A Conversation with Adam Clay, Ada Límon, and Michael Robins

Adam Clay is the author of Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016), A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012), and The Wash (Parlor Press, 2006). is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. Michael Robins is the author of In Memory of Brilliance & Value (Satur- nalia Books, 2015), Ladies & Gentlemen (Saturnalia, 2011), The Next Settlement, which received the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry (UNT Press, 2007), and the chapbooks Only Sunshine (Convulsive Editions, 2015), Little Felons (Strange Machine Books, 2013), and Circus(Flying Guillotine Press, 2009).
Quiddity’s Poetry Editor, Lisa Higgs, in the Spring of 2016, spoke with poets Adam Clay, Ada Limon, and Michael Robins to discuss their recent works. The following is a transcription of the interview that has been edited for the journal.

Lisa Higgs: As a kind of matter of poetic chicken or egg, did you appreciate each others’ work and become friends, or were you friends and then started sharing poetry?

Michael Robins: Well, Adam and I have known each other for the longest. Correct?

Adam Clay: I knew Ada before 2006, briefly.

MR: I was just trying help with the chronology of it. Adam co-edits a journal Typo and our first conversation happened via email. I sent poems to Adam for consideration for publication. A few poems were accepted, and that’s how our paths first crossed.

AC: Yea, and [Ada and I] met in New York.

Ada Limon: We met in New York when The Wash, [Adam’s] first book, came out in 2006. [Adam] read with Kate Greenstreet at the Baroque Gallery in Brooklyn, and we met and had wine. We met again at AWP in Chicago, which is when I met [Michael] as well.

AC: And I feel like when we decided to start the group of us, I actually can’t remember how it happened exactly. I think Michael and I both had books coming out and decided we wanted to do some readings together, and it kind of made sense to have a third person.

AL: Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that [Adam] was in Lexington and I was in Lexington, so we became friends. Adam became both my neighbor and my friend, and then also comrade in arms on tour.

AC: We started in New York. It was our first reading together. We did three nights in New York in a row and kind of just went from there. I feel like the friendships have developed over the readings. I mean, I feel like we were all friends, but like, over the years...

AL: Now we’re family.

AC: And now we’re family.

MR: And I think, in a more direct response to that question, I think the appreciation of the poetry and the development of the friendships happened simultaneously for me. I don’t know if it’s the same for you two.

AL: I agree.

AC: Yea, because I mean, we probably have read over thirty times together. Do we have a number? Do we know the total number? It’s over thirty.

AC: I think hearing the work every night, I think you begin to appreciate it in a lot of different ways, you know? So that’s, um, we may talk about this later in the interview, but sort of the way we read together isn’t a straight reading where each of us reads for twenty minutes and then the next person reads. We rotate out. So whoever goes first on a given night— say Ada’s reading first, she reads a poem, and then I have to read a poem right after that that connects with it somehow. And then Michael does that for my poem. You learn to listen to the work differently than just sitting and listening to the poems as they happen.

MR: An added challenge, one year when we were touring during April, we gave ourselves that challenge of whoever was reading first that night had to read a poem that was written that day. I think being on the road and writing on the road when you’re hearing the work of two other people night after night, their work tends to creep into your writing.

LH: Are there unexpected benefits to touring, other than shared rooming and gas fees? You’ve already mentioned some things, but is there anything else that comes to mind that you’ve discovered going together on these tours?

AC: I think one thing that’s kind of an obvious thing, is that it widens your reach for people that will host you because you know more people. We work together and say, “oh, I think I know someone in that city” or whatever. So I feel like it’s opened up the community in that way.

AL: I think there’s also a sense of sanity and grounded-ness and joy that occurs when you travel together as this group of friends-slash-family that is harder to cultivate when you’re traveling on your own. I have to do a lot of readings on my own, and they’re great. I’m comfortable doing them, but the travel—the getting there, and you always feel a little off kilter, off balance—and when I’m with these guys, we’re all in the same mode. It’s almost like we’re all the same snowball all rolling in together, and you just feel like there’s a safety net, and I feel like no matter what happens that I’m not alone in it. I think that makes for a tour that’s really more enjoyable and more vibrant and fun.

MR: We didn’t, well at least Ada and I, we didn’t know each other that well when we first started touring, but I think it’s something that’s come up multiple times when we go on tour with other writers. We run into constantly “oh, that sounds like so much fun” and “I wish I could go with you to your next reading.” But there’s something about the chemistry between the three of us that we get along really well. Ada used the word ‘family,’ and I think that’s pretty accurate because we do feel like siblings.

