Ada Limón on Resilience, Writing to Keep Going, and “Lucky Wreck”

Ada Limón, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award, is the author of five books of poetry, including The Carrying (2018) and Bright Dead Things (2015). Her first book of poetry, Lucky Wreck (2006), is being republished by Autumn House Press this spring in celebration of its 15th anniversary. I was lucky enough to speak with Ada over Zoom about her debut collection and what it means to return to it after 15 years.

Like most conversations lately, we started by talking about the public griefs of the moment and how we’re struggling and managing to find strength and joy. It can feel pretty serendipitous to talk about a book like Lucky Wreck, which was written during another particularly dark moment in recent history, at a time like now, with so much hope for positive transition and growth.

I was really interested in your new introduction, especially where you talk about looking back on the person who wrote these poems and seeing a resilience that you envy. I’m fascinated with the idea of being able to communicate with a former self or an alternative self that was you 15 years ago. I wrote down the question “what do you think you’re seeing in yourself that expresses that resilience?” but I’m also curious how much you think might be an illusion, might be you expressing a resilience in the hopes of creating it.

I think that’s a great point. I think there’s a lot of – I don’t want to say toughness, but there’s a lot of strength in Lucky Wreck. And I do think it is a way of exploring what courage or bravery or resilience might feel like, but it doesn’t always mean that I have it. I think that it’s almost a way of writing myself into it. I think Lucky Wreck has poems in it that feel resilient to me and I look back at them and think “yeah, there’s power there,” but I do think there’s a part that shows that I’m writing in order to keep going. And I still do that.

Do you see that as one of the purposes, one of the uses of poetry generally?

I do, I think there’s a way of not just healing the self, which I think that poetry can absolutely 100% be used for, which you know, we’ve talked about this before, as a way of accessing different parts of ourselves that we may or may not experience on the day-to-day basis. I think it’s a way of accessing a way of seeing things and a way of also presenting the self in the world and how the self interacts in the world. And I think poetry can allow us to be different people and can allow us to be stronger than we are, even for a moment.

That’s really fascinating for me in this context. It makes me think of looking over old diaries and seeing who you were when they were written. But this is an act of, at least from your perspective, going back to yourself rather than going back and communicating with the version of yourself that you’re creating. I wonder if there’s an aspect where you can even look up to yourself or that version of yourself?

Yeah I think there’s a way in which I find it really easy to look back at old poems, and you probably have the same experience, where you can look back at a poem you wrote 10 years ago and think “what was I thinking?” or “what was happening here?” And I think I learned really early on that that was not who I wanted to be as an artist. When Lucky Wreck came out I had a couple of poetry heroes talk about how they were embarrassed by their first books and I was really upset by it. Because I don’t want to live my life feeling regret for things I’ve published and things I’ve put out into the world. I want to always honor that.

I can look at any one of these poems, and it may not be a poem I’d write now, but I can praise the poem and that person who wrote it. The person had those skills and that life experience and that heart and that brain and did a good job with the tools she had. And It surprised me, even how much it is me. I thought I would look back at this book and think “Who is that person?” and instead I thought “Oh I know you.”

You mentioned part of the purpose of writing poetry is finding the undercurrent of things. And that reminded me of how much grief and fear is being dealt with in so much of your work and how it’s rarely dealt with directly in the way that a different writer might wrestle with, maybe hubristically, the big idea of fear, the huge oppressive fears of the day. In your work and especially in Lucky Wreck, grief and fear are generally approached through personal stories, personal events. Is that something you intentionally do in most of your poetry?

Yeah, I think it is, and I think it’s actually a good reading of my work. I don’t often know how to talk about the overwhelming oppressive fears of global climate change or the fact that our soil is almost completely devoid of nutrients. I don’t know how to talk about racial injustice as a whole. These large, massive things, you know? But I do know how to talk about the smallest moment and how it is filled with all of that. And I think that is something that I’m still doing and am still interested in and that is similar from poem to poem and book to book.

The third section, a crown of sonnets called “The Spider Web,” is the point where poetic formalism is most apparent. How do you view these strict forms and what role do they play in your poetry?

I really love form. And I really love this kind of sonnet. I think I thought after I wrote that I’d write many, many more crowns of sonnets. But it’s so dependent on subject. And I wanted to write about addiction. I started thinking of the form as container but in this case as trap, which made it perfect for talking about addiction. It felt like you always have to return to this thing. And so I thought this was the exploration that was particularly attuned to a sonnet crown.

