Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 73. Today’s guest is Ada Limón.
Hey there, folks. Today on the show I’m talking with poet Ada Limón. Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24PearlStreet online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Her new collection, The Carrying, was released by Milkweed Editions just this month, August 2018.
Now, my introduction to Ada’s work was via her poem “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” which I saw getting retweeted around last spring, when it was featured on the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. And, you know, that just happened to be a bit of a low point for me, and this poem, when I read it, it felt like a lifeline, you know? I’ve now had a chance to read her two most recent collections, Bright Dead Things and now The Carrying, and they are just magnificent books. I’ve put links in the show notes for both and I do highly recommend picking up a copy and checking them out.
Coming up in the next few weeks, Ada will be having her New York launch party for The Carrying at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn. She’ll also be giving readings at Muhlenberg College, Texas Christian University, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Smith College. I’ve put a link in the show notes to her calendar page, where you can find all of her upcoming events, which at the time I’m recording this includes readings all the way through mid-November.
A couple more things before we get started, subscribers to our Patreon campaign will get some new bonus content this week, a special reading by Ada of the poem I mentioned before, “Instructions on Not Giving Up.” Just as a reminder, subscribers at any level get access to each episode a day early, plus exclusive access to our bonus audio content. You can sign up and make a pledge at patreon.com/sakeriver.
Finally, I’m going to be doing another giveaway this week, this time I have a copy of Ada’s new book The Carrying, so stick around after the show for details. Now, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Ada Limón.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I just, before we said anything else, I just wanted to say that I really loved your new book, The Carrying. I also just recently—this year—read Bright Dead Things, which I also really loved. So I just wanted to, before I said anything else, say thank you so much for these wonderful books.
Ada Limón: Oh, thank you so much. That means a lot to me. The Carrying is so new, and hearing that people have even read it already is fantastic and terrifying all at once.
AL: [laughs] So thank you for your kind words about them.
MS: I was wondering if we could start with a reading, perhaps?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. I just got my hardcover in the mail of The Carrying. I'm so excited. I've never had a hardcover book.
MS: It's a beautiful book, too.
AL: Thank you. Thank you. I think they did such a wonderful job. My mother did the cover painting, as she did with Bright Dead Things, as she did with all of my books. We don't really get a chance to collaborate too much, but she does these beautiful paintings in response to my work and they grace the cover. So I'm really lucky.
AL: I'll begin with a poem called "Ancestors."
I've come here from the rocks, the bone-like chert,
obsidian, lava rock. I've come here from the trees—
chestnut, bay laurel, toyon, acacia, redwood, cedar
one thousand oaks
that bend with moss and old-man's beard.
I was born on a green couch on Carriger Road between
the vineyards and the horse pasture.
I don't remember what I first saw, the brick of light
that unhinged me from the beginning. I don't remember
my brother's face, my mother, my father.
Later, I remember leaves, through car windows,
through bedroom windows, through the classroom window,
the way they shaded and patterned the ground, all that
power from roots. Imagine you must survive
without running? I've come from the lacing patterns of leaves,
I do not know where else I belong.
MS: Thank you. So this poem... It's funny when I have a poet on the show, the poem that they pick is almost always one that really sticks out to me from the whole collection. Although with this collection I kind of feel like most of the poems stick out to me.
AL: [laughs] Good.
MS: But one of the things that I was thinking a lot about with this collection—and this is one of the first poems that does this—is how you make these lists in a lot of these poems. Here, you talk about different types of rocks and different types of trees.
MS: In other poems, it might be lists of different types of animals. Or in one poem it's a list of things that are carried on cargo trains. And there's a way in which it almost feels like these lists, with their specificity, are almost—they almost feel like an incantation of sorts. Do you know what I mean?
AL: Yeah, I do.
MS: Yeah. And I was kind of—that was something I found really interesting about these poems and I wondered if we could talk about that a little bit.
AL: Yeah. I think that you've, just in this first question, have hit on something that I think is very important to me. Which is, one, the idea of listing, and, two, the idea of naming. And I think lists for me are a little bit of an obsession in my own work, because I think they're a powerful way to connect with the experience that's going on in your life at that moment. Even listing what's around you, even listing what has happened. There's something about that that channels a sort of momentum in the mind. And then the idea of naming things, giving them their proper due with their own names. You know, I'm one of those people that drives other travelers insane by constantly asking, "Well, what's the name of that tree? What's the name of that bird?"
