This is a free edition of I Have Notes, a newsletter featuring essays, conversations, and notes on writing. Previously in my craft conversation series: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Crystal Hana Kim and R. O. Kwon, Lydia Kiesling, Bryan Washington
Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry, including The Carrying, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; Bright Dead Things, a National Book Award finalist; and her latest, The Hurting Kind, published on May 10 by Milkweed Editions. She also hosts a podcast, The Slowdown, in which she shares work by fellow poets—a brief and perfect offering every weekday, and a must-listen for anyone who loves or wants to read more poetry. She is one of my all-time favorite writers, someone whose work I return to again and again for solace, inspiration, and truth (my copies of The Carrying and Bright Dead Things are now so dog-eared that I could never loan them out to anyone), and I was thrilled to get to chat with her earlier this month.
Limón told me that many of the poems in her new book, The Hurting Kind, came from a place of questioning “what it is to belong … to be a witness of the world, and be witnessed by it.” She offered glimpses into her writing process—the questions that animate her work, what it means to launch a poem with curiosity, who reads her drafts, how she tries to protect her creative space and give herself “permission to start small” in order to begin again. Finally, she shared some of the most generous and insightful writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Remember not to get too caught up in the idea that everything’s been written or said or explored before … Give yourself permission to explore it for yourself. You are a unique human being, put on this planet in this moment, and that can be enough.”
Nicole Chung: It’s lovely to see you again, Ada; thank you for talking with me. And congratulations on your beautiful new book! I would love to hear more about your process when working on it—I’m always interested in how these thoughts and patterns can shift over time, and maybe from book to book.
Ada Limón: It is fascinating, isn’t it, how we change as artists? And you want to change as an artist. I think sometimes people don’t understand that—that we would like to develop.
Chung: And avoid boredom!
Limón: Yes! We want to grow as artists, as human beings; we want to have more access to the workings of the world. So every book process changes for me, because every book is a new way of looking at the world, and a new me: I’m different every time, though I’m bringing the older self—note I did not say wiser, but older—to the process.
What has shifted over the years is that I take a lot more time off from writing. As a younger writer, I was really adhering to the mythology that, in order to be a writer, you have to write every day. As I’ve continued to age and trust that the writing will be there, I’ve moved into a space where I feel like if I don’t write for a couple of months, that’s fine. It doesn’t scare me at all.
The other thing that’s shifted is that I have to work a little harder at creating a sense of intimacy and privacy for myself when I’m writing poems. Early on, I think there’s less pressure. You’ve probably experienced this—you write your first book, and then you’re like, Oh, I didn’t realize people were going to read it. There’s safety in the obscurity of poetry. Now that there’s been a certain establishment of readers of my work—which is wonderful and completely surprising—I’ve had to learn: How can I create an intimate space that feels authentic to who I am and what I’m experiencing, and is not just about entertaining the wider world, when I’m in the process of making it?
Chung: How do you find ways to do that?
Limón: One way is that I write longhand, in notebooks. It helps me get messy first drafts down and not be too precious about perfecting it right away … If I keep it in longhand, in this form, it feels more like a journal; like making something for myself, as opposed to considering where it may end up afterward.
Another thing is that I’m always asking myself: What is important to me? What matters the most? The answers that come up are my connections; my friends; my ability to live in the world and make art—hopefully for a long time; the space I’ve created with the humans and animals and trees that are in my life; the ancestors I want to thank. These are the projects of my life, and the questions in this book. What’s the purpose, the point, the thesis of my life? If I’m not staying true to that and it feels like artifice, or making something for production’s sake, then I don’t want to do it.
Chung: There is so much of a focus on production, and those immediate deadlines—what are you publishing this month, this year, three years from now? So I love that you mentioned the importance of making art, sustaining your practice, over a lifetime.
What was on your mind as you were working on the poems in this book? What questions were you thinking about?
Limón: One of the big questions of my life is: What is it to be and belong in the world? A long time ago, I was in a hurry to get home from a writing conference—it was great, but I was tired and really looking forward to getting home, and when I mentioned this, a woman asked me, “Oh, do you have a family?” I knew she meant kids. It made me think about the word family and question what it means to be connected, to be part of something. That was a big part of what I was experiencing as a human being, a child-free woman, and an artist moving through the world. I think this book in some ways comes out of that questioning of what it is to belong, to align yourself with the world—to be a witness of the world, and be witnessed by it.
As the pandemic came, I was pulled off the road. I didn’t realize how much I needed that rest—it was like, Oh, I’m tired. My husband’s work in the horse industry never stopped, because it’s all outdoors, so he was traveling a lot for work and I was home alone … This was before we were even taking walks with neighbors. So some of the poems came out of that curiosity about what it was to still feel connected when I was so isolated from everyone. It led to a real paradigm shift in my life. I thought, Wait, I’m not isolated. I see the same birds, the same trees, every single day, and I’m in community with them. Everything felt very alive and very much a part of me, and me a part of them.
