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Writer's Block Festival Feature: Q&A with Ada Limon

1) Your workshop is called “Crafting the Literary Lie.” What drew you to this topic?

I think it’s an interesting topic because so many poets are drawn to discovering the “truth,” but sometimes in order to bow down to the poem, we must ignore the facts and focus on the craft. I think we often have this idea that poetry, or memoir, or even fiction can just be a list of terribly true sad things. That’s not how it works. The best part about writing is that we get to use our imagination, and rise above that pesky little thing called reality.

2) You moved to Lexington, Kentucky a few years ago. How has the landscape of Kentucky affected your writing, compared to Sonoma, California?

Ah, I think I write well both places. Although, I am embarrassed to admit, that sometimes I’m actually more social in California than in Kentucky. I think of our house in Lexington as a writer’s retreat, a quiet working place, and I’m pretty good at sticking to a schedule and really churning things out. In California I tend to say, “Hey let’s get in the pool and have some wine!” But both landscapes are very good for my creative life—I work well with beautiful green views and lots of trees and time.

3) Animals are present in many poems in your most recent poetry collection, Sharks in the Rivers. Violence is threatened, and sometimes inflicted, upon many of them. Where does your interest in animals originate? Where does the violence come from, and how is it significant to this collection as a whole?

Animals are very significant to me. I have had dreams about fish and sharks my entire life. In fact, sharks were in my dream just last night. I think, in my dream, I fell asleep on a beach and sharks were swarming around and everyone wanted me to move closer to the land, but I wanted to sleep in the sand. All animals are important to me, not just my dream animals. In Sharks in the Rivers, I actually can’t think of too much violence against them. I guess my sharks burn, my blue jay dies, and there’s a drowned deer in there, but for the most part the animals continue in the book. The rat lives, the hummingbird lives, the barracuda lives, the bees live, the fish keep crossing the road. I wouldn’t say there is so much violence in the book as there is death. I was very aware of death when I wrote this book. My friend had just died and my stepmother had just died. It was a time when death felt close and in some ways almost comforting. The animals are really just us, as we are just animals, and sometimes wonderful things happen to us and sometimes terrible things happen to us; it’s that simple and that terrifying.

4) You’ve said that “Poems often come to me more like songs, while fiction comes from a deep need to tell a story.” Can you talk about the story you are expressing in your forthcoming novel? How do you approach writing a poem, or collection of poems, versus writing a novel – do you use different techniques, for example?

The novel that I finished last year is a story that had been on my mind for some time. It deals with guilt and forgiveness and a sense of homecoming. It’s not a great novel. It’s an okay novel, which is why it’s in an orange box in my closet at the moment. Maybe someday I will make it better. I’m working on a new fiction project as well, it’s secret and I’m very excited about it. We shall see. It’s got magic in it.

Poems come to me differently than novels or fiction. They come rising up with an urgency. When I’m working on a collection of poems I realize that the poems are talking to one another. That’s a thrilling feeling. This may sound odd but I feel like I can steer fiction more than I can poetry. Poetry steers me. I’m the boat.

5) Your work is based in the material world so concretely--your reader hears, smells, and tastes everything. What do you feel is the role of this sensuality in your work, and how do you manage to generate such vivid sounds and images?

First of all, thank you. I love to know that there is a sense of sensuality and vivid sounds and images in my work. I hope that’s always the case. I wish to live very much in the world. So much of life is lived in the brain, in the worried busy brain, but when I write poetry I try very much to return to the world. I want to offer that door to everyone, to allow them to smell, and hear, and feel their surroundings. I want that sense of place, of right here, right now, I want the poem to feel like a room you can visit whenever you need to breathe or cry or throw a tantrum. If you begin a poem by taking a series of deep breaths the sensuality will enter the poem the way breath enters the lungs. The poem will become present because the writer is more present.

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