Notation – Translated by: Rufaida Thabet
Ida Limon, American poet of Mexican descent, born in 1976. She has published more than six collections of poetry, including: Lucky Wreck, This Big False World, Pennies in Rivers, Endurance, and Shiny Dead Things.She has won several literary awards, including the Critics Circle. She has been shortlisted for the National Book Awards and the Penn/Jane Stein Award, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently crowned America’s first female poet.Pen America interviewed her:
In a world of horror that has become normal, I often notice the trigger is guilt or the use of trauma identities for self-fulfillment and belonging. Your collection of poems, The Preying Kind, begins with a powerful and ingenious beginning with a poem entitled “Give Me This,” in which it says: “Why am I not allowed to rejoice? A stranger writes asking for my opinion of suffering.” Many of your poems oscillate between accepting and rejecting multiple identities. What topics do you write about, and how do you navigate the space between the importance of identity and its trap?
All my life I’ve fought for freedom, freedom in the way they see me, and what I’m allowed. I love the idea of naming things and defining them, as a way to relate and connect, not a way to colonize or possess. Some people still feel it is necessary to have an identification or hashtag. I feel quite comfortable when I say: I am this and that, and also this and that, and that may change tomorrow. I am against any kind of steadfastness. I want to be free to write what I want, and to be human in all those beautiful, necessary, and important ways.
The collective story, or the accepted story, is not always true. And so I have to remember and paraphrase and write for myself, making sure I don’t succumb to a story I no longer need, a story that may not have been true at all.
Your book, “The Offensive Genre,” is divided into spring, summer, fall, and winter. This grand metaphor amazes me, because it reminds us of the cyclical nature of all things. Why did you choose this frame? And what is your approach?
I arranged this book quite differently from the other collections. There was no temporal construction, the book deals with surrender, time, and self-liberation. And when I realized it should be arranged in chapters, it made sense. The book must go on without me, for I am not its engine, but the world and nature. In this way, its meaning becomes clear. And this realization taught me how important the book is.
It always amazes me the way your poems acquire their own music. Sometimes I would smoothly recite the beginning of a poem that starts small, then gains momentum and escalates, until it broadens the vision and touches a chord in the human experience. Tell us about using the Volta inflection in your poems?
I like my poems to be musical. The distinctive aural power of the poem is one of the performance elements closest to my heart. This is what drew me to poetry in the first place. The poem is a musical paean that flows on the page with its tone and rhythm, its harmony and meter, and the intensity of its sound. When I start writing the poem, I don’t know where it will take me. It begins with a curiosity, a question, a need, an image, an impulse, a sound. And the music is formed and formed while I am absorbed in the impulse of the poem. At this point, it’s just a matter of listening to the poem, its own rhythms, and not trying to force my music on it. Sometimes it’s whispering, and other times it’s loud. Sometimes they were silent, but not deliberately. Wherever I go, it’s an experience, and the secret is to listen.
Most of the book’s poems revolve around two double motives: estrangement and nostalgia. In the poem “Exiled Miracles,” you write: “But I don’t want to kill / That yearning woman in me. I love her and I would like her longing to drive her mad, this longing, so that her desire becomes a blazing flower, a tree that shakes pouring rain like music.” I see desire in your poems as a way of contemplation. Tell us about the presence of desire in your work. How is it a driving force in the creativity process?
Desire is an essential component of everything. We want and want all the time. We are nothing but engines of desire and need. Grant me this, grant me health, every prayer is a wish. It is important to talk about desire, need and craving, then we will know whether it torments us or gives us pleasure. Sometimes, wanting is all right, like wanting to live, to feel healthy, to heal the world. But – other times it’s dire, because our cravings never end, so I like to explore the concept of desire to find out what I’m really going through, when it’s a real desire, and sometimes it’s a way to suffer for no reason.
Of course I am an American woman, and parts of me are Mexican, Irish, and Scottish. But they are not my identity, rather they are signs by which it is easy to categorize one into a brief and a brief one. I am against brevity, and I do not trust it.
Similarly, nostalgia is a recurring theme in the book. At the beginning of the collection, my attention was drawn to moments that tend to nostalgia that cut through the material world, extracted from the past and returning to the present. At the end of the diwan, specifically in the winter section, comes a poem entitled “Against Nostalgia”, which attempts to reconcile a romantic version of the past with the beautiful present. Nostalgia is sometimes a cheap trick in poems, but the conflict in the Diwan is both gentle and complex. Tell us about the function of nostalgia in your writing?