AL: You know? We just came back from Rio de Janeiro and looking out our window, we could see these incredible seabirds that are just gorgeous. They almost look like pterodactyls, and they're called magnificent frigatebirds. And I thought, I love that magnificent is actually a part of their name.
AL: And it sounded to me as if they all sort of got together and named themselves—
AL: —and decided, "Well, frigatebird is okay, but what about if we add magnificent in front of it?" So, you know, for me, I think that the—where names come from, the actual... the thing it does when you name something, that you suddenly become attached to it on some level is important to me as well. There's this great talk by Robin Wall Kimmerer—the woman who wrote the book Braiding Sweetgrass—and she has this talk where she says that the average American can name and recognize 100 names of brands but only 10 names of plants.
AL: And I think how fascinating that is, right? How far away we've come from having a connection with our earth.
AL: And so on some levels I think those two things that you mentioned right off the bat, the listing and the naming are sort of essential to not just this book but just sort of my outlook on life.
MS: Yeah, it's interesting. I haven't read that book, although, I did sort of look into it a little bit just because you referenced that in one of the poems here. It's interesting because I feel like a lot of your poems—both in this collection and in Bright Dead Things—that it seems very clear from your poems that having this connection to the earth—sometimes literally to, like, the dirt in your fingers—is very important to you, and there's this real sense of connectedness, I feel like. There's something about the naming, the specificity of it. It makes you feel a closeness when you're reading. It's really interesting how that works.
AL: Yeah. I think that there is that, there's—the intimacy of naming is that if I tell you exactly what's on my desk right now and you tell me exactly where you're recording, we will immediately have a better sense of where we are.
AL: Right? And it grounds us and I think that's important, and I think that's an important act of telepathy that writing can do with a reader.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. There's also—there's a line I marked down in the poem "Against Belonging"—
MS: —in this book where—it's a few different lines—where you say "properly identifying / seemed more important than science, more like / creation. With each new name the world expanded. / I give names to everything now because it makes / me feel useful." And there was something in that, not only about the power of the naming and the listing, but in the way that the action... that the naming is in itself an action, you know, and that the action does something useful.
MS: And it seemed to me that that also applies to the concept of poetry and of writing in general, you know. Like that the poems are not a thing so much as they are an action, a doing, and that they do something. That's always something that's really interesting to me about considering art, is what does art do.
AL: Yeah, I think that's very true. I ask my students that. I always ask them "What do you want your poems to do?" And they all kind of look at you like, "What?" [laughs] But I think about that question all the time. What do I want my poems to do? And you know, sometimes it's not a group of poems, but what do I want this poem to do, right?
AL: Because they'll all do different things. And sometimes it's very simple. Sometimes it just wants—the poem wants to help someone reconnect to the world or recommit to the world.
AL: Or wants to have someone feel grounded after reading it, or maybe it's just a simple thing like "Go call your mother." [laughs] But, you know, I think that I often think of poems as actions. And that goes back to what you mentioned in the beginning, which was almost like a spell like quality, that it feels like there's an incantation happening. And I think that's true too because in reality what I want most from my poems is for my own poems to make me feel better about living in the world and to give me a way to live in the world. Even if they can't help anyone else, you know, hopefully they can help me.
MS: Yeah. I think about the doing of a work of art. And this was something that, for me, came up a lot, in particular—with a lot of your poems it did this, but I think it sort of surged the most for me when I was reading "The Burying Beetle."
MS: That, you know, like you were saying, that the naming and the specificness of naming, that it gives you a sense of rootedness, perhaps, and connection. That in some of the poems—in many of the poems, really—it almost feels like you're choosing what to turn towards. That you're choosing—in that poem in particular there's a sense of, you know, "Somewhere else there are bad things happening and those things are important. But here I'm going to choose to turn my face towards what's right in front of me and what I can touch."
MS: And, have you seen the movie Sorry to Bother You?
AL: Not yet, no. My husband and I were just looking for the local theaters that would have it.
MS: [laughs] I don't want to... I think that's a movie best where if you don't know anything about it going in. But there is one line that kind of—I think separate from the movie itself—was really interesting to me. Just this idea that when there's a problem that's big enough, that it's so big that it feels like one person can't do anything to solve the whole problem, that most people just don't do anything.
MS: And it feels like these poems, especially that poem, but really all of the poems are a doing something, if that makes sense.
