Kevin: Poetry is one of the oldest forms of communication in human history, but is it still relevant today in our multimedia digital age? What values and skills do kids learn by exploring poetry? Can poetry be a force for good in society? And how does poetry contribute to students' development as a whole? And how should we fit it into reading education? This is what I want to know. And today, I'm joined by U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón, to find out.
Kevin: Ada Limón is the author of six books of poetry and the first Latina to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Her books and poems have won multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Ada has hosted the celebrated poetry podcast, the Slowdown, and recently released her sixth book of poems, The Hurting Kind. Today, she joins me to talk about inspiring a love of poetry in students and getting them excited about reading. Ada, welcome to the show.
Ada: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure to be here.
Kevin: I've done so much reading about you, and I've read some of your poems. But the first thing I want to do is talk about your journey. You grew up in Northern California. You now are in Lexington, Kentucky. Now, many will say that those two jurisdictions, in and of themselves, that's a journey, to get from Sonoma in Northern California to get to Lexington. But talk a little bit about your path, because before becoming a professional writer or a poet, you were in marketing; you did the corporate thing. Talk a little bit about that path.
Ada: Yeah, I'd be happy to. Yeah, I was born and raised in Sonoma, California, and then I went to college at the University of Washington in Seattle. And then from there I went to NYU, New York University, in New York City, and that's where I got my graduate degree in poetry. And at the time, I remember graduating, thinking I had this incredible experience. I learned so much about poetry and poetry writing, and then I thought, "Oh, and also, how do I make a living and a life out of this degree?" And from there, I went to work at magazines. New York City has many different incredible magazines that run out of Condé Nast and Fairchild, et cetera, Hearst. And so, I began working first for GQ Magazine, and then I worked for Brides Magazine and then, Martha Stewart, and then, back to GQ. I was the copy director for GQ Magazine.
And then, the last job I had in the middle of Times Square was I was the creative services director of Travel+Leisure Magazine. And the interesting thing was all of these jobs really focused on language and the power of language and what it was to use it as a tool to further advance the brand itself. At one point, we were doing a national campaign. It was 2008, and there was a moment where, of course, the economy was really struggling. And a lot of people weren't traveling. So I came up with my partner, Jill Sabato, who was the art director, to have this campaign called Please Go Away. And we felt like it was very sort of New York; it had this kind of attitude to it. I remember getting home from California and getting off the plane in New York City, and almost all the cabs that pulled up outside the airport to pick people up, all were taxi tops that I had written.
Kevin: Yeah, that's pretty cool. Now, also, you said that you faced that sort of classic challenge that a lot of college graduates and folks who finished their post-secondary education face, where, "I know what I love, but I’ve got to pay the rent." And I take it you've always been a writer and love poems, but as you mentioned, that was a tough sort of decision. But at some point, you realized you could make a go of it. What led to that change?
Ada: So at one point, it was my third book that had come out, and it was called Sharks in the Rivers. And I thought, "You know what? It's book number three." I've always had a big career in New York City and made poems at the same time, because we all have to make a living, and all artists have to make a living. And I decided I was going to try to write full-time. And what I did was I left the city, and I have friends who have this incredible space in Moon Mountain, in the Mayacamas in Sonoma, and they offered me a little place to stay. My dad drove down his old car from Washington state to Sonoma so that I'd have a car. And I was really supported by family. And everyone said, "Okay, we're going to help you do this."
Kevin: So Ada, when and how did you discover your love of poetry?
Ada: It's a great question. I think, on different days, I could answer that in different ways, but it was really that I always loved poems. I also always loved songs when I was younger. I would write songs to my Labrador, Dusty, and walk around with her. And then, it wasn't until I was 15 that I read a poem actually on a test in my high school English class. Mrs. Leal was the name of the teacher, and it was the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. And I remember immediately falling in love with the form, the sounds, the rhythm, and I was really curious about how it was made. And after I finished the test and we turned everything in, I went up to her desk. And I asked Mrs. Leal if, after she'd graded them, I could at least have a copy of the blank test, because I really wanted to keep a copy of the poem.
Kevin: Oh, wow. That's awesome. You talk about songwriting. I've heard many people equate songwriters with poetry. Do you find that to be a natural equation?
Ada: Yeah, I think that it makes a more natural conflation to think about poetry and songs versus poetry and perhaps prose or novels or nonfiction, because I think there's an element of mystery and an element of unknowing. And I think that, to me, is really important when we think about poetry. I also think that sometimes, with songs, we don't necessarily love a song because we understand every element to it. We don't think, "Oh, I understand exactly what this song is saying." Sometimes, we just love it. And that aspect is also true of poetry.
