By Cady Inabinett, Editor in chief
Just hours after being announced as a 2023 MacArthur Fellow, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón stood on stage at the University of Montevallo’s Center for the Arts, reading a selection of her poems to a crowd of students, faculty and other guests as part of the Dancy Lecture Series on Oct. 4.
Limón is the 24th Poet Laureate of the United States—earning that title in July 2022 when she was appointed by the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.
“I want to be the largest animal that ever existed.” Limón read to the audience from her poem “The Whale & the Waltz Inside of It,” from her book “Bright Dead Things.” Limón’s poems focus on themes of hope, race, family and belonging, while using natural imagery as a way to explore these abstract concepts.
Limón, who has authored six poetry books, read 12 poems in total at the event, including the poem “A New National Anthem,” which Limón referred to as one of the most difficult poems she’s ever written.
“Perhaps, the truth is, every song of this country has an unsung third stanza, something brutal snaking underneath us as we blindly sing the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands hoping our team wins,” she read from this poem, which focuses on the United States’ legacies of violence and racism through an examination of the national anthem.
Following her reading, Limón fielded questions from audience members during a Q&A session. Limón also participated in a book signing following the event.
The Dancy Lecture Series, which was established in 1939, is meant to bring speakers from the fields of literature and theatre to deliver an address at Montevallo every two years. However, Limón was the series’ first lecturer since 2014, when playwright Qui Nguyen delivered the lecture.
Limón’s day at Montevallo was not limited to her appearance at the Dancy Lecture, however. Prior to that event, she also met with a group of creative writing students from Dr. Jim Murphy’s poetry class and with students in Montevallo’s M.A.D.E. program.
In her meeting with poetry students, Limón discussed poems from her most recent book, “The Hurting Kind,” and fielded questions about her inspiration and writing process from students.
During this time, Limón discussed how writing about her family impacts her work—particularly focusing on how the recent death of her grandmother, who is featured prominently in “The Hurting Kind,” has changed her feelings towards her writing.
“I’m sort of in this interesting moment because I wrote so much about her in the book where I’m like, ‘Oh, right. This is what happens when you have someone who’s a central figure to your writing that then passes,’” Limón said.
“Of course, she was 98, it’s not like, you know, she was never going to go, but in my mind she wasn’t. And so, it has changed my relationship to the work a little bit because I’m having this sort of push-pull of what I want to read and what I don’t want to read from the book,” she said.
Later that afternoon, in her meeting with M.A.D.E. students, Limón answered questions from a student panel, focusing heavily on her Mexican heritage and the roles mentors have played in her life.
“To me mentorship is something that I’ve always been interested in, in not only how it works, but how it fails,” Limón said in response to a panel question about the roles that mentors have played in her life.
“I think that occasionally I have been failed by mentors in my life. And I think a lot of that is simply because I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. And I’m still in a place, you can imagine, that I still feel like I have to remind myself how to advocate for myself. And so, when I think about the mentors I’ve had, one of the biggest things they’ve taught me—the really wonderful mentors—is how to speak up when I feel very uncomfortable, speak up when it puts me at risk. But also, navigate places where I still need to be free as an artist,” she continued.
Montevallo was the first place Limón visited after being named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow that morning. The MacArthur Fellowship is an $800,000 award granted to writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists and entrepreneurs by the MacArthur Foundation meant to advance and facilitate their future creative works. There were 20 award recipients this year from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds—from legal scholars to a cellular biologist to visual artists.
While Limón was formally announced as a MacArthur Fellow that day, she learned she had received the fellowship four weeks prior. The award left the normally verbose Limón at a loss for words.
“You know, honestly, it feels like such an overwhelming honor that it’s hard to find words for it,” Limón said when asked about her reaction to the award.
“I think one of the things it offers is a deep permission to really lean into whatever I want to do next artistically, and that to me feels really important right now, especially serving in this role as the laureate for the next two years,” she said. “Being able to envision beyond that and what things I want to make and create and conversations I want to have have really opened up based on this fellowship.”
As for future creative projects, Limón said, “I’m thinking about more collaborations. I’m thinking about putting together my ‘New and Selected,’ and also ways in which I can look to be even more free on page.”
Cady Inabinett is the editor in chief of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in English and double-minoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She enjoys reading, watching movies, caring for houseplants and generally just being pretentious in her free time.