AL: Mm-hm. Yeah, it does make sense. It feels like... When I was in college, I was suffering from anxiety and worried very much about the world and, you know, thinking then about the destruction of our planet, the destruction of our political system. Even then in the nineties. And I remember talking to my stepfather on the phone one night, and I was really trying to figure out how to live while still containing all of these big truths that are so destructive. And he said that, you know, one of the biggest things to do when you get overwhelmed by the macrocosm is to focus on the microcosm and to focus on what you can do, even if it's to help one other person or be of service to someone or be kind to someone, or plant a garden or make a phone call or reach out or create something. And that has always stuck with me and I think it's something I focus on to this day, that there is a doing in the creating and that there is a doing in the connection and the communication that a poem offers into the world.
MS: Yeah. Another thing I was thinking about with the naming... The first—I mean I think it's the first poem, isn't it?
MS: "A Name"? And you're talking about about Eve naming animals. And there was something about that too, that here she's doing this thing. There's—I don't know if I'm going to articulate this quite right, but there's something about how she's the one doing this work of naming things, and that that attention isn't returned exactly in the same way—
MS: —that felt... Like, there's something about the way that the work that women do that is very often under- or unappreciated.
MS: Which I thought was also something really interesting and especially interesting to open the whole collection with, if that makes sense.
AL: Yeah. Yeah, I think there is a pointing to that here in this poem, the idea that she's going on naming that animals and that she also wants to be recognized as a wild thing herself, as an animal, too, and doesn't just see it. But wants that recognition so that she can also be connected to them. And that also that she wants to share that power with the natural world. That she doesn't want the power to be only in her but that she wants to share it with the natural world.
MS: Yeah. And again, that seems—it's just like so much of this book, it seems to be reaching for that kind of a connection and sharing between the self and the bigger world.
MS: Yeah. So, another thing that I thought was really interesting about these poems, there's several of these poems that—I didn't realize this at first until I saw the New Yorker thing—but that several of these poems are actually a collaboration between you and Natalie Diaz. And if I'm recalling right, that's not actually pointed to at all in the text. Like, there isn't a note under the title to say "to Natalie Diaz" or anything like that. So when I found that out, when I read the "Envelopes of Air" feature in the New Yorker, it really changed the experience of those poems. I thought that was really interesting and was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.
AL: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of my favorite projects, I think, I've ever done—it's still ongoing—which is that over a year, Natalie Diaz and I wrote poem letters back and forth to one another. We had a rule that you could never include any more text in the email aside from the attachment of the poem, so that all responses and all utterances had to be in reply to the actual written poem. And there are four poems in this book, The Carrying, that are letters to her. And, of course, you don't get her reply, but you can see them in the New Yorker online. And, you know, I chose not to put her name in them because what happened was they took on a life of their own. When you included her name, you wanted the response, you want it—they felt like, "Oh, I want to see what Natalie wrote back." And Natalie's a phenomenal poet. And so what I did was I put it in the notes section in the back. But I thought this way, by leaving her name off of it, you could maybe see that these letters could be more universal and maybe to even the reader, if the reader so accepted it.
MS: Yeah, I mean it really did change the experience of the poem, that without that context, which is—you know, so I approached these poems first as part of this collection and there are many poems in this collection—and indeed in a lot of your work—where you use an I and a you.
MS: And it's not always clear who you're talking to in your poems, exactly. But in the context of these poems being sort of separated from their original context. And in this book I felt like the you of these poems was very different from how they felt when you could read the responses. I found that a really fascinating experience.
AL: Mm. Yeah. That's interesting. I think that's kind of the experience I was hoping for, was that they could live on their own as well as being a very intimate conversation between two people. But that they could also be seen as poems in their own right, which we really wanted to do. We really wanted to create something that the poems could stand on their own, but that also when you saw them collected, you could really engage with that entire conversation and feel an intimate connection to both poets.
AL: But yeah, I'm glad that you had that experience, because I hadn't really talked to anyone about that yet, about whether or not... You know, how that experience shifted from seeing them as in this collection. And they were written at the same time as the rest of these poems, in the same time period. So they fit in this world of this book. And for some reason I couldn't leave them out. I thought, "No, they need to be in here," because they rounded out a lot of the narrative, the personal narrative that I saw coming together when I was putting this collection together as a whole. It's not like those letter poems needed to be in there.
MS: Yeah, and so many of your poems are about personal—or at least use personal narrative. I don't know if it's correct to say that that's what they're about, but they use narrative.
MS: And so I think that's one of the reasons why they didn't seem out of place at all because in many of the poems you might reference a memory or an anecdote, or say, "We were talking about this at that time."
MS: And we don't get the other half of that conversation, necessarily. So these didn't feel... It all sort of felt of a piece, you know? If it hadn't been for the New Yorker feature, then I would have had no idea.
