poem sort of takes it a little further where it really is about those moments as an artist where you feel like you were there to represent a certain slot that they need to fill as opposed to being a full human artist.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You write in that poem, (reading) will you tell us stories that make us uncomfortable but not complicit? Don't read us the one where you are just like us - which, I think, strikes a chord for many because there is this sense that sometimes there's this need to have people of color be different and exotic.
LIMON: Yeah. And I think there's another level to that where audience members or readers want you also to perform your pain. And I'm - I struggle with that sometimes because I really want writers of color to be given the permission to write about joy and gratitude and ordinary things as opposed to always getting up there, dancing at our bruises.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The overarching question in this collection seems to be, what kind of world are we living in, you know? Would you want to bring another human into it? These are sort of essential questions.
LIMON: Yeah. Maybe it's something that has to do with writing the fifth book, but the questions just keep getting larger and larger. How do we hold all of these dualities in our minds - the daily bombardment of painful news and then the sort of sweet, little moments at home and the smallness of life? And how do we celebrate the shift in seasons or the moment you hold hands amongst all of that great tragedy? I'll ask it to myself over and over - how do we live like this? How do we find this balance?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that allows you to connect, I think, in these poems is how you capture not only your own experiences, but you look at life, and you take the tally of the roadkill you saw that day. You look at a quiet moment in the driveway when you take the recycling out, the sound of a train. I just want to read from the first line of "Dandelion Insomnia." (Reading) The big-ass bees are back, tipsy, sun-drunk, and heavy with thick-knitted legwarmers of pollen.
I mean, it's just so precise and vivid - such an economy of language. How does that come together?
LIMON: Thank you. I'm led very much by sound. I compose almost entirely out loud, so that - I write one line. I read it out loud. I write the second line and then read the first and the second together out loud. It's one of the reasons I can never write in a coffee shop because I think I'd be kicked out.
LIMON: So I'm paying attention very much to how the sounds work in the ear and also how they feel in the mouth. So that - the poem is really a physical thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Do you have a favorite poem?
LIMON: You know, I don't have a favorite poem in the collection. And I think it's because all the poems are doing very different things, and you pull one out when you need it the most.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I have one that I'm going to ask you to read the end of, and it's called "Wonder Woman."
LIMON: Yeah. (Reading) But that day, alone on the river bank, brass blaring from the Steamboat Natchez, out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl maybe half my age dressed, for no apparent reason, as a Wonder Woman. She strutted by in all her strength and glory, invincible, eternal. And when I stood to clap - because who wouldn't have? - she bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth. A woman by a river, indestructible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ada Limon. Her new collection of poetry is called "The Carrying." Thank you very much.
LIMON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.