Interview with Ross Gay on Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude — August 18, 2015
Ross Gay is the author of two previous collections, Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Orion, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor of poetry at Indiana University and teaches in Drew University's low-residency MFA program in poetry. He also serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard.
Christopher Nelson: As the title of your recent book declares, these are poems of thankfulness and joy, and they stand in contrast to darker subjects in your previous work—I'm thinking of Bringing the Shovel Down, with poems about violence and racism. What accounts for this shift in tone, this shift toward gratitude?
Ross Gay: I don't honestly know. I mean, it might be that I was having a differently conscious relationship to community while I was writing this new book. I'd begun volunteering with a group called the Bloomington Community Orchard, and that was an experience I suppose I'd been waiting my whole life to have (and I’m still having it). The BCO is a free-fruit-for-all food justice and love project, and I was lucky enough to chip into it from the beginning, and I got to work on and work out with lots of other people (whom I now love) plenty of my ideas about how folks ought to get together. Anyway, I think working on that project—which is a big crew that works an orchard and offers free food and education to the community—will make a person feel some gratitude.
I also started gardening myself, and lots of those poems in that book occur in the garden, and seem to require the garden as a source of energy and transformation. I mean, just this morning I ate bush cherries and goumi and currants and blueberries that I planted a few years ago, and that makes me glad, and grateful. I'll eat some mulberries later today that a bird probably planted. I also think I got a little bit clearer on the sorrow in my life, and maybe coming to terms with it, and getting friendlier with it. In addition to a bunch of other things, I suppose.
Nelson: So it's no surprise then that many subjects and images are drawn from your work as a gardener. The book is richly populated by sunflowers, pears, tomatoes, figs, bees, beetles, ants, various birds, peaches, mulberries, etc. Gardening seems such a satisfying endeavor—and I think of some great poets who have or had the same passion: Merwin, Kunitz, Wordsworth. How long have you gardened? And how does it affect your poet's sensibility?
Gay: I started gardening about six or seven years ago. Most of all, I think it makes me look very closely. I find that I want to study things—I mean look at them—way more closely than I did, often, before I started gardening. I mean, I always looked closely at stuff, but I think I might have often been looking closely critically, but looking at the garden I think I might be most often looking with love and wonder and maybe some hunger. I also think sitting with the garden’s processes, especially a thing coming up in the spring, flowering, fruiting, and dying back, is incredibly instructive and helpful to me. That has to do with my poet’s sensibility, but it also has to do with my soul’s sensibility, I guess. I’m less terrified of dying when I’m gardening, I mean.
Nelson: Is that because it's a beautiful distraction or because you see the whole cycle of birth, growth, sex, decline, and death played out in microcosm? It reminds me of a great moment in "Sharing with the Ants" when you compare the inside of a fig to a galaxy. The intelligence in these poems sees the macro mirrored in the micro, and vice versa.
Gay: Well, I guess it’s a beautiful distraction. I’d be full of shit if I said I don’t just walk out into the garden and get caught, like almost actually caught in the slightly thorny arms of the goumi bush, spending twenty minutes time to time completely lost in the delight of finding more ripe berries. But even that “distraction” is something else, a way of being deeply present, I think. And so it doesn’t quite feel to me like distraction, at least not always. It’s more the way the garden is always transforming the death. Everything dies in a garden, and if you get your head straight, that dying turns into nourishment very often. It’s almost a tired metaphor, but if you’re studying it kind of hard, you realize that the tree you needed to fell so that it didn’t fell your house (sad, yes) is going to decompose into a rich loam that will provide nutrients to all kinds of living things that will also die providing nutrients to living things that will also die providing nutrients …
That’s why. That’s what I mean.
Nelson: I've been reading James Longenbach's brilliant essays in The Virtues of Poetry, and they are informing and affecting and infecting my reading. He has us consider qualities that might not seem virtuous as indeed bringing goodness—Ashbery's shyness, for example. I think of the excess of your style as a virtue; your poems are often effusive, contain digressions or tangents, and read as if they spring from a source difficult to contain. Does that style come naturally for you, or do you have to work against other native tendencies to allow it to display?
Gay: Neat question. I think some of it comes naturally, or is old anyway—when my brother and mother and I get together we love to get hyperbolic about childhood stories or how loud my father snored or this and that. So that’s old and something I love. But I definitely am also this other thing, like tight and restrained and self-critical and these various things that tell me to shut up when I get going on one of my jags. A lot of those long over-the-top, zany poems are kind of my way of saying I love you but fuck you to that part of myself who tells the wild nutso lover part of myself to clam up.
Nelson: I heard you read at the AWP conference a few months ago in Minneapolis. From among the dozens of readings I listened to, yours stands out for its positive enthusiasm and exuberance. Of course, there are all kinds of poetry, but much of it is pessimistic and dour, so I appreciate how your poems insist on saying thank you—even for death.
Gay: I noticed that very thing too (the pessimistic and dour). In fact, I noticed it so much at a reading a couple years back that I decided, then and there, that I was going to call my book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I guess the book is sort of wondering about the discipline of gratitude—of maintaining a sense of gratitude despite the awful. And I’m also curious about the way gratitude works—I mean makes work possible, maybe differently than rage or disappointment or righteousness. Like what is the kind of work we do when gratitude is the engine—what is the work we are capable of doing, and for how long, and how deeply? I don’t at all know the answer to that. I guess the bottom line is that in the midst of profound sorrow that tilts nearly into despair, which is where I have been quite a bit lately, I have found gratitude a sustaining and sustainable position to take. And that’s old news, too. Be thankful, you know.
Nelson: Well said. Thank you. In the poem "To the Mistake," you encourage your students to trust mistakes—or "mistakes"—in their writing. Could you talk about this philosophy?
Gay: Well, I think so often—whoa! I just realized that I basically lifted that poem, and the “philosophy” of the poem, from Patrick Rosal’s essay, “Art of the Mistake.” Isn’t that funny. Anyway, in his essay he talks about a battle he and his crew were in with another crew, and one of the kids in his crew, not much of a dancer, did a suicide (a near-front flip landing flat on your back), and mid-air his Adidas shell-top flew off and he happened to snag it in mid-air and tuck it under his head. Oh, yeah: he acted like he meant it. He didn’t.
So much of my joy of teaching and writing comes when something beautiful occurs very far out of my control. So that the skill, in a way, comes in recognizing that something beautiful has happened. And knowing that a good deal of art and being an artist is, maybe—in addition to being very skilled and doing all your reps and sets and workwork—putting yourself in situations where you are going to do things you never would do with all your various highly refined and very lovely skills. You know, I make (ask, I mean!) my students to write and perform operas using only the words they can make from the letters of their first and last names (unless they have very long first or last names, in which case it’ll be either the first or last name), that have to have a narrative derived from one of their dreams, that have choreographed movement that is at some point synchronized, that has singing that is at some point synchronized, and maybe they’ll have to do it up on a desk. And they’ll get like forty minutes to do it. My god, the things these people make. They make these beautiful, mistake-ridden things—I know, I’m kind of helping them, so it’s maybe a bit different than “mistake.” But it’s a kind of training in recognizing how making something which you cannot conventionally succeed at requires of you an embrace of sloppiness, hiccups, stuff you just can’t believe could be beautiful. And then your classmates, not always, sometimes, are staring at you like: did you really just make that?
Nelson: In closing, could you tell us a bit about your recent poetic interests and concerns.
Gay: I'm most recently writing about Dr. J, gardening and land and love, sports a little bit, and the imagination a lot. Also community, or togetherness, thinking a lot about that. Ways we might join some more. That's some of the stuff I'm thinking about lately.