An Interview With Ross Gay
Crystal Powell, Issue 40
In March, Ross Gay sat down for dinner with a handful of MFA students before appearing as a special guest at NYU’s Emerging Writers Reading Series. He went around the table, asked after our work, and made each of us feel as though he was the one who had been given the chance to meet us. He was warm and so present. Later that night, when Ross read at KGB Bar, I got the sense that everyone in the room had been in desperate need of the laughter he invited and
encouraged. Ross had shared from a work in progress—a series of micro-essays currently entitled The Book of Delight—and I can think of no better word than
delightful to describe him.
Ross Gay is the author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Kingsley Tufts Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of the books Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down, the co-author of two chapbooks, a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, an editor for the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press, and a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project.
I reached Ross in Bloomington, where he teaches at Indiana University, to find out more about his latest project and how he got to be so delightful.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you tell me little bit about The Book of Delight and its genesis?
ROSS GAY: I was walking around at a writing retreat, kind of in a groove of writing, and it just occurred to me how lovely it would be, as a writing practice
but also a kind of psychic or spiritual practice, to every day write a little essay about something that just simply delighted me. I just thought, oh this will be fun
and I can make it a formal exercise. So, that’s what I’m doing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Was it a personal project at the time, or was it always intended to be a book?
ROSS GAY: You know, I sort of regularly am like, oh here’s a book idea, oh here’s a book idea, here’s a book idea. Some of them might be good, but there are
others where I’m like, well that’s ten years down the road maybe. But with this one I thought, oh yeah that’s one I would love to do and one I could probably
do, one I could keep up.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Has anything surprising come out of the act of writing one of these essays every day?
ROSS GAY: Well, one thing is that I am who I am, so I do them almost everyday. But the absolute fact of my life, of my experience, is that when you attend to delight, more delight arrives. Undoubtedly. At first, it might be a little bit like, well what do I write about today, and then it gets to a place where you are walking down the street and thinking, oh that was delightful, whoa that was delightful, that was delightful. It’s like training a muscle, and one of the muscles that we have is to acknowledge what delights us, just like there are muscles to acknowledge what is heartbreaking, which is also necessary, and which delight does not foreclose in the least. In fact, delight often emerges very beautifully out of a kind of compost of sorrow.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That comes through in your work. Joy in conversation with pain and lament. In “Overheard,” a man mentions that it’s a beautiful day and has to repeat it a few times for the narrator to hear it, and then reflecting on that interaction, the narrator says “never did he say forget” and “he did not
say forget.” It’s a compelling notion that the recognition of beautiful things is not about erasing or ignoring pain.
ROSS GAY: At all.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s something else entirely.
ROSS GAY: To me that illuminates the beautiful. It’s maybe a sort of ethical question. I have a kind of ethical curiosity in myself—if one is attending to delight, does that mean that one is not witnessing other things that need to be witnessed? I go over and over it and I think, not at all.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As in, does one have to come at the cost of the other?
ROSS GAY: Exactly, and I firmly don’t believe that. I firmly, actually believe that part of the act of preservation is detailing and really hollering about what it is
that we love and why we love it. Otherwise, we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I noticed two threads, and quite possibly and probably more, of joy across your work. You write about the kind that comes from a conscious effort to pause and appreciate the beauty in something. There’s also the kind that is an interruption of sorts—joy that comes from the unexpected, from interactions with strangers and your immediate environment, or from surprising interactions with yourself. I’m thinking of your poem “Opera Singer” and the line, “ . . . so imagine my surprise / when my self-absorption gets usurped,” in contrast to “Overheard” where you say, “. . . I’ve learned to close my ears /
against the voices of passersby.” I get the sense that this closing of your ears is something you’re continually in the process of unlearning.
ROSS GAY: Absolutely. I mean a person goes into the world building up defenses, and that’s a mode of closing one’s ears or turning away. I think there’s something really vital and terrifying about the opposite, about the vulnerability that may be caused by desire, or openness, or care. The more you care about, the
more that might be ripped from you.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you always been inclined to seek out the joy in things, or is that something you made a conscious effort to pay attention to at a
certain point in your life?
