Resurrection on a daily basis: Exploring The Hurting Kind with Ada Limón
During the pandemic I started spent time in the garden, awakening a green thumb, seeking solace among seeds, growing food, and tending plants. It’s also when I read Ada Limón’s poetry collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018), returning to it again and again, finding fresh wisdom in its pages. As Limón stepped into hosting the podcast The Slowdown, her voice became a familiar one in my ears.
In her new collection, The Hurting Kind, Limón takes the reader into nature like a guide, to marvel at the birds, to find calm among trees, and to consider what it means to sit with loss and death and grief’s malleable timeline. She has a litany of accolades: The Carrying won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Her collection Bright Dead Things was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Award. Limón is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
We spoke over Zoom on what turned out to be her birthday.
The Rumpus: You write, “I am getting so good at watching.” What is the role of close observation in poetry, and how as poets can we better cultivate the skill?
Ada Limón: I think that’s a great place to start. Really watching, noticing, and deep looking—not the distracted looking, but really curious looking—that’s a way of loving and a way of valuing, and I don’t think I knew that before. I think that I thought watching was part of life, and I thought it was part of the creative work of being a poet. And I always thought observation was important, but I didn’t know it was also the thing that connected you to the world on a larger scale, not just in the way of making poems and making art, but in the way of making your life feel connected and whole and complete.
When I’m feeling blue, which I often do, just watching even for five minutes, the birds, or even just looking at my plant in the window, just the smallest thing, or looking at my dog, I’m reminded of what it is to be a living thing amidst this living world. In some ways it takes me out of myself. If I were to offer that to other people, what it is to look without the foregone conclusion, without the narrative, without the—What am I going to turn this into?—but instead to look with a real curiosity and to de-center themselves a little bit in that looking.
Rumpus: The Hurting Kind has so many animals in it. What do you think animals can show us about being alive?
Limón: The Hurting Kind is more full and flourishing with animals. I was home a lot and that deep observation that we discussed was really essential to how I was grounding myself and connecting myself and feeling not-so-alone in the world.
Now, of course, animals can be metaphors. We do that in poems all the time, but it really was a question of whether or not I could deeply watch and let the animal be the animal and let it teach me more about my animal-ness as opposed to me positing or super-imposing my humanness on the animal.
I can watch, and I can look at their persistence and their need for survival and their sense of ongoing-ness. And in that it felt like I was giving, or I was being taught a sort of lesson in continuing as a goal in and of itself. Not success, not some kind of huge, grand idea of power or accomplishment, but instead, what it was to live small-y and to live in a sense that’s at peace with others.
Rumpus: You write of tiny and terrible things frequently and sometimes with great affection, like “darling cockroaches.” How do the things we’re taught to fear teach us about being alive?
Limón: Especially with the mythic, like the scorpions and the snakes, they’re powerful images, but also negative. I wanted to look at things without that mythic consequence. Sometimes that seeps in because it can’t not, but I think, What is it to really look at them as living things and to take off the human narrative and the human story-making and observe?
One of the things about that scorpion poem [“Jar of Scorpions”] which was really interesting, is it’s a true story. My friend Sarah and I were so interested in them because we were children. Yes, we were scared. And yes, they can sting with their poison, but we couldn’t kill them. There’s something in that tenderness of children and there’s a cruelty to children too, but, in us at that moment, we couldn’t do anything except put the jar over them.
Rumpus: The poem made me consider scorpions—even your term for them as scorplings—to care about tiny little things that could pinch and hurt you.
Limón: In the end, I can guess what happened to them. I don’t actually know. Part of me was like, Well, I could make an ending, right? That feels like it’s going to go one way or the other, but in truth, we walked away from it, you know, and didn’t speak of it. That was it. I felt like sometimes the poem’s work is to not make the ending, to not make the story, but instead to hold that glass over them and to watch closely, and then let that be enough. And can that be enough for a poem to work and feel complete.
Rumpus: How did you come to structuring the book by seasons?
Limón: It was really important to have a sense of a narrative that wasn’t my own narrative. It is not my life. It is the world’s life, and the world’s life is in seasons. And when I disappear from this earth, we will have seasons. And even when the climate crisis is at its high point, the seasons will be different and they may be more extreme and we may not be here to see them, but something will happen in that sort of cycle. It was a way of organizing that felt like it offered a sense of ongoing-ness without the conclusion. And it also offered a sense of cyclical-ness. I wanted to have a book that when you finished it, it actually pushed you to the beginning again because what comes after winter?
