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Sonoma native Ada Limón named 24th US poet laureate

Ever since she burst upon the poetry scene with her book, “This Big Fake World,” in 2005, Ada Limón has created an intimacy with readers through her sensitive, emotionally honest work, much of which draws on compelling experiences in her native Sonoma Valley.

And on Tuesday, she received the most prestigious designation in American poetry when Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden asked her to serve as the nation’s 24th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2022-23.

“Ada Limón is a poet who connects,” Hayden said in a news release. “Her accessible, engaging poems ground us in where we are and who we share our world with. They speak of intimate truths, of the beauty and heartbreak that is living, in ways that help us move forward.”

Limón said that she is honored to serve as poet laureate.

“I rarely find myself at a loss for words, but I was speechless,” Limón said. “The call was incredibly unexpected. I have been in awe of previous poet laureates and to be named in their company was, and is, humbling.”

The poet laureate position was created in 1937 and since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have been appointed to it. During the process of appointing a poet laureate, the librarian consults with distinguished poets such as current and former poet laureates, which have included Philip Levine, Rita Dove, Billy Collins and Tracy K. Smith.

Poets laureate receive a $35,000 stipend and $5,000 for travel expenses. They serve from October to May and seek to raise the national consciousness to better appreciate the reading and writing of poetry. Specific duties are kept to a minimum so that they have sufficient time to focus on their own projects, but in recent years, laureates have initiated projects that have broadened the audiences for poetry.

Limón will begin her term with a reading of her work in Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, marking the beginning of the library’s annual literary season.

She has written six volumes of poetry, with the most recent being “The Hurting Kind,” published by Milkweed Editions this year.

“I have always been too sensitive, a weeper/from a long line of weepers,” Limón writes. “I am the hurting kind.”

Immersion with nature

Underlying much of her work is the call to repair our relationship with the earth.

“We have to understand that it is reciprocal,” she said. “Growing up in Sonoma, I remember nature hikes and classes outside, starting early with plant identification in the Bouverie Audubon Preserve and guided walks with famed environmental educator Mrs. [Elizabeth] Terwilliger. Those were seminal experiences for me as a child and I know that they shaped me as a writer. But it also shaped me as a person. I was taught that we, too, are nature.”

Her acute, evolving awareness of nature is apparent throughout “The Hurting Kind” as she weaves it into memories and hopes that convey a wide range of raw emotions and realizations. This is notable in the poem, “In the Shadow.”

The wild pansy shoves its persistent face beneath the hackberry’s shade, true plum and gold,

with the alternate names: Johnny jump-up, heartsease, or my favorite, love-in-idleness.

I bow closer to the new face. I am always superimposing a face on flowers, I call the violet moon vinca

the choir, and there are surely eyes in the birdeye speedwell, and mouths on the linear snapdragon.

In what we do in order to care for things, make them ourselves, our elders, our beloveds, our unborn.

But perhaps there is a lazy kind of love. Why can’t I just love the flower for being a flower?

How many flowers have I yanked to puppet as if it was easy for the world to make flowers?

Nature imagery runs though the book, often conjuring up memories of her childhood. She was born on Carriger Road in Sonoma in 1976.

“Sonoma is my home,” she said. “I grew up across the street from Calabazas Creek in Glen Ellen and I still have an attachment to that creek, to the trees, to the landscape. I have always felt like I have a deeply spiritual connection to the land in Sonoma and Glen Ellen.”

Ancestral roots and early life

Her ancestry is part Irish, Scottish and German, but she has always identified with her Mexican heritage.

“My paternal grandfather was from San Juan de Los Lagos, Mexico,” Limón said. “I think of him often, especially right now. He would have loved this. He was such a creative man, a dancer, an actor, a singer. And yet, he didn’t have the chance to choose art. And it’s hard not to be incredibly grateful that his sacrifices allowed me to have a different life, a creative life.”

Limón’s parents, Stacia Brady and Ken Limon, separated when she was 8 years old, and as a result she grew up in both Glen Ellen and downtown Sonoma. Her mother is an artist and has painted the covers of all of her books. Her stepfather, Brady T. Brady, was a short story writer and worked for many years as a manager of a local storage facility.

Her father is a retired school administrator who served as principal of Dunbar Elementary School. Her first stepmother, Cynthia Limón, was a speech pathologist who died of cancer in 2010 and her current stepmother, Linda Limón, is a retired teacher.

