This summer Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy sat down under a leafy aspen with Ada Limón, the newly appointed Poet Laureate of the United States (!!), to talk about community, how trees bear witness, poetry, body politics, John Coltrane, pinecones, and Ada’s new project, Shelter.
Camille Dungy: Hello, Ada. I am so excited to talk to you. I’m just really excited about your new project, Shelter, and seeing you thinking through these important and moving ideas in prose. Which is definitely a poet’s prose. It’s so lyric and delicate and beautiful, so . . .
Ada Limón: Oh, I’m so glad you like it! That means the world to me because I think so highly of you as a poet and as a prose writer. And for me, I’m always a little nervous about my prose, so it means a lot to me that you like it.
Camille: What makes you nervous about it?
Ada: I think that there’s an explicitness about prose that I’m always like, Oh, right. You have to lean into the facts. And in poetry, I’m always leaning into the music. And so, I’m always a little suspicious of how I can write prose, retain music as much as I can, but also keep the clarity. It’s a little bit harder for me, but I’m learning.
Camille: Most of these pieces are just a few paragraphs long; they’re like these little nuggets. Did that modest size help in some way?
Ada: That was the only way I could do it. I could literally just do it one tree at a time.
Camille: Is the first tree in the book the first one you wrote about?
Ada: Yes, there was some reordering to avoid repetition, but for the most part, it is chronological.
Camille: That’s so interesting. So that feeling I have as a reader moving through the book, this sense of your growing awareness of what you’re actually writing about, you are experiencing that as a writer, too.
Ada: Absolutely. I worked on it over several months while meeting with this wonderful writing group. We have to bring in something each time we meet, and I just kept writing about trees. Week after week, it kept happening and happening. I couldn’t stop. But they were so supportive and wonderful. They became a sort of an anchor for the project. And it just kept growing. I didn’t expect it to be so long, but I also felt like it could go on forever.
Camille: Some of the obsessions are never going to leave you, and to me, that was part of what I loved. With each page I thought, Oh, I’ve seen this before, but how is she going to manage it differently? It reminded me of the Miles Davis quote about John Coltrane that was a guiding force for me as I was writing my first book, when I was really worried that I was doing the same thing over and over and over again. And I read the liner notes where Davis wrote about Coltrane’s first solo album. He said, “I don’t understand why people don’t get John Coltrane’s music. All he is trying to do is play the same note as many ways as he possibly can.”
Ada: I love that so much. It’s so true. It is an endless subject—talking about my relationship to nature, talking about trees. I mean, look at where we are right now. This is amazing.
Camille: We are in Palisades Tahoe. We have just almost finished a week at the Community of Writers in the Olympic Valley and we’re sitting by this beautiful, clear pond. And I just saw a mountain chickadee. We’re underneath an aspen tree. . . .
Ada: A beautiful aspen tree.
Camille: And there are some Jeffrey pines behind us.
Ada: Yeah. And ponderosa, I think.
Camille: Oh, they are ponderosas. Yes. Prickly ponderosa, gentle Jeffrey. But that dog running by seemed to have no trouble with that prickly ponderosa cone.
Ada: I’m a little obsessed with pinecones, and the fact that we’re having this conversation right when a dog carrying a pinecone ran by is kind of amazing.
Camille: It’s meant to be! I talked to one of these trees the other day. I have a friend who is needing some holding up from the universe. And so, another friend and I came and talked to one of the aspens and asked them to please send some energy out for our friend. Of course, aspens are one of the largest living organisms on the planet. They have a great communication network.
Ada: They send out the messages.
Camille: They do. Speaking of aspens, it felt like so many of the trees in the book are the trees of your Sonoma youth, and the trees that are near your father when he moved to the Northwest, and then, of course the ones where you are now, in Kentucky. This is a book about trees, but it’s also a book about shelter. It’s a book about how you find home and how you build community. And so, aspens aren’t actually in the spaces that are your spaces, right?
Ada: Yeah. I feel like I was really true about the trees and the place and the people. That was very important to me, that there was never a moment where that wasn’t true, that I wasn’t putting a tree or a person in a place that wasn’t true.
The Valley Oak
The first tree, of course, was not the first tree, but the one I remember most. A California valley oak with a black tire swing hanging from it—an actual tire that filled with rain and worms in the spring. It looked like one of the ugliest of humanity’s inventions hung on one of nature’s most beautiful. But once it was emptied, I could balance myself on that ugly tire and watch everything spin, the world of leaves above me, each branch leading to some new ecosystem.
