Poet Laureate Ada Limón: Poetry is bearing witness
In the early, most isolating days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, head of Ezra Stiles College, sent and received poetry from her students as a way of staying connected during a period of remote learning. She noticed that one poet whose work was often passed among the group was Ada Limón.
In a conversation with Limón, who is now the U.S. poet laureate, in the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium this week, Schmidt Camacho said she believes that it is the poet’s “attention to the world” and the emotion she conveys in her work that has touched so many of her readers and listeners.
“Your poems have been integral to our life as a community,” Schmidt Camacho, who is also a professor of ethnicity, race, and migration in Yale’s Faculty of Arts of Sciences, told Limón. “They’ve given us a language for finding one another, for coming together in difficult moments, for imagining living beyond the time of pandemic, for imagining how we can thrive.”
Limón, who became the country’s 24th poet laureate in July 2022 and is the first Latina to hold that title, also spoke of the way that poetry serves as a means of connection, especially in times when withdrawing from the world — or “numbing things in our lives” — might feel like a compelling response to challenges and crises.
“Each time I write a poem, I recommit in some way to the world,” said Limón, likening the act of creating the poem to putting oneself on a map and saying “I am here.”
She told the Yale audience that the idea of the artist creating in solitude is a “myth.” When creating a poem, artwork, play, song, or other creative work, she said, the artist is inviting others to read, listen, look at, or watch, making artistic creation a collaborative process.
The author of six books of poetry, most recently “The Hurting Kind” (2022), Limón is known for writing masterfully, with candor and intimacy, on such themes as nature and humans’ relationship with it, animals, family, loss, the frailty of the body, gratitude, and simply the experience of being alive. Her 2018 collection “The Carrying” won the Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and her book “Bright Dead Things” was nominated for the National Book Award in 2015, among other prizes.
Limón told her audience that, for her, writing poetry is a way of taking care of herself, an expression of her “need to be alive and witnessing the world.”
Schmidt Camacho reflected on how often she has heard people say “there are no words” in response to the pandemic and the deaths it has caused — and when addressing the concurrent and continuous violence in America during the past several years. She asked Limón why “we are letting ourselves off the hook” by claiming that words cannot do justice to such shared grief.
“You are not afraid to look for language for the unsayable,” she told Limón before quoting a line from the poet’s work “The Dead Stars”: “I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.”
Limón responded by saying that “there is so much grief and processing we have to do to just live, we can think we don’t have to grieve,” whether about the pandemic, violence, or the state of the planet itself.
“Like anyone else, it is easy for me to shut it down,” Limón said. “I’d much rather have a drink and binge-watch Netflix. But if I can work through some of it, I will be saner; I will be kinder to other people.”
She added: “The way we burn out is by not dealing with these topics and trying to suppress them.”
After the conversation, Limón read 10 poems for her audience, receiving sustained applause afterward. The pieces were written, respectively, about specific family members (her mother, stepmother, grandfather); her pug dog; the 2017 fires in Sonoma, California; being a child of parents with joint custody; and making apologies; among other topics. She then took questions from the audience members, many of whom were students who wanted to learn more about her creative process.
One asked Limón how she manages to continue writing when the act feels impossible or when she experiences doubts.
“It’s easy to get down on yourself,” Limón answered. “It happens to me still. I’ll think ‘Now that this opportunity happened, I’ll never write again.’” But then, she said, she writes another poem, or gathers an entire collection of them, so that today, she mostly trusts that “it will come.” For encouragement, she urged students to “look at the legacy of others” who have been inspirations, knowing that they, too, once battled doubt.