Interview with Ada Limón, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Bright Dead Things
I’ve always believed that reading a collection of poetry is like entering into a conversation. Qualities of a good conversation are curiosity, humor and impudence. Bright Dead Things exemplifies all three. Each page reads as if it was either in response to or in light of an agreed upon talking point between friends, between family. I never felt alone—not once. Limón’s is a voice that surprises as much as it delights, questions as much as it resolves. Hers is a voice among voices.
Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry: Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, Sharks in the Rivers and, most recently, Bright Dead Things. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program and the 24Pearl Street Online Program for the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
Nicole Sealey: How’d you come to name the collection Bright Dead Things?
Ada Limón: I struggled with the title at first, but when I landed on that phrase, in the poem “I Remember the Carrots,” I knew it was what I wanted. I wanted the title to point to both the living and the dying we’re all doing. The struggle between what destroys us and what keeps us going is something very real to me and real to my work. Additionally, I loved the idea that the poems in the book could be seen as bright dead things themselves—things that are the remnants of the original burst.
NS: What role does place play in your poems?
AL: I’m obsessed with landscapes and location. My first three books of poetry were almost all entirely written in New York City, but they have references to Sonoma, California, Stanwood, Washington and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Bright Dead Things is the first book that I wrote while living in the country, and while not having a fulltime job. I freelance write for a living and teach as well, but I said goodbye to my wonderful job at Travel + Leisure in 2010. I wanted to allow myself more time to write, even if that meant less (a lot less) money. I also needed space around me. I lived in New York for 12 years and, by the time I left, I desperately needed to stare into the wild green spaces and just let myself breathe. Turns out I’ve been doing that for five years now. And I just want to keep staring.
Because of that location shift (from New York to Kentucky and California) the poems in Bright Dead Things are connected to nature in a new way. What I mean is, they are written from a place where nature is not just the all knowing “good” in opposition to the city, but rather it’s just like any other part of this life—complicated, and hard, and gorgeous, and something constantly worth surrendering to.
NS: You’ve said elsewhere, as you were writing these poems, that you’d go for walks and drives, and ask yourself, “What are you scared of?” If I may, what are you scared of?
AL: That’s true. I was interested in making sure I was pushing myself constantly and not staying in my poetic safe zones for too long. I also wanted to make sure that the new work I was producing was meaningful to me and served my life. I wanted to write the poems I needed to write. Oh, and yes, I’m scared of so many things, aren’t you? I am reminded of that wonderful quote from Georgia O’Keefe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” That basically defines my life. I keep moving forward despite the sharks, the bears, the violence, the accidents, the wind, the sinkholes, the crocodiles, the rattlesnakes, the silence, the rage, the big empty, all of that. I keep moving forward because someday we won’t be here and I don’t want miss anything.
NS: Is it safe to say that you’re scared you’ll miss something?
AL: I think that’s somewhat true, yes. But, it’s also more that I’m scared to not appreciate this moment and the people around me. This might sound simple, but I want to be a good person and I want to live to the fullest while I’m here. I’m all right with missing things (I can be a bit of a recluse), but I want to be grateful for what I have and show gratitude to those around me. I think my biggest fear is not living up to this life I’ve been given.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the world would just sort of pat you on the head like a dog and say, “Good job, you’ve tried really hard.” There is so much to love and wrestle with in this world and I know I’ll keep making mistakes and falling down and getting back up, but I suppose if I can do right by people and keep my head above water during the biggest tidal waves, I’ll be one extremely lucky girl.
NS: Bright Dead Things opens with “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” a poem that speaks to hope, and closes with “The Conditional,” a poem that speaks to, I think, luck. That these poems open and close the collection, respectively, is not a coincidence.
AL: I think those two poems function together as bookends. The first poem begins as an invitation to the reader to have a radical hope, to believe in a magical winner’s circle. While the last poem is an ode to the idea of what happens after that winning doesn’t occur, what happens when the darkness takes over and nothing you planned is as you wished. That’s when the idea of, not so much luck, but gratitude comes in. One poem is offering a hope and the other is offering a sense of thankfulness even if all wishes don’t pan out.
NS: “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is my anthem(!)--a la Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” or the Eurythmics/Aretha Franklin’s “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves”.
AL: Ah, yes, “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is an anthem! When I started that poem, I was thinking of my favorite female horse: Zenyatta. I loved watching her race the boys. It was stunning. But then, of course, it became so much more. I think it was what I needed at the time, to join the power of the animal world. It lifted me when I needed it. If it were a song, it would most definitely have a sultry Chaka Khan rhythm behind it, something designed to make you get up and move whether you like it or not. Something that makes you feel invincible.
NS: “How to Triumph Like a Girl” and “Service” read related, like sister poems.
AL: I haven’t really thought of them as sister poems before, but you might be right. “Service” is so much a poem about being ignored or silenced and, in the end of the poem, it’s the female pit bull that guides the speaker to her own rebellion, her own act of power. There are so many women who tell me they relate to that poem. I think there’s something about standing up for yourself, even in the smallest way or in the strangest circumstances, that allows for some new possibilities of being. For me, that poem is about a permission that’s given from the dog to be not just an animal, but to be a fully considered human being.
NS: Like the dog in “Service,” the speaker in “Bellow” gives a similar permission.
AL: “Bellow” is completely a directive to myself and to other writers to get down and do the work. I feel like there are times when the world stands in our way and writing is the last thing we feel like we could do. There’s the judgment and the failure and the self-loathing and all those things that make us mum. And you know, I think “Bellow” is sort of a spell to get back to writing, to return to what matters, to love yourself enough to listen to what's rustling inside.
NS: What’s next, what’s rustling?
AL: I’m working on some new poems now that are coming slowly, but they’re coming. Some are focused on the women who have fought against mountaintop removal mining in their communities in the Appalachian Mountains. Others are personal poems that come when they come. I’m also working on a young adult novel that I joke is sort of a cross between Alice in Wonderland and the 90’s movie Flatliners. It’s been such a joy to write young adult fiction and I hope that project will be finished by early 2016. There are also some personal essays too, and some more fiction projects. Who knows what will happen next? More writing for certain. And some long naps.
Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.