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Poet laureate Ada Limón reflects on the role of poetry during challenging times

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today the Library of Congress announced a new poet laureate, Ada Limon. Our friend from the world of poetry, Tess Taylor, has known Limon for decades. And so the two hopped on the line, and Taylor began by asking Limon what it means to be poet laureate today.

TESS TAYLOR: You've just been called into this position of national prominence in a moment when we're really just sort of inarguably in a painful period in America. And I'm wondering, what can poetry offer a divided country?

ADA LIMON: Yeah. I think that it's really important to remember that even in this particularly hard moment, divided moment, poetry can really help us reclaim our humanity. And I think it's important right now at a time when so many of us have been numbed to trauma, to grief, to chaos. And so many of us have had to compartmentalize in order to live our lives. And we've had to kind of forget, conveniently, that we are thinking, feeling, grieving, emotional beings. And I think through poetry, I think we can actually remember that on the other side of that is also contentment, joy, a little peace now and again, and that those are all part of the same spectrum. And without one, we don't have the other. And I think poetry is the place where we can go to break open. But to have that experience, I really, truly believe helps us remember that we're human. And reclaiming our humanity seems like it's really essential right now.

TAYLOR: Well, speaking of that, do you have a poet laureate project in mind yet?

LIMON: The intention I have around building a project is to see if I can do something that helps us not only reconnect with our humanity but helps us repair our relationship with the natural world. I think so often we forget that our relationship to the Earth is reciprocal. And I think we've not only felt very disconnected from one another, from our communities, but also from the planet, and that's how harm is done. And so I think that I would really love to figure out how, you know, through poetry we might be able to repair that relationship with the Earth, with nature.

TAYLOR: I love that. In your hands, poetry feels like a real social tool of healing. And that's fantastic and very hopeful. Ada, this brings us to the moment where I get to ask you to read a poem. Will you read that wonderful poem about a groundhog from the beginning of "The Hurting Kind"?

LIMON: Yes, I'd be honored. There's so much I could say about this poem, but I think maybe it's better if we just hear it - "Give Me This."

(Reading) I thought it was the neighbor's cat back to clean the clock of the fledgling robins low in their nest, stuck in the dense hedge by the house. But what came was much stranger - a liquidity moving, all muscle and bristle - a groundhog - slippery and waddle, thieving my tomatoes still green in the morning shade. I watched her munch and stand on her haunches, taking such pleasure in the watery bites. Why am I not allowed delight? A stranger writes to request my thoughts on suffering - barbed wire pulled out of the mouth, as if demanding that I kneel to the trap of coiled spikes used in warfare and fencing. Instead, I watch the groundhog more closely. And a sound escapes me, a small spasm of joy I did not imagine when I woke. She is a funny creature and earnest, and she is doing what she can to survive.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much for that, Ada. And congratulations again on this tremendous moment.

LIMON: Thank you. Thank you, Tess.

SHAPIRO: Just-announced poet laureate Ada Limon talking with poet Tess Taylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayen Bior
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.