This poem started with long lines and many different versions. It was always called “The Spider Web,” but I could not figure out what was going on with it. It was many pages, all these things, and then finally, and I think it was… “The orb spider continues to spin a whole / Road map of a world on our large living room window, / Each thread a highway to its charge. / The intricate lace of white lines stuck / Where a fly waits for his nip and his tuck” and I was just playing around.

And I got to “whole” and “window” and I saw those rhymes and I thought to try it as a sonnet. And the idea of the sonnet crown, of carrying the last line into the first line of the next sonnet, seemed to make it a kind of an engine.

In terms of structure, how do you see this book moving?

I think that this book really worked well in a way that’s surprising for first books. It felt like it began with these little moments, like these little days, the little darknesses. The small poems almost feel like post-it notes to give you a bit of a break and I think explore who this speaker is as a human being. And then you get to a little bit of a “you have a history” and there’s an idea of who the speaker was, that includes the third sections where the sonnet crown takes place. The fourth section, I think, because of the long poem at the end, “13 Feral Cats,” starts to deal with that fear that’s with us, right? Throughout the book, what was kind of overriding was my stepmother’s diagnosis with cancer. It felt like it was constantly there. And I also had a friend who was dying of cancer at the same time and it just suddenly felt like everyone I knew was sick. I think that real recognition of mortality, not the philosophical recognition of mortality, but the authentic real this-person-I-loved-is-going-to-die is where we eventually moved to. I think there’s still resilience in that and I think there’s a toughness, I think the feral cats are sort of that idea of “I’m rooting for everybody” but I do think the book moves a little bit in an arc that comes from a generalized fear into a naming of the thing.

It’s so interesting that you talk about these poems in terms of approaching the feeling itself. To me that last poem feels like a resolution to the undercurrents of grief, not as a resolution that solves everything, but, like you say, an expression of resilience and an expression of “we will continue to be resilient.”

Right, and also that we have to. Like we have no other choice. Like we have to go on. And I think that was a big part of what I was, like in those last lines:

As if we were put here to remember our own ending,
                to wander out into the streets,
                 (their own brutal oblivion)

 to stare at the tree’s dark bark, to know that in order to go on,

                 we must accept the cage we are given
                 that someday will be released,

                 into the unimaginable

 and until then, praise the walls
                and all the parts of us they manage to hold so dearly

So  I thought, ok I will literally look around and think “until then, praise.”

In some ways it echoes the time when this was written. And it feels like a moving forward, like an action. Obviously, this kind of action means a lot right now to a lot of people, do you think it means the same to you?

Yeah, and I think that this book was a paradigm shift in my life. It was a moment when I was not just figuring out who I am or who I was, but who I was as an artist and what it was that I wanted to dedicate my life to. And I think, especially with that last poem, what that’s doing is sort of recognizing that even in moments of great grief, like September 11th, like diagnoses of cancer, and all those kinds of events, there is a sense of simultaneity. That it’s not just all on-going-ness, but that everything is happening at once.

I think I’m still interested in that idea of how we can praise and recognize grief. How can we have that capacity to hold all those things at once – to hold that small good thing and to hold the terrible truth? And I think this book was philosophically a paradigm shift for me because it kind of showed that this is going to be how I live my life. And recognizing that capacity is essential to living in a way that feels authentic with who I am, that it’s not a surrender to the sadness even though sometimes you have to do that.

I didn’t want to give up on bearing witness because it was too hard. It felt important that you have bear witness, you have to name it. You have to pay attention to it, but you also don’t have to live there. You also don’t have to wallow. And it felt like there was also a little bit of forgiveness in that, which was that part of you when someone else’s suffering feels like all you should do is suffer with them and lay on the floor and give up and just suffer because they’re suffering. I think this book was a moment when I realized that’s actually not what that suffering person wants you to do. It doesn’t honor those people that died in those towers. It doesn’t honor those people who are sick and at appointments and can’t go do what they want to be doing.

So then actually the process of praising and the process of noticing and the process of attention to the good things and the process of loving and the process of noticing the music of the world – I think that is as important and as necessary as witnessing and naming and holding the grief and sorrow that comes with being alive.

It’s nice to hear all that at once. It’s affirming of what poetry does, one of the many things that it does.

Yeah, aren’t we lucky to have it? I feel so lucky to have it! Like really, so freaking lucky to have it. I don’t know what I would do without it.

Ada, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Lucky Wreck, it’s been a real joy.

Lucky Wreck
By Ada Limón
Autumn House Press
Published April 3, 2021