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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

24th U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón explores humanity, life through connecting deeply with nature in work

Ada Limón is the 24th poet laureate of the United States. She is in Spokane this weekend to participate in the Get Lit! Festival.  (Lucas Marquardt)

When Ada Limón writes poetry, she says she hopes it will help her notice the world.

“Every time I write a poem, it’s about connecting with this moment, to this lived experience in this human body,” Limón said over a Zoom call from Lexington, Kentucky. “Sometimes that’s all it is. And then other times, I’m hoping that it reaches outward and connects with an audience and to a reader that needs to breathe.”

“(Poetry) makes space for the chaos of the human heart,” she said. “You can feel fully seen without having the answers. … it’s a space for questions. It’s a space for curiosity. It’s a space for wonder and it’s also a space for leaving room for some confusion or even equanimity.”

Limón has authored six collections of poetry, with her latest, “The Hurting Kind,” published in 2022. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the New Yorker. Her collection “The Carrying” won the National Book Critics Award for Poetry, and “Bright Dead Things” was nominated for multiple awards, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. She currently serves as the 24th poet laureate of the United States.

Limón has spent the past seven months traveling the United States since taking up the laureate position in September, and she says, after seeing firsthand the number of people attending events, “it feels like (poetry is) really having a vibrant moment right now. … People really care about it.”

Among her stops is Spokane for the 25th annual Get Lit! Festival, starting Thursday and running through Sunday night. Limón will lead a sold-out poetry workshop on Friday at the Central Library. Seats for an evening event featuring Limón from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Bing Crosby Theater, 901 W. Sprague Ave., are available for $25. Washington poets Laura Read and Gabrielle Bates also will be present.

The last time Limón visited the Lilac City was in 2006 when she read at Auntie’s Bookstore for her first poetry collection, “Lucky Wreck.”

“I’m very excited to come back to Spokane,” she said.

Balancing private, public artist

Limón’s experience as U.S. poet laureate has presented a series of challenges, including finding time for herself in such a busy position. In a fast-moving world, it’s easy to shift from one moment and into the next with little time to slow down. But writing, Limón says, is one of the few times she doesn’t feel like she should be doing something else. “It’s a gift to have (writing) be both your art form and your life.”

Asked how her goals as a poet may have changed since taking up the laureate position, Limón explained the call for public poetry has shifted her writing habits, and she has found it’s crucial to preserve her private life, including the poetry she writes for herself.

“I’m really vehement of protecting my private art and my private self and my private poetry. The poetry I just make for myself or for my husband or for my friends, that’s just as important” as her public work, she said.

Limón’s poetry is often vulnerable and intimate; to be thrust into a public role became a learning experience on how to find the right balance between her public and private identities as a poet.

“I think it’s really become about the balance of being a public figure and a public artist and then protecting and preserving and nurturing the private artist so that I can feel a sense of wholeness so that it’s not always sort of bifurcated or divided,” she said. But since taking up the position and working through those challenges, Limón has discovered it’s given her “a lot of clarity and a lot of purpose.”

One of Limón’s public poetry projects comes in collaboration with NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is set to launch in October 2024 and is estimated to arrive at Jupiter’s icy moon in 2030. A poem by the poet laureate will be engraved on the side of the spacecraft. Limón sent a hand-written copy of the poem to NASA on April 13.

“You can imagine I did about 19 drafts trying to get the handwriting right,” she said.

To have a poem launched into space and for that poem to essentially become a representation of humanity and the arts was “really intimidating,” she said. And while crafting the poem was difficult, Limón found herself thinking about and mentally returning to her home planet. “What I kept remembering was to come back to our Earth, to the wonders of our Earth. … it helped me write the poem.”

Without giving away too much detail about the poem, which is scheduled to be released publicly June 1, Limón explained that she considered the engraving, its placement on the side of the spacecraft and the six-year journey to Europa. She realized it “was the beauty of this planet” she wanted to celebrate within the poem.

‘Nature is a part of us’

Earth’s natural beauty becomes a common theme across Limón’s work, as her poetry often grapples with the complexities of humanity alongside the natural world.

“I think that nature and humanity are one and the same,” Limón said. “That we’re a part of nature and nature is a part of us, that it is a reciprocal relationship.”

For Limón, nature isn’t something she necessarily goes out and finds, such as going to a national park or hiking. Part of the beauty of nature, she says, is found in everyday experiences: “Whether it’s a tree at your bus stop or a potted plant outside of a mall, whether it is the things that are growing around us, the thing in relationship with us is essential to how we live.”

And that’s apparent in her poetry.

In “The Hurting Kind,” Limón’s observations across nature span critters, sea life and birds, as well as various species of trees, while also she looks at humankind’s interaction with nature, such as children snatching an egg from a chicken coop to discover a developed chick inside its shell. The poet writes: “Where we // expected yolk and mucus, was an unfeathered / and unfurled sweetness. We stared at the thing, // dead now and unshelled by curiosity and terrible youth.”

By looking closely at nature, Limón said, “that sort of deep looking … can be a way of caring about the world and also sort of caring beyond ourselves.

“Because I think it’s very easy to get so stressed out about what is happening to the individual,” she continued, “whether to yourself within this moment, the to-do list, the bill that needs to be paid, the friends that need help, … the children that need looking after – all of these things. And I think that sometimes looking at nature is a way to remember that we’re not alone, first of all, and that there’s life happening everywhere and we’re a part of something larger.”

Writing about the smaller things in everyday life is about “having that little bit of a wider lens, pulling the camera back and recognizing that we’re a part of a whole thing,” Limón said. “Whatever it is, (poetry) allows a tiny bit of space for our breath so it doesn’t feel like the world is crashing in on us, especially on our busiest times or times of crisis.”