MS: Yeah. And it's really interesting to me, again, to think about what a poem or a work of art does, but also how dependent that can be on exactly the context in which you experienced it. That's something that... I don't know if I had really thought quite as... I mean it's something I've thought about before, but to have it shown to me so starkly this way was fascinating.
AL: Mm. Good, I'm glad. I'm interested in that because I think even how we bring in the autobiographical information about a poet often, right? If we're discussing a poem in class or in conversation, we tend to say, "Oh, well, this is what was happening in her life at this time, was this and this and this." But what is—how does the poem happen? Or how does the poem mean without that autobiographical information. And I think those readings are just as important. And sometimes they can be even more mysterious and unravel in a way that's almost more delicious and delightful than the poem when you have the background and go, "Oh, I can name exactly what this is in reference to."
AL: So I think, you know, I always find those two experiences very elating, really.
MS: Yeah. I mean it is sort of a weird thing. I feel like... I mean, this happens to some degree, I think, with any kind of art, especially art that is... that sort of springs from personal experience. But I feel like maybe with poetry people do this more than, say, with fiction or visual art, where people really want... People seem to really want to know about the autobiographical parts of it, you know?
MS: And in some ways that almost doesn't... It always feels like the wrong question to me. Not to say that it's a completely invalid question, but just that the poem is doing a thing all by itself and doesn't necessarily need to be understood as autobiography even if it uses autobiographical detail. You know? I mean, for me it can be a little frustrating sometimes that people get so obsessed with that.
AL: Absolutely. I think it's frustrating and I think it's limiting because I think what happens is it makes us think about poetry as not the full art form. That unless you know about the autobiographical background of the poet, that suddenly the poem can't stand on its own, or we have to dig deeper into this realm of straight, black-and-white narrative.
AL: And really a poem is doing so many different things. Right? And the I is the I, but the I isn't the I. I mean, I write from a very personal I most of the time but that I changes all the time.
AL: I'm different today than I was yesterday. [laughs] And so even that person is not the same.
AL: I'm working towards a—you know, to be my most authentic self on the page, but not in a way that conflates with memoir, but in a way that I'm bowing down always to the poem. That if the poem wants to say something, it's going to say it and I'll follow along. Whether that choice is for the image or towards the musicality of the poem or even towards the truth of the poem. If it's not my personal truth, that's okay. If it gets to a deeper truth, I'm going to follow that.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I guess another thing—I mean, even for myself, I find I've done this. Maybe less with poetry, but with songs, a lot of times I would really wonder, "Did that really happen that way?" But so often these things are really reaching towards something that's bigger than just one person's story.
MS: And that's why they resonate. Right?
MS: And I feel like that's something... I went and read a bunch of different reviews and interviews that you'd done before, or that had been written about your work, and something that a lot of people talk about is how your poems are very accessible.
MS: Which I thought was sort of an interesting... It's not that I disagree with that. I think that certainly with something—the language of your poems is very clear. And so they might feel a little more approachable than perhaps more obscure language might. But I also in some ways feel that saying that your poems are accessible in some ways might do them a bit of a disservice because it sort of seems to imply that there's a simplicity to them that—or, not that there isn't a simplicity to them, but rather that it might sort of elide the complexity that's in them, if that makes sense.
AL: Yes, it does make sense. Yeah. I struggled with that, coming to terms with that word. That word wasn't really used for my work until Bright Dead Things. So that was the fourth book and for the most part it was used in a positive way. But I think that depends on what community you're talking to. You know, I think that non-poets would say that accessible poetry is not only a good thing, but what they're looking for. And I think poets would often say accessible poetry might not be at all what they would strive to do, let alone read, or laud on any level. So I struggled with that at first. I felt a little like I was pushing against it, but at the same time I also—the idea of access, of allowing doors that open, the idea of language that invites someone into it is very intriguing to me. And I also kind of liked the idea of inviting someone into it and then doing something they're completely not expecting.
AL: And if that's sort of a way of tricking someone into a poem, then [laughs] I'm all for it. Yeah, I do think it's a strange word in terms of what it means and its duality of purpose in both reviews and critical work. I find myself still kind of questioning it when I see it. You know, and people will say "clear, simple language" and oftentimes I wonder, there's a lot of musicality in my work and a lot of jumping around that sort of goes from one place to another place very quickly. Travels. My poems move a lot, but they tend to think, "Oh no, these poems are very clear and very interesting on that sort of clarity level. I don't know, I'm intrigued by that.
