Even though nationally renowned poet Ada Limón moved to Central Kentucky from New York relatively recently, the Bluegrass State is getting into her blood.
"My life here is a quieter life than the one I had in New York City," says Limón, 37, who left a job as creative services director for Travel + Leisure magazine for a life in the relaxed pastoral outskirts of Lexington, where her boyfriend works in the horse industry. "I cherish the silence, the natural beauty, the time to write and focus fully on my own creative work."
Since moving to Lexington in 2011, Limón has been working on a novel, her fourth collection of poems and lyric essays, and making ends meet as a free-lance writer.
This month she will make her first public appearance here when she teaches a workshop and reads her poetry at the 2013 Kentucky Women Writers Conference.
She also has been busy getting acquainted with the state's literary landscape.
"The fact that Kentucky has such a rich and diverse literary community surprised me," says Limón, a Sonoma, Calif., native with a master of fine arts degree from New York University.
"Coming from New York City, I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was amazing how many people were writing and reading and talking about poetry here in the Lexington community," she says. "It wasn't at all what I expected, but I was so pleasantly surprised."
Limón crossed paths with one of Lexington's literary luminaries, poet and former University of Kentucky professor Nikky Finney, in 2011, the year Limón moved to Kentucky and Finney won the National Book Awards' poetry prize. Finney has recently moved to her native South Carolina, but she and Limón are part of the judges panel for the 2013 National Book Awards' poetry honor.
Their months of reading many, many poetry collections will bear fruit Sept. 12, when a long list of candidates for the prize are announced. (Finalists will be named Oct. 16, and the prizes will be awarded Nov. 20 in New York.)
"This summer, I read more books than I ever have in one concentrated period of time," Limón recently wrote on her blog, referring to the workload of being a judge. But the deluge has inspired even great artistic output.
"As I was reading so many poems, more poems came. And as I took a break for fiction, more fiction came. And essays and tweets and tantrums," Limón wrote.
"After all of the deluge, the books and the dreams, I have a new manuscript of poems," she wrote, referring to her latest collection, which she says "has a great deal of the Bluegrass landscape within it."
"Poems often come to me more like songs, while fiction comes for a deep need to tell a story," she says of the balancing act of switching genres.
"My grandfather, who was from Mexico, was a great storyteller, and he'd have you at the edge of your seat," she says. "Sometimes, I like to think of fiction as simply telling a story the way he used to, just sitting around the living room telling family secrets."
Since becoming a judge for the National Book Awards, Limón is in high demand on the literary circuit to read her work.
"I'm on the road a lot, but this is a very welcoming place to call home," she says. "I find myself drawn to its psychedelic greens and sprawling countryside."
In addition to her role at this year's Kentucky Women Writers Conference, Limón has begun to find her place in the community by attending the Holler Poets Series, being a featured guest on the Accents radio show on WRFL, speaking at schools, and most recently, starting the Black Sheep Reading Series with fellow Kentucky poet Adam Clay.
"Adam Clay and I wanted to start a sporadic poetry series that would bring in some nationally known poets that either happened to be on tour or just passing through," Limón says. "He and I tour the nation a lot with our poetry books, and we know how important it is for poets to have a place to hang their hat and read their poems while they're traversing the country."
The series, at Black Swan Books, will feature Dawn Lundy Martin and Andrew Grace on Sept. 28 and Gabrielle Calvocoressi on Oct. 26.
The road to becoming a judge for the National Book Awards began when Limón made a splash with her first two full-length poetry books, Lucky Wreck and The Big Fake World, winners of the Autumn House and Pearl poetry prizes, respectively. She cites The New Yorker's 2009 publication of one of her poems, Crush, as a major turning point in how seriously she took herself as a writer.
"I got literally hundreds of responses, personal emails and comments about that poem," Limón says of the work, which uses imagery of a persimmon tree to describe the feeling of having a crush on someone. "It made me realize the real power poetry can have in connecting with people from all over the world."
IF YOU GO
Kentucky Women Writers Conference: 35th annual conference hosted by University of Kentucky, with featured guests Bonnie Jo Campbell, Kia Corthron, Ada Limón and more. Sept. 20-22 at various venues. Fees for the conference are $40 to $195, but there are several free events. For a schedule, go to Womenwriters.as.uky.edu.
■ Limón also will give a free poetry reading, "Stars with Accents," with fellow writers George Ella Lyon and Sarah Freligh. 7 p.m. Sept. 22. Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
Black Sheep Reading Series: Dawn Lundy Martin and Andrew Grace, 5 p.m. Sept. 28. Gabrielle Calvocoressi, 5 p.m. Oct. 26. Black Swan Books, 505 E. Maxwell St. Facebook.com/BlackSheepReadingSeries.
Read Ada Limón's Crush in The New Yorker: Nyr.kr/T0DbT
Limón's website: Adalimon.com
'How to Triumph Like a Girl' by Ada Limón
Originally published in Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, the poem was inspired by watching the Kentucky Oaks, Limón says.
I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let's be honest, I like
that they're ladies. As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,
giant with power, heavy with blood.
Don't you want to believe it?
Don't you want to tug my shirt and see
the huge beating genius machine
that thinks, no, it knows,
it's going to come in first.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR