Ada Limón told her speaking agent she couldn’t take the mysterious late-morning phone call. She had physical therapy. Her agent suggested, gently, that she reschedule. She did. And hopped onto a Zoom call with seven people, including Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, PhD (Limón calls her “the hero of librarians”), who told her that she was being invited to be the 24th poet laureate of the United States. It was, Limón says, “like I was outside, watching this happen to someone else. I was a child, watching it happen to big Ada. I was an older Ada watching it happen to middle-aged Ada.”
It is fun to imagine these Adas. Little Ada, not knowing that one day she’d be the author of six critically acclaimed poetry collections, a rare breed of artist supporting herself entirely through her work, and newly knighted to a position the late Librarian of Congress James H. Billington once called “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” And older Ada, from some point in the unknowable future, looking back at the moment she became tasked with the enduring and at times difficult-to-articulate job of being America’s poet.
Limón speaks to me over Zoom from her cheery, butter-yellow, sun-soaked office in Lexington, Kentucky, surrounded by shelves of books and thriving houseplants. She’s also just two weeks past her first bout with COVID, after managing to elude it for two and a half years.
For Limón, as for so many other writers, the pandemic has been its own special brand of hell. Not only the literal anxiety—personal, medical—but the artistic paralysis. Limón realized that she could write from a place of anger and rage and grief, but fear was an entirely different animal. “All the walls [went] up,” she says. “Fear…had me in its grip for so long. The anxiety of not just what was going to happen to my own body, but what was going to happen to my beloveds. To my friends and to my family. Then, beyond that, to the world.”
But, she says, this place—the precarity of the body, the way in which the body mediates the way we occupy the world—is where poetry lives. In her poem “A Good Story,” Limón writes, “The body / is so body.” It is a phrase I murmur to myself when something in my body is going wrong. Most recently, trying to climb out of the ocean and onto the sand with a bad ankle. It is the hottest summer on record. Contagions new and old circle us like vultures. Beneath me, the wet sand is shifting; I am unable to create the geometry required to pivot myself out of the water. “The body is so body,” I say, before someone reaches out and takes my hand.
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