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Poet Laureate Reflects on Being a "First"

Two-term Poet Laureate and Time Magazine Women of the Year Ada Limón spoke at the Atheneum on February 27th.

Speaking on her impact as Poet Laureate, Limón said “because it is sort of a nonpartisan role, you can't advocate for policy.” Nonetheless, she describes herself as “as a political activist,” and shared, “I think of myself as someone who's an artistic activist in my poems.” Nonpartisanship does not prevent her from saying what she means in her poetry. She said, “my politics have always been really open and on the page, and, if you read all six of my books, you pretty much know how I felt.” 

When you Google “Ada Limón,” one of the first phrases you’ll find is “first Latina Poet Laureate.” When asked about the potential pressure she felt being a first, she said “it's sort of heartbreaking that a first even has to exist.”

Limón acknowledged the prevalence of trauma dumping in the works of authors of color. The fact is that trauma sells, and publishers often require trauma dumping from rising writers from minority backgrounds. Limón commented on this phenomenon: “I think it's tricky because we live in a society that monetizes everything, and we also live in a society that would like to keep us all siloed and separate in boxes that we can understand.”

But emphasis on identity can be limiting to authors of color. Limón discussed the challenge of meeting publishers’ expectations for what Latina representation should look like. People often expect (or even demand) Latina writers to produce memoirs about their border experiences. “Well, I never crossed the border,” she said. She added, “I'm always very, very cautious when I'm asked to perform my identity… because it's hard to stop once you’ve started.” 

She concluded her discussion on race and literature saying, “There’s a lot of responsibility with holding that ‘first Latina’ title because I want to make my ancestors proud… But in the same way, I want to show identity as endless possibilities and not as a container for something that people are safe around.” 

An assignment from NASA prompted Limón to reflect on if and how she could represent all of humanity through her work. On October 10th, NASA will release a space-probe, the Europa Clipper, from the Kennedy Space Center which is decorated with Limón’s poem: “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa.” During a small discussion at the Gould Center, Limón joked that the 4th grade reading level requirement for the poem was because NASA assumed aliens couldn’t read past a 4th grade level.  

With a project assignment like this one, Limón was tasked with creating a message from humanity as a whole. She struggled producing this poem. She explained, “I don’t like to work with the word we” because “I'm always interrogating the we. We The People, who does that mean? Does that mean women? Does it mean people that look like me?”

She realized she “had to shift my relationship with the word we” because “when I was writing the poem, I realized it was [truly] a we—it's those of us on this planet.” She reflects, “I was focusing so much on the assignment and doing a good job because it was for NASA, that I forgot to write a poem I actually liked.”

When a student asked about her writing process generally and how committed she is to a topic beforehand, Límon responded, “things that you already know for certain, generally, aren't the best subjects for poetry because you have to ask to reveal something to yourself.” Límon said poetry is similar to science because “even when you do get any kind of answer, it just leads to more questions.”

She warned against trying to explain a poem using the author’s biography, saying sometimes a poem “wash[es] over you” and advises to “let [the poem] be an experience or a feeling or a total shift, as opposed to having to elucidate it.”

She reflected on poetry as craft saying “I've always felt that poetry is the voice underneath the voice. Like it's for me, the truest voice that I have.”


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