The power of poetry: U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón to speak at Smith College

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event. Photo by Ayna Lorenzo/MacArthur Fellows Program

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event. Photo by Lucas Marquardt

Limón won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for her 2018 collection “The Carrying.”

Limón won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for her 2018 collection “The Carrying.”

Time Magazine called Limón’s most recent poetry collection, “The Hurting Kind,” one of the 100 “Must-Read” books of 2022.

Time Magazine called Limón’s most recent poetry collection, “The Hurting Kind,” one of the 100 “Must-Read” books of 2022.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón will speak at Smith College April 30 in a free public event. Photo by Ayna Lorenzo/MacArthur Fellows Program

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-26-2024 12:17 PM

Modified: 04-29-2024 8:15 AM


Ada Limón made history in 2022 when she became the first Latina to become U.S. Poet Laureate. And last year, she became just the second national poet laureate to have her term extended for another two years.

Now Limón, a MacArthur Fellow and the winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, is coming to Smith College to do a public reading and another for area high school students.

Her appearance at Smith, on April 30, is a thrill for Matt Donovan, director of the school’s Boutelle-Day Poetry Center, which is sponsoring the event. And for Limón, her visit to the college is another piece of the public engagement that’s she made a vital part of her work as poet laureate.

“Smith is such a special place and I’m pleased to be returning,” she wrote in a recent email to the Gazette from Italy, where she had been traveling.

Donovan said Limón was the first poet he invited to campus when he became the Boutelle-Day Center’s director in 2018. As a longtime admirer of her work, he says he invited her to return to Smith before she was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2022.

“First and foremost, I want to extend invitations to read at Smith to poets whose work I think will resonate with our students and community,” Donovan said in an email. “I still have Smith College alum who talk to me about her 2018 reading.”

In that sense, he calls Limón “an ideal ambassador for poetry,” especially for area high school students who are invited to the college to hear poets. (Donovan says some 700 teens are expected to hear her speak.)

“[H]er work is immediately accessible, while also contending with complex issues,” said Donovan. “Her poems often contend with larger topics — such as racism, our ecological crisis, and gun violence — while also being deeply personal, and fueled by interrogations of emotions, relationships, and even language itself.”

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Limón, who grew up in California north of San Francisco, has published six books of poetry, winning a number of awards and nominations for her work, much of it free verse and prose poems; before becoming a full-time poet, she worked in the marketing department of CondéNast, which publishes magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Her most recent collection, “The Hurting Kind,” includes more experimental poetry. Time Magazine, which in February named Limón one of its “12 Women of the Year” for 2024, called “The Hurting Kind” one of 2022’s “Must-Reads.”

Oh, and her poem “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” was engraved inside the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft launched last fall and headed to Jupiter. 

“The Carrying,” which earned Limón her National Book Critics Circle Award, offers a number of poems that speak to the natural world and our relationship to it, sometimes with fear about the future but also with humor, like the opening lines of “Dandelion Insomnia”:

“The big-ass bees are back, tipsy, sun drunk / and heavy with thick knitted leg warmers / of pollen. I was up all night again so today’s / yellow hours seem strange and hallucinogenic.”

Among a number of reviewers, NPR called “The Carrying” a “moving and deeply personal” collection that also provided a “much needed shot of if not hope, then perseverance amidst much uncertainty.”

Limón, who today lives in Kentucky, says making connections to the natural world has animated a big part of her work as the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate. Her current project, “You Are Here,” a partnership with the National Park Service and the Poetry Society of America, will see poems that she’s selected installed at various sites in seven national parks, including the Cape Cod National Seashore (Mary Oliver’s “Can You Imagine” will go there).

“I’m so looking forward to visiting [all the parks] this summer and fall,” she said.

She’s also edited and overseen a new anthology of poems, “You Are Here: Poetry in the Natural World,” which includes 50 poems from varied contributors that she says “speak back to the natural world.”

It was the depth of these projects that prompted Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden last year to extend Limón’s tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate to April 2025.

“A two-year second term gives the laureate and the Library the opportunity to realize these efforts and showcase how poems connect to, and make sense of, the world around us,” Hayden said at the time.

Asked by the Gazette what she believes poetry can bring to society, Limón said it has “the ability to help us reaffirm our humanity.”

“We spend so much time hating each other on social media, and creating an atmosphere of division, and yet we all claim to value human life, security, safety, and so forth,” she noted. “Poetry is a place where we can make room for the whole spectrum of human emotions.”

“Perhaps if we can open our hearts to poetry — not just American poetry but poetry all over the world — we can open our hearts to each other,” she added.

Ada Limón will do a public reading of her work at John M. Greene Hall at Smith College at 7 p.m. April 30. The event is free and open to all.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.