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Ada Limón on becoming the new U.S. poet laureate


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A story of backyard groundhogs, Kentucky bluegrass, pokeweed, and plenty of poetry.

Jeffrey Brown meets the nation's new poet laureate for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ada Limón, U.S. Poet Laureate: "I thought it was the neighbors cat back to clean the clock of the fledgling robins low in their nest, stuck in the dense hedge by the house. But what came was much stranger, a liquidity moving, all muscle and bristle, a groundhog slippery and waddle thieving my tomatoes.

Jeffrey Brown: The strangeness and wonder of life, even a groundhog in Ada Limón's backyard in Lexington, Kentucky:

Ada Limón: "I watched her munch and stand on her haunches taking such
pleasure in the watery bites. Why am I not allowed delight?"

Come here.

Jeffrey Brown: Limón was home recently when she got a surprise call from Carla Hayden, librarian of Congress, asking her to be the next poet laureate of the United States.

Ada Limón: I was at a loss for words. I -- as a poet, which we're not supposed to be at a loss for words.


Ada Limón: I was at a loss for words.

I really started to think about what it was to be able to elevate and promote the expansiveness of poetry at a time like this. So, I said yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And you found some words.

Ada Limón: And I found some words. And it was yes.


Jeffrey Brown: Limon is author of six volumes of poetry, including her newest, "The Hurting Kind," which again looks to nature and family history.

She grew up in Sonoma, California, of Mexican and European ancestry and dates her passion for poetry to a reading of Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" at age 15.

Ada Limón: And I really remember thinking, I want to know how this is possible. I want to know how this is made.

Jeffrey Brown: How is it made?

Ada Limón: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: So you were thinking right away, like, what does a poet do with words and language and...

Ada Limón: Yes.

I was immediately drawn to not just sort of the music and meaning of the poem, but also the form and the craft of the poem.

Jeffrey Brown: The mechanics, in a sense.

Ada Limón: Yes, at 15. I don't know what it was, but it clicked in. But it also made room for the nuance of human emotions. It felt like there was no sort of, this is life, this is a fact, right, this is truth. And yet what I found there felt more true than anything I'd read yet.

Jeffrey Brown: She would go on to get a masters at NYU and at first work in New York doing marketing for major magazines.

Ada Limón: I used to joke that the saying was always like, do what you love and the money will follow.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ada Limón: And I always thought, unless it's poetry, because then you want to do what you love and then also find another job that you don't mind so much.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes, because the money is not typically following.

Ada Limón: Because the money will not follow.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

But these days, at 46, she's able to make a living from readings and her books, now in Kentucky bluegrass country, where her husband, Lucas Marquardt, has a video marketing company for the thoroughbred industry.

Ada Limón: I'm Ada Limón, and this is "The Slowdown."

Something we often don't talk about is the strangeness of poetry.

Jeffrey Brown: She hosts the daily podcast "The Slowdown," in which she introduces and reads poems by a wide range of poets.

Ada Limón: I'm always trying to get connected to nature.

Jeffrey Brown: And walks in nearby parks like McConnell Springs, making sure to learn the names of all that's growing around her.

Ada Limón: Like this is just pokeweed right here.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Ada Limón: But I love that its called pokeweed, right? Like, that's just a fabulous name. And you have got birch trees and black oaks. But that, to me, is -- that's so much more musical right off the bat than tree.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.


Jeffrey Brown: Now she will have a much larger public role and wants to build on two main themes, especially at this moment of pandemic, division, and environmental threats.

Ada Limón: I really believe in the power of poetry to help us reclaim our humanity, to allow us to feel all the feelings, if you will.

I think, so often, we just compartmentalize and numb ourselves to what's going on in the world. And poetry is the place where you can do that groundwork, where you can read a poem and be, like, oh, right. I am a human being. I have thoughts and feelings.

And the other thing is that I really believe in poetry's ability to help us repair our relationship with the earth. I think that we are so distant from the land, from nature, that we forget that relationship is reciprocal.

Jeffrey Brown: In her poetry, Ada Limón often invokes what she calls her ancestors, the family who've brought her to where she is today.

Ada Limón: "My grandfather, before he died, would have told anyone that could listen that he was ordinary, that his life was a good one, simple. He could never understand why anyone would want to write it down."

Jeffrey Brown: In her beautiful long poem "The Hurting Kind," she writes of her grandparents, one gone, one still alive.

Here is how it ends.

Ada Limón: "All of this is a conjuring. I will not stop this reporting of attachments. There is evidence everywhere. There's a tree over his grave now, and soon her grave too, though she is tough and says, 'If I ever die,' which is marvelous and maybe why she's still alive. I see the tree above the grave and think, I'm wearing my heart on my leaves, my heart on my leaves. Love ends. But what if it doesn't?"

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Lexington, Kentucky.

Judy Woodruff: Just lovely in every way.

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