MS: I think that, you know, I do find that there are a lot of people for whom poetry is sort of daunting, I guess—you know, people who are not poets—so to be able to find a poem or a book of poems that doesn't seem like it's trying to put you off, like it's trying to hide something from you—
MS: I think that's the kind of thing that for some people would be very refreshing. And very... I'm not sure exactly what the right word is, but I think that, like I was saying and like you were saying, that there's a way in which focusing too much on that, it gets away from what the poem actually is doing. You know, when you were saying about how your poems move a lot, one of the ones that I... I was reading this last night, the poem "Full Gallop."
MS: And how I read it three or four times right in a row because, you know, you've got, what is this, five tercets and then a single line at the end.
MS: And in each tercet, there's a pretty profound shift, a turn in between... The white space between each tercet marks a real significant change in the tone and emotion, but then they all still hang together as well. And I feel like if you weren't paying attention, you would feel these things but not even realize you were feeling them.
MS: That is a way that... I mean, it takes a lot of skill to be able to do something like that and not even call attention to the fact that you're doing it.
AL: Thank you, for one. Thank you. That poem is a complicated poem, and I think one of the things where we talk about the clarity aspect versus the complexity aspect. I think, at least for me, if I'm doing what I set out to do, those things are always at play together. Because I don't think anything is weirder or a stranger or more mysterious then our actual reality. [laughs]
AL: So I don't need to obscure something for the sake of obfuscation, but actually telling you or trying to attempt to map the mind onto the page is as surreal as it can be.
AL: Only because of our own weirdness as human beings.
AL: And the capacity of the mind to go from here to here to here to here to here so quickly. All those synapses. So yeah, I think that, almost, the attempt toward a truth or a clarity can actually be way stranger than attempting to maybe muddle something purposefully.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. And I think... I mean, I feel like so much of poetry... It's always hard to make any kind of sweeping generalized statements about an entire art form, but—
AL: Right. It's never right. Yeah.
MS: Yeah. But I do feel like a lot of poetry is very interested in communicating something about some aspect of the human experience, and sometimes the way that you get there is through things being difficult to understand, I guess. Like, if you have to puzzle it out then that experience does something, but there's something... I don't know, like another thing I was thinking about, especially because in your letter poems with Natalie Diaz that you or she referenced John Ashbery at one point.
MS: And Ashbery is obviously somebody who is very known for being very obscure in his poems.
MS: And not to say that I don't enjoy reading Ashbery poems because I do, and I admire them quite a bit, but in some ways I feel like the way Ashbery makes his poems so sort of difficult in some ways... I mean, I know he rejected that notion that his poems were difficult, but the way that his poems are put together really foregrounds that aspect of them, foregrounds that he's doing something specific with them. Whereas I feel like in some of your poems, especially the ones that are extremely narrative—like maybe "American Pharaoh" or "Dream of the Ravens"—like some of these poems you're just... It almost feels like all you're doing is describing a scene, right?
MS: But it's a lot more than that, too. And I feel like what it is, is that you're taking the image, and that the image itself is what's... I'm not articulating this very well, but that there's something that by taking these images and showing them to us in a way that we can see them very easily, that it's doing the same kind of thing that another poet might do by hiding it, but by putting it out in completely plain sight. And to me that's almost more impressive, you know?
AL: Mm. Yeah, I think I know what you mean. For me, I think that it is a choice. And to ask someone to go, "Okay, I want you to see this and I want you to see exactly what I mean."
AL: Right? And in that description, I'm hoping that we will have this intimate connection for this one moment, so that when I tell you this other thing, you believe me.
AL: And I think that's true, too, that I want a certain amount of trust so that you realize I'm not trying to manipulate you as the speaker.
AL: Nor am I trying to privilege my own pain or own experience, but that I'm trying to say "This is what happened. Can you see this? Are we there together?" And then once we're there together, we can talk further and go deeper.
MS: Mm. Yeah.
AL: But I think there is an inclusion in the idea of... And, again, this is talking to a reader, but at the same time many of these poems are written just for me, in the sense that I'm talking to myself, going, "Okay, can we be in this together? Can you see this, too? The other Ada that I'm calling back into being?"
MS: Yeah. It's interesting. You know, the drum that I'm always beating on this show is that art is the best way to connect two people.
MS: That we're all stuck in our heads, our own heads. We can never really see what's going on inside anyone else's experiences, and that art is the most direct way to actually communicate.