AC: And more specifically, Michael’s like the older brother. I’m the younger brother because we give Ada a hard time. [laughing] But it’s fun...I hope [laughing].

AL: It is. It’s a blast.

LH: Since you have been exposed to each other’s poetry in ways that a lot of people can’t access, hearing each other over and over again, can you take a stab at another’s aesthetic? What qualities you’ve come to admire after listening to each other read?

AL: What I admire is there’s a sense of movement in Michael’s work that I don’t think I can do as a poet. I think what he’s doing with his line breaks in terms of pausing and momentum and stopping and starting, that’s really unique and beautiful—and I can’t do it. So I admire that a lot. I think in Adam’s work there’s a stillness, like it lands and there’s air around it, and I feel like I’ve been practicing that. I try to practice what they both do. It’s really something I need to learn. So I listen to it a lot for rhythm and for space, and I feel like there’s a real gift there that I’m still in awe of when I read with them.

AC: Thank you, that’s nice. [laughs] It is interesting to think about the way in which becoming such a close friend to both of them has changed my work in some ways. I think Michael’s work and the way that he...his poems are so carefully crafted I think knowing his writing process is part of it, too—but just like hearing his emphasis on every word, it just feels like he’s really thought through everything. Sometimes I don’t do that as much; I’m not so much interested in the craft. But for Michael everything is so meticulously crafted and has a purpose. Ada’s work, I think seeing the way that she connects with the audience and the crowd, is really... I don’t want to say accessibility because I don’t think that’s the right word...

AL: I’m getting comfortable with that.

AC: I think sometimes my poems aren’t opening up to people in a way that her work does. And I think just seeing the way that her work resonates with the audience is something that I’ve thought a lot about in my writing.

Some of the first things that come mind with Adam: I know that he engages, the daily-ness of the world as well as—I don’t know if you’re comfortable with the word ‘domestic’—but writing about the domestic. And Adam has a daughter who is three years older than my own daughter, and in that way [Adam is] kind of trailblazing some of that subject matter that I am now getting more comfortable with and am getting more comfortable engaging in my own writing. I know with Ada’s poems there’s something very celebratory about the way she engages the world and embraces all of life’s wonder and pain. And during one of our tours, I came to the realization that it’s much easier for a lot of poets to write the poem that lingers in... I don’t know, I guess the glass-half-empty aspect of the world. I think Ada does a really good job of addressing the glass-half-full, and that’s something that I’ve tried to do in my own writing.

LH: I realized after writing this question that I’m basically saying why do you think it’s important to go to readings? But the real question is: what have you come to appreciate about each other’s work having heard it orally that you might not get from just having read the poems in books?

AL: I do think that hearing the work off of the page is essential to experiencing the work how it was written. I think the poem on the page is the artifact after the event, and then after the process of writing it, and then after the reading of it. Because I write out loud; I compose out loud. Reading it is... you’re going to hear me actually that is how I write the poem. So it’s more of the event of the poem, the actuality of the poem and less of the artifact afterwards. I feel like with these two, it’s the same thing. I know that in Adam’s work I had mentioned the stillness and quiet that you can feel within the pages, but I think what you can miss if you don’t hear the reading is that there’s also a real power behind it, and in that silence there’s incredible strength and there’s a force. And I think that when you hear him read you’re like, “Oh.” And the same thing with Michael, like I was mentioning the momentum. On the page the line breaks are working and he’ll do things that are the sentences down [t]here, the periods down [t]here, so the poem is really moving along. But when he reads it, you really do get that sense of the world moving fast. What you’re missing is a real sense of emergency, and I think that sometimes when you’re reading on the page you miss that.

AC: I had that experience just like the first time I heard Kate Greenstreet read. I got her work for the first time. There’s also the experience of hearing the same poem in different settings. Sometimes a poem that Ada will read one night might strike me as being really funny, and the next night I hear it in a different way.

AL: That’s very true.

So I think the poems are different every time you hear them aloud, which is really interesting to think about, too.

