In conversation with Sabrina Islam, Ada Limón talks about her poem “Open Water” (NER 42.2), the genesis of her poems’ images, and how “what we pay attention to is how we show our love.”
Sabrina Islam: In “Open Water” you write: “It does no good to trick and weave and lose / the other ghosts, to shove the buried deeper / into the sandy loam, the riverine silt, still you come, / my faithful one, the sound of a body so persistent / in water I cannot tell if it is a wave or you / moving through waves.” What is your process of navigating grief through poetry?
Ada Limón: I was just thinking of that recently. I don’t know if I have a process for navigating grief in my own work, instead it just comes when it comes. I often find myself sitting down to write and then my ghosts arrive. They are moving through me or they are with me always, and then when I allow myself to be tender to the world, to be open to the page, the ghosts come. It always feels like a gift to be able to receive them. To be able to open the door and say, “Oh I’ve been waiting for you!”
SI: Later in the poem we see, “That enormous reckoning eye of an unknown fish.” Kaveh Akbar once pointed out how in your poetry there is a preoccupation with animal life—sharks, fish, horses, birds. What role do animals and the natural world play in your thinking process?
AL: It’s true I’m obsessed with animals, but not just the nonhuman animal, but how we are animals too. A sense of interconnectedness on the planet is what encourages me to try to live each day with some sort of grace, some sort of enoughness. Animals are always reminding me that I am not the center of the story. That there is life all around me and that life will continue on without me. I am not the fulcrum or the arrow on the map. There’s a comfort in that. A spaciousness.
SI: “Open Water” ends, “But I keep thinking how something saw you, something / was bearing witness to you out there in the ocean / where you were no one’s mother, and no one’s wife, / but you in your original skin, right before you died, / you were beheld.” Elsewhere, in your poem “A Name,” we see Eve walking among animals, naming them, and the speaker wonders if Eve also wishes for the animals to speak back and name her. I am fascinated by the amount of openness and vulnerability necessary for the desire to be witnessed so closely. What does it mean to be seen?
AL: I feel increasingly fascinated about the idea that we often don’t think of the animal witnessing us, but rather we are always the seer. Humans are the ones with the albatross around our necks. We tell the story. We have the language-laden tongue and the opposable thumbs. But that still doesn’t mean we are at the center. In my work, and more so in the new book that I’m working on, I’m interested in what it is to not always be the one witnessing, but also what it feels like to be seen, to be witnessed by someone, something else. I’m intrigued by the idea that to be witnessed is as essential as to witness. I’m also intrigued with the idea that when an animal sees the human animal, it sees the animal us, the body, the skin, the movement, the threat, the safety, without all the chaos that’s steaming in our minds.
SI: In an interview with Diana Delgado for Guernica you talk about feeling things largely, “There is so much feeling that is moving through me almost all the time, and probably many people have this happening to them, but for me, I feel it. It can be a little intimidating and overwhelming sometimes, and the poem feels like a place where I can put all of that.” Your poem “How to Triumph Like a Girl” has an invincible quality, where the speaker feels things deeply and invites readers to see her “8-pound female horse heart, giant with power, heavy with blood.” I’d love to hear the inspiration behind that incredible poem.
AL: Thank you, thank you. That poem, like many of my poems, came out of a curiosity. A question. I wanted to know what it was that made me feel connected to the female horses. Why was it that I wanted to see them win? I started out with that question and let the interrogation lead me to the idea of having that heart inside me, that courageous and powerful heart. The poem was written when I didn’t feel courageous or powerful, but I was allowing myself to imagine what that might feel like to hold that enormous heart inside me, to believe in my own strength and power. Perhaps it’s a spell? I know I needed it.
SI: You’ve said Aretha Franklin has had a huge influence on your poetry. While searching for “the faint music under things,” how do you think about sound and composition? Do you have other favorite writers/artists/musicians who inspire sound in your poetry?
AL: I love Aretha Franklin. I grew up listening to her albums over and over again. (A fact my older brother can attest to.) I can’t actually listen to music while I write though. I am too much of a mimic. When I listen to music it’s with my whole body and my mouth. I sing and dance and it requires all of my attention. I can barely listen to music while I’m driving because it absorbs me so completely. A few of my favorite artists that I return to again and again are: Joan Armatrading, Sade, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, oh I could just go on and on.
SI: Joan Didion writes how certain images shimmer for her: “Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there.” In “Open Water” you recall your stepmother recount her swim, “That night, I heard more / about that fish and that eye than anything else. / I don’t know why it has come to me this morning. / Warm rain and landlocked, I don’t deserve the image.” How do you recognize if a certain image could become a poem?
AL: I love the way images come to us. The mind making paintings all the time. Recalling and recalling. I’m not sure which images are going to make poems when they come to me, but I can tell you that if something strikes me, moves me, changes my body, then I know it’s at least worth exploring in a poem. That morning, the morning of the poem, it really felt like she came to me, was swimming, and that it wasn’t about her final days, but about how she was witnessed in the wild. That was what mattered. I don’t know why, but that’s what the image told me, it was about the EYE, and I was so moved that by the time I was finished with the dishes, I was nearly weeping. That doesn’t mean that the image was going to make a good poem, but it does mean that it moved me enough to sit down and explore it fully.
SI: What obsessions you are entertaining now? What ideas are you exploring?
AL: Lately, my work has been leaning on the idea of ancestors, connections, how a life is not just singular, how a life is made up of our surroundings, our chosen families, our beloveds, our bloodlines, our stories, our possibilities. I’m interested in the mess, the unknowing, the mystery of our world. It’s interesting to try to write a poem that has no certainty or can breathe in the in-between spaces. I’m fascinated by what it means to be an artist that has no answers and how that can translate on the page.
SI: For fellow writers, how do you foster the tenacity to keep going?
AL: It is so hard to keep going, isn’t it? I laugh that I’m always telling friends that we should just give up, just lie down for a bit, just stop and surrender to the spin of the world. And then of course, I nap, and read, and then something in me wants to make poems again. I think of living, of making a living, that can require a bit of tenacity. We must have tenacity to live, to continue, to pay the rent, and get groceries, and grieve, and work through illness and pain, and continue on when all we really want to do is rest for awhile, is to have things be easy. Life is rough. But for me, writing is not about tenacity. I’m not saying it’s not work. I work at it, I edit for months, years sometimes, I throw away hundreds of drafts poems that just don’t seem to want to come to life yet, but at the core of me, making poems, writing poems is not hard. Writing poems is the good part, it’s the gift, it’s the part that doesn’t require tenacity. Poems come when I am not gritting my teeth; they come when I make myself available. So if there was one thing I could offer about how to keep going is to follow your joys when you can, follow the bright edges, let yourself be drawn to what you love and then make poems from that place. What we pay attention to is how we show our love. If it feels too hard to write, don’t write for awhile, take time off, take a nap, call a friend, work at something else, weep. Poems will come. Time will pass. If you love poetry and making poems, you’ll find a way to make them no matter what. They’ll be knocking on your chest to get out, and when you’re ready, when you’ve cried enough, and slept enough, you’ll open your mouth and those poems will come flying out.
SI: Thank you so much for your time, Ada.
Sabrina Islam, who reads fiction manuscripts for NER, holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. She has received scholarships from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference and the Key West Literary Seminar. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the minnesota review. She currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.