The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Director of Prison and Justice Writing Caits Meissner speaks with Ada Limón, author of The Hurting Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Amazon, Bookshop

1. In a world pummeled by routine terror, I often witness the resulting impulse to feel guilty or double down on identities of trauma as a way to self validate and prove belonging. I found it startling and refreshing that The Hurting Kind opens with a poem called “Give Me This,” offering the lines:

“Why am I not allowed / delight? A stranger writes to request my thoughts / on suffering”

There seems to be dance in many of the poems between embracing and shedding various identities. Can you enlighten readers to what you’re writing towards in your poems, and how to negotiate the space between the importance of identity and the trap of identity?Ada Limon
My whole life I’ve been fighting for some sort of freedom in my life, in how I’m seen, in what I am allowed. I love the idea of naming—identifying—but as a way of feeling more connected, not as a way of colonizing or owning. Even now, some people feel like it’s very essential to own a label and I feel more comfortable saying, I’m this and this and also this and also this and all of that could change tomorrow. I suppose I’m working against any sort of fixedness. I want to be as free as anyone to write what they want to write and to be human in all those beautiful, necessary, and urgent ways.

2. Let’s get into some craft. The Hurting Kind is structured in seasons: spring / summer / fall / winter. The larger metaphor strikes me as a reminder in and of itself of the cyclical nature of all things. Can you reveal to us anything about this intentional frame? Often, fellow writers are curious about how one attempts to order a poetry collection. What was your approach?
This book came together quite differently than others. There was no narrative arc—the book addresses surrender and time and release of the self. When I realized that it was meant to be in seasons, it made complete sense, and suddenly I knew I had a book. The book is meant to go on without me, not with me and my ego as its engine, but rather the world and nature as its engine. That was the only way it made sense. The discovery that it was meant to be in seasons taught me a lot about what this book was doing.

“I want to be as free as anyone to write what they want to write and to be human in all those beautiful, necessary, and urgent ways.

3. Ada, like a DJ with a signature fade move, I am always amazed by the way your poems seem to take on their own musical pattern. While reading, I often find myself eased into the poem’s entryway through the micro, then the poem gains momentum and ratchets up, expanding the vision to capture a gut-punch of a larger truth about the experience of being human. Can you talk about using the turn—or volta—effectively in poems? Is this something you consciously wield?
First of all, thank you for that. I’m honored. I do think of my poems as very musical. That’s one of my most cherished elements of prosody, the idiosyncratic sonic power of a poem. It’s what drew me to poetry in the first place. A song on the page with all the music there—the melody, the tempo, the harmony, the rhythm, the pitch. I rarely start out knowing where I’m going, instead it begins with a curiosity, a question, a need, an image, a pulse, a sound and I start to tug at it and see where it goes. The music begins to build as I work at the impulse of the poem, and from there, it becomes a matter of listening to the poem, its own music and not trying to force it. Sometimes the poems get larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes they only offer silence, but it’s not planned, it’s all an experiment as I go. It’s just a matter of listening rather than forcing.

4. I was struck by how often animals and plants appear in The Hurting Kind. Many vignettes and lessons culled from the act of tending to the natural world, of learning from both other species’ sentience, and their blissful indifference to humans.

Reading the book called to mind a quote from writer and gardener Anna Pavord, “Gardens are our best possible defense, our bulwark against an increasingly, it seems to me, hostile world. We have increasingly less control over what is going on out there. And in our gardens, we can make the sort of world we wish we lived in.”

Does this resonate with the intention of the book? In what ways did the natural world become a teacher and balm during the years in which you were writing?
I love that quote, but I suppose I still think I don’t have any control over the garden either. That’s what excites me the most. Those tenacious weeds that grow strong and rubbery overnight. The animals that come and go. The birds that take over the hanging plants to make a nest. The spiders in between the bricks. I think that need for nature to go on being…nature is what was with me so much when I was writing these poems. It’s with me now. I can’t water a hanging plant because I have a whole nest of fledglings just outside the door. I’m sick at home on the couch and I could be feeling sorry for myself, and yet I’m excited that I might be home to watch them fly for the first time. Nature, to me, teaches an ongoingness that I often need to hold on to, but also it teaches me that I am nature too. I’m part of it and it’s part of me. I’m not making a world, I am recognizing I am part of it and it’s a part of me.