MR: We don’t very often get the opportunity to hear the author read that work aloud, but there’s still a difference of reading a poem quietly and reading a poem aloud. In some of my classes I’ve had students memorize and read back those poems from memory, and I’ve come to think of it as resuscitation as opposed to recitation, because really you’re bringing that poem to life. You hear things. I always hear things much differently in my own voice as opposed to the way that it sounds in my head when I’m reading, and that’s really important. And we’re not always provided those spaces where it’s comfortable to do that—family, friends, whoever is in the house, or on a train; you can’t just start reading aloud. It’s not socially acceptable.

AL: We react to the audience in so many ways too. At readings it really is this sort of give and take, a push and pull between the audience and the reading because there are nights where you feel the crowd wants to dwell in the darker moments, so you just go there, we’ll go there as a group. Other times you feel like they’re rowdy and they want to laugh and celebrate and they’re boisterous. So we react, too. You’d be surprised about how much the reading can change and shift depending on the energy the audience brings to the room.

LH: You all have multiple books, but also different trajectories—teaching positions, fellowships, and awards. How do you put aside your own poetic ego? You’re all friends, you travel together—how do you reconcile your personal aspirations with someone else’s success?

AC: It’s always funny when we’re on tour. I’m usually taking the money for the books, and someone will come up and buy a copy of Ada’s book and then not buy our books. We sort of give them a hard time, I mean, sort of joke with them. But [Michael] told [Ada] about the National Book Critics Circle Award. Like [Michael was] the one...

MR: Yea, I sent her a text message.

I was doing the dishes.

AC: And the National Book Award...I think we all found out at kind of the same time. We all want good things to happen for ourselves, obviously, but I feel super proud of what’s happened with Ada’s book. I mean, I think being a poet is all about questioning why you become a poet, but also those missteps like, “could I have done more,” “could I have written different kinds of poems.”

AL: I feel like there’s a sense that whatever happens for the good of poetry elevates us all. So I think that, on a broader level, when we see people whose writing that we love and whose work that we really appreciate win anything, like Ross Gay getting the Kingsley Tufts Award, there’s sort of a rally cry, like “Yes! One of us! One of us!” So I think that there’s that sense that we’re all elevated by the good news.

MR: And I think that there’s even direct and indirect cameos in our body of work now that we’ve known each other as long as we’ve known each other. When there’s an end period in your new book, I feel kind
of part of that part. Poetry feels like a very small game in many, many ways. I have a friend who has his first novel coming out at the end of this year, and he got a very, very generous advance—and that’s an understatement—and it really puts things in perspective of the differences between really successful fiction and really successful poetry. It might be impossible to not think about one’s own career when good things are happening for other people that you know. And I think if the word jealousy comes into it for me, that’s 3.5%, and the 96.5% is really just being happy for that other person. If I felt differently than that then I think that would almost be selfish because why would I be upset when good things are happening to my friends? It doesn’t make any sense at all. So it’s kind of crazy, I mean it’s really good. I ran into a graduate student last night and mentioned that I was reading with [Ada] tonight and she acknowledged her poetry crush on Ada Limon, and that’s not the first time I’ve heard that. You know, seeing students with a copy of your friend’s book, or bring that poet up during class is really exciting. Because the isolation of being a writer and being alone with the page can be just that, very isolating. It’s good to see that acknowledgement in the world.

AC: I don’t think fiction writers have the experience that we have, you know, on the road and the way that we do it. I mean, people always say, “Why do you do it? Why do you do this?” Well this is what poets
do. You know, there’s not much money. It’s all about the community. There is no money in poetry, so it kind of makes it feel pure in that way. It’s this pure thing that we... we’re all in it for the right reasons. No one’s writing poetry to make money. So we go on the road, and it costs us money to go on the road. We rarely break-even, but we do it because it’s what we do.

MR: Yea, and our jobs as poets is to write the next poem.

AC: It’s a good job.

MR: That’s what we do. That’s our primary task and everything else is really secondary.

LH: Would you say it’s important for poets to establish friendships with other writers? And what do you think that difference is between poets and writers and the general non-writer friends you might have? Why is it so important to make those connections?

AL: I think it’s really essential to be friends with other artists for many reasons, but primarily because there’s a validation between this sort of weird, awesome, strange breed that you have that sees the world in a very particular way, and that can feel very isolating. And it can feel like you’re insane, you know? There’s this beautiful gift when you meet other artists and other poets that you realize, “oh, this is just what makes me an artist,” or “this is just what makes me a writer.” “[There] isn’t something terribly wrong with me.” As a young child growing up, there is that moment where you wonder like, “I’m different and I don’t know how to figure this out.” You know, we see things differently, and we’re tender in different ways and we hurt in different ways, and I think the acknowledgement of that and the acknowledgement of that sensitivity and awareness and sort of openness to the world is really a good thing to have other people acknowledge and experience at the same time.

