U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón Brings Down the House

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limon visited Dickinson to deliver a public reading, interact closely with small groups of students and faculty and accept the Stellfox Award. Photo by Joe O'Neill.

U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limon visited Dickinson to deliver a public reading, interact closely with small groups of students and faculty and accept the Stellfox Award. Photo by Joe O'Neill.

One woman's literary legacy inspires poet laureate's quietly powerful residency

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

This year marked the first time in three years that Dickinson has been able to welcome a distinguished writer to campus through the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program. The heat was on to find just the right literary luminary for the job. The first pick was Ada Limón, a poet who's both highly esteemed and also highly approachable. But it was a long shot: a month before the Stellfox committee approached her, Limón was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Limón earned a B.A. in drama from the University of Washington and an M.F.A. in poetry from New York University. She published three books of poetry while working full-time in marketing and eventually quit her job to write full time, publishing Bright Dead Things, a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015. Her 2019 book of poetry, The Carrying, garnered Limón the National Book Award. Limón was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2020, and two years later she was named the 24th poet laureate.

In between dinner with the president, conferences with the Library of Congress and interviews with the national media—including talks about the fact that one of her poems will be etched into a spacecraft and launched into the great unknown—it was unlikely she’d have time to visit Dickinson, said Susan Perabo, professor of creative writing and undaunted Stellfox committee chair. Perabo, who had a connection to the poet, wrote to Limón anyway, hoping that the unique story of the Stellfox residency might hold sway.

The residency was made possible by Jean Louise Stellfox '60, who’d been inspired to become an English teacher after meeting with poet Robert Frost on Dickinson’s campus in 1959. After Stellfox's passing, the college learned that she’d left a considerable amount to her alma mater. Stellfox's vision was to endow a literary residency at Dickinson, named after her parents. In the years since, awardees including Edward Albee, Margaret Atwood and Rita Dove, to name just a few, have come to campus to deliver public readings and interact closely with students and faculty in small groups, both inside and outside of class. Just as Frost had done, decades ago.

The day after hearing this story, Limón wrote back to Perabo. "She said, 'I'd be so honored to be considered for this,' " Perabo recalled. "That’s when you know you’ve made the right choice.”

Ada Limon

Photo by Dan Loh.

Throughout her residency, Limón visited classes, shared meals with small groups of students and faculty, workshopped poems and even visited local public schools to talk about her art. And the poet who studied theatre as an undergrad delivered a sparkling and warm-hearted public reading on campus, touching on themes that included friendship, chasing life passions, animal videos and—especially—the fragility and wonder of life and the complexities of nature. She answered questions about her role as poet laureate, her process and about poetry's superpower—to invite us to slow down, notice and feel deeply in a fast-moving world.

“Especially in last three years, we’ve learned to numb ourselves as we careen from one crisis to another,” she noted. “Poetry is the moment we can stop to recognize that we are feeling people, not just thinking people.”

The poet also reflected on the Dickinson alumna who inspired her to make the trip to Carlisle. “It’s moving to be here and to hear the story of Miss Stellfox and the history of this residency,” Limón told a standing-room-only audience in Allison Hall. The audience, near-silent throughout her reading, responded with thunderous applause.


Published February 22, 2023