ROSS GAY: I’m kind of a melancholy dude actually. I think part of my life—as I’ve gone through various emotional trouble, let’s just say real, and sometimes
deep, emotional stuff—has been to try to understand a little bit about the way my mind works, and also the way what I train my mind on will determine, to
some extent, the way my mind feels. But that’s a long process, and it’s really a process that—I don’t know. I think of myself as kid. If you ask my mom, I was
a gloomy, sullen sucker. I think it probably came out of me needing to figure out how to get up some days. I had to work on that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: On first impression, you have an effervescence about you. A joyful presence that makes the rest of us wonder, how did he get like that, where does that come from. It’s comforting to hear it doesn’t necessarily come easily or naturally because that means it’s possible for the rest of us! So, I read an interview you did in 2008, in which you said, “I’m always writing joyful poems,” and—
ROSS GAY: Wow. Who did I say that to?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The Cortland Review. Joanna Penn Cooper.
ROSS GAY: That was my friend interviewing me. I’m trying to think about the context because at that time I was also writing very . . . What was her question?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: She asked if you were writing more joyful poems, and you said, “I’m always writing joyful poems! I’m writing joyful poems, for sure. I don’t know if they’re more joyful poems. Because there are a lot of these tough, dog-eat-dog poems in this second manuscript, too.” We’re talking about the evolution of your relationship to joy in life. I’m curious if you see a similar evolution in your work.
ROSS GAY: Absolutely. Well the first book, I feel like is its own thing. Someone pointed out recently that the last poem in that book is called “Thank You,”
and I thought that was interesting because I hadn’t really thought of it as being a predictor of my third book. The second book feels so much like it’s trying to
figure out how we can exist in a less violent, less destructive, less self-destructive way. In a more loving way. The whole purpose of that book is an inquiry into
how that change might happen and how it might happen by changing the way we look at things. So in a way, it feels like by the end of that book I knew—or
at least I had the space, enough ground covered in a certain kind of way to try this thing. Let’s see if looking with wonder, looking with a kind of openness, if
that might be connected to gratitude or joy. But I’m interested in that response I had back then.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is it hard to imagine yourself saying that nine years ago?
ROSS GAY: I wonder if, in a way, I’m being a little antagonistic. It’s a really dear friend who was asking, so I wonder if we were having part of another conversation because I don’t think of that first book as . . . There are things that are to a certain extent joyful. The act of writing a poem no matter what, at the very least, what it does is imagine a world in which someone, even if that someone is you, but I think often that someone is not you, is listening. There’s the prospect of a kind of intimacy that a poem always implies. That implied intimacy, and understanding, the potential for relating or understanding is joyful. It’s joyful because contained in that is the idea that there are two people with their multitude of experiences and sorrows, etc., and a potential union between them. I wonder if I was thinking on those terms, like every poem is an act of joy.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Right, joy not necessarily as subject matter.
ROSS GAY: Exactly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I have to say you’re a wonderful reader. You have an ability to laugh at yourself and to laugh right along with the audience when
you make them laugh. I felt the room very much feeding off you and vice versa. That seems like an extension of what you’re saying, another layer of joy found
in the act of sharing, but in this case you as the writer get to witness the other side of that conversation. Do you think about reading your poems aloud when
you’re writing them? Do you think about a particular audience? A number of your poems are direct addresses to friends. Are those hypothetical people to you
or do you have something more specific in mind?
ROSS GAY: I’m always imagining an audience when I write, and I’m always imagining an out-loud audience with the stuff that I’ve written so far and am
writing right now. There’s some longer form nonfiction stuff that I’m probably less inclined to . . . like in my revision process I’m probably not going to be thinking about the aurality, the orality, I’m not sure which. How it sounds. How it lands in the air. But with everything else, I am acutely aware of it. In a way, I am writing to anyone who will listen to me. I write very closely with good friends. I think often I’m in conversation with some dear friends.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is there a difference in the way you approach poetry versus prose?
