Yale News

Poetry gave Ada Limón an opportunity to write herself into the world.

“Once I found that kind of freeing space, I thought, okay, poetry is it,” she told a packed auditorium at the Yale University Art Gallery on Wednesday.

Limón is the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States and the author of six books of poetry, including “The Carrying,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.

At a public event co-sponsored by Ezra Stiles College and the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, Limón sat down with the Head of Ezra Stiles College, Alicia Schmidt Camacho, to discuss her writing. Afterward, Limón gave a poetry reading, answered audience questions and signed books.

The conversation started off with Limón’s assertion that a whole community is behind every artistic creation. She is skeptical of the myth that one person creates everything in a work of art and “rises on a pedestal” after its completion.

Limón recalled discovering that Muriel Rukeyser, whose poems she loved, was the teacher of Sharon Olds, whom she was studying with. This led her to realize the abundance of “cycles” of support in the literary world. 

“Even if what we’re working on aren’t exactly collaborations, what we’re actually doing is often reaching out to one another and saying, ‘Hey, will you read this one poem,’” Limón said. “You’re always reaching out, and you’re always getting that support from the people you need. Sometimes it can look like one person is doing a lot. In reality, a lot of people are doing a lot of things, and all of us are in community.”

To Camacho, reading Limón’s work has always felt like exploring a close relationship between herself and the poet — planning this event and circulating Limón’s poetry among her students felt like extending this relationship to her surrounding community.

Poetry is a communal experience, Camacho explained, because so much of it takes on meaning when one hears it read and performed out loud with an audience.

“I realized that [Limón] touches all of us, that she has the capacity to gather and bring us together,” Camacho said. 

Camacho also expressed her gratitude to RITM, whose sponsorship allowed the event to be held on a much larger scale, opening it up to the New Haven public as well.

To Sara Cao ’26, who read “The Carrying” during quarantine, hearing Limón read a few poems from the book felt like a full circle moment. 

“Whenever she ended a poem, there would be a pause before applause, from everyone internalizing the emotions from her poetry and thinking, ‘Wow. That really hit the spot’,” Cao said.

Limón said she believes the significance of poetry is that it makes one feel. This further reminds her that feeling is what being human is — not just survival, not just getting from point A to point B, but also witnessing and experiencing the world in its wholeness.

“I think that we’ve been living at a time where we’ve just had to numb so much of our lives,”  Limón said. “Poetry is a way of tapping into that, and being able to say, ‘Right, I am a thinking, feeling human being going through all of these things, I have these complex emotions working within me.’”

By reading and writing poetry, she explained, we are accepting the fluidness of life and the amorphous aspect of changing, growing and being more in tune with ourselves. 

This fascination with being present within one’s body underlies many of Limón’s poems, partially due to her time as a theater major at the University of Washington, which she said provided her with an intense awareness of the body as an instrument.

In Limón’s work, witnessing the world is intimately linked to the body and its senses, especially since her physical conditions, like scoliosis and vertigo, prevent her from being “completely free” in her body. To her, what the body is varies from day to day — sometimes, it is completely in tandem with nature; sometimes, it is an animal wearing clothes; sometimes, it is a machine holding thoughts, completely isolated from its surroundings. What does not change is that her poems consistently explore what it means to look at nature, and at each other, from different perspectives in different bodies.

“I think Limón’s encouragement towards ‘ongoingness’ — a sustained being with and in the world — is especially important at Yale, which can be an isolated and deadline-driven place,” said Megan Wright ’26. 

Just as Limón — stating her belief that her pain will eventually dissipate — refuses to use the term “chronic pain” to describe her condition, she also refuses to let her work be labeled and dictated by external expectations.

According to Limón, the publishing industry often explicitly or implicitly asks writers of color to center traumatic experiences in their works; as a result, they are often boxed into categories that have nothing to do with beauty, hope and freedom. While Limón does interrogate themes like conflict and identity as a Latinx poet, she strives to push against said expectations, mentioning that from very early on, she has wanted “everyone else’s freedom” to write unbounded by these constraints.

“When someone says, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican. So where’s your abuela poem?’— immediately, I’m like, no, no, no, no, I’m going to write about this tree,” said Limón. 

As established as Limón is, she still experiences self-doubt as a writer — her internal voice saying that she will “never write again” follows many of her accomplishments. Nevertheless, after completing six books as a poet, she has learned to trust the silence of the creative process: “If it isn’t coming, I just think it’s gonna come.” 

Limón’s latest poetry collection, “The Hurting Kind,” was published in May 2022 by Milkweed Editions.

Kinnia Cheuk is a Managing Editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from Hong Kong, she is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight majoring in English.