If writers write about what puzzles them, Ross Gay is puzzled by joy. His oeuvre is a gorgeous, open-hearted, lyrical response to that puzzlement. Joy, by the way, that’s always in the context of suffering, in the context of pain. His style is a kind of restless exuberant unfolding, a thinking and feeling that feels like it’s happening as you read it, like an ice cube melting on a stovetop. You can hear it in his debut collection, Bringing the Shovel Down, which comes with an epigraph from Audre Lorde, all the way through his most recent book-length poem on and around and about the late great Dr. J, who conducted on basketball courts around the country “his extended course of study / on gravity and grace, / which has so enthralled the throngs.” That book is called Be Holding, probably the best long poem on sports since Kenneth Koch’s Ko, or a Season on Earth. Many people are familiar with Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. That book of poems, published in 2015, includes such wonders as “Feet”:
Friends, mine are ugly feet:
the body’s common wreckage
stuffed into boots. The second toe
on the left foot’s crooked
enough that when a child
asks what’s that? of it,
I can without flinch or fear of doubt lie
that a cow stepped on it
which maybe makes them fear cows
for which I repent
in love as I am with those philosophical beasts
who would never smash my feet
nor sneer at them
the way my mother does:
“We always bought you good shoes, honey,”
she says, “You can’t blame us
for those things,” …
And it unspools, the poem does, for dozens more lines, mixing humor with pathos, a light touch with the gravity of longing, the gravity of anybody in a body. Gay, who was raised in north Philadelphia, grew up skateboarding and playing football—all the way through college, in fact, until he found the poetry of Amiri Baraka, maybe an unlikely influence in some ways, but one who proved a catalyst, unlocking for him the thrill and the power of words put together in lyric ways. Gay’s dad worked in fast-food restaurants, and his mom worked at an insurance company, and Gay saw up close what capitalism means for workers, saw his parents having to work very hard and very long hours to make ends meet. These days he teaches at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and he runs a community orchard—gardening is a constant theme in his work, and a source of joy. Some of his most recent books, though, aren’t poetry but prose. One is The Book of Delights, and the more recent is Inciting Joy. Like all of Gay’s writing, there is so much more to talk about than the good feelings he’s plumbing. That these books are maps into the weirdness and buoyancy of possible forms of happiness should not suggest, reader, that they are not also pictures of pain and survival. Joy is the hardest thing to write about—hard not to make its manifestations into some form of trite candy—and Ross Gay shows us how: by way of careful description, lighthearted but deep-seeing analysis, and a hunger for honesty.
JESSE NATHAN: Writing a poem seems like a joyful act, or an act that has some joy in it, at some level, even if it’s painful or tormented or miserable at other levels. At least it seems like that for the writers whose work I tend to admire. You said something on the phone about how you don’t write a poem every day or even every week; I think you said you don’t have that kind of relationship to poetry. Suggesting, if I’m hearing you right, that a lot of time passes between composing poems. I’m curious: How do poems tend to come to you? All at once? Do you practice forms of delay? I imagine it’s different poem by poem. They feel so spontaneous to this reader, your poems. To what degree is that a reflection of the actual process of making them?
ROSS GAY: I love that phrase “forms of delay.” It sounds like the title of a very interesting book, and I’m going to come back to it. But per the first part of your question: mostly poems do not come to me all at once. I was actually talking to my partner about it this morning over coffee, and she thought of one, and I thought of a couple—by the way, all at once to me means the draft of a thing, kind of a ballpark thing pushed out or pulled out all at once; all at once to me has little to do with how long or intense the revising is, which it usually is, long and intense and, while if it’s good and useful it’s difficult, it’s almost never anymore what I would call tormented or miserable or painful or, as I once said out loud in the presence of the poet (and solid basketball player) Alan Shapiro, torture, who very kindly asked me if I’d ever been waterboarded—but not often. It usually takes some time, and this is how I think of it these days most often, listening for what I don’t yet know how to listen for. Not sure why the auditory metaphor, but that’s what it is right now. And I look into corners when I say it, which makes it a little bit of a visual metaphor too, I guess.
Anyway, those “forms of delay” are so interesting as a concept, like formalizing the slowness or the patience or longer listening, or the deeper. I guess those forms could be things like making yourself some popcorn (which I do, with nooch, garlic salt, smoked paprika), or tooling around in the garden, or working out, or getting trapped on the alienation machine. But I guess too it could be something like getting to the edge of what you know how to listen to, what you know how to hear, and through practice or friends or something realizing well, you already know how to listen to that, there’s something else you don’t yet know how to listen to that you’re waiting on. Like my buddy Chris, when I was about to go in this familiar direction in this long poem I wrote called “Be Holding” said, what would happen if you didn’t do that? I was trying to listen in ways I know how, and he was wondering, as I want to be trying to do, maybe there’s something else? If you’re working on your dribbling, by the way, and you never dribble off your foot or your knee, you’re not actually practicing. I’m sort of paraphrasing not only the coaches I’ve been around (and been), but Patrick Rosal who’s paraphrasing a famous percussionist. There’s another word for doing what you know how to do, but it’s not practicing, which we’re always talking about. For the record, I don’t think of this as acquisitive listening (I’m listening to it as I type it), like acquiring more skill or something, I think of it as more fathomy, like dropping something deeper (oh, is that also called sounding?), which makes it now an auditory, visual and spatial metaphor (which might give some indication of how this is not exactly nuts and bolts). Anyway, I’m often trying to do it good like I know how, but I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to want to do it like that. I wanna do it in ways I don’t know how and see what that is. Which we might call forms of delay. (Shit, seriously, this might be a book about teaching, though it sounds like it could be about sex and sex-adjacent stuff too. TMI?). Some other forms of delay might be anything that interrupts our capacity for mastery or knowledge, which I do try to give myself—you know, in this last book, Inciting Joy, I have all these long-ass essay-ish footnotes which feel like a poetic gesture, a formal gesture, that kind of disrupted how I sort of know how to make an essay. I mean if you ever “know how to” make an essay probably you should just make a muffin or an egg, or stretch a canvas, or darn a sock or something that day instead. (Essays are not for “knowing how to” do). But I mean they worked as forms of delay because they actually made the things take longer, they required I spend time in the basement working on them, and they made me rearrange what was up in the living room and the kitchen. Asking people for their impressions or what questions they have for something I’m working on is a form of delay. Reading and research is maybe a form of delay. Starting over, which I find myself doing more of the older I get, is a form of delay. Digging up old drafts is a form of delay. Fiddling with syntax is a form of delay. Drawing something in order to describe it better is a form of delay, as is watching it in a movie or out the window, etc. Digression is a form of delay. Losing it is a form of delay. Answering interview questions, especially provocative ones, with provocative phrases like forms of delay is a form of delay. Revision is a form of delay. And, as it turns out, I kind of love—not kind of, like really—love them. The many forms, I mean. Of, you know what I’m saying, delay.