The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Ada Limón about her new book Bright Dead Things, writing love poems in an age of cynicism, committing to places, and the need for a Titleologist.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So as I said on Twitter, I really loved this book… How long did it take you to write it?
Ada Limón: Oh, I’m so glad you loved it Brian. That is so wonderful to hear. It took me about five years to write it.
Brian S: I mean, usually I fall in love with books where the voice or style is very different from my own, but in this case, I found myself adoring the long lines, the lists and digressions, the love poems, the stark contrasts created by brutality. I was jealous, honestly. So where did you come up with the title, I guess is where I want to start.
Ada Limón: Oh I know that feeling! When you finish and think, “that’s what I want to do.” I love that feeling. I’m so honored that you felt that way. It was a true labor of love. And it’s the most honest book I’ve ever written.
Dana: This collection seems rooted in place—and I see that you live in Kentucky and California—how have your travels influenced these poems? So many of these poems are so beautifully nostalgic.
Ada Limón: Thanks, Dana. Yes. I have been interested in “located” poems for some time. Too many poems seem to take place in an in-between space (perhaps because of the Internet? We’re all in a universal online community of some sort?), and I wanted to ground my poems. I wanted to say, this is where I am right now. Like, how you are in Michigan and I want to know exactly where. And that seemed as important as anything. If we think of writing as telepathy, and if I really want you to understand what it is I’m living through, than I need you to know where I am. That probably sounds basic, but it was extremely important to me when I was writing this. (So thank you so much for taking time to note that.)
Abby: I agree with Brian; the book is great! Who were some of your influences when you were writing this book?
Ada Limón: The title is from the poem, “I Remember the Carrots.” But more than the actual line, I was looking for something that spoke to the idea of both living and dying. How death makes living all the more vivid and real. And how we are those Bright Dead Things….
Abby: Wow, I love your description behind the notion of bright dead things. It is beautiful and rings so true to me. It is definitely palpable thematically in the book.
Ada Limón: Thanks, Abby. My influences sort of travel all over the place. I read a lot. I’m a bit obsessive about reading. But, I’d say overall: Larry Levis, Kate Greenstreet, Gregory Orr, Bob Hicok, Pablo Neruda (my willingness to write love poems), Terrance Hayes, Dorianne Laux, Afaa Weaver, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Phil Levine, you know my teachers who I can always hear while I write. Of course even mentioning these folks make me nervous that I’ll pale so much in the comparison. But that’s who I was reading…
Brian S: The moment I knew I had to choose this book was when I got to “State Bird,” especially that ending, that sense of making good in whatever place you’re in, “But love, I’ll concede this: / whatever state you are, I’ll be that state’s bird, / the loud obvious blur of song people point to / when they wonder where it is you’ve gone.”
Ada Limón: Yes, I am so glad that you like the title. It’s always so hard to come up with something that really rings true. And speaks to the whole book.
Rachel: Hi Brian, Ada… chiming in late here! I also loved the book and it was absolutely worth the wait.
Brian S: That’s why you have a Titleologist!
Dana: I loved this book right at the very first poem… I agree with Rachel; so very worth the wait.
Ada Limón: Oh thank you, Brian. Yes, that poem was about choosing where you are and choosing to live in a certain way. I’m always a little concerned when I read it in Kentucky that someone will be offended, but the truth is it took me a some time to love this place, but now I do.
Brian S: I realized not long ago that until recently, I hadn’t lived in the same house/trailer/apartment for more than two years in a row since I was nineteen, and I’ve lived now in six states and at least twice that many towns, so that feeling of holding yourself away from a place is something I get on a visceral level.
Ada Limón: That makes me so happy, Rachel! And Dana! I wondered if I should start out with that poem right away, but you know, I feel like it gives you something/someone to root for throughout the book. At least that’s how I thought of it while I was putting it together.
Dana: I adored the honesty here. The challenges in learning to love a new place, a new home, rung so honest and true to me. As someone who doesn’t adapt well to change, I really related.
Brian S: Could you talk a little about how you put the book together? A lot happened over that five years from what I gathered from the poems. How did you piece this together, and did you work on other projects in the meantime?
Ada Limón: Yes, and it’s hard to love a place if you think it will be temporary, but then I realized is that life? Like, this is all temporary, so loving it is part of the committment. It’s what we sign up for.
Rachel: I’d really love to hear a bit about your revision/editing process. The final draft is so elegant—the poems bear no traces of their becoming. So often I find myself reading pieces and mentally revising them backwards, nearly automatically, trying to put the words back where they were before the lines got overwrought. Your poems all read so effortlessly…
Ada Limón: Yes, so much has happened in five years. Almost exactly five years ago today, I was in my high rise office building in New York City working for an awesome travel magazine as the Creative Services Director. Then, I quit to committ to writing fulltime. I fell in love just a little before I made that decision, I moved to Sonoma, California (my home town), then to Kentucky, then I wrote a novel, and then I started another one. And somehow this book is what came out of all of it. Putting it together was a different expereince for me than the others, because I had worked on fiction for a while. I wanted there to be a journey. And I needed to see that for myself, as much as I wanted to give that to the readers.