Many of the poems in The Hurting Kind are written to ancestors, to my loved ones, to family and friends. A lot of that was about reaching out, wanting to give myself a moment to remember someone I miss. They were literal letters, these intimate poems that I was writing for family and friends in the midst of fear and anxiety for them. They were like offerings. And sometimes I would send them to people: “Here, I wrote this for you.” I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t have a lot of skills, but I can do this one thing, and maybe it will give someone a feeling of not just being seen, but beheld.
Chung: That’s such a beautiful gift. When you’re starting a new poem, is there a way you always like to begin? Do you begin with a feeling or a memory, or will you perhaps have a particular form or structure in mind?
Limón: Each poem is different, which I love. I think this is true of prose too—some of it comes kind of suddenly, and fully formed. You realize that the poem is not just appearing; it has been moving in your mind and in your body and in your bloodstream for a while.
Then there are other times when I start with curiosity: What’s going on right now with me, with the world? What’s my place in it? Where do I fit? How am I connected to anything? Why am I alive? … It will usually begin with some description, with deep observation. If I tug at it long enough, the question reveals itself. And then the question becomes: Why am I interested in this? Why is this the thing I’ve chosen to explore? Sometimes it’s not obvious; sometimes it’s not even something I say overtly in the poem, but I realize there’s a connection between the image and a larger thread, or what’s happening in my life as a whole.
Chung: If that’s how you write your way in, how do you feel when a poem is done, or maybe just ready to share?
Limón: If I’m describing an image, tugging at it with questions, interrogating what’s happening on the page, I’m also drafting it out loud—reading it out loud. I might read it a hundred times, listening to the music of it. It’s usually then, when the images are working, when the music hits right, when it feels right in the body, that I feel like I’m very close. Then the question is: Is it true? Does it feel true to me? You’d be surprised at how often I would like to lie in a poem to make myself feel better! And then the stars came out, and everything was okay. It’s that sort of self-soothing lie, a lie toward safety or protection … I have to be wary of that. If it feels true to me, and the images and the music are working, then I think maybe it’s ready to share.
Chung: How do you usually like to seek feedback on your poems?
Limón: I send every draft to my dear, sweet stepfather ... He has a really good ear, and knows me so well—he’s not a professional poet, he just has this stake in my legacy and who I am. I also have a group of other writers, other poets, that I will send poems to. Sometimes they’ll have feedback or suggestions; sometimes they’ll just write back “I love this.” It’s such a gift to have someone in your life who will (a) do this in the first place, and (b) put the feedback in words and phrases that you can handle, and that your ego can bear. Having that reader as a soft landing, as opposed to a perhaps too-harsh critic, is really useful.
Chung: What do you do when you’re feeling stuck?
Limón: There’s a difference between not wanting to write and wanting to write and not being able to. Sometimes I just don’t want to write—I want to cook something, or listen to music, or call and talk to someone on the phone. If I am feeling the need to write, or if I want to soothe my heart a little by creating something, it’s a big thing for me to give myself permission to start small. If I’m struggling to write, if I can’t enter a poem, it’s usually because there’s too much going on—it’s not that I have nothing to say; it’s that I have too much. So I almost have to make myself as small as possible: Look at this rock on your desk for five minutes and write about it. And that’s how I can kind of jump-start it again.
Chung: To bring it back to The Hurting Kind, I have to imagine that every book feels different, and maybe teaches you something new. Is there anything you feel you’ve learned about yourself, or your work, through writing this book and releasing it into the world?
Limón: I think every time I write a new poem, not just a new book, I’m becoming more suspicious of making work that has a forced epiphany. As I age, I’m more and more interested in creating art that is authentic to the work itself—pushing against doing the easier thing, like always looking for the lesson. When I was younger, I felt like the poets I met were the wisest people in the world. Their poems held so much wisdom. I felt like I had to do that, to have and offer wisdom, in order to be an artist. I think now I have so much more faith in the process, more faith in listening to the poem itself versus forcing the poem, or feeling like I’m somehow colonizing the poem. I’m much more receptive to what the poem is teaching me.
Chung: Do you have any advice for writers, especially those writing poetry?
Limón: Remember not to get caught up in the idea that everything’s been written or said or explored before … Give yourself permission to explore it for yourself. You are a unique human being, put on this planet in this moment, and that can be enough.
I think so often we get caught up in the belief that we need to have a certain kind of story, instead of resisting the easy story, resisting the summing up, and leaning into the mess—the parts of you that don’t fit in a box or in your Twitter profile but are the real you. Those messy parts, which may feel less appreciated by a workshop or by publishers, are eventually going to be what you hold onto so dearly, because they are the parts of you that make you an artist—a unique and idiosyncratic artist, and the only one who can do what you do.
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