Rumpus: Winter is coming, but spring will too. You write, “where have you gotten good flourishing, the space where our joy once lived.” How, or where, do we reclaim joy?
Limón: It’s really important to remember that there is joy, that there is laughter, in all of the different catastrophes that we’re living through, alive at the different ends of the world, as Saeed Jones says. For me, if I don’t do that, there is a deep sort of giving up.
Listen, there are days I want to give up. And there are days that I completely understand the urge to not get out of bed. But I really do believe that like the plants, you know, turning toward the light is not just something we do for ourselves, but I think it’s something we do in the service of others. And I think it’s also something that we do in the service of our ancestors.
It’s not just for the people that come after us, but also for the people that came before us. There were all these things that needed to be here in the first place, people who fought for us to survive—the fact that we’re even alive, even with all our faulty genetics and the mind full of negative thoughts, it’s still some kind of miraculous that we’re here. That kind of holding on to some sort of hope, some sort of thread, and even if it’s not hope sometimes—and I’m kind of sick of the word resilience—but the idea of even just survival being enough. Are the birds happy making that nest? I don’t know, but I know they’re making a nest, and they’re doing something. And sometimes that’s enough—just to doing something, just to make something, just to continue.
And it’s not so much about happiness as it is about wholeness, right? About feeling everything fully. And that doesn’t always mean feeling happy or feeling joyful, but it means giving yourself room to be who you are in a complicated human way.
Rumpus: With that in mind, do you think it’s possible that poets might have greater proclivity to be of the hurting kind?
Limón: I do think that poets—and I want to say maybe artists in general—live in a more tender relationship with the world. I think that there’s a certain receptivity and openness and a sense of receiving that we have to have in order to make things that matter.
I also think that we tend to—and this is not true of everyone, but I think when I think of the hurting kind in general—I think it’s those people who really believe that being receptive and sensitive to the world have their own kind of power. All the walls that we put up, all of the armor that we put on to face the fairly brutal world needs to come down in order to make things and needs to come down in order to even really feel human. That is something to be celebrated. I think there’s power in that. That is something important and should be valued.
It’s so often that we think someone who’s sensitive or someone is overwhelmed by the world that there’s something wrong with them. I want to rewrite that narrative for myself because I actually think they’re just seeing the beauty and terror of the world all at once and the world is moving through them; it’s moving through us. I think that should be something that’s honored. So, I do think poets have that. I think artists have that. And I think more people have it who aren’t artists than would care to admit, and they have to live their life being two people, because it’s a hard life to live in with all those feelings running through you—it’s nearly impossible. And so how do we balance that? How do we face the world and also love the world? That’s one of the questions of my life, maybe.
Rumpus: Do you have any self-care tactics that have helped you or might help others?
Limón: We don’t rest enough. Deep breathing—so much can be found in breath. I mean, I always say that one of my favorite things about poetry is that it has breath built into it. It’s meant to have breaks. It’s meant to be breathed through. That’s what the caesura is for. That’s what the line breaks are for. That’s what the stanza breaks are for.
On a basic level: turning on music, dancing, laughing, allowing yourself joy when things are really hard.
Sometimes I just need to play some Joan Armatrading and sing at the top of my lungs and weep and joyfully dance. And then I’m like, Oh right, that was how I got healed.
Rumpus: What about mourning? Do you think that we give ourselves enough time for mourning?
Limón: No. I feel like we have this strange relationship to grief, especially in Western cultures where it feels like grief is something you move through in three weeks and then are healed and then you’re expected to move on. And that’s just not how grief works. When I talked about ongoing-ness before, the ongoing-ness of grief is really essential to me too. When it comes and when it surprises us and it overwhelms us, I think that needs to be listened to, too.
And if that comes when we’re dancing in the kitchen, that’s like, Oh right, I’m dancing in the kitchen, and this was her favorite song, and now I’m weeping. That’s how grief works. Right? You think you’re being joyful. And in that joy, you’re like, Oh, you know who would love this? It’s always with us.
In some ways our lives are a tribute to that or our living is a tribute to the dead, is a tribute to how we can perform resurrection on a daily basis. And I think living with that and understanding that—it’s actually really brought me a lot of peace.
And when you feel it, then you’re able to say, Oh yeah, I acknowledged that, and we went through that together, and I danced in the kitchen with my ghosts. Then I can make myself something to eat. And then I can return to my email and go about my day because it was acknowledged.