5. This is a two part question that notices the dual impulses of desire and nostalgia, and how you seem to circle around them in the book’s contemplative spread of poems.

In “Banished Wonders” you write: “But I do not want to kill / that longing woman in me. I love her and I want her to go on longing / until it drives her mad, that longing, until her desire is something / like a blazing flower, a tree shaking off / the torrents of rain as if it is simply making music.”

I interpret multiple instances of desire appearing in poems almost as a form of meditation, wherein the reward lies in conjuring the feeling itself. Can you talk about desire’s presence in your work, and is it a driving force in your own creative process?
Oh, well, want is a part of everything isn’t it? We want all the time. We are engines of want, desire, give me this, let me be okay, every prayer is desire, even in its most generous state. I think it’s important to name and talk about desire and need and longing because when we do, we can begin to see if it’s tormenting us or bringing us pleasure? Sometimes longing is a good thing, the longing to live, to feel good, to have the world be healed, and sometimes longing is detrimental because we get on that hedonistic treadmill and can’t get off. We want more and more and more. So I love interrogating desire as a way of exploring what it is that I’m really experiencing, sometimes it’s true longing and sometimes it’s my own way of making myself suffer for no reason.

“Sometimes I’m still full of despair, sometimes I feel broken, but mostly I’ve learned to remember that I am part of something whole and it’s not about me, it’s about all of us, this community, this natural world, this small moment on earth.

6. Similarly, nostalgia seems to be a recurrent theme. Early in the book, I noticed moments that leaned towards nostalgia being interrupted by the physical world, a tug out of the past and back into the present. Later in the book comes “Against Nostalgia, ” in the winter section, a crystallizing clarity, a sobering pull towards reconciling a romanticized version of the past with the beautiful here and now. Nostalgia can be seen as a cheap trick in poems, but your wrestling is tender and complex. Can you talk about how nostalgia functions in your writing?
I love nostalgia, everything amber colored and perfect. But as you mentioned it can be a cheap trick and even in graduate school I realized how I had to watch how I used memory and nostalgia in my own work. I knew I had a deep need to record the past. For me, it’s often about getting the details right. I am lucky that I do have a good memory, and my memory is not just for colors or the visual, but it’s all the senses. I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember and I hope I can hold on to it, to remember with my whole body, to feel and see and hear and taste and smell the past. But we shall see what my future brain holds for me. So because of that, I am always trying to get it right, to get it true, so that when I’m exploring something that happened in the past, I’m not making it amber colored, sepia toned, or perfect, but how it was, that sort of recording and exploring seems to me a type of honoring rather than a manipulation.


7. “This is where it ends. Or begins.”—one of a few instances in your poems (this one from “Jar of Scorpions”) that gestures towards the many roads a story can take, both in the living and in the retelling. Often in our work in the Prison and Justice Writing department here at PEN America, we discuss the value of one taking control of their narrative. While I believe this to a large extent, I also want to complicate it within the environment of your poetry. How do you orient to the concept of multiple truths in your writing? Can poetry offer us a way to rewrite or reckon with our past productively, or is this a false comfort?The Hurting Kind by Ada Limon
I believe deeply in holding space for multiple truths as well as the work of recasting or rewriting the past. I believe that because so much of our experiences or what we think of as true is based on a societal narrative that may or may not have been “true.” As a small example, how many times have you met an ancestor, an elder, and you have this idea that their life was so hard, so full of suffering, and then they tell the exact opposite. They tell you that their life was full of pleasures and beauty. But the world has told you that they must have suffered, the collective story, the accepted story, isn’t always right. And so I have to remember and recast and rewrite for myself and make sure that I’m not giving into a story I no longer need, a story that may have never been true. That’s been a powerful way to reclaim my life.

