“Unique Musicality”: An Interview with Ada Limón

Sarah Sassone: Something I find basically flawless in your poetry but more particularly in several poems in The Carrying is your use of language and sound. For example, in “I’m Sure About Magic,” the verbs and adjectives are so particular and add to the feeling of anger or irritation. In “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” you also use particular language to express this irritation about the ignorance of other people (I especially love “Would you like to come to dinner/with the patrons and sip Patrón.”) Where does choosing this language fall in your writing process?


Ada Limón: Thank you so much for that question and the lovely compliment. I am always revising for sound and writing with sound in mind. Even poems that are more prosaic or use plain spoken language, that choice is intentional. For me, the poem always has to have a heightened sense of music—whatever that music might be—and it has to find a way to sing beyond its subject, beyond its story, and move through the air as sound as much as images and metaphorical language. Sometimes the sound comes right off the bat as I’m composing the poem, sometimes the sounds are what brings me to the page in the first place, but one thing is for certain, when I revise, I’m always trying to make sure the sounds are working in the way I want them to work. I want each poem to have its own unique musicality.


Sarah Sassone: The theme of “carrying” strings together all the poems in the aptly titled collection, whether it’s carrying grief, responsibility, guilt, or physically not carrying a child. When you first started to write this collection, did you find that the majority of the poems you were writing all just happened to revolve around that theme, or did you purposely pick the theme and write poems that connect to it?


Ada Limón: When I put together this book, I was simply writing one poem at a time for a long time and then suddenly I saw themes of my life emerge. As those themes emerged I was able to use my own work as prompts and decide whether or not I wanted to go deeper with some of those themes. For example, some of the poems that deal with infertility came after I realized that the core of the book dealt with that issue. I love using my own poems as prompts to push the book forward. It feels like rounding out my own inner interrogations and bringing something into the light.


Sarah Sassone: Your poems are so engaging and relatable. When I read “Losing,” I just wanted to snap my fingers at the connection, especially since people do not realize (until they’re in the situation) that caring for someone with dementia means you are losing or have lost someone as well, even though it is not as final as death. Even if one were to not understand the conflict in “Losing,” I think they would be able to learn about dementia and loss through this poem. Is making your voice accessible to readers who might not have the same experiences as the speaker of a poem something you think about? And if so, how do you make it a priority in your work?


Ada Limón: I love that you bring up that poem in particular. It’s so hard to talk about someone with dementia without feeling like you are doing them an injustice. But it’s also hard to caretake someone with dementia and watch them decline. For me, it’s not that I want the poems to be accessible necessarily, but it’s that I don’t want to shy away from clarity. I am convinced that clarity and reality is much stranger than anything we can conjure in our imagination. In a poem like “Losing” I’m using the real truth of conversations, the real images of our daily life, because there was no need to obfuscate or distress the poem, instead the record of events were strange enough, surreal enough, to give a sense of the reality of that moment. I hope that the clarity offered allows for the contract of trust with the reader to deepen.


Sarah Sassone: As a feminist, I love how you show the dichotomy of gender roles, particularly in regards to the female body in some of your poems. One I cannot stop thinking about is “Bust,” this part in particular:


The rude radio

disc jockey licks his lips into the studio’s mic

and says something about motorboating

her tits jammed with nose candy and I’m

thinking of my friend who’s considering

a mastectomy to stay alive, another who

said she’d cut them off herself if it meant



That part in particular shows patriarchy’s views of women’s breasts with the reality of having breasts and the enjambed lines and few punctuation marks really drive that point home. Do you find it important as a poet to use your work to educate others on the importance of areas like feminism?


Ada Limón: Thank you for this. I don’t think I’m interested in educating people with my poems, but I hope I will always stay true to my own ethics and values as a human being in this often broken world. If I stay true to what matters to me, to what is important to me, to how I witness injustice or bias, to how I live in this body at this time, then the poems will hold a true witnessing. If that witnessing can offer someone a chance to empathize with the speaker or the subject, then that gives me great joy. But I can’t think too much about educating a reader. If I do that, I feel like I might worry too much about the reader, and not enough about the poem itself.


Sarah Sassone: Is there anything in particular that you hope the reader takes away from your poems in general?


Ada Limón: If there is one thing I’d want a reader to hold with them after reading my poems is that this life is enough. I would love to think of someone realizing that the daily small moments that make up the hours of our lives are valuable, are precious, are worthy of our attention. It’s so easy to surrender to suffering and to sadness and yet, if this life is all we have, shouldn’t we be almost elated to just get up in the morning? I’m not saying it’s not hard, living is hard, but it’s also full of beauty and wonder. I hope I can offer someone that feeling, the feeling that they’d like to recommit to this world.