Brian S: In your comment about your influences, you said “my willingness to write love poems.” Do you think there’s a pressure not to write those anymore? Has the push against sentimentality in poems made it so that we’re rebelling if we write them?
Ada Limón: Rachel. That is so wonderful. You have to realize, I just got my copies YESTERDAY, so I am still all aflutter with the fact that you’ve all read it already! It’s thrilling and also it’s making my heart beat real fast right now. I like that you said “effortless” as opposed to “easy” because I was really interested in saying things as truthfully as possible and then making sure the sound and rhythm were there. Also, for the longest time I wasn’t writing a book, I was just doing what poets do: write poems. So there was a lot of space between each poem. Also, I should add, I have a marvelous editor at Milkweed Editions (Wayne Miller) who really gets my voice and has a great eye for what I’m doing. He didn’t actually make that many changes to the order, but he did fix a few lines here and there and I’m grateful. Oh, and I should add that I send every first draft of every poem to a few very dear key people in my life, and I almost always take their suggestions.
Rachel: The book, of course, feels incredibly rigorous—not easy!!—but it isn’t stumbling all over its own artifice. It’s a really impressive collection.
Ada Limón: Sigh. Yes. Love poems. LOVE POEMS. How weird it is to even say. I was afraid that once I was in a good relationship, I’d never write again (drama being essential to my inner poet), but instead the love poems came. They are scary to write. What if you write a great love poem, like a really great love poem, and then it ends? What if you write one and then you don’t feel that way anymore? What if you write it and then everyone judges you for being sticky sweet and naive? Yeah. It’s a risk isn’t it? I always say, take the risk. I suppose I’d always rather risk sentimentality than not saying anything. I’d rather you disagree with me than not having any idea what I said in the first place. I think, we need to remember that there is a language for joy, too. We get so caught up in sad poems, in darkness, but there is also praise, there is also a radical hope.
Brian S: I imagine as well that this is another one of those advantages for men. If a man writes a love poem, he’s breaking the stereotype by showing vulnerability, whereas if a woman does it, well, she’s doing it because feelings.
Ada Limón: Thank you, Rachel! I was interested in saying real things to real people. And I almost hate to say this, but I wasn’t writing for poets. I was writing for my friends and family and just people who want to hear something honest and hopefully beautiful. I didn’t want the “poem” to get in its own way. I didn’t want to hide behind art; I wanted my poems to feel alive.
Brian, I think you’re right. Although I don’t think it’s easy either way. I do think that “father” poems get a lot more credit than “mother” poems out there, and that always amazes me. But that is a whole different conversation.
Brian S: Who/what are you reading right now? Anything new we should be on the watch for?
Ada Limón: I’m reading this great new novel, The Marble Army, by Brazilian author Gisele Firmino that’s awesome. And Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and I’m really excited for Phillip B. Williams‘s new book and Rickey Laurentiis’s new book. There’s so much coming out I can’t wait to read. Michael Robins just sent me In Memory of Brilliance & Value and it’s stunning. Oh and Jennifer L. Knox’s Days of Shame and Failure!!! Oh I could go on. So much to read. I just love it.
Abby: One thing I loved in these poems was the visceral physical descriptions—”an 8-pound female horse heart/giant with power, heavy with blood” in “Triumph Like a Girl” and “that loops and elongates in the chest/in the diaphragm, in the alveoli”—I love that description of the sad list in “Downhearted,” contrasted a few lines down with the description of the heart watching Lifetime movies, contrasted again by the these beautiful lines: “The heart is so tired of beating/herself up, she wants to stop it still/but she also wants the blood to return/wants to bring in the thrill and wind of the ride.” I loved my Anatomy and Physiology classes, so reading beautiful and authentic feeling descriptions of the body in poetry is great. Also, thank you for “The Riveter”; as a nurse it made me think of the tug-of-war in healthcare between doing a good professional job and just relating to the patient and the family and what is going on as a patient dies, and how that moves beyond TPN and other medical decisions.
Ada Limón: Thank you, Abby. Yes, the physical was important to me in this book. The body as a real machine as well as the body as the being. Those giant questions of personhood fascinate me and keep me up at night. Where does pain reside? Where does the body store forgviness? Why would a body choose to go on if the “being” isn’t there? “The Riveter” was a poem that I didn’t realize I needed to write, until I did. It actually should be dedicated to Bryce, my younger brother because he was the one who had to remind me that it was HER that was doing the hardest work. Because we are living, we think it’s us, we are focused on doing the right things, but how hard it must be to just focuse on leaving. That was a big lesson for me and the ending of that poem came to me as a surprise, a gift really.
Brian S: What are you working on now?
Ada Limón: I’m working on a young adult novel. I am really enjoying it. It’s still in progress and probably a year or so out from being done, but it’s a real joy to work on. I joke that it’s a cross between Flatliners and Alice in Wonderland.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us today Ada, and for writing such a fabulous collection.
Ada Limón: Thank you all, this was so wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to read it. It means so much to me to know that it moved you.