Ada Limon: Part 1

The waters have begun to recede. It is an apt time then to give you some very good news.

I had the opportunity to talk with Ada Limon, a contemporary poet who is making a name for herself in a big way. You can check out her website here:

With an M..A in creative writing from NY University and three books of poetry behind her, she is also the recipient of the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry.

Her answers are like a breath of fresh air.

What do you think about the poetry that is being poured out on forums and blogs? Is the poet doing the right thing when s/he publishes online?

I believe online forums, blogs, and Facebook poetry pages that serve as alternative platforms to post poems can help new poets raise the stakes in their own writing. Knowing that a poem will be immediately be read by an audience, even if it’s a small audience, can force a higher level of attention to the work, as well as the very necessary sense of connecting to the outside world.

There is one problem however; there’s what we call “new poem frenzy.” That’s when you write three new poems in three days and think they’re the best work you’ve ever done and send them all immediately to the New Yorker without even proofing them.

My friend, the poet, Dan Bellm says of this, “All new poems come out with little halos on their heads.” And it’s true.

But if you publish them online on a blog, or a Facebook post, and if you don’t mind hearing that a poem isn’t a perfect angel, and if you can be open to advice and editorial feedback, then publishing online can be very helpful; it can even serve as a necessary part of the process. However, you choose to share your poems-you must be brave and open and ready to hold their hands in the dark.

You did your MFA and learnt from greats like Philip Levine. What kind of personal course study would you advise an aspiring poet- what poets must be read today, what art must be viewed and music prescribed?

 Instead of prescribing specific reading, music, or art to anyone, I’d almost rather gently shove a poet in the direction of exploring what she’s already drawn to. Of course there are poems, songs, and visual arts that I find essential to my own work (and to my well being), but that doesn’t mean that everyone will connect with them the same way.

My advice would be to find what you like, the tone, the music, the voice, and then let the work lead you back in time. If you like a contemporary poet like Jennifer L. Knox, then you’ll want to be sure to read James Tate, Lucien Stryk, Wallace Stevens, Alan Dugan, and then you’re going to want to go further and read Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser, then Whitman, and then you’ll want to go across the pond and read T.S. Elliot and then the Romantics with Lord Byron,Keats, and so forth.


Ada Limon with her mentor, Philip Levine


Let what you love teach you why you love it. In exploring a poet’s influences, you’ll be able to put the work in historical context and let your understanding and enjoyment deepen and expand. Levine was an excellent teacher and he was good and picking out something you were doing in your work and leading you toward a well known poet who had done it better. Learning can be a humbling experience, but exploring poetry that came before you can be liberating, it can actually help you feel even more connected to the art form, to get a sense poetry’s true relevance.

What should young poets do to get noticed? Should they start pitching a manuscript or pitch and pitch to magazines until they get a couple of credits?

Starting out as a poet can be overwhelming, so many questions. Where to start? Who will love me? Will everything be okay? Why am I a poet? Why can’t I be a stockbroker and love stocks and nice pressed blue shirts? Where should I send my beautiful little poems that I worked so hard on? My first suggestion would be to send to the magazines and journals that you love. Look online and read all the poems a magazine has posted, subscribe to a journal, or if you can’t afford a subscription, go to the bookstore and read the poems in journals while you crouch over the magazine section. (Buy them when you can—support the bookstores and the journals that keep our poems in the world.)

Reading those contemporary journals, and finding ones that you love,will not only give you a sense of what types of poems that they’re accepting, but it’ll also give you an idea of what others around you are writing. It will give you a sense of the larger poetic conversation that, as a new poet, you are now entering. Welcome.

Of course, if you have a book that you’re working on, keep working on it. But before you start sending it out, start publishing a few of the strongest poems in the book. If you’re starting now, you’re so lucky.You can do almost all of your submissions online and journals are much better at notifying poets than they used to be. Don’t be scared of rejection.

Rejection is part of the process. It’s like love: you have to get it wrong sometimes in order to appreciate it fully when you get it right. Cry all you want when you get rejected and then get up and write a better poem. When you do get a poem accepted, it’s not a bad idea to send a nice note or email to the editors to thank them. It’s a huge costly effort to put a journal together and it’s often a labor of love, gratitude is in order. But, above all, be patient. If you love poetry and you’re dedicated to the craft, your book will happen. It may take years, but it will happen. In the meantime, focus on writing one poem at a time. Let that be all there is. The moment. The now.

The breath.


More with Ada Limon next week. …..


© neelthemuse,2012

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