8. I want to spend special time with “Joint Custody,” which seems to me a poem symbolic of your approach. In the poem you lay out the experience of living between two homes and two sets of parents growing up. The poem celebrates this feast of abundance, and also the inherent conflict in finding a place to call home: “Two entirely different brains. / The one that always misses where I’m not, / the one that is so relieved to finally be home.” Talk to me about both constriction and abundance. How do you balance these seemingly—on the surface—polar concepts in your work as a writer, and in your life philosophy?

This is a massive question, I love it. I love being a poet because people will say, “So tell me your thoughts on mortality.” And that’s it. It’s gorgeous. No small talk. Straight to the real deal. In my work, in my life, I practice the work of gratitude, of recognizing what I do have, what my life is a part of. I think for a long time, the mindset of scarcity ruled me. Not having enough, not being good enough, not being smart enough, being broken, being different, being an outsider. But I never find that helpful. Even when some of that felt very very true. I remember having this moment, thinking, what if I have everything I need? What if this is all enough, and this is it—this is my life. And it hit me so hard I could have fallen to my knees. I had my stepmother die so young. I’d watched a friend die of cancer at 32. We’d lost friends to suicide. There was so much hurt, so many reasons to feel despair. And yet too, I remember that moment, that moment of realizing that life was short and I wanted to hold on to it. I wanted to really live it while I could. And so I had to realize I was enough and this life was enough and that feeling continues to hold me. I’m not saying it works all the time. Sometimes I’m still full of despair, sometimes I feel broken, but mostly I’ve learned to remember that I am part of something whole and it’s not about me, it’s about all of us, this community, this natural world, this small moment on earth. That probably sounds a little out there, but that’s true for me.

“That’s the nature of life, isn’t it? To desire to make meaning and then surrender to the mystery and the repeat and repeat and repeat.

9. In the poems, I see a tension between the impulse to be selfish versus the impulse to care for others. This, for me, strikes a chord as a woman negotiating boundaries in the world. I was struck by the poem “What Is Handed Down”, which offers another orientation: the fixer role as a selfish orientation: “It’s selfish I know, but I want to be / the fixer now.” Talk to me about writing through the identity of a woman. I’m also curious how much this identity matters to you as a poet, and in what ways it does or does not impact the making of the work?
It’s funny, someone once asked me why I don’t write about my identity and I was taken aback. I think I write about it all the time. But that’s not the identity they want me to write about. Sure, I’m part Mexican, part Irish and Scottish, a woman, a Californian, but that’s not what my identity is, those are markers that make it easy to categorize a person for sound bites and summing up. But I think I’m working against a summing up. I’m suspicious of it. That said, moving through this world as a woman is always about setting boundaries because we tend to be the caretakers. And we aren’t allowed to say no enough. I’m still learning that for myself. But that particular poem is about wanting to care for someone who has always cared for me, and asking permission to do so.

10. Plenty of internet memes have been made that poke fun at poets for reading meaning into the mundane (it’s what we do best, no?) Battling this tendency towards cliché, I loved the self-call-out in the poem “Privacy” while watching two crows: “What news are they bringing of our world to the world of the gods?… There was no message / given, no message I was asked to give.”

As a reader, this opens up a whole world of meaning around the themes of grief that run through the book. What is the poet’s role in finding meaning in the world, and what is our duty in deciding to reject meaning? Talk to me about the work of meaning making. Talk to me about the work of surrender and release?
That’s the nature of life, isn’t it? To desire to make meaning and then surrender to the mystery and the repeat and repeat and repeat. Toni Morrison once said, during her Nobel Prize speech in 1993, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” And to me that quote is all about surrendering to our mortality, accepting our end, and yet recognizing the ways in which we honor our time here. How we point out the beauty, the pain, the full spectrum of all of our experience, so that we can live wholly, completely, and not miss the living we’ve been granted. Sometimes the message is only, “Look, I am alive.” And it does not have to transcend that. Why would it? What could be bigger than that?

Ada Limón is the author of The Hurting Kind, as well as five other collections of poems. These include, most recently, The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Award. Limón is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review, among others. She is the new host of American Public Media’s weekday poetry podcast The Slowdown. Born and raised in California, she now lives in Lexington, Kentucky.