Lexington National Book Award finalist Ada Limon appreciates honor, change of scenery

Ada Limon is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry for Bright Dead Things. "I'm someone who is really influenced by my surroundings," she said.
Ada Limon is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry for Bright Dead Things. "I'm someone who is really influenced by my surroundings," she said. Herald-Leader

When poet Ada Limon was still living in New York City and working a high profile job at Travel and Leisure Magazine, she was restless for greener, wider spaces, a yearning which found its way into her poetry.

"In my earlier work, there was a longing for green space, for something that was outside a small Brooklyn apartment and the New York world," Limon says. "As much as I love New York, there was that sense of, what's next?

"The move here was less about that longing and more about the acceptance and surrendering to this life that we've been given," says Limon, who moved to Lexington to be with her boyfriend, who works in the horse industry.

Now, four years into her pastoral life in the Bluegrass, she has stretched out into those open spaces and breathed new life into a brand new collection of poems, Bright Dead Things, which is on this year's short list for the National Book Award in poetry. The winner will be announced on Wednesday at a ceremony in New York.

"I think the freedom and time and space and breadth that Kentucky has allowed me did change the work," says Limon.

"The natural world and landscape feature very heavily in my work. I'm someone who is really influenced by my surroundings in general, so I think that the mood really inspired me to write a new sort of poem, to engage with the world in a new way."

Limon's new way of engaging the world not only caught the eye of the National Book Foundation, but has also earned high praise from peers and critics alike.

"Limón does far more than merely reflect the world: she continually transforms it, thereby revealing herself as an everyday symbolist and high level duende enabler," poet and editor Matthew Zapruder writes, describing Bright Dead Things. "At the end of one poem she writes, 'What the heart wants? The heart wants/ her horses back,' and suddenly even this most urban reader feels wild and free."

"Limón acknowledges the unstoppable forces of nature, but is not afraid to try and harness them in a poem, making her verse regularly hum with energy," Brandon Amico wrote in a Los Angeles Times review.

That freedom and surrender to the bold embrace of life (with death and change and fear and love as integral experiences to a full life) is felt throughout the collection's opening poem, How to Triumph Like a Girl, a Pushcart Prize-winning poem inspired by watching the Kentucky Oaks.

In the poem she lauds the "lady horses" and imagines "that somewhere inside the delicate/skin of my body, there pumps/an 8-pound female horse heart/giant with power, heavy with blood."

Limon says she was stunned when she discovered her name on the long list of nominees in September.

She read the list of nominees on her phone the morning of the announcement, not expecting to see her own name on the list.

"We were in our kitchen in Lexington and we were uber nerds, just high-fiving each other," Limon says of the impromptu celebration she shared with her boyfriend.

"I was so shocked, I could not even fathom it," says Limon. "The book had just come out. The day it made the long list was its official pub date, so the book to me was just so new."

Limon also knew first-hand the amount of care and thought that goes into the selection of nominees. She herself served as a judge in 2013, experiencing the process from the inside out.

"It was a pretty remarkable experience," says Limon. "Each judge reads every single submission — over 200 books.

"I was overwhelmed by how much care everyone took with each book. Because I know how much work and energy goes into choosing those top ten, and how hard it is for anyone to make a decision to get to that top, it became even more clear to me what an honor it is to make it to that Top 10, because I have seen it from the other side."

Limon reflects, "Somehow I made it."