Rumpus: I’m fascinated by art informing other art and that your mom painted your book covers. How do the cover art and the poems come together?
Limón: It’s really our only collaboration. It’s just such a gift to me. I send her the manuscript usually very early on because I know it takes a long time to paint something. When I feel like it’s a book, we will have a conversation, and it’s usually sort of big themes or what’s at play? With this book in particular, I was talking about the themes of surrender, of ongoing-ness, of a dark acknowledgement of the world, animals—I had all these ideas and, of course, it’s changed over time.
She’ll write five or ten words that we talked about, and those will be in her big purse of writing on the blank white wall. And then she’ll start to paint from that. Sometimes I have a color scheme and sometimes I don’t. With The Carrying, I didn’t choose the colors. I just said, This is the book, and this is what she came up with. It was amazing. And the same with Bright Dead Things.
For this book, we worked on the phone, talked about maybe something that had a more subtle, observing heft to it. It felt like it needed a weight. She did a couple versions, and then when I saw this sort of bird, not-bird, the idea-of-bird I was like, That’s it.
And then the bright seam, like the horizon—it’s dark and it’s got this heaviness, but it’s got that seam of hope that’s going through. This is going to clear up. I was blown away by it. And I remember seeing it, being like, That’s the cover.
Rumpus: So it’s like a counter-ekphrasis?
Limón: I’ve never thought about that. You’re totally right.
Rumpus: Was there a poem in the book that was the hardest to write or wrangle into completion through the revision process?
Limón: Probably “The Hurting Kind,” [published in The Rumpus in May 2021], which is the center of the book. “The Hurting Kind” is a poem that’s trying to contain so much. I had lost my grandfather, and [I had] that weird thing of what is it to deal with these practicalities of death, which feels so strange. I’ve done it before and I will do it again, but it never ceases to just be like, How is this what we do?
So, trying to get that right, trying to also honor my grandmother, who is still with us at ninety-seven, and to feel also what it was to write that without a conclusion. I just had to really listen to the poem, and I realized that in the line “you can’t sum it up,” she means a life. That is that poem. You can’t do that work. So, I end with “love ends, but maybe it doesn’t.” That idea of, Oh, this is continuing. And it’s continuing without me talking about it—without me writing it. It just is. Trying to end that poem was probably one of the hardest endings I’ve ever done.
Rumpus: Reading “The Hurting Kind,” I felt the collection had been priming me to get to that point. Poetry workshops suggest putting your best poems at the beginning of the book but in here you snuck in the poem that is the heartbeat of the book at the end.
Limón: I love that because I think that’s very true. It was really important for me to do the work of all the other ancestors too, right? To realize that connectedness to the world, the animals, the plants, the trees, my beloved, friends—all of those things—and to populate the book with that life, so that when you get to that poem, you also see what is lost, right? I think it needed to have this life before the loss. I don’t know why—it felt very instinctual. It just felt like you needed to do the work of living and watching and observing and then know what it was to not have that.
Rumpus: I had to end with music! What is the role of reading poems aloud? Doing the podcast, are you finding your work has been impacted with more music?
Limón: It’s funny, I think that music has always been really essential to me as a poet. I’ve always said that everything matters to me, of course, as a writer, but I think I’m very much interested in story and song and how those two correlate. How do I make it more of a song? How do I make it a story? When I say story, I don’t mean necessarily a narrative, but the story of a poem, the story a poem wants to make, even if it’s very lyrical.
Reading out loud is actually how I write. It’s always been how I’ve written, even when I was an undergraduate. Writing a poem, I literally write a line, I read it out loud; I write another line, I read it out loud. Using that experience of feeling it in the mouth and feeling it in the ear and the eye and the heart and the chest and the breath—that’s really important to me, as opposed to just feeling it in the fingers or just visually.
It needs to feel lived. It also, for me, is a way of making it more human because it goes into the animal. It’s in my mouth, my teeth, my bones—what is it like to make them the instrument? I don’t know if “The Slowdown” or recording or any of that has shifted how I work because I work in that realm so much in general. But I do think it aligns really well with where I find my joy, which is to hear the music of other people’s poems and to be able to read it out loud.
To be able to offer that to other people who may be driving, or maybe don’t even like poetry or any of those things, feels like a real gift that I can give at this point in my life.
Author photo by Lucas Marquardt