ROSS GAY: With certain kinds of prose. The delights are little essays, and I’m so tied into those things as experiences off the page. I’ll write something in the
longer nonfiction piece I’m also working on. With that, I feel more prepared to write stuff that will take a while to work through on the page because I think it
might be a book that maybe requires I have a different voice. But I think of it as less of a performed experience.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: There are a lot of parentheticals in the delights, in the ones I heard you read anyway, that sounded potentially tricky for reading
aloud. You gave the audience a warning, but I think we were with you the whole way. The parentheticals added a wonderful texture, an element of suspense and
surprise, and often humor.
ROSS GAY: A lot of what’s happening in these pieces is hard to express aloud. I’m figuring that out. What my body will do when I communicate those things
as I go on is going to be interesting because I need to know how to communicate them. At the same time, as I share them out loud, there are sometimes things that I’ve put in the little essays that I realize are not working period, partly because I hear the audience not hear them.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you often read works in progress?
ROSS GAY: Yup. Totally. That’s part of my revision process, hearing it out loud and hearing people hear it out loud. And there are also sounds that are very
difficult to speak right next to each other that—as I get more familiar with how to pronounce words—I’ll be less inclined to put together in a piece I’m thinking
will be performed.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you set out to start a new project, do you know whether it’s poetry or prose? Is the form immediately apparent or does
that ever change on you?
ROSS GAY: That is changing. It used to mostly be poetry and then a couple years ago I wrote this kind of in-between novel, essay, criticism, all kinds of crazy shit. It was a 250- or 200-page book. But when I started working on this poem, my buddy Pat said to me, “Oh did you have to write that novel so you could write this poem?” Probably if you asked me that four years ago, I would have said, no, I think I always know. But now, I kind of feel like I might have to write a bunch of stuff in another genre in order to realize, oh, this isn’t the form it needs to take.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you noticed any other changes over the years? It seems like there is a symbiotic relationship between your writing and let’s call it your consciousness. Maybe all writing is like that. Some of your projects require or encourage you to attend to the world in certain ways that, in turn, lead to ironing out your world view, which then feeds back into your work. Like from book to book to book, you’ve almost been developing a personal philosophy of
joy, where it fits and exists in your life, how to express it, and how to address it. Do you see that sort of evolution with any other themes explored in your work?
ROSS GAY: I often felt like, and maybe I am, always writing about justice. Maybe that’s the case, or maybe I’m actually always trying to figure out how to write about love, and maybe justice used to make more sense as a concept than love did as a concept motivating my work. If there is an underlying inquiry throughout this work, it’s how to love each other better.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What else are you working on at the moment?
ROSS GAY: I’m working on this nonfiction book about my relationship to the land, to horticulture and the horticultural. I’m writing about my own garden-
centered life, and I’ve done quite a bit of traveling around and visiting other farms, farms that are black farms. African-American folks run these projects. So, I’m writing a book about that, and I’m writing this long-ass Dr. J poem. It’s about Dr. J, but it’s also about race, the imagination, and flight. I’ve been work-
ing on that for going on about two and a half, three years. I have no idea how to finish it and don’t feel a particular need to hurry to finish it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Are you always working on several projects at the same time?
ROSS GAY: I so am. I totally am. Whether they’re really out on my desk—I don’t have a desk—I might actually have a couple projects that I’m going back
and forth on like right now, or I have a project that I’m working on and the four or five that I’m just waiting to open up and start getting on. I feel like there’s a queue. There’s always a bunch of stuff, kind of like the delights book. That was one of the things that was in the queue until I was like “all right let’s do it.” And there’s so much in the queue that will just fade away and I will forget they were ever in there.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s a good place to be.
ROSS GAY: Yeah it is. It is.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The Book of Delights is interesting because it’s contained to one year. It has a defined end point in a way that a lot of projects don’t or can’t. I remember you mentioning that you noticed a side effect of that framework. That even though you’re writing about delight, the fact that you’re working on the project every day, that it’s grounded in time, and that time is moving forward has added an underlying weight.
