During hard times likes these, says prizewinning poet Ada Limón, "poetry can help us reclaim our humanity."
Limón, who has published six collections of poetry — four with Minneapolis' Milkweed Editions — has been named the new Poet Laureate of the United States. She will succeed Joy Harjo, who has held the position since 2019.
Limón has won a National Book Critics Circle Award, served as a judge for the National Book Awards and is a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. She has been a finalist for a National Book Award, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the Kingsley Tufts Award.
Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and elsewhere, and she hosts a weekday poetry podcast on American Public Media. Her newest collection, "The Hurting Kind," was published in May by Milkweed.
Limón will give her inaugural reading as Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress on Sept. 29.
We talked with Limón, who lives in Kentucky, about the importance of poetry in a difficult world, the connection between poetry and the natural world, and why it's good to have a poet laureate who "looks like America."
Q: What does being named U.S. Poet Laureate mean to you?
A: It's such an incredible honor! And I also feel like I want to fill this role with the sort of seriousness that is intended. I think this is a crucial time of our lives in the United States and around the globe, and I think it has never been more important to make a case for the importance of language and the importance of poetry.
I truly believe that poetry can help us reclaim our humanity — by reminding us that we have a whole spectrum of human emotions, despite the fact that many of us have had to learn to go numb, to activate our skills of denial in terms of how do you proceed when you're living through a pandemic or a climate crisis. Poetry helps us remember that we are feeling human beings. That we grieve and process trauma, and that through processing that, we can also remember joy.
I can't think of a better time to be reminded of our humanity.
Q: What do you hope to do as poet laureate?
A: I truly believe that poetry can help us repair our relationship with the Earth and the natural world. There are so many poems out there that are looking at our connection with nature — and that doesn't mean standing in Yellowstone or Yosemite and having some great epiphany of the enormity of the world. It could just mean recognizing in our daily commute the birds that you pass, the trees that you pass, and recognizing that we too are imperfect animals on the planet and we too are nature.
Q: You have a long connection with Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis. Why have you continued to publish with them when you almost certainly could go somewhere bigger?
A: I'm a big believer in dancing with the one who brung ya. And I think it's important to recognize how much of making poems Is making community. Milkweed has been on my side and a big part of my community since I first started working with them in 2010 with "Sharks in the Rivers." They have always supported me in a really holistic way.
They've recognized when I needed something, pushed me when I needed to be pushed in a good direction, allowed me to say no when I needed to say no. There's a deep mutual respect. I have deep respect for the work that they do.
And also, their books are beautiful. They make beautiful books. And the artifact of the book itself should be celebrated.
Q: You will follow a number of amazing poets laureate, many of the recent ones poets of color — Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, Juan Felipe Herrera, Natasha Trethewey. Why is it important to have such diversity in this position? Or is it?
A: I think it's incredibly important. I think it's important that positions like this that are meant to hold space for recognizing the literary arts have to be diverse. It's essential that we represent the United States. I love what it looks like to actually bring America into the room. I think that's what it feels like to me now, which is wonderful.
I also feel like being of Mexican heritage there is a real honoring of my ancestors. And in some ways, to be honest, I think it's also important to recognize that our literary legacy in the United States does not end with poetry of the United States but instead it's expansive, it's global. Even in grad school ... we were always told our literary ancestors were Whitman and Dickinson, whom I love, but also doesn't it expand? These sort of ideas of exploring what literary connections mean that goes beyond the border.
Q: We live in incredibly fraught times. What can poetry do, if anything, to help us get through?
A: I really do believe in the power of poetry to connect us to ourselves and to feelings. I think it's also really important to remember that poetry can be a place to explore the entire range of human emotions. It can be a place for rage, a place for grief, a place where you can begin to heal.
I think we can't do the good work we need to do to make the planet a better place to live in without doing the groundwork and emotional work that poetry allows us to do. It's a place to breathe. You can't go to the bottom of the well without taking a deep breath, and poetry is the place to breathe.
Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @StribBooks.