A Conversation with Ross Gay

by Caitlin Dicus

Ross Gay is the author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a book of poetry full of humanity, awe, and a sprig of grief. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. American Poetry Review described the poems as “bold and wild and weird.”

Gay’s other works include his books Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down, as well as two chapbooks: Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, with co-author Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and River, with co-author Richard Wehrenberg, Jr. He is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of Some Call It Ballin’, an online sports magazine, and has edited for the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Currently living in Bloomington, Indiana, and teaching at Indiana University, Gay is also a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard. Gay recently visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. Before his reading, he chatted with Booth about the many incantations of precision, our capacity for tenderness, his love of Power Man, and, of course, his garden.

Caitlin Dicus: You’ve spoken in interviews before about how terrifying it can be to talk about things you love in poetry because somebody could come in and trash it—yet you wrote this incredibly joyous book. There are moments of fear, violence, or sorrow, but overall it feels celebratory. Can you talk about the writing of that poetry and the importance of it—especially right now, in 2017, with everything going on in the world?

Ross Gay: For me, what feels important is to truly attend to and meditate on the things that we love. So that we can preserve them, you know? So that we can care for them and tend them. That feels like part of my project. It’s something that I’m cultivating. It feels like an exercise to do that, because it’s not automatically my tendency. So, that book, in addition to other things, is an effort to work on that as a mode. I think it taught me quite a bit in the process.

CD: Like what?

RG: Like how to do it better [laughs]. You know?

CD: Yeah. Strengthening those “happy” muscles, maybe?

RG: Yeah! They’re sort of like psychic and spiritual muscles.

CD: A lot of writers—myself included—are currently wondering: Do we look for things to celebrate and write this joyous poetry, or do we let our poems bear witness to the awful things that are happening? Would you lean to one side or the other?

RG: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive at all. Many things are happening.

CD: Yes, that’s true. And your poetry gets into this, too. A good example is “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.” You begin with being internally focused and blocking everything out, and then you experience all this happiness—but at the end you acknowledge, also, the sadness of “I’m in this city that’s a bad place, but simultaneously a good place,” and the question of how you reconcile that. It seems you can do both.

RG: Yeah. To me, the book is about this thought I’ve had: “Oh, that feels like adult joy.” What adult joy knows, or understands, is that we are all in the midst of suffering. Understanding that that’s a commonality we all have is in itself important. I think that feels like a vital thing to understand. But we’re also always in the midst of profound acts of generosity and tenderness and care. Moment to moment. It’s just true. Like, the fact that we are sitting on things that people made, you know? Like, if lights come on, they don’t come on because we’re good [laughs].

CD: If only!

RG: They come on because other people are doing things! Like, I love the zipper. Honestly. I often think of it in New York, where, to go into the tunnel, you have to alternating merge—it’s incredible.

CD: Yeah, do you be the kind person? Do you not be the kind person?

RG: Yeah!

CD: So, over and over, these little kindnesses are happening.

RG: And 90 percent of the time, even 99 percent of the time, it’s just like, “Yeah, this is how we do it. To get by.” And this is not to negate the awfulness that we are, that we are capable of and are in the midst of. But it is to say that—and to believe that—our potential for tenderness is way greater than the opposite.

CD: That’s a good way of thinking about it. On a related note, if you read straight through your second book, Bringing the Shovel Down, and into Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, there’s a pretty obvious thematic shift.

RG: Yeah.

CD: But the last poem in Bringing the Shovel Down, “Again,” is kind of a link between the two books. Readers get this surprise retelling of the book’s earlier poem, “Bringing the Shovel Down,” in which this child is terrified into killing a very hopeless dog. But then, just at the end, this poem comes back and has changed and renamed itself, so that the boy is kind to this dog. It’s like a jumping-off point into this new, joyous book. Can you talk about why you changed the poem and why you included both versions?

RG: I changed the poem, actually, because I read the first version somewhere, and I witnessed, in a way, a kind of violence that the poem felt like it was doing. And I couldn’t quite abide having that without a kind of alternative.

CD: A PG version.

RG: Yeah, and I was trying to figure out, “I wonder which poem will belong in the book,” and then friends who look at my work were like, “Well, both,” and I thought, “Oh, right. That provides me with an ethical arc, in a way—like these are two ways of imagining being in a world.”

CD: And why did you put them in that order? Why was “Again” last instead of first?