MS: And there's something about what you're saying that... Like, I guess what that brings to mind to me is that this connection isn't just from the writer to the reader, that it can be from the writer to the writer, or the reader to the writer, or the reader to the reader. That there's something more going on there. I don't even know if that makes sense.
AL: Yeah. No, I think that that's very much what I'm saying, because I think that while I'm often writing for another person and I'm thinking of a you, there is also a time where I'm really writing for myself. [chime] Oh, I'm sorry, that's me.
AL: But I feel like there's a level where... I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though oftentimes I'm considering a reader, there are times where it's more about what's going into the world, and it becomes an offering. And the offering isn't just for a reader, the offering is also for myself. It's creating a space where I can live, too, and can breathe and can remember something, or can recast a memory, or cultivate something. And I think that if I'm only doing it for someone else, it almost becomes a performance.
AL: And if I am also doing it for myself and creating for myself, then it becomes something that the work really matters to me because it's also something that I'm doing on a very real level, in order to either heal myself or give myself something I, that I need at that moment.
MS: Mm. Well, why don't we take a little break and then come back and do the second segment?
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Ada Limón: You know, so much is on my mind. I think that every time I get back from a place—I just got back from Rio, as we were talking about earlier—and that sort of sense of who we are as artists, on a global level and not just artists as a sort of U.S. collective. It really always strikes me. So, travel is always interesting to me, and I think it's an interesting thing to do as an artist because you end up thinking about other artists that have lived in that place. And with Rio, of course, it was hard not to think about the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whose book Geography III really meant and means a great deal to me. We didn't get to see the house that she lived in with Lota, but we did talk about her a lot and just seeing things that I knew she had seen and experienced. It was sort of a fascinating thing to do. And also rereading some of her work and seeing it from a different perspective, having loved her but also struggling with some of the maybe problematic othering that she does in her work as she's looking at, you know, the locals of Rio.
AL: The locals of Brazil.
MS: Mm. It's sort of an interesting thing. This sort of bears a little bit on what we were talking about before about the context of the work and autobiography.
MS: I feel like in understanding any work, there's always a lot of different contexts. And maybe the autobiographical part is just one part of it. But I feel like there's a way in which understanding what a person was—what was going on around the person, whether it's the specific location that they were in when they were making the art, or whether it was what the global situation was when they were making the art, is definitely something that provides a lot of information about how to understand the work, I guess. Do you find that visiting these places... Like, I'm always really interested in this idea of pilgrimage, too, you know?
MS: Of visiting these sort of holy spots, I guess. And whether that's religious or artistic or whatever, what does that bring to us as a reader or audience member? It's something I'm never completely sure I have a handle on, you know, but it's an interesting thing to ponder.
AL: Yeah. Two years ago I was in Santiago, Chile and got the opportunity to see all three of Neruda's homes that are in Chile.
AL: And see his grave, and Isla Negra, and his house in Valparaíso, and his house La Chascona in Santiago. And I was so fascinated. Any historical figure we can take issue with, speaking of Bishop's problematic othering. And then you also have Neruda, someone who is also another complicated, complex figure that we praise quite a lot, but also he can be troubling. But I feel like going to his places, one of the things that I loved was that I got to see all of his crazy obsessions and how sort of really insane he was, like in terms of hoarding and the items he was collecting. You know, there's a whole—in his house in Isla Negra there's an entire room that they had to build onto the structure of the house that is for his shell collection.
AL: But it's not just shells. He also has a collection of beetles. The incredible—but walls and walls of them. You know, we're not just talking like, "Oh, like he's got one little thing of butterflies." And then it's like, you know, little wooden toy cars or... I mean, it's just the idea of collecting things. And then when you read his work you think, "Oh, right, there is an obsession with objects."
AL: And you think about Ode to Common Things, and suddenly that becomes very clear. And so, like we were talking about earlier, about conflating the autobiographical information with the artwork and how limiting and dangerous it can be sometimes, especially because it kind of gives us only one reading of something. But there is a deepening connection that you feel sometimes with the artists when you visit their homes or their graves, or the places where they maybe looked out at sea. And [you] think, "Oh, okay, I get it. I get something. I get something about his view, what he was seeing." I thought about that, looking out at the ocean at Isla Negra. Looking at the ocean in Rio, and thinking what Bishop's sight lines were.
AL: And it is fascinating. It does feel like it connects you to other writers. And I think there's something about visiting homes that is interesting because I think in our—especially in the U.S.—that most of the homes that we visit are of political Founding Fathers or... They tend to be huge mansions of men who had slaves, and there's an intense history there. And so to have a chance to visit poets' homes feels different and something maybe that we don't do as much here.