That tree, the way I could bend my body backward, the way I could watch how it swayed even as I spun in circles, I loved it. My brother would spin me until I was almost sick. How funny to think of getting sick on trees. I would steady myself by staring at the trunk, I could see the striated bark come into focus, could feel my legs find their roots again and come to standing.
When I had flying dreams, I often flew over that California valley oak. I liked flying dreams best, not just because I was flying but because I could see the trees more clearly.
Excerpted with permission from Shelter by Ada Limón (Scribd Originals, 2022).
Camille: In reading the book, I learned things about you, obviously, but I learned things about these trees and these spaces, too. Did you do research for these pieces, or was this all information you already knew?
Ada: A little bit of both. I’ve always been obsessed with facts about trees, and I mention in one of the essays that I often Google pinecones. But there were times while writing when I would be led by the thought that I knew something, something I was taught as a child, only to look it up and find it wasn’t really true.
Camille: Oh, that “Hug a Tree” essay. I don’t want to give spoilers here, but one piece in Shelter deals with your memory of a youth program that helps people stay safe by hugging trees in cold weather. Understood one way, this feels like a sweet and uncomplicated idea, but understood other ways, the idea complicates very quickly. The ways you weave cultural and historical stories really allow political questions to enter your work. As you seek shelter, as you seek your own memory, it is impossible for you to do it in an uncomplicated way, right? But as I learned more in that piece, I learned this really troubling other piece of information.
Ada: Right. And this idea of hug a tree . . . I always thought, Oh yes, just hug a tree and that will make you feel good. I didn’t know the history of it, how it was really about trying to save people’s lives. People who were lost were supposed to stay in one place and not wander farther from their starting point. Hugging a tree helps children stay in one place. Fascinating to me where those origins come from, but also how many of our own mythologies live in our heads. I thought it was a psychological thing. And then, of course, no, it’s hug a tree and survive.
Camille: And trees hold warmth. I ski, so I should have known, but I only recently learned that because trees hold warmth, you have to be really careful when skiing near trees because the snow around them will be softer, and you can fall in. You’ve got to keep an eye open around trees because you can just topple into a hole and get lost.
Ada: That’s really smart. I had no idea.
Camille: But if you’re a chipmunk, you’re happy. It’s warm and cozy in there.
So, we’re sitting here outside, under a tree, watching people run by on this hundred-mile endurance race, and it brings me to my next question. I feel like, still, even with all the work that people are doing, there are still some pretty ensconced ideas about what kinds of bodies care about trees and care about these kinds of outdoorsy things.
Ada: Yes, that is something you and I have talked about a lot.
Camille: A lot. Let’s talk about it more.
Ada: I think it’s important to talk about because I really believe in our connection to nature. And I think that it’s really important to remember that our relationship to nature, to trees, is reciprocal, that I am loved back by trees, that it’s not just one way. It’s not just me observing them, but that this tree knows we’re sitting underneath it. And to recognize that connection and to honor it, it really feels of value. And I think it’s important that is not a white experience. It is an experience for all people, all living beings, and all bodies. There’s been a history, as we know, as you’ve written about in your own work, but also that amazing anthology, Black Nature. It is important to remember that nature is not owned by the colonizers. You can’t colonize nature. You can’t colonize our minds. It may be what people have settled upon or what people have thought about as community and construction. But in reality, nature’s going to do its thing, and so is humanity.
Camille: Did you come out of the project of writing Shelter feeling more or less hopeful?
Ada: I definitely felt more hopeful. I think that, honestly, one of the main reasons I write about nature in my poetry or my prose, and especially this little piece Shelter that’s so important to me, is that it feels like I needed to be myopic, and myopic in the way of just looking at one tree at a time, and just remembering their presence. Because I think so often, we think about our ancestors or we think about our beloveds and we think about our friends. But if you really stop to think about those moments in your life where you’ve been in turmoil or whatever’s been happening, you will remember the trees that are around you. And they’ve been with you. They were part of that experience. They are part of our ancestral knowledge. I really feel like that is the truth.
And so, I think it was more hopeful because I was reminding myself that I am a human animal among this incredible planet, Gaia, who has a knowledge that I will never quite understand, but I am a part of it. And I think it’s so easy for us to feel isolated, to feel lonely, to feel rageful, to feel like humanity is broken. And then to spend time in nature, to spend time looking at trees, remembering trees even, was a way of grounding myself, rooting myself, if you will. It was necessary for me to write this book . . . this piece.
Camille: That’s interesting. You moved from calling it a book to a piece. Why?
Ada: Well, because it’s an essay, really, but it also doesn’t feel like an essay because essays feel different to me.