RG: Well, the objective of the book is to do this ethical transformation. In a certain way, the book is a meditation on the destructive narratives we inherit. The book is trying to understand that and imagine alternatives. So, to end with the alternative of one of the big poems in the book—that’s the hope. Look at this other thing. There are lots of things we need to look at, you know? There are lots of things we need to look at to understand . . . just to understand.

CD: On a different note, you talked at length with Callie Siskel at the Los Angeles Review of Books about your revision process, but I’m wondering how you bring that into the classroom. It seems that instructors all have a few choice pointers. For example, I heard David Shumate talk in a workshop about finding the things that stick out and trimming the fat a little bit—but that was just days before Dean Young came for a reading and said that if something sticks out, then that’s his cue to make more of it, to make that thing fit. Do you have any drops of wisdom?

RG: That’s a hard question. I don’t have little pebbles or nuggets or whatever, but I do think about precision a lot—and precision might mean diction, or it might mean the way the metaphor is constructed. It might be the precision of telling a story or the way the syntax needs to be, musical precision. I feel like I’m inclined not to have “nuggets.” But I do say that a lot: “Be precise.” But even the notion of precision can be broad. You can be precise about many things.

CD: You can be precise like Walt Whitman and go on and on and on, until you’ve defined it in every way that you can—

RG: Totally. Totally.

CD: —or you can be precise in four words.

RG: Yeah, exactly!

CD: I’d like to talk about the voice you use. Maybe that’s just your voice coming through, but it seems there is such a transparency happening in your work, especially in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. You have moments when the speaker will address the reader or when the speaker will call themselves out and say, “Ah, maybe that’s not right. I’m not making the metaphor right.” In “To My Best Friend’s Big Sister,” the speaker wonders whether they’re embellishing the memory. What do you think that does to the reader’s experience of your work? Is it a purposeful move, or just your voice?

RG: I’m definitely always in the process of constructing a voice. I’m trying to get close to a version of my voice. You know, often the poems are kind of about me, and they’re my stories. I can tell you, “Oh, yeah, that was the fig tree,” and you can go see that fig tree. It’s very much a process of trying to figure out how to create this character who is constantly in the process of creating itself and understanding that there is a reader, and that there’s a kind of automatic distance, which is a craft issue. I’m trying to address the boundary—the distance—between us, and in addressing it to maybe make it go away somewhat.

CD: The students reading your work right now in Introduction to Poetry at Butler loved that there was excited cussing.

RG: [Laughs]

CD: That’s something that brings a reader right next to you. It’s like you’re talking to your friend, and they’re excitedly telling you this story. Speaking of chatting with friends, a few days ago I witnessed an exchange on Twitter between a group of poets of color—Eve L. Ewing, Nate Marshall, Danez Smith, and Safia Elhillo among them—talking about having been called slam poets, though they don’t self-identify as slam poets. Nate Marshall even said he was reading a sonnet when he was called a slam poet, and Safia Elhillo quoted the poet Angel Nafis, who once said, “Anyway, you can call me spoken word, or hip hop, or whatever the fuck makes you feel better about the fact that no one falls asleep when I read my poems.” Have you ever been pulled into this odd conversation about performance?

RG: Oh, yeah. And I like how Angel put it.

CD: The poets were talking about it in a way that made me feel as if people were saying that to somehow mark them as different, and that it’s an issue of race but also an issue of contemporary poetry and how we handle performance now. Can you talk about that?

RG: I think that’s about it. I think that it’s a desire to mark. It’s probably a desire to imagine a kind of inside and outside, all of which is completely troubled. But I love what Angel said. That’s just perfect. Like, yeah!

CD: Call me what you want!

RG: Yeah, who cares?

CD: When poets are talking amongst themselves, you sometimes hear them discussing their poetic obsessions—what keeps popping up in our work that we just can’t get rid of. What are some obsessions you have now or that you’ve had in the past and have been able to put to rest?

RG: I feel like I have big obsessions that move around and probably aren’t going to go away. You know, previously I would have said justice, but now maybe I would call it love. That’s a really curious question. I also write a lot about my garden these days.

CD: You do. Which made me feel very at home in that book, as a fellow gardener.

RG: I’m really fascinated by it, you know? And I can imagine that being the last thing I write about. I’m interested in a lot of stuff, but the garden is full enough, to me, to go for a long time.

CD: But you’re also writing nonfiction right now. You talked to our alumnus, Kaveh Akbar, about Dr. J and African-American agriculture. How is it all going?

