On a recent episode of The Slowdown poetry podcast, host Ada Limón recalled encountering a cow standing in the middle of a country lane while taking a walk. After a few beats, the cow turned and walked back to her pasture. “I had just moved to Kentucky and had doubts about how I felt about this place,” says Limón. “Seeing that beautiful white cow standing there in the middle of the road made me wonder what it means to choose freedom and choose home.”
Born and raised in Sonoma, California, Limón has lived most of her life on the coast. She majored in theater at the University of Washington and later moved to Manhattan, where she worked in magazines and earned an MFA from New York University. She moved to Lexington, Kentucky with her current husband in 2011 and has since grown to embrace her chosen home.
While allusions to nature are a hallmark of his poetry, Limón’s work in recent years reflects a growing Southern sensibility and sense of place. Milkweed has published its sixth book of poetry, The hurtful kind, earlier this year. Limón was recently named the twenty-fourth United States Poet Laureate and will deliver her first reading at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC on September 29 to open her literary season. We chatted with the author about his new assignment, inspirations from Kentucky, and his constant writing companion: a pug named Lily Bean.
Congratulations on being named Poet Laureate. Was the invitation a surprise?
The invitation was absolutely a surprise – it’s not something you apply for. I’m such an organized person that at first I felt like I needed to know everything right away. The orientation at the Library of Congress was helpful and being in the library really helped ground me. I have a nice office there that overlooks the Capitol. It’s the largest library in the world and getting to know it would take a lifetime but, reading room by reading room, I was able to discover some of its incredible collections.
How do you plan to approach the position?
The main goal for me is to make sure that I am a good spokesperson for poetry and that I speak not only of its existence, but also of its power and how it can transform our hearts and souls . How can we elevate poetry for everyone? How can we make it accessible? How can people experience poetry in new ways? Once I reframed that for myself, I felt more comfortable in the role. It’s a service for what I believe in the most, which is poetry.
Poetry had a big moment in recent years when Amanda Gorman delivered the inaugural poem.
I think there was something about hearing the particular music she created—that idiosyncratic voice, especially at that time—that made it feel like she was doing the healing work. When these moments occur, what do we turn to? We turn to poems. When someone dies, when someone gets married, the greatest moments of our lives yearn for poetry. So why not integrate it into our daily lives as well?
It’s important to me that my poems aren’t just for other poets. I love other poets and I love my literary community, but I would also like someone who has never read a poem to find something in my work, even if it is perhaps a doorway to entry to read more works by other people.
Is there a common theme running through your poetry?
What lies beneath many of my poems is the idea of our mortality – this one life. Some people may find this disheartening or overwhelming or just plain sad, but the idea of mortality allows me to re-engage over and over again in every day and every moment and hold it with joy or tenderness.
The other part is if we only have this one life, what can I honor? What can I offer? This last book, in particular, feels like an offering. It is to offer poems to my father, to my grandfathers and to my grandmother, to my mother, to my stepfather and to my brothers. And then also trees and plants. It’s a book that, when I finished, I thought, “If I’m struck by lightning tomorrow, which would be a very dramatic way to do it, I would have said thank you.”
You often write about plants and animals with the same affinity.
When I feel depressed or harassed or my brain is racing, I can stare at the trees for hours. Right now I’m watching my silver maple shake in the wind like it’s doing some kind of dance performance. Poetry has the same effect on me. Writing or reading about the natural world and looking deeply at nature reminds me that we are part of something bigger and that our relationship with the Earth is reciprocal.
What were your first impressions of Kentucky?
One of the things that surprised me was how amazingly beautiful the land is. My husband is in the horse racing industry, so we would go farm to farm and look at these amazing spaces and pastures. Everything was blooming and it was beautiful. Humidity, allergies, but also the hundreds of different grasses and trees. I remember pointing to a tree I had never seen before, and someone said it was a eucalyptus. I thought, ‘What an awesome name. Sweet gum tree.’ Connecting to the land was a big part of my connection to Kentucky.
And then, slowly but surely, I started to find the writers. I met people like Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X Walker, Manuel Gonzales and Silas House. There is also the legacy of Wendell Berry and Bell Hooks. Maurice Manning really welcomed me, and Jeremy Paden… so many people. Finding the writers is like finding the heart of a place.
In a Good Dog column for Garden and Gun, you wrote about how adopting your pug, Lily Bean, helped with the transition from moving to a new state. How is she?
She is eleven now and doing very well. She’s lying next to me right now – the other day I called her the ‘snoring poet’, because she snores so much.
She sometimes does this thing where if she’s inside she wants out or if she’s outside she wants in – she keeps me moving, which is good for me. When you’re still somehow introspective and on your mind, it helps to have that sweet little being who needs your attention and love and who always brings you back to reality and what’s important.