Camille: Yeah. It feels to me like a bunch of little essays, like a collection of mini essays as opposed to a singular essay.
Ada: I don’t know what to call it.
Camille: It’s a grove. You wrote a grove.
Ada: Thank you. I wrote a grove.
Camille: Maybe an aspen grove or something where it’s, like, all of these little new possibilities coming up everywhere. In the way that each aspen is part of one interconnected organism, but also its own tree.
Part of my reason for asking if you came out the other end of the book feeling hopeful is that there are so many kinds of grief contained in the book. Either your anger or other people’s anger that you hold. And really, I think incredibly compassionately. So, another one of the ideas about how to think about the greater-than-human world is this place we go for shelter. And in that shelter, we’ll find peace. But it seems that a lot of the dives you took take you to someplace the opposite of peace for a while.
Ada: Absolutely. It’s kind of what I was saying before—you think you’re alone in these experiences, thinking, here I am isolated in my pain, but then I would remember that these trees were around me: the trees supported me. And even people who had terrible, terrible experiences in the trees still had the trees. And I feel like that was important too, for me, to remember that they bear witness.
“It is important to remember that nature is not owned by the colonizers. You can’t colonize nature. You can’t colonize our minds. It may be what people have settled upon or what people have thought about as community and construction. But in reality, nature’s going to do its thing, and so is humanity.”
Camille: It’s been quite a year for you, Ada. The Hurting Kind come out in May, and Shelter in July, and you’ve got a new and selected collection in the works, too. [Editor’s note: Shortly after this conversation occurred Ada was named Poet Laureate of the United States. Big year, indeed!] We are eager for it all. Can you talk to me a little bit about working on multiple projects at once and how you decide when something is a poem versus when it’s prose and where it will land?
Ada: I think it’s really interesting to work in both poetry and prose at the same time. I mean, you do it so well. For me, they have completely different energies. And I don’t know if I have words to describe it, but it feels like working on poetry really pays homage to silence and breath and music. And working on prose feels like it really honors the sentence. And so, there’s this level in which the sentence becomes the engine, and that is paying homage to facts. It’s paying homage to a truth. There’s also a way in which it’s, like, it can’t evade or obfuscate a memory the way that you can sometimes in poetry. You can make a poem turn a memory. I might make a shift for music. I might change a blue vase another shade of blue because that sounds surreal, sounds better. And I think, in prose, I’m really trying to be honest about what actually happened.
Camille: With poetry, you are allowed to have a persona. The speaker of a poem can do things that might operate more in a fictional realm than a nonfictional one. The situation may be factual or it may be fantastical. With a poem, it is possible for both the reader and the writer to really trust that there is a potential for fabrication and distance. And that is not as obviously true when you write in nonfiction.
Ada: That is so true.
Camille: I find writing or publishing in nonfiction to feel significantly more vulnerable.
Ada: I 100 percent agree. I mean, I think that’s why I get nervous about it. When you were saying that you really like Shelter, I was like, take a deep breath, because I really like Shelter too. And I loved writing it and I’m glad it’s in the world, but there is this part of me that gets more nervous about it because it feels like it’s me. And I always feel like my poetry is me, but there’s some part of it that feels a little safer. And this work feels like it’s all there.
Camille: Sometimes I feel like there’s a topic that I am interested in and I do it in poetry. And I’m like, that works. And then I just turn and I pivot and I do it in prose and they’re companion pieces. They’re like cousins.
Camille: And I almost want them to live together, two sides of the Janus coin of that experience.
Ada: I love that, and I think that’s very true. This does feel like a companion piece to The Hurting Kind. I write about trees all the time. I mean, The Hurting Kind is full of trees. And this gave me sort of an opportunity to just lean into my obsession. Just keep going, keep going. And it was a really remarkable experience. In fact, when [the publisher] Scribd approached me about doing something, they suggested a letter to this or a letter to that, and I was like, would it be okay if I did letters to trees? I thought it would be maybe a shorter essay, and then it turned into this long, linked set of mini essays.
Camille: A lot happens. The reading experience feels so full. I was just trying to read a little book over lunch and then, Oh! I sighed . . . I cried. . . . It was not a light lunch. And then the joy came back. It felt really, truly, like a journey that I took.
Ada: I’m so glad. That means so much to me.
Camille: One question I love to ask writers is what are you not getting asked that you wish people would ask you—what do you wish you could say about either Shelter or The Hurting Kind or your work in general?