Sometimes, it's not that you completely comprehend everything that the poet was intending, but rather there was a feeling, an emotion that washes over you, and a sense of wholeness that comes, or a sense of excitement or curiosity, or maybe it hurts a little bit, but it reveals something. And that can be enough. And I think that, sometimes, with other forms of literature, we're always looking for sense. We're always trying to figure it out, to solve it. And poetry, like songs — they don't have a solution. They just have a way of being. And I think that's where they're the most similar.
Kevin: I've always admired the creative spirit in people, and I must admit I'm somewhat envious of that creative spirit. Because when I read poems, I do a lot of reading, and I'm struck by the chords of emotion that can be struck. But what is the thing, or what are the things that help inspire you to go in a certain direction?
Ada: Yeah, that's a great question. I will admit that I'm inspired by a lot of different things. I find I'm very curious about the world. I'm very interested in it. And so, I love the strangeness of things, the things that might not completely make sense, or you might have questions about. I'm very curious about those things. And so, sometimes, it's just an image of the natural world I want to explore more, but sometimes, it's my relationship to the world and that sort of strange and bizarre way that human beings exist in the world. We are strange creatures, and the mind is a very chaotic and beautiful place to be. But it's worth a deep exploration.
Kevin: I absolutely love that. And when you talk about curiosity, my work has been in education in the K through 12 space for many, many years. And I often say that the most important thing that we can do for our children in their learning journey in the schools or classrooms that they inhabit is to make sure we don't snuff out that sense of wonder and curiosity. Because I think, far too often, that's what happens. When you lose that sense of curiosity, the world is a vastly different place. And I'm proud to say that I am so infinitely curious.
That's one of the reasons why I wanted to start this show. I learn something with every single subject matter or guest we have. And even talking with you now, that's why I asked you about the creative process. The world is so vast and has so many things that we can embrace and learn from. It's very interesting. And it’s actually telling that that is one of your motivations as you write a piece. I want to ask you more about being the U.S. Poet Laureate and our education system, but I'd be honored if you would read a poem for us.
Ada: Oh, I would be absolutely happy to. This is a poem that I wrote. I often write outdoors. I just said that, and it just started snowing. So I'm not going to write outdoors today, but I do when the weather is nice. I do have a screened-in porch on the back of our house that overlooks the bird feeder and my little garden, which, of course, is dead in the winter right now, or not dead. It's just repairing and rethinking its growth for next season. But this is a poem that I wrote, sort of just watching the backyard and having a moment where I kind of thought nothing was going on. And then, I just started to observe. So this is where this poem came from. The Visitor.
"A neighborhood tuxedo cat's walking the fence line, and the dogs are going bonkers in the early morning. The louder they bark, the more their vexation grows, the less the cat seems to care. She's behind my raised beds now, no doubt looking for the family of field mice I've been leaving be, because why not? The cat's dressed up for the occasion of trespass, formal attire for the canine taunting, but the whole clamor is making me uneasy. This might be what growing older is. My problem: I see all the angles of what could go wrong, so I never know what side to be on. Save the mice, shoo the cat, quiet the dogs? Let the cat have at it? Let the dogs have at it? Instead, I do what I do best: nothing. I watch the cat leap into the drainage ditch, dew-wet fur against the day lilies, and disappear. The dogs go quiet again, and the mice are safe in their caves, and I'm here waiting for something to happen to me."
Kevin: It's so beautiful. Just hearing you read The Visitor, the word that comes to mind, and I think it's true for most poets, are the layers that exist.
Ada: But I think that that's what I'm always interested in is that all responses are valid. All responses are what's supposed to happen. And I think that, sometimes, when we first learned poetry or were first invited to read it by some great teachers, sometimes, we get really nervous. Poetry, I find, I feel like, sometimes can make people anxious because they think, "I'm not going to understand it," or "I don't know what happened," or "I don't know what to say about it." And I think that, sometimes, it's just okay to just let it wash over you, to just experience it, let your mind wander. If you start thinking, "Oh, there's a neighborhood cat in my backyard that does that," or, "Oh, the mice there are..." And then, you get to that last line. And of course, the last line is, "I'm waiting for something to happen to me." And the poem's sort of crux of the poem is it's happening. This is life. This observation is life happening. And when you land there, it's really just telling you to breathe and be in the moment.
Kevin: Yeah, it's a beautiful thing. So let's talk about your official role for the United States. You are the Poet Laureate, and for many people, the obvious question may be, "What is a Poet Laureate?" I know you've answered that several times, but talk a little bit about that process and what it means. It is a deep honor and one of the most coveted roles that one could have. So I congratulate you on that. But talk about that whole notion of being a U.S. Poet Laureate.