ROSS GAY: As I go through the whole manuscript—I’ve been flipping through it—I notice my inclinations. It has always been my inclination to acknowledge
that the light, and whatever its opposite is, are intertwined. There are pieces that very overtly refer to the current political moment. But it’s funny because I looked at the three or four months before that [the Presidential election] too, and they’re always informed by this other kind of thing. I think that’s probably just what will happen.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As I re-read a few of your books back to back, I found myself wondering how you manage to skirt sentimentality—sentimentality as it’s often referred to negatively in critical contexts, as something to be avoided. You write about love. You write about joy. You write about sorrow.
And it never feels saccharine or self-pitying. I’m wondering if that has something to do with that inclination toward contrast.
ROSS GAY: I think that’s such a good question because so often what is delightful is automatically perceived or conceived of as not rigorous, that joy and delight are not rigorous, and that is stupid. Just to be plain. I’m glad you asked the question but I don’t know how to answer it in terms of sentimentality yet. I agree that there is a way, that if you talk about the fullness of experience—the fullness of experience is never just one thing, and I think one of the things that sentimentality does is that it sort of tries to erase the fullness of experience. It makes such a clear arrow toward the emotion that we’re supposed to feel, which is what I resist. There’s something more about that I’m trying to figure out.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: “How do you pull that off?” is perhaps not the easiest question to answer. To quote you and “Opera Singer” yet again, there is this line: “and because we all know the tongue’s clumsy thudding / makes of miracles anecdotes let me stop here / and tell you I said thank you.” Perhaps it’s a bit of
self-awareness too that makes a difference.
Gardens frequently play a role in your work as subject matter, space, imagery. Do you find that gardening impacts or informs your writing life in ways other than providing material?
ROSS GAY: Oh god yeah. Just this morning I was working in the garden and there was a big patch of beautiful soil sick with bindweed. Bindweed is a powerful, assertive weed. I was taking my time trying to go around and just pull it out, and there was a lot, trying to get the roots not to break as they sort of sliver
out of the ground. Then you’re pulling them out, putting them in a bag, and trying not to have any pieces of the stem or leaf or root fall down to the ground.
You’re going through and finding some woven through the daylily leaves. It took me probably half an hour of just moving very slow trying to see the bindweed,
which wanted to blend in with some of these other grasses. Just to do that on the regular, attending to something with a kind of precision and slowness that is not a normal, productive mode of being, I feel like that is totally cousin to making a poem as a kind of slowness and deliberate space making that that is. I was also thinking about the way that bindweed—I don’t know a lot about bindweed— will fuck your garden up, you know, but it actually probably does some work of preserving the soil in places where it’s not interfering with “production” because soil needs to be covered and bindweed really grows. That’s metaphor: you’re
spinning, what are the different uses, what are the different uses, what are the different uses. That’s metaphor. That’s like making a poem.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Right, like what does it mean to pull something out of an environment when you can’t fully understand the role it plays?
ROSS GAY: How is it that things turn from one thing into another thing? If you’re in a garden, you are constantly in the process of putting something in the
ground that is not the thing that it will become. You know the potential that is inside of this thing. That’s insane shit, you know.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The more you talk about it, the more I think I need to get into gardening. Have you always been a gardener or is it something you
came across later in life?
ROSS GAY: It’s weird. When I moved to Bloomington in 2007, I hadn’t gardened. It’s something I forget sometimes, but I grew up in an apartment complex right next to I-95. There was this wedge of woods, and along the wedge of woods there would be wild raspberries and every once in a while a stray grape vine. Once I found a grapevine. So I had the experience of being out and interact- ing. I was trying to find food and stuff so it wasn’t gardening, but it was a kind of love of the outdoors. My first time gardening was when I moved out here. A lot of people out here garden, and my partner is a gardener. She was present in my ear.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How and when did you start writing poetry?
ROSS GAY: I was, I think, a sophomore in college. I wasn’t doing well in school, and I had an English teacher who could probably see that I was not tuned in.