Ada: One of the things that I am always sort of thinking about in my work that I don’t think we talk about that much is actually the philosophy behind it, that how on a deep level, I believe in the reciprocity between the earth and humanity. And I think that is something that’s really key to both my poetry and my prose and that I don’t have the idea that nature writing is between the two models of Wordsworth and Coleridge, that Wordsworthian idea of one man going to the mountain and nature offering everything and giving him a poem. And then, the Coleridge idea that nature is a blank, empty, chaotic space and the mind organizes it and makes it beautiful. I don’t think those are the only two options even if I’m probably much more of a Wordsworthian type actually.
But instead, I go to the mountain and think, I too am the mountain. I too am part of this. And it’s that connection that I think we have lost. And I really feel like the philosophy behind my work is that, if we don’t mend our broken relationship to the earth, if we keep on feeling isolated and separate, the damage will continue. And so, I feel like part of the work that I’m interested in is doing some mending. And it’s just starting with me and it’s small, but it’s what I can do.
Camille: I think your work somewhat answers this, but was there a day that little Ada woke up and was like, I am the mountain? Or was that part of your family’s ethos? Do you have some idea of how you came to this?
Ada: I honestly do think I felt that way at quite a young age. Not separate, not conquering, just part of it. But then, I also did the work of getting out of some of the tropes that we have when we think about nature poetry, the legacy of nature poetry, or how we think about any kind of work around nature, categorizing birds by killing them or whatever it is. It feels like there’s a certain amount in which I started to question what that meant and how people talked about nature. And I kept thinking, No, but we are animals. I do remember that as a child.
And then, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass was really seminal in my life, that idea of reciprocity. She has that wonderful quote, “All flourishing is mutual.” I think about it all the time. Her work solidified what had always been running through me. And I’ll say, I grew up in an atheist family and a lot of that was about what is your belief? And the belief was in nature. The belief was in the planet and the power of the planet.
“I really feel like the philosophy behind my work is that, if we don’t mend our broken relationship to the earth, if we keep on feeling isolated and separate, the damage will continue.”
Camille: Let’s play a game. If you, Ada, could be a tree, if you got to choose to come back as a tree, what species would you be?
Ada: Oh, that’s really amazing! Ugh. But tough! I feel like my first thought . . . I’m just going to go with it . . . is the madrone. And I think it’s because of the way the madrone feels. It has a cooling element and there is a softness to the touch. There’s also something so beautiful about madrones. I’m thinking specifically of the madrones on Moon Mountain or anywhere in Sonoma Valley. They just stand out in these incredible rocky spaces and are wonderful homes for birds. So yeah, I’ll be a madrone.
Camille: They’re so beautiful and they are of that place. They’re native to that place. That’s one of your home places.
We’ve also recently been talking about how to write about the body and how to describe people. You and I had a whole conversation about the many reasons why we should not describe or compare people of color to foods, and among them being the idea that when you describe a person as a food you suggest they are these things to be consumed. But as I’m looking at your lovely arm there, the shade of your arm is similar to the under flesh of a madrone.
Ada: Ah, but I love that.
Camille: So maybe that can be a description. We can compare people to trees.
Ada: I love that.
Camille: What about [your husband] Lucas? What do you think?
Ada: Oh, definitely something sturdy and strong. I don’t know. I think he might be a conifer of some sort. A conifer because I think he’s evergreen; he’s always steady. He’s not going to lose his leaves. He’s always there. You can count on him.
Camille: [And your sweet pug] Lily Bean?
Ada: What is Lily Bean?! Lily Bean is maybe a little manzanita with all those white flowers.
Camille: Oh yes, who often curls at the base of a madrone. So there you are. You could all be in a cluster. Together in the right place.
What are you thinking next, project wise? You say you could keep doing trees, but . . .
Ada: That could take forever. The next project is putting together an anthology called Beast, which is all animal poems.
Ada: I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and just now starting to put it together. And the hardest part about putting together Beast is that there are so many poems about dead animals.
Camille: There are so many. So many.
Ada: And I would rather write about alive animals and honor the animal and not the grief of the animal. So that is the work of the project.
Camille: Gerald Stern can write the heck out of a dead animal poem. There are ways he will turn those. Who are some writers, not just for your project, but writers in general, who you feel like your projects are in conversation with, or you’re excited thinking about?
Ada: I always think my work is in conversation with my friend Natalie Diaz.
Camille: Yes! And in fact, literally in conversation sometimes, right? You write back and forth to each other in poems sometimes.
Ada: Yes. And then your work, I hope.
Camille: That makes me very, very happy.
Ada: And Ross Gay: I think my work is in conversation with Ross in a lot of ways. And Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I also think that there is a legacy element, too, looking at the Latin American poets in particular. Alejandra Pizarnik, for one.
