The natural world has always spoken to Ada Limón. As a young student, she took frequent nature walks around Northern California where she memorized bird and plant species and counted newts in the creek. In her own family, she witnessed her mom care for a 40-acre horse ranch near her home and nurture emotional connections between the four-legged trotters. Snippets of nature — everything from a bundle of rattlesnake grass to Emily Dickinson’s dog — have woven themselves into her critically acclaimed poetry.
Now, Limón, 46, hopes to share her devotion to nature with the whole country. She was named the 24th poet laureate of the United States on Tuesday. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden called Limón with the news, much to the poet’s pleasant surprise. “For someone who is a poet and believes in the power of language, I can tell you that language definitely went out the window at that moment in my life,” she says.
Born in Sonoma, Calif., Limón was first enchanted by the world of poetry while working at her local bookstore. At the University of Washington, she majored in theater and planned to continue theater studies in graduate school. That is, until her poetry teacher Colleen McElroy pulled her aside during office hours.
“She said, ‘You should think about going to graduate school in poetry,’ ” Limón remembers. “And she was incredibly tough. Those teachers do not hand out a compliment lightly.”
Taking McElroy’s advice to heart, she earned an MFA in poetry at New York University. After a stint working in marketing, she became a full-time writer in 2010. Critics have called her a “careful witness” to nature’s rare gifts and a versatile composer bringing together big ideas and little details, sometimes with a dash of humor. Her latest poetry collection, “The Hurting Kind,” published in May to rave reviews, and her 2018 collection, “The Carrying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and hosts the poetry podcast called “The Slowdown,” which reflects on a new poem every weekday.
Limón assumes the role of poet laureate with two primary intentions: to use poetry to help people reclaim their humanity and to repair their relationship with the natural world. “So many people right now are living in their own personal realities, living sort of amidst the chaos and trauma,” she says. “And we’re not even given a moment to breathe, let alone grieve because we’re on to the next hard thing, whether it’s dealing with the pandemic or the climate crisis.”
But poetry, as her podcast reminds listeners, is an invitation to slow down and consider what’s happening.
For Limón, poetry is about digging into thorny issues, though she coaches her MFA students at Queens University of Charlotte to never lose sight of their mental health.
“Remember that when we’re exploring the heavier material of our lives — whether it’s generational trauma, whether it’s our own wounds, whether it’s a political rage — you can’t go down to the bottom of the well unless you have a ladder back out,” she says.
These days, Limón recalls from her home in Lexington, Ky., early and pivotal lessons from nature. Instead of seeing nature as separate from humanity, she implores us to remember that “we are nature too.” An excerpt from her poem “Ancestors” bridges these gaps by weaving together keen observations about leaves with childhood nostalgia:
Later, I remember leaves, through car windows,
through bedroom windows, through the classroom window,
the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that
power from roots. Imagine you must survive
without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves,
I do not know where else I belong.
The poet laureate runs an annual lecture and spotlights emerging and established poets in the Library of Congress’s poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area. Limón will serve a one-year term and succeeds Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, who served three terms. Limón officially begins her term in the fall with her first reading at the Library of Congress on Sept. 29.
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