I adore nostalgia, everything is old, antique, and perfect, but as I mentioned, it may turn out to be a cheap trick. Rather, at the beginning of my writings, I made sure to monitor my use of memory and nostalgia. Undoubtedly, I was obsessed with the desperate need to record the past. However, I realized that it is important to get the details right. I feel fortunate, because I have a good memory, not only of color and visual, but of all the senses. I have been this way for a long time, and I hope I will be, to remember with all my being, to feel and see the past, and hear it, and taste it, and smell it. However, I will wait to see what my mind holds in the future. That’s why I always try to get things straight and honest. And when I explore something that happened in the past, I don’t paint it with nostalgia or idealism, but rather see it as it was, no more, no less. This recording and exploration is not a quibble but a tribute.
“So it ends. Or it begins,” from The Vase of Scorpions, is one of the few examples in your poems that indicate the many ways a story might go, both in fact and in narrative. In the Prison and Justice Writing section of Penn America, we discuss the importance of narrative control. I would relate this to your hair environment. How do you use the concept of multiple facts in your writing? Does poetry offer a way to constructively rewrite or reflect on the past, or is it just a false comfort?
I am convinced of the need to make room for the multiple realities and also to reformulate or rewrite the past. And I believe so, because so much of our experience, or what we perceive to be true, is based on a societal narrative that may or may not be true. A simple example, how many times have you met an elderly person, and it came to your mind that his life was hard and full of suffering, then he told you the opposite of what you imagined, and he says that his life was full of pleasure and beauty, but the world told you that they inevitably suffered. The collective story, or the accepted story, is not always true. And so I have to remember and paraphrase and write for myself, making sure I don’t succumb to a story I no longer need, a story that may not have been true at all.
In Shared Care, an allegorical poem, you describe the experience of living in two homes, and growing up between two different families. The poem celebrates spaciousness, but also deals with the underlying struggles of finding a place that counts as home: “Two minds are so different / One always misses what I’m not in / The other rests because he’s finally home.” Tell us about the conflict between this spaciousness and suffering. How do you achieve a balance between these two concepts, in your work in particular, and in your life philosophy in general?
I like that you asked this important question. A feeling of gratitude always accompanies me in my work and life, although for a long time I have felt that I do not have much, that I am not good and smart, that I am broken, different and rejected, but I realized that this thinking was not working, even if some things were true in it. I remember one moment when I asked myself: What if I had everything I needed? What if all this is enough, and this is my life? And the answer astounded me. My stepmother died in the prime of her youth, and I watched my friend die of cancer at the age of thirty-two. Some of my friends committed suicide. I was in aches and pains, and had every reason to feel despondent. However, I remember that moment when I realized how short my life was, and how much I wanted to cling to it, to live it with all my being. And so I realized that I was enough, and that this life was enough, and this feeling is always with me. I’m not saying this thinking works most of the time, sometimes I have moments of despair and defeat, but I’ve learned to remember that I’m part of a whole thing, and that it’s not about me, it’s about all of us, society, the natural world, and our brief moment on Earth. This may sound strange, but I believe in it.
There is a struggle between selfishness and caring for others in your poems. I was struck by a poem entitled “What We Inherit” that sees the role of the reformer as a selfish one: “I know it is selfish, but I would like to be the reformer now.” Tell us about writing through your identity as a woman. I am also curious about the importance of this identity to you as a poet, and to what extent does it influence the formation of your writing?
This is funny, because someone asked me why I don’t write about my identity and this question surprised me. I write about her all the time, but not the identity they want me to write about. Of course I am an American woman, and parts of me are Mexican, Irish, and Scottish. But they are not my identity, rather they are signs by which it is easy to categorize one into a brief and a brief one. I am against brevity, and I do not trust it. However, whenever women move in the world, limits are always set, because we tend to be the herdsmen, and we are not allowed to say, “No, stop.” I’m still learning this. But that particular poem is about wanting to take care of someone who has always looked after me, and now I’m asking permission to do the same.
What is the role of the poet in finding meaning in the world, and how can we reject meaning? Tell us about how you create meaning, surrender, and liberation?
The nature of life makes it imperative for a person to find meaning, then give in to ambiguity, then come back and repeat it, and so on. Toni Morrison said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993, “The meaning of life may lie in death, but we make language, and perhaps this is the standard of our life.” The Earth, how to celebrate it, how to show beauty and pain, and all of our disparate experiences, so that we can live life to the fullest, not waste it.