Camille: You spent several years traveling to Santiago and Buenos Aires to teach. How has going to another hemisphere informed your writing and your thinking about the world?
Ada: I think it’s huge in terms of my poetics because I think we are so often limited in our thinking about poetry in the United States. And I think when you travel, especially in Latin America, there is a realization that not only does poetry have a long history, it also has a huge following. It’s revered in Latin America. If you say you’re a poet there, people will immediately be interested in your work. And I love the United States, but there are times where if you say you’re a poet here, people will be like, what does that even mean? That doesn’t happen in Latin America.
Camille: Remember when we had that beautiful experience going into that soap and bath shop, Lather & Fizz, and the saleswoman respected we were poets. What did she say?
Ada: She said, writing poetry takes more brainpower.
Camille: And we were like, yes, thank you for that. That’s the thing though. It was surprisingly pleasurable to have a person who ran a shop acknowledge that poetry was this thing that was important and valuable.
The Yellow Plum
The Mirabelle plum tree was my first lesson in the problems of abundance. A tree from Lorraine, France, it produces a sweet yellow stone fruit, and in a good year, it felt like we had thousands of them, so sugar-filled in the summer heat, it was like tree candy. I fed them to our dog, Dusty, a yellow Lab the same color as the golden plums themselves, until we both got sick.
When the tree was heavy with them, it made me nervous. We’d never be able to eat them all. I felt ashamed to pass by it and not take one, a tree like that—offering everything of itself. One of the first times I was left alone in the kitchen to bake something, after my parents’ divorce, I made what I called “plum balls” from my own recipe. My father was so surprised I’d left the pit inside. But I loved that inside the yellow plum was a potential for another whole tree full of plums.
Excerpted with permission from Shelter by Ada Limón (Scribd Originals, 2022).
Camille: Is there anything else you want to share?
Ada: Maybe just that a lot of the prose I wrote initially was in response to people asking me for things. Shelter felt like one of the first projects that I’ve written in prose that was really organic to me. Even though someone had asked me for something, they allowed me to come up with my own project, my own ideas, allowed me as much time as I wanted. That felt really special.
And also, I work in this prose group. It’s all women. I really don’t know if I would have kept going if it wasn’t for the support of these really amazing, generous women. So I just want to shout out the idea of community and writing in community because I think we often have the misunderstanding that all writing is done in isolation. This writing was not done in isolation.
Camille: It couldn’t have been done in isolation.
Ada: No, it couldn’t. It needed the encouragement. It needed our deadlines and their support.
Camille: So then, Shelter, your grove, is also about community. In so many ways, the individual stories and arcs within it are about how Ada lives in community with these trees and with other people who are important to you. And so, in that way, isolation seems antithetical.
Camille: You had to stop going to South America because of the pandemic. I’ve heard you say that The Hurting Kind was a way of reaching out, that you would write these poems sometimes to people and send them out. A way of building community. Did the pandemic isolation affect the writing of Shelter? What do you think or hope will stay with you out of those shifts?
Ada: I think that writing about trees in particular was really a way of remembering that I’m not alone, not isolated. I am in community, even when I feel like I’m not in community. And my community is the trees. And when I feel like someone has not seen something or not seen me, I have been witnessed by the trees. And that seemed really important. And that is what I hope will stay—that feeling that I’m not alone.
Camille: That is beautiful. Thank you, Ada, for taking the time to talk with me and with Orion.
Ada: Thank you so much, Camille. I adore you.
Check out Ada’s new book Shelter, here.
Read Camille’s conversations with poets Major Jackson and Kaveh Akbar.
Ada 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. Her book Bright Dead Things was nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Her work has been supported most recently by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Limón is also the host of the critically acclaimed poetry podcast The Slowdown. Her new book of poems, The Hurting Kind, was published by Milkweed Editions in May 2022.
Eastern Hemlock, along with White Pine, are the perennial retainers of the NEECA park. They are tall, long-lived, always watching- guardians through all seasons. Hemlock branches swoop down gracefully with age, a little sadly, making the perfect cove in which to huddle as a child might. If you prop yourself against the bole and look up, the twig sprays show the silvery undersides of the needles where the breathing pores are located. I remember last winter stepping off the Three Chicks Trail into the blue-black hemlocks to sit by the vernal-type pond. I scooched down by the frozen water edge and leaned against a hemlock, thinking of spring when Wood Frogs quacked and of summer when dragonflies whirred. But that winter day the only sound, making me turn to look, was the sigh of the guardian hemlocks.
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