Recipient of the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), Ross Gay shapes language, roots fused with variegated ash, to chronicle experiences, the profane crafted sacred through simple gestures of doing and undoing, buttoning and unbuttoning, while resisting the need to dissect his artistry with “an X-Acto knife.” When asked what role literary technique plays in his poems, Gay responded, “Oh, that’s not for me to answer. That’s the reader’s thing.” As an admirer of Ross Gay’s essays and collections of poetry, I find a joyful strength in his words and was honored when he agreed to the following interview.
Laine Derr: In your essay “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” you write of an imagination corrupted by how we negatively perceive others and, ultimately, ourselves. Has your writing, an act of lyric beauty, allowed you to build community by breaking free from “fear, anger, paralysis, disappointment, despair”?
Ross Gay: Well, it’s probably helped me to know myself better, I hope anyway. And I suspect knowing oneself is a way of knowing other people. I haven’t broken free of fear etc, but I have hopefully changed my relationship to them. And, yes, I hope my writing in this way—this self-exploration way, self-exploration as people exploration way—does help me grow community.
LD: In the poems “The Cleave” and “Thank You,” as with a number of others, you touch upon themes of grief and rapture; through your use of thematic repetition, infused with textures and tonal variations, are you creating a balance between sadness and a sense of joy?
RG: I think I am trying to explore and investigate joy, which contains sadness, as I am understanding it today.
LD: As you write in Lace & Pyrite, “I want to know. Yes, today I am on my belly / for that scant perfume, this invisible parade / of dying and blooming.” Is this your ideal inspiration as a writer, to release beauty, its fragrance, into the world?
RG: That’s one of my hopes. To attend to what I love.
LD: In “The Cleave,” you open the poem, “The ache you speak of feeling / when you leave your sleeping child, let / it swell into a wail ageless as the wind”; does your poetic voice give thought to this expression of life, the wail?
RG: Probably. Yeah, my poems are probably exploring that all the time. I’ve been writing versions of the same poem for three books, it seems. Oh well!
LD: What is your process of putting together a collection? How has it changed, if it has, from Against Which to Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude?
RG: Against Which was the best poems I had organized with help from Ruth Ellen Kocher and Patrick Rosal and Curtis Bauer and a few others. I had no clue, so thank god they helped me. The second book was as I said above. A very built book. Everything is organized and has a kind of symmetry that actually surprises me when I go back and look at it (I tend not to be as organized or symmetrical as that book is, unless I’m swinging kettlebells or doing a basketball workout). The recent book, Catalog, was somewhere in the middle. I had an idea of how I might organize a book, but I didn’t want to make a perfect thing like I think I kind of wanted to for my second book. You know, sort of.
LD: Regarding “Bringing the Shovel Down” and “Again,” from your collection Bringing the Shovel Down (2011), what makes you decide upon a poem’s structure, its potential need for reinterpretation, transformation?
RG: I try to listen to it. I try to listen to what the poem is asking to be. I mean there is a story with those. I wrote the first one, in which an act of violence occurs, and thought it was a good poem, and read it aloud in Pittsburgh, and realized that it was an act of violence. The poem was an act, and maybe that was the first time I realized this in a true and abiding way. Someone was really devastated by the poem, which was fine, but in this particular case I didn’t want to have this act of violence, this poem, in the world without a counterpoint, or a correction. So I wrote a poem in which the act of violence doesn’t occur because the protagonist sees something differently. Which feels to me true. Having both of those poems gave me the problem of having to decide which one to put in the book, and then my friends Pat and Elaine said maybe both of them belong, which I never would’ve considered had they not said it. That then became the ethical structure and need of the book. It had to get from blindness to sight in the course of a book.
LD: If we can venerate the ground from which many of your poems originate, speaking of your involvement with the Bloomington Community Orchard, are you hopeful that we may all blush with gratitude and love?
RG: If anything I do ever makes someone feel gratitude or love I am glad. I am lovingly grateful I mean!
As for advice for future writers, Ross Gay left me with the following words: “Let love, what you love, be your real engine.”