Ada Limón’s older brother, Cyrus Limón, teaches at a Spanish immersion elementary school in San Mateo and her younger brother, Bryce Limón, is a technical writer in Seattle.

She was a student at Dunbar when her father was principal and then attended Altimira Middle School and Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS), where she graduated in 1993.

“I fell in love with poetry in high school,” she said. “I remember reading Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ in Mrs. [Meta] Lale’s English class and falling in love with it. But poetry was in both of my households, too, and in the community. My father writes and plays music. My stepfather, Brady, used to write fiction and he was friends with poets, and I remember going to readings here and there around town.

“I always loved going to poetry readings. I was always so moved hearing poetry out loud, even as a young person.”

As a 16-year-old attending SVHS, Limón was living with family downtown above a building on East Napa Street when she found out that a new bookstore, Readers’ Books, was opening across the street.

“I remember they had a sign, ‘Book Store Coming Soon!’ and I walked right in and asked if I could have a job,” Limón said. “I loved working for Andy and Lila [Weinberger]. And I loved the bookstore. I worked there on and off during high school and many of my summers during college. I probably worked there on and off for six years. I especially loved their poetry section.”

Emergence as a poet

Limón was also very involved with the theater productions at SVHS and upon graduation headed to the University of Washington, where she majored in theater while cultivating a growing interest in poetry.

“I loved it, but I didn’t start studying poetry until my junior and senior years,” she said. “As I was about to graduate, the poet and my teacher, Colleen J. McElroy, pulled me aside and told me I should consider getting a graduate degree in poetry. She wasn’t one to give out praise lightly and when she opened that up as a possibility, I decided to see if I could try to be a writer in earnest.”

Limón was accepted into the prestigious graduate writing program at New York University, where she studied with Levine and other prominent poets and received a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Since then, she not only has written six poetry books — which include “Sharks in the River,” “Lucky Wreck,” “Bright Dead Things” and “The Carrying” in addition to the two previously mentioned works — but also has won several prestigious awards, including The National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize.

“I think that as an artist, I started out searching for subjects, for what mattered most to me,” Limón said. “I started out desperate for inspiration and then as I grew as a writer, as a human, I realized that what matters is simple. It’s living. Just this life. This is it, this is the subject, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.

“Toni Morrison once said, ‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be that measure of our lives.’”

Limón says that each poem she writes has its own specific intention.

“I’m always trying to stay true to what is happening in my life, with my body, with my breath,” she said. “I’m interested in how deep looking, how paying attention can transform what it is I’m exploring as a writer. Interrogating the image, the memory, the natural landscape is a big part of my process. I want my poetry to help me recommit to the world.”

She feels that both writing and reading poetry can be transformative.

“It’s a space where we can rage, grieve, love, explore the real mess of our lives, of our feelings,” she said. “Reading and writing poetry can reaffirm our humanity and remind us that we are complex, imperfect animals. We live so much of our lives in denial of our feelings, compartmentalizing our fears, and numbing ourselves to the next tragedy, but poetry can help us reclaim our emotions and in doing so, can help us reclaim our joy.”

Limón is currently working on “Beast: An Anthology of Animal Poems,” a book that she says will be accessible to animal lovers of all ages and is targeted for a 2024 release. She subsequently plans to compile a volume of her new and selected poems.

She also is host of “The Slowdown,” a podcast that offers a short reflection and a new poem from a diverse array of poets.

“I love working on ‘The Slowdown’ and I love promoting the poetry of other writers,” Limón said. “It’s only five minutes a day every weekday, but we work incredibly hard to make it happen.”

Limón lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, Lucas Marquardt, who owns a thriving business, ThoroStride, which makes high-end marketing videos of thoroughbred racehorses before auction.

Besides writing, Limón enjoys music, dancing, theater, spending time with her dog and cat, traveling “when the pandemic allows it” and tending to her garden.

“Also, one of the biggest joys in my life is connecting with nature and connecting with my beloveds,” she said. “I have many dear friends and family, and I love being with them.”

Her mother and stepfather still live in Sonoma, and she often visits the area, sometimes including readings at Readers’ Books.

“My two dear friends have given me a little apartment on their property on Moon Mountain that I’ve stayed in on and off since 2020,” she said. “I love it. It was so generous of them. It’s both a place to write and a place to just come home and reconnect with my family, friends and my favorite landscape.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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