By Jenny O’Connell
Photo by Lucas Marquardt
Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry, including The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Limón is also the host of the critically-acclaimed poetry podcast, The Slowdown. In this interview with Stonecoast MFA, Limón talks about ongoingness, decentering the self, and her new book of poems, The Hurting Kind. On March 10, Limón will participate in an online reading as part of the University of Southern Maine’s Katharine O’Brien Poetry Series.
JO: Tell me about your new book, The Hurting Kind. What is it about, for you? What runs through its core?
AL: It’s so brand-new to me that I’m figuring out how to put words to it. It’s my sixth book of poetry, and I think it’s the book that I’ve been waiting to write for a long time. It’s not so much that I couldn’t write it, or didn’t have permission to write it previously, but I didn’t have the tools yet, or the spiritual fortitude.
It’s a book about the interconnectedness of the world, but it’s also about honoring the ancestors and the natural elements of the world—the plants, the animals, and the trees. And, in some ways, it’s about decentering the self. It’s a book that looks outward and praises instead of constantly turning inward to the self.
It’s also a book of surrender. I think in some ways it surrenders to the idea of ongoingness, and to the idea of being part of something instead of the center of something. It’s a little hard to do with poetry, because we’re trained to be the narrative “I.” We are the through-thread. You are the writer. You are the maker. But I think it’s a book where I’m trying to leave more space to be receptive to the world. It’s working against epiphany, which is the first time I’ve done that in my work.
JO: We’ve all been through a challenging few years. I don’t know anyone who isn’t struggling somehow right now, in this second pandemic winter. I know at least some of The Hurting Kind was written during the pandemic. How did this moment make it into your work? And what about writing got you out of bed in the morning? What helped you show up to the page again and again?
AL: As bored and as completely wrung empty by the pandemic as we all are, I think it’s really good to talk about and acknowledge it, because I think it’s weird when we just move forward. It’s important to talk about what we’ve gone through and are still going through—this terrifying experience where so many people are dying, where our fear and anxiety have been ratcheted up to the next level.
I don’t know how to write in fear. I know how to write in grief, but I don’t know how to write in fear. Anxiety is the biggest thing that silences me. It took me a while to start to write because I was overwhelmed by anxiety, like almost everyone. And eventually what I was able to see, or hold onto, was that the world is going to go on. And the world is going to go on without me, and without you. And the trees are going to keep living, and when they die, there will be more trees that are going to come. And that ongoingness of the world was really, in some ways, a relief.
When I say the word “surrender,” I mean giving into that timelessness. Time is real, yes, and it’s also a cycle. Surrender means not clinging to my own identity, to my own attachments, but finding some way to release my grip on the world. And of course when you release your grip you notice what you’re attached to, you notice the things you miss, and the things you love. I was writing those poems out of really missing, and honoring, and wanting to bear witness to this life in a way that isn’t, perhaps, as troubled. And I wanted to praise, as opposed to always working in the landscape of grief.
JO: So much of your earlier work looks straight at the world—examining identity, challenging assumptions. I love that about it, and it’s also wonderful to see your poems taking up room in this way, carving out space for joy, for praise. That feels expansive and important.
AL: Yes. Thank you. It is important. The title is intimidating because it has the word “hurting” in it, but the idea behind The Hurting Kind is that there are so many of us that are tender to the world and receptive to wonder. We’re porous. Beauty hurts. Attachment hurts. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s a way that we are moved, and pierced by the world. And I wanted to pay homage to those of us who are willing to be tender, and sensitive to the universe.
We have to live in a world where we have to protect ourselves all the time. Now even more so. We wear layers. We add a mask to it, we add isolation to it. There are so many ways we protect ourselves, even from ourselves. And I think it’s important to recognize that the self underneath the self needs witnessing.
JO: To me, that’s really the job of the writer—to help other people touch the heart of things. Stonecoast launched an initiative a few years ago called WISE—Writing for Inclusivity and Social Equity. What we’re trying to do on a programmatic level is to give writers the tools to address the issues of our time. A lot of this revolves around literary citizenship, advocacy, representation, and the power of story. What do you see as the writer’s role in the world?
AL: I think that it’s important to allow ourselves permission to write our true identities. For me as a Latinx writer, it’s really important to be sure I’m embracing all parts of myself and not pandering to any audience that requires a certain identity from me. I think sometimes that happens, where you get pushed into directions based on what people want from you or expect from you. I think it’s really important for writers to understand that you need to grant yourself permission to be truly and wholly who you are on the page, and to let go of other peoples’ perceptions of you when you write.
JO: Our Stonecoast director, Justin Tussing, said that when he knew you, you made a habit of going on a long walk—the same walk—every day.
AL: I still find walking in nature incredibly important. That walk was almost eight miles, and I did it every day. One of the things the walk did for me was to decenter the self. At a certain point the mind opens and you start to watch, you get to witness, you get to listen, you get to receive the world instead of putting yourself into the world. I think I am someone who is inherently selfish, and I can turn anything into something about me. I think most people can. The more I walk, the more I can dissolve. The process of dissolving and being receptive to the world is where the poetry comes from. Sometimes it takes a lot of miles for that to happen.
JO: I needed the reminder that the walking is also the writing. I'm always telling myself I don’t have time, but the walking, the dissolving, these things we do to get there—this, too, is writing. Thank you.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
AL: I do think it’s important to remember, as we move forward in our next steps, as we reemerge into the world, that the grief and silence and isolation of this time are going to stay with us. I’m witnessing a lot of very fast-paced, moving-forward, future-future-future kind of talk in the creative writing world, and I just want to make sure that we are remembering carefully this time, and really taking care of ourselves as the world tries to reopen. Because I think we may have a hard time reemerging if we don’t recognize what we’ve been through.
Katharine O’Brien was raised in Portland and graduated from Deering High School. After earning her Doctorate in Mathematics at Brown University, she chaired the math department at the University of New Rochelle, in New York. Later she returned to Deering High School, where she headed the math department. In addition to her success in mathematics, Dr. O’Brien was an accomplished poet and her poems appeared in more than forty periodicals, anthologies, and textbooks; this reading series is just one of the legacies of Dr. O’Brien’s work. Previous O’Brien Poets include Charles Simic, Terrance Hayes, Mary Ruefle, Brigit Kelly, Frank Bidart, and Jackie Kay, among others.