RG: It’s all good! I just finished this book of short essays, The Book of Delights. There’s a lot of garden in that. But this other book I’m working on about my relationship to land, race, the imagination, etc., is coming along. It’s another opportunity for me to write about my garden.

CD: Awesome!

RG: The beginning starts, as it is now, in my garden. I’m wandering around and sort of giving an anatomy of my garden. But this Dr. J thing—we’ll see where it’s going. I’m not sure. I’ve been working on it for a while. I’m just glad about this Book of Delights. It felt very compelling. I was very excited to be writing this.

CD: My introduction to your nonfiction was your essay in The Sun, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” and I was just blown away by that. Why was it poetry that you started with? Why not nonfiction, if you are so drawn to it, as well?

RG: I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I had a teacher in college who introduced me to some poetry, and that was the first literature I was into. I was into comic books, but, of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, it was poetry that I was introduced to. So it could be that. It could also be that there are potential musical elements that are interesting to me about poetry. It could also be that poetry feels a little bit to the side of things, you know? Maybe that was compelling to me as I was starting to get into writing.

CD: Have you ever thought about fiction?

RG: I have. Maybe one day I’ll write some fiction.

CD: I mean, you have to try all avenues to get your garden involved.

RG: I know, I know! [Laughs] The graphic stuff is very interesting to me. Fiction, all the different in-between forms. I love it. That’s sort of what I’m excited about.

CD: You could become the next Anne Carson. You know, mix your forms, see what happens.

RG: Yeah!

CD: So, in “Feet” and your reading of it at Furious Flower Poetry Center, you talked about how you loved Power Man when you were younger, and so—I have to know—did you watch Netflix’s Luke Cage?

RG: Oh, yeah. I did.

CD: How did you feel about it?

RG: [Laughs] You know, it was a TV show, but I was glad there was a Power Man show, sure. But I have to go back and read them all. I had like every one of those. I think I was only missing three.

CD: Wow!

RG: And Luke Cage, man! He was so important to me, you know? God, I loved those comics.

CD: In several interviews you’ve talked about how, after Bringing the Shovel Down, you felt so happy to be finished, and so excited to go on to Catalog. So, how did you feel after Catalog?

RG: I think that Bringing the Shovel Down was such a built thing. I was excited to have done that. Then, when I was going on to Catalog, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I just knew I was going to write some more poems. The poems emerged how they emerged. It was actually late in the process of writing that book that I knew I was writing a book called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. But I knew I was happy. It felt like a loosening up, in a way. When I got done with Catalog, what did I feel like? I guess I felt many things. I didn’t feel like I was excited to be done with this book, not at all. More, I felt like, “Oh, I could make that ‘Catalog’ poem go on forever. I could write that poem for the rest of my life.”

CD: I hope someday I write a poem I feel can go on forever. That’s probably an amazing feeling to run up against.

RG: I’m wondering, even as we talk about it, if there’s something about this poem that resists both completion and accomplishment. Maybe it’s a poem that is different. I like that poem. I love reading it and sharing it. I think that there are other, “better” poems in that book that felt to me like this other, not quite articulable, satisfaction, but that the “Catalog” poem is almost outside of that. It feels significant, but I’m not sure exactly how I feel, either. But I do wonder if there’s something about how, often, when we write poems, we want to finish. To make a thing.

CD: How did you know when it was finished?

RG: Just stopped. [Laughs] No, I mean, there was more to it. I wanted to end with three interjections where I talk to the audience, and then there were three, and blah blah blah. It was, in fact, like this dream at the end, and it felt like, “Oh, that could kind of conclude a poem.” It was also a poem that was pulled from other starts of poems, and it was kind of collage-y. So, it wasn’t this poem start to finish. It was kind of, “Let me see how I can assemble this thing.” This is new for me to articulate, by the way.

CD: Good! We’re keeping you on your toes.

RG: Yeah. I wonder if all of these elements of the way that poem was made make it feel like a different thing, like a thing that I could just keep writing, like a thing that was not finished. And I don’t even know what that thing is, but it makes me happy to think of it.

Caitlin Dicus is a poet, tutor, and novice Tarot practitioner earning her MFA at Butler University. She is the current poetry editor of Booth and lives in Indianapolis with her dog, Finnigan. She may be the actual human embodiment of The Dark Crystal’s Fizzgig.