MS: Yeah. I remember... There's another podcaster and artist and writer who I talked with a long time ago, and I remember on his show—his name is Jeffrey Saddoris—and I remember on his show, On Taking Pictures, many years ago, he was talking about this experience he had visiting Jackson Pollock's home.
MS: And there was this sense of... What he would talk about when he would talk about that was this sense of just being in the same space where these things had happened. You know, where the same energy that went into the work, where that played out.
MS: And I always found that sort of, on the one hand, kind of wonderful and magical, but also kind of, I don't know... There's something about this idea of holy spaces like that, that I find very attractive. But then there's this part of my mind that always also kind of thinks, "Well, but I don't know what happened just on that piece of sidewalk over there before. What feet have touched that piece of regular old sidewalk. Whose story played out right there in that place, or in that house that I've never seen that's just two doors down from me. What played out there?" That I kind of feel like even while I'm attracted to these spaces where art happened or where something momentous happened, that I almost feel like the idea of those things being special sort of pulls me away from paying attention to something else that might be just as amazing, but I just don't know about it. I don't know if that makes sense.
AL: I love that. I love that, because I think there is something to be said... It was interesting because that goes back to visiting Neruda's homes. I was with a friend of mine, Gisele Firmino, who is a fabulous writer from Brazil, and we were talking about the issues with Neruda. I think we were both sort of discussing on the same level. Now, I love Neruda's poems. And I think she, as a woman from South America, pushes against him on so many levels. The hubris of him, the largeness of him, the idea that, he's for the working class, but at the same time was quite wealthy. He had three homes, was very well protected. And, you know, having that discussion with someone, I think, is very freeing, because I do think there's a level where every time we celebrate anyone, there's a level of, "But why are we celebrating this person? What are the other stories?" Right? And that's the nice thing about being a writer, is that you hope your story will last and that you've controlled the narrative a little bit so that they can go on once you're not there anymore. But I think that the fact that it does make you think about what you're missing is good, too. You know, that it's like, "Well, what's beyond that? What are the untold stories?"
MS: Yeah. I wonder too, you know, the thing that you were saying about seeing this evidence of how his mind was sort of unusual.
MS: And, you know, you were already talking about how you already know how he was problematic in ways.
MS: There's this sort of sense that I kind of feel sometimes where.... I mean, people talk about not meeting your heroes—not to say that Neruda is necessarily one of your heroes or mine—but just that if you don't meet the person or something, that the work can kind of... Maybe you're a little more free for the work to mean what you want it to mean. Does that make any sense?
AL: Yeah, I do think that can be true. And I think sometimes—to go back to what we were talking about earlier, the idea of the art being separate from the person can allow us sometimes to really enjoy that art on so many other levels. And own it, right? That it becomes more of ours then it becomes of theirs. And I think there can be a real gift to that.
MS: Yeah. Although I guess that reminds me, too, that separating art and artist is a question that a lot of us have been talking about a lot the last—especially the last maybe two, three years.
MS: What the consequences are of... What are the consequences socially of saying, "Well we can absolutely separate those things"? That the work is completely it's own thing. And I feel like that's an idea that a lot of us are sort of rejecting, at least on some level, to some degree, you know?
AL: Mm-hm. Yeah, I mean, I think that that's... I mean, that's been going on forever. I think when we try to separate it out, there's an enjoyment that can take place. A pleasure that you can just sort of own the work, yourself. And then, you know, as you dig deeper into Miles Davis's life, Kind of Blue sounds differently.
AL: But I think that's always happened. And I find it very fascinating and also frustrating, because I think there are some people that would rather be, above all and anything, would rather be good artists and good creators. And I think it's more important to be a good person.
AL: I want to create things. I want to write. It's all I ever want to do, is write and read. Occasionally nap. [laughs]
AL: But really I want to be a good person. I want to be a person that does right by other people. And if that means sometimes maybe not writing something that might hurt someone, I'm okay with that. And, you know, there are people who will probably take great issue with that and would say that the work and the art should always come first. But in my mind, it can't.
MS: Yeah. That's something that comes up a lot... Primarily I'm a photographer, creatively. That's definitely something that comes up a lot with photography. Particularly in photojournalism, but even with fine art, it comes up a lot, because the relationship between the art and the artist and the subject is always... It can't not be fraught to some degree. And there's always this idea of—Sontag talked about this a lot in her book, about how there's this idea of the photographer taking things, of taking a photograph.