Ada: Yes. I love that you asked about it because I think, even for poets, it's a little bit of a mystery. But I'm the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States, and it's a position that is made possible through an act of Congress. And I was named the 24th Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress named Dr. Carla Hayden. And she invited me to this position back in July. And it was an incredible honor. And the position itself is really meant to promote and encourage the reading of poetry. And that's really all it is. Your job is really to be the voice for the support of poetry, for the widening audience of poetry. And it's interesting because there's really not much more I believe in. I really believe in, not just poetry's importance, but its power, what it can do, how it can move you. And to be someone that gets the opportunity to speak about poetry and its power and its importance is really an exceptional opportunity for me.
Kevin: Right now we're at an inflection point in terms of education, particularly post-COVID. We're on the path toward personalized learning, but a lot of our kids have social and emotional challenges. There's a lot of tension in this world. People say it comes from politics, but the politics reflect a lot of what's going on in the tension in our communities. But I believe in the power of reading and developing critical thinkers who aren't being led but can actually look at a situation, look at circumstances, make sure that they understand and appreciate their own sense of humanity. And I wanted to ask you about how poetry relates to education at a time when many school districts are cutting back on arts and education. Some say, even that, "how does poetry fit in this new multimedia digital age?" So I just want to get your thoughts generally on this relationship between the pure form, the pure creative form of poetry, and engendering a sense of excitement among our children about the learning process.
Ada: I think, for me, one of the biggest things that I think about with poetry is that you don't necessarily need a lot of time to explore a curriculum of poetry. You can read one poem a day; you can read one poem a week, and it will instruct you in some way. And what I do think is really important that we foster right now is not just a sense of what we need, in terms of our intellect and our testing and all of these things that I know are very important, but I think it's really important to foster the imagination. And I think it's also important to foster that sense of deep looking at the world and getting a little bit sometimes outside of the self, sometimes writing a poem that just begins in description. What is it to look outside the window and spend just five minutes describing what you see? Your life can change in that moment because you will suddenly realize that you are part of something larger.
There's a tree outside. And then I think, "Right, that maple tree has been here for a hundred years. I haven't been here for a hundred years. That tree knows way more than me already." Already, if I'm just looking out at this description, I'm just thinking about this, I'm suddenly in relationship with the world. And I think, as we talk about the pandemic and what everyone has gone through and is going through, I think there's a level of deep isolation that has happened. And also a moment where people have felt maybe more lonely than they ever have, more isolated, more unable to relate to the world or maybe have a fearful relationship with the world. And I think poetry can be a window back into it. I always say that poetry is where I go when I think, "Where do I put all this?" You know what I do?
I write a poem. We carry a lot; we carry a lot. And so, to be able to lay it down in the writing of a poem, to be able to see that others feel these deep things in the reading of a poem, that reminds us that we are all part of a human experience and that we are not going through this world as one singular being, where everything's happening to just you. And I think there are a lot of people that feel that way, and I think poetry can help us reclaim that sense of not just our humanity but our sense of community. So to actually all be experiencing something together, the same breath work, the same tonality, the same sort of energy shift, that poems allow for, that can be a really impactful experience for, not just students, but for faculty as well.
Kevin: We talk about how poetry can actually help engender and facilitate reading, but what I really want to know is, for those educators who may be listening, what can they do differently to foster a love or an appreciation of poetry?
Ada: I believe that poetry is very human. It's elemental. It, for me, is just as essential as any of the other arts. And I think that the biggest thing that an educator can do is to admit that they may not know what the poem is completely trying to do, to feel okay with saying, "Hey, I'm not sure. I might not know everything about this poem, but I like it, and I'm going to read it. Let's just experience it." You don't listen to a song and go, "Oh, if I don't get every single thing this person is saying, I'm never going to listen to music again." Instead, you go, "Ooh, I like that."
And I would also encourage that, if there's a poem and maybe the students don't love it or maybe the teacher is kind of like, "Eh, it's okay," then read another poem. Poems exist, one poem at a time. The currency of poetry is one poem at a time. And so, I would just offer that it just begins with one poem, and it's just like one breath. And it doesn't need to have an answer. It doesn't need to be figured out. It just needs to exist.
Kevin: Oh, Ada Limón, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Ada: Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Ada Limón is the author of six poetry books and the first Latina to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Her books and poems have won multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
Ada has hosted the celebrated poetry podcast The Slowdown and recently released her sixth book of poems, The Hurting Kind.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.