He had me give a presentation on Amiri Baraka’s poems. I read the poem “An Agony. As Now.” and then I became interested in poems. I think that’s about the
time I started writing them.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: When did it become clear to you that poetry was going to be a primary focus in your life?
ROSS GAY: I don’t know. I went to grad school right after college and didn’t know quite what I was doing, but I knew that I loved doing this stuff. I liked
making things. I liked to paint and draw and all kinds of stuff. I wonder if I knew that among the things I would be doing was making art. I was also very, very
close with people who were very serious theater artists and musicians, so it was in my world. It was a possible thing to do. I never pinned that down in my head,
but maybe it was moving through college and into grad school and watching my friends be very serious about their work.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you find that teaching influences your writing? Do you approach it in any way that’s different from your own education as a poet?
ROSS GAY: It totally informs my writing because I’m always in the midst of these great conversations with people I like and whose work I admire. I’m doing an
independent study in nonfiction with someone in the MFA program right now, and the conversations we get to have are conversations that inevitably make me
write a couple notes down that are going to inform my work. I feel like that’s always the case. From the time that I started teaching, I’ve been having these conversations with students that are absolutely feeding into my actual production of work. So yeah, on that level, all the time.
In terms of how I’ve tried to interact with student work over the years, I realized I’m less interested in stuff that I really understand. I find myself less
interested in that and more interested in stuff that gets a little bit puzzling in a certain way, stuff that I don’t quite understand, and you can’t—I don’t know
how you teach that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah, I’m sure saying, “be confusing and vague,” is probably not going to help anybody.
ROSS GAY: No. I know. Exactly. It’s kind of like make the beautiful thing you need to make. There’s not a pedagogy of making the thing you don’t under-
stand. I don’t know what that is. I do love a classroom filled with experiments. Experiments are really important to my teaching because I am interested in the
way accidents or unusually combined things can occasion beautiful, otherwise unlikely events of art. I like to do that myself. I like to collaborate with people
in part because those are always experiments. You’re not going to do something in collaboration that you would do by yourself. That’s just not going to happen.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is that reflective of your own academic experience?
ROSS GAY: Recently, I sat in on a letterpress class here. I was an art student, an art major in college, so I remember the workshop in a different mode, the work-
shop as a place where you actually build stuff. When I was in this letterpress class, I was reminded of that because you learn the techniques or learn one of the machines and then the teacher would say, “Okay now, just do it.” She was basically like, just make a mess, just fuck up a million times and see what you make. In the process of fucking up you might in fact discover a technique that is very interesting to you. It might not be that interesting to anyone else, but it might be
the thing that you need to know how to do. That was really important to me. Also, being close with my friend Brooke O’Harra, she’s a director and theater
artist I grew up with and went to college with. Being around her and talking with her about her practice or how she gets her students to do stuff, stuff that I would probably not be exposed to if I was just looking around on my own.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As for enjoying reading things that are a bit difficult to understand, is there anything you’ve been really into that way recently?
ROSS GAY: Actually that Baraka poem, “An Agony. As Now.,” when I go back to it, I feel like maybe I understood it better when I was nineteen than I do now. It’s just a really powerful, incredible poem. Simone White is another writer whose work I feel that way about. It’s so beautiful to me, and it’s beautiful to me in part because it requires that I engage with something in a way I don’t yet know how to engage with.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is there anything you think that people often seem to misunderstand about your work? Or do you get asked questions in interviews that are surprising or that you are tired of addressing? Don’t get me wrong, you come across as nothing but pleasant, I just found myself wondering if we’re all
talking about you or your work in a way that doesn’t quite line up with how you see things?
ROSS GAY: In a way you’ve kind of already asked the questions that lead to that question. Sometimes people sort of assume from my look, this is the happiest
dude in America. I’m pretty happy and all, but I’m also totally heartbroken. I’m not just happy. Either you have a sort of grown-up idea of happy that I call joy,
or you’re missing half of the book, which is that everything isn’t the way it looks. There is not a particular thing that is delightful in there that is not very much
dancing with these other feelings.