MS: And I feel like to some degree I see those conversations playing out in literature as well, and in other art forms. But I think maybe that complexity can be overlooked a little bit more when there's more of a... When the relationship between the work and the subject and the artist isn't quite so explicit and in your face, I think maybe some people have an easier time looking past that. I don't know.
AL: I think I agree. Everything comes back to nuance and intent and all of those things. But I think there is something to be said for... You know, for me, I'm glad that that conversation exists, because I think it makes us more accountable for what we create and I think we should be accountable for what we create.
MS: Yeah. It does sort of go back to the thing that we were talking about before, about art being something that does something, and what does the art do, what does this poem do? I mean, even just recently, there's been a lot of talk about a particular poem that—I don't know if I necessarily want to get into the specifics of the particular poem—that was published in a big outlet recently and a lot of people were talking about what it does and why it wasn't great. And then, of course, a bunch of other people come in and start defending the idea, like, "Oh, well, you know, we should feel free to make whatever kind of art that we want." But then that sort of misses the point that, well, yeah, you can make whatever you want, but you also have to deal with the consequences of the thing that you made.
AL: Yeah. I mean, I think that even on a personal level, if you are writing a personal poem about an ex-lover, or about a father figure, or someone in your immediate realm, and you're not ready to have the conversation that that poem puts forward, then I would be very leery of publishing that, too. Unless you're ready to have that conversation. Because that is a way of communicating. It's a way of opening that door.
AL: And so I do think there's a level where if you're going to put something out in the world, then you have to know that your voice is not the loudest one, and it's not the only one. That people get to talk back.
AL: And that that conversation is part of creating.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
AL: That's that part of being accountable that I think is important.
MS: Yeah. And there's also that thing, too, about... Something that a lot of people talk about is telling your own story, right?
MS: But then there has to also be this recognition that nobody's story is entirely their own. That everybody's story is part of somebody else's story, too. And what we do with that story when we feel like it's our own. Because it's touching somebody else, it affects them, too. That's... It's tricky.
AL: It's very tricky. And I think there's a lot of, even on a broader sense, when people... I think when poems fail, oftentimes they're saying, "I'm the only person this has ever happened to."
AL: And once you realize that you're not, [laughs] your poems get deeper. And I would say better, because you're no longer the only person that's been in a hospital room, right? Or suffered a home death with a parent, or... Once you can see that a little bit more, and see that your story actually—even beyond your immediate group or family or community. But beyond that, even, to a larger sense that we're all born and we all die. That no story is our own. That we're all on some levels accountable to one another because we're in this together.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. That is beautiful. So there's one last question that I like to end on, and that is if there has been a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
AL: Oh, so many things.
AL: Literally, I feel like a huge collage of images just came across my brain. [laughs] I think that one of the images that keeps sticking with me lately is the idea of—I was talking to one of my students about this because she wrote a poem about it—the ex-voto. Which is a painting that often is to a saint—but sometimes not—about a bad thing that has happened. Let's say if you lose a leg but you survive, you would make this painting, [an] offering to the saints that saved you. You would make the painting of the bad thing. But also saying, "Look what I survived." And I think that I keep thinking of Frida Kahlo's. The ones that she did that are of all the suffering that she went through. And I can't help but think of those as poems, too.
AL: And so lately I've just been connecting that idea of ex-voto to poems. And those keep sticking in my mind. So I've been looking at images of them, from not just artists but from—because regular family members can make them, or people like you and I can just go ahead and draw them and put them up, and they're a way of sort of honoring the thing you have overcome and being thankful for it. And I guess that's been sort of the images that have been sticking with me lately.
MS: Mm. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
AL: Thank you. It was such a pleasure.
OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Ada has some events coming up in New York, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, and more, so check out her calendar page and find one near you, there’s a link in the show notes for that. And do pick up a copy of her books, there are also links in the show notes for that.
Now for the giveaway. As I mentioned before, I have a copy of Ada’s new book The Carrying that I’m giving away to one lucky listener. All you have to do if you want to enter is go to keepthechannelopen.com/carrying and sign up to receive our biweekly newsletter, and you’re in. Subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign also get an extra entry into the drawing, so if you’d like to increase your odds, you can do that as well. I’ll be doing the drawing and announcing the winner one week from today, September 5, 2018, at 1:00 PM Pacific Time, so be sure to follow the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod and watch for the announcement.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow me and the show on Twitter at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to email@example.com. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on September 12th with a conversation with poet Franny Choi, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.