20 September 2011

Poet Q & A: Ada Limón on Sharks in the Rivers

Limón, Ada. Sharks in the Rivers. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2010.

As was the case with Trey Moody's Climate Reply, I asked Ada Limón, author of Sharks in the Rivers, to answer a few questions about the book we will be reading, as well as some questions about poetry and the writing of poetry in general. Below you will find her responses:

1) Tell us about when you first became interested in poetry. Who were your first poetic influences? When did you begin writing poetry? What do you think poetry does or can do for us today and does this differ from your earliest conceptions of what poetry is/does?

I first became interested in poetry when I was a kid, probably 8 or 9. I wrote songs all the time and fell in love with rhymes. Then, of course came many years of bad songs and bad poetry where I had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted very much to be doing something poetic. I began writing in earnest in college. I took three poetry workshops at the University of Washington and suddenly decided to become a poet. I was totally addicted. It was as if someone pointed out to me a trap door to a hidden city that I always suspected was there, but couldn’t quite find my way in. Once I found it, I never wanted to leave. I still don’t.

In the beginning, I thought poetry was a wonderful translation of the world. I had no idea that the power of it was in the mystery is held. When I first became good at “reading” poetry and therefore, “got” the meaning of many more poems, I fell into that familiar trap of solving poems. As if they were puzzles. Now, I find so much more joy in what cannot be figured out, or what can be read many ways. I find so much more delight and power in the mystery.

My first real poetic influences were Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, and Sharon Olds. I read them all in high school and later, studied with both Levine and Olds in graduate school at New York University. It was a real gift to finally get to study with your poetic heroes. I was in awe, and completely over my head. I think that’s a good way to really start to learn the craft.

2) Give us some background on the creation, development, and gestation of Sharks in the Rivers. How does this collection differ from your previous collections or current projects?

Sharks in the Rivers was in the works for about four years before it was released by Milkweed Editions just one year ago. I spent a lot of time making sure this book, and each individual poem, was as solid, and as expansive, as possible. This book was different from the others in the sense that the poems needed to really speak to each other in order for the whole book to work. I wanted to work with repetition in a way that I hadn’t tried before. I wanted to focus on the natural imagery in with juxtaposition the man-made world. With this in mind, I was prepared to repeat many images, such as birds, fish, rivers, water, rocks, sharks, etc. Each poem had to be strong enough to hold up to the big bully of repeated lines, and the book as whole needed to feel like it had one big, powerful river was running through it, moving it forward.

3) What is your favorite or most memorable poem from the collection we're reading? What about the poem, its process, or its inspiration makes it particularly remarkable for you?

True confession: all the poems in the book are my favorite. I just need different ones at different times. I feel tremendously close to it. It was both a very personal process and a very alarmingly expansive process. The poem that feels like it’s the anchor, or crux, of the book is, “Fifteen Balls of Feathers.” I feel like this poem was unstoppable. And I mean that literally. I wrote it in one sitting, albeit, it was a 9 hour stint. Still, the words came, the images came, the story came, all of it in one frenzied and yet calculated wave. It was a remarkable personal event. I could barely move. It was the most marvelous torture I have ever experienced.

4) What was the most difficult poem for you to write? Why? How did you overcome or think through these challenges?

The most difficult poem for me was probably, “The Crossing,” and that has a lot to do with the fact that my step-mom was dying when I wrote it. It was a very honest poem about a very intimate moment between the two of us. She really did ask if I thought she would come back. She had only a few years left to live. It was hard to imagine that sort of long death. The kind you can attempt to prepare for, the wondering, the hoping, the questioning about what is next. The only way I could get through it was to focus on the rhythm and the structure of the poem, and in that way, the poem held me in its arms and made me keep going.

5) What, to your mind, is the overriding concern of Sharks in the Rivers? How do specific craft or poetic elements contribute to, intensify, or complicate to this concern?

The singular goal of all my work is to help people, and myself, constantly recommit to the world. To stay in it. To be in it. To rejoice in all its weird pain and weird happiness. I wanted Sharks in the Rivers to keep doing that, to keep pushing the idea of being open to the flood of everything that’s alive around us and in us. The river, the animals, all those images that repeat are trying to hammer in the idea of what we take in, all that is coming at us, how brilliant and how messy it all is. How, how we’re in the river together, it’s going to keep going, we’re just supposed to ride it as long as we can without letting go. No drowning allowed. You can go under, but you must come back. All our want and all our desire and all our agony are part of it, so we swallow it like water.

I never wanted to complicate the theme, I wanted to clarify it always, but sometimes the strange images that came to me had to be written just as they came, the demanded to be written as their true selves. Sharks are demanding. Fish are demanding. Birds are demanding. They want to be written right. Like love, and death, and all the big ticket stuff in between.

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