Poetry, an antidote in times of division and crisis
Mexican-American poet Ada Limón has been named U.S. Poet Laureate for 2022-2023
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Ada Limón grew up in Sonoma, California, in a working-class family of Mexican origin. Her grandfather on her father's side crossed the border in 1917 after his family's land was confiscated during the Mexican Revolution. But she has never been entirely comfortable being pigeonholed as 'Latina.' German, Irish and Scottish blood also runs through her veins, and on top of that, she doesn't speak Spanish.
"I didn't grow up in a bilingual family. My grandfather barely spoke Spanish. He worked hard to assimilate into American culture, grew up in a foster family and ended up graduating from college. I've always identified with Mexican culture, but like many of us, I'm not just one thing. I am many things. I'm Irish, and Scottish, and also German," she said in an interview with the literary outlet Compose Journal two years before she published her first successful collection of poems, Bright Dead Things (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Seven years later, this renowned American writer and poet of Mexican descent has just been named Poet Laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress for the 2022-2023 term. It's a public recognition created to help spread poetry across the country and has been held by celebrated poets in the past, including Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020.
“Ada Limón is a poet who connects. Her accessible, engaging poems ground us in where we are and who we share our world with. They speak of intimate truths, of the beauty and heartbreak that is living, in ways that help us move forward,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a statement announcing the appointment.
Limón, who left her job in marketing a few years ago to devote herself full-time to writing, has been building her poetry career with books such as The Carrying, winner of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and The Hurting Kind (2022), a collection of poems written during the pandemic that posits the mysteries and uncertainties of the everyday.
"Could you refuse me if I asked you / to point again at the horizon, to tell me / something was worth waiting for?"
The Hurting Kind, as Craig Morgan Teicher, literary critic for The New York Times observes, is replete with quiet celebrations of the everyday, close and profound observations of nature. "Limón looks out the window, strolls through her garden and, on the lawn she sees:
a slippery groundhog that strolls through my tomatoes, still green in the morning shade.
green in the morning shade. I saw it
and stood up on its haunches, enjoying the
pleasure in the watery bites. Why am I not allowed to
In a recent interview with the LA Times Review of Books, the author said that the collection of poems, written during the pandemic, is also a critique of the individualism and isolation promoted by American culture.
"As a culture, we rely on what we do and what we manufacture to define ourselves, to define our lives, but I was curious to challenge those definitions. Could life be less defined by doing and more by being?" said the author, who is also the first Latina to be named U.S. Poet Laureate.
As the new "ambassador" for poetry in her country, Limón told The New York Times that she already has some ideas in mind about how the art form can help at such a tense time in the United States.
"In these times we often become numb to pain, tragedy and crisis," she told the NY Times. "But poetry is a way to recognize again that we are human beings who feel. And feeling pain and trauma can allow us to feel joy again."
A non-Spanish speaker
Despite not speaking Spanish and having openly stated her opposition to the widespread tendency to categorize literary work according to the author's origins to promote cultural diversity and celebrate differences, "that doesn't mean I don't feel politically minded or that I ignore the important work I believe Latino writers should do for the community at large. I have a sense of responsibility in terms of representation. But for me, the most interesting thing is how we come to find our individual voices, what speaks to us, what excellent oddities emerge in our work. We are all such strange animals and I find the noises we make very exciting," she once told the literary magazine Compose Journal.
In addition to six poetry collections published so far, Limón, 46, is also the host of the acclaimed poetry podcast, The Slowdown.
The U.S. Poet Laureate position was created in 1985 and is endowed with a $35,000 salary, plus $5,000 for travel expenses. The money comes from the private donation of philanthropist Archer M. Huntington.