I hope you managed to read the interview with Ada Limon:Part 1. Ada speaks about online poetry blogging as being a productive way of getting feedback. As long as you don’t think that every poem has a halo around it, blogging poetry is a constructive way of improving your work, not finalizing it but initiating the process itself. She tells us that reading is linking one poet to another- as you go further and further away from the source, you start to get the feel of language and emotion. She also tells us how focus is crucial- the only way to get out one poem at a time. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you must.
Today she talks about her work and the beauty of form in poetry.
How important is understanding form- should an aspiring poet know how to write a villanelle, a sonnet, a ballad, etc. as opposed to just writing in free verse?
I love writing in form. If you’re starting out, it’s important to play around with form. You’ll find that it expands your brain—not constricts it—and gives you an unusual way of discovering your own voice. I have a crown of sonnets in my first book, “Lucky Wreck” called “Spider Web.” Those sonnets started out as a long free verse poem that couldn’t quite find its power in the beginning. Once I broke it into sonnets and let the sound become this cage of tension, it opened.
If you don’t like poems in form, go to the poem and let it speak. It could turn into something you couldn’t have imagined earlier. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is one such poem, a huge inspiration to me. Read it over and over and watch how it changes; it will completely blow your sweet free-verse loving mind and make you tremble.
What goes into a book of poetry- is it planning, inspiration, research or sheer observation? Tell us about the process that went into your latest book “Sharks in the Rivers”.
I didn’t realize I was writing a book when I began writing “Sharks in the Rivers.” I started with a singular poem, an image, an instinct, and let the poem build into a life. With “Sharks in the Rivers,” I began to see a pattern of river images, of high water, of flooding. At the time, I was dealing with the eminent death of my stepmother, the death of a friend, numerous heartaches, career indecision, and an overall struggle with my own place in the universe. Suddenly all the poems I was writing started speaking to each other. The powerful presence of death was always swimming under even the lightest most joyful poems in the book, and I realized that death was the shark. I wanted the image of a shark, something mysterious and overwhelming,underneath the current of everyday life. Then, the birds came into the book; the birds became that symbol of lightness, of wishes, of spirituality and myths. In that sense, the juxtaposition of water,animals and birds represents the human conflict between the subconscious and the buoyant rapture of our most lifted selves. Once I saw these themes start to take hold of every poem I was writing, the book began to cohere.
I also had two great editors at Milkweed who helped me take the book to its final state. Great editors are miraculous gifts.I feel incredibly connected to “Sharks in the Rivers,” and it’s a book that taught me a lot about who I am as an artist…and who I want to be as a person.
Three books later, where do you think poetry is taking you next? What kind of avenues do you think a poet has in this internet crazy age?
My fourth book of poems is just now starting to come together, and surprisingly, it’s full of love poems. I didn’t truly fall into a lasting love until my mid-thirties and it’s been a subject that, while I’ve tackled it before, I have generally explored it from the standpoint of heartbreak. Writing real love poems is a truly fascinating experience; it’s challenging in a whole new way, to explore the human heart at its most desirous and vulnerable. I feel extremely lucky to be writing love poems now at this point in my life.The new poems in this fourth book also deal with living as an atheist in the American south. I’m excited to see the manuscript come together; it’s like watching a tree grow large and into its own, in time-lapse photography. I had the dear pleasure of meeting with Philip Levine (my mentor and former professor) recently who said, “The world needs a book of Ada Limón love poems.” I almost died right then and there. I don’t know if the world needs it, but I can tell you I needed it, that’s for certain.
I am also finishing up a novel set in the Sonoma Valley called,“People From Here,” and writing children’s poems. I suppose that’s what happens in this, as you called it, “internet-crazy age.” We have the freedom to explore different forms, formats, and genres that excite us as artists. There’s no longer a sense that if you’re a language poet, you shouldn’t explore a narrative lyric poem, or vice versa. It seems now, that the once rigid and divided poetic schools of thought are softening their edges as the advance of the internet community has moved us toward inclusiveness. It’s a try everything agenand I support that as an artist, but I also support finding what you love and returning to it over and over again. I may write another novel, or a children’s book, or a book of non-fiction, but I will always stay true to poetry.
You always have to, as they say in the South, “dance with the one that brung you.” And poetry has most certainly “brung” me this far.
Thank you Ada for all your time. I really had a lovely time.
Ada Limon will be teaching an online course this winter for only 15 students and you can apply here.