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Ada Limón is a poet laureate for the 21st century, exploring ‘what it looks like to have America in the room’

Ada Limón is a poet who connects.” This was how Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden introduced the 24th poet laureate of the United States.

From my perspective as a poet and writing teacher, “a poet who connects” is a perfect encapsulation of who the poet laureate should be – and why I see Limón as so well suited for the role.

This appointment has consistently been filled by some of the most celebrated and lasting poets of their generations – Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others. According to Limón, it was reading a Bishop poem, “One Art,” at age 15 that jump-started her own passion for poetry.

Ada Limón’s tenure as U.S. poet laureate begins Sep. 29, 2022.

What is a poet laureate?

The office of the U.S. poet laureate is a relatively recent one. Philanthropist Archer M. Huntington endowed the position in 1937 as the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” The official title of “Consultant in Poetry” remains, but “Poet Laureate,” the name most Americans associate with the role, was added by an Act of Congress in 1985.

Over time, the position has changed from one primarily advising the Library of Congress about their poetry collections to a more public-facing role. The most influential U.S. poets laureate have usually had a special interest or project: Maxine Kumin championed the work of women poets. Billy Collins’ “Poetry 180” project brought a poem a day to classrooms throughout the school year. And Robert Pinsky helped build an archive of Americans reading their favorite poems.

The terms of the laureateship are short, just one year, though some often stay for two terms. The most recent U.S. poet laureate – and the first Native American to fill the role – Joy Harjo, served for three, from 2019 until passing the baton to Limón in July 2022.

A doorway to poetry

Limón is the first woman of Mexican ancestry to be named poet laureate of the U.S. Few women have filled the role, and fewer women of color still.

Limón has grappled with the expectations that predominately white literary spaces have placed on her in poems like “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual.” She has also joked about her experience as a poet of color online. Rather than resign herself to being pigeonholed, however, Limón views identity – and poetry – as an avenue to greater possibilities.

“I’m very interested in what it is to have identity be a doorway, a place where we can open up to different possibilities,” Limón told me in a conversation on Aug. 15, 2022 about her new appointment. “I didn’t sign up for anything limited when I chose poetry. I signed up for something that is about trying on some level to harness the unsayable.”

While this will be Limón’s first walk through the door as the poet laureate, she has already followed in the footsteps of Tracy K. Smith, who was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019. During her tenure, Smith kicked off a weekday poetry podcast and radio show called “The Slowdown.” It was revived in September 2021 with Limón as host. She describes the experience of hosting the show as “a real gift and opportunity to spread poems.” In each episode, Limón shares a brief reflection drawn from her life, then reads a new poem she has selected for the day, chosen from a variety of poets.