AC: I think the best way to describe it is when a poet dies and you see the outpouring on Facebook. It’s just, um... it makes other deaths seem... I don’t know, like, what do people do when someone who isn’t a writer dies? There’s so much of an outpouring of love and sadness, but also, poets write poems for people, and sometimes I feel like I can’t imagine who my friends would be if I wasn’t a writer. I think it’s just that kinship that you were talking about and being a part of the literary communities. I think it’s important; I think it’s crucial.

MR: I think we all have friends who aren’t involved in the poetry world and probably have very little idea of what it is that we do. Like one of my closest friends who I’ve now known for 27 years or so—and I know that he doesn’t quite understand why I spend my time writing poetry, or maybe he understands why I’m doing it, but he doesn’t engage with the work in the same way that my friends who are writers do. And that’s not just with poetry but those people who are interested in literary arts in general. Adam and I were talking recently about the idea of community and who our readers are of our poems, and I know it’s a little different for each of us, but when I finish a poem I send it via email to [Adam and Ada], not necessarily for feedback but for...

AL: Proof.

Yea. Proof, accountability, and just to share: “Okay, I’ve written something new, and you’re my audience for the immediate time being.”

LH: I’m just guessing that the time you’ve spent together in a car or traveling together has led you down many conversational avenues. Would anybody want to share a moment that was either really intense or interesting or just really downright unimportant while you’ve been travelling together?

AL: Well, I know that I’m generally the only person that naps in the backseat. So that becomes a joke, that I like to crawl in the backseat and then at some point, later on that evening, I discover that they have taken photos of me while I’m asleep in the backseat.

AC: This is like the brother thing.

MR: It’s true; it’s true.

AC: When we talk, we talk poetry almost the whole time. And I forget which trip it was, but I think Ada and I flew home from somewhere afterwards...

AL: Texas.

AC: Yea, Texas. We were flying together. I remember just saying to her, “I wish we could just have a week to go write,” because I feel that we’re always so immersed in poetry. But I think, too, like when we were on the road when the Boston Marathon Bombing was happening, you know...I think Ada was sleeping and we turned the radio on and told her what had happened. The trips are sort of punctuated by these things that are sort of happening, and then the fact that we’re often times writing poems while we’re on these trips—we all have poems about each other and these road trips, too, so it’s kind of cool to see the way it’s made its way into our work.

MR: Yea, the Marathon Bombing was the first time we crossed ideas. So, thanks for stealing that.

AC: I think we were in Oklahoma, right?

We almost ran out of gas once. We were on our way to a noontime reading...That was in Kansas, wasn’t it?

The reading was in Missouri.

No, it was North Newton, Kansas.

MR: It was one of those instances where we pulled in just in the nick of time to fill up the tank. And it was in one of those combination car-truck stops with 38 pumps and they were all padlocked because they were out of gas. They were having problems with their system and they couldn’t run it. So then we had to drive another fifteen minutes to the next gas station thinking we were going to miss the reading. That was an instance of poor planning.

AC:There were no gas stations between Laurence, Kansas and North Newton, I don’t think.

MR: Yea, for anyone who might be eventually listening or reading, FYI.

AL: Stop and get some gas. It kind of breaks down, our conversation. It will sort of evolve and devolve at the same time as the trip goes forward that there’s moments of...I tend to get more hysterical at everything... and you know, by the time that we left Oklahoma, I was yelling at the train, “I love you train!” at the top of my lungs and shouting and crying and laughing. It’s just because there’s so many emotions happening. And then of course that made it into one of your poems.

MR: Going on a reading tour for seven or eight days—talking about that with my partner Valerie, she’s described that as if she would hate to go out and do that sort of thing, what we do. And it can be pretty exhausting, because inevitably you will go and read, and then there will be socializing and you’re not getting enough sleep or you’re not treating your body as well as you could be. But still to this day there’s never been an instance the next morning, as we have four or five or six hours to drive to the next event, where I have felt, “Ugh, I gotta get in the car with these two people, this is going to be terrible.”

AL: Right, we’re always more like, “Come on, let’s get in the car, let’s get in the car!”

MR: It’s never a drag. It never feels epic in that negative sense, and so that’s good.

AL: So we keep doing it.