The Terrible and the Possible: An Interview with Ross Gay




ROSS GAY, an associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, is the author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); and Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006). The Kingsley Tufts Award includes a weeklong residency at Claremont Graduate University, devoted to the power and practice of contemporary poetry, during which the poet gives readings and conducts poetry workshops for students and members of the community. Ross Gay and I spoke over the phone, halfway through his residency. 

Even through the phone, Ross Gay’s desire to connect — to his readers, to other poets, to his students — is palpable. The poems in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude break the fourth wall of the ode — the invisible barrier between the poet and the reader — to say “I can’t stop / my gratitude, which includes, dear reader / you, for staying here with me.” In our conversation, we discuss these rhetorical gestures, the process of revision as a means of opening a poem to the “mind / made light by some / accidental yoking,” and his involvement in the Bloomington Community Orchard, which serves as both a dreamscape and a model for his teaching. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude manages at once to be completely self-aware and completely free. The poems, like his commentary below, reveal a poet who is not afraid to “plod barefoot / and prayerful.”

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CALLIE SISKEL: How has your week-in-residence been at Claremont?

ROSS GAY: It’s been fun. I just had a lovely reading at this retirement community today, which was so great, so beautiful. I read in Los Angeles last night at The Reef. It’s been busy, but really good.

What do you gain from giving readings or reading your poems out loud?

One of the pleasures of writing poems for me is that it’s this real sort of intimate communication. Reading poems aloud is a way to let my body in time and space be the thing that’s communicating the poem, and that feels important. So that in itself is really moving, the opportunity to carry the poem with one’s body to people.

In Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, many of the poems celebrate and isolate the body — hands, feet, the mouth as “the maker of song.” Can you talk a little about the importance of the human body in your poetry?

I mean, human bodies are just important. [Laughs.] It’s interesting that you noted that I isolate particular moments of the body — that’s not something that I necessarily thought of before, but I’m fascinated by bodies. They’re utterly dramatic, walking down the street. Someone’s riding by me on a bike right now, and it’s just dramatic. That person is going to be dead, you know? But not now — that’s fascinating to me.

Another thing that comes to mind with the body is anthropomorphizing. In the first poem you say, “yes I am anthropomorphizing / goddammit I have twice / in the last thirty seconds.” What about bringing the inanimate world to life excites you? Is that something you decide to do or is it something you can’t control?

It’s definitely something I do, and that I know that I do, and I think it’s kind of funny to acknowledge that, and also to acknowledge that at some point I probably had a teacher or a reader who was like, “don’t anthropomorphize.” But that’s what poets do! We relate, you know? We relate.

Again, this is a bodily concern, like the way that I understand a grove of trees … It’s not that I think that the grove of trees has the emotional experience of a human being wanting to hold another person. I don’t know what the emotional experience of a grove of trees is — and I don’t know that there isn’t one, by the way. But in trying to understand a thing, it makes absolute sense that I would endow the tree with my own understanding of the world. You know, self-consciously.

In an essay called “What Praise Poems Are For,” Susan Stewart says, “Expressing praise, the poet displays a mastery over lack or suffering by transposing a focus on the self to an orientation outward, toward an object.” Your praise poems manage to do both: they move outward and inward toward the self, maybe in the way you said, by endowing the inanimate world with your point of view. Can you talk a little about how you balance outward and inward direction in an ode, or in your poems in general?

That’s a great question. I don’t know that I can. I know that I have this interior experience going on that is informed by exterior experience. So it feels like there’s constantly this sort of swirling around, but I don’t have a measured, thematic way of understanding that. It’s a feeling.

Many of these poems are poems of praise, but you title some of them “odes.” What’s the importance of signaling the “ode” as form, versus a poem that addresses something and goes on to praise it?

Part of it is my way of acknowledging my indebtedness to Neruda’s odes. You’re right that there are so many poems I could have called odes. I wonder if there’s a little bit of, like, oh, don’t make them all odes, have them be more dynamic.

The original title of the book when I was about halfway done was “Ode to the Mundane World,” which would have made the conversation with Neruda’s ode — and other people’s odes, more contemporary ones, like Patrick Rosal — more overt.

Why did you decide against the original title, or in favor of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude? 

I was at a reading somewhere, and it was great, but I came out thinking, we need a catalog of unabashed gratitude. I was swinging kettle bells through a field, thinking, I have the most ridiculous title in the world. But I’d only written about two thirds of the book, and I knew I probably needed to write a poem called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.”

It was the first time I ever did that — named the book, and stuck with it, before it was done. My other titles are kind of serious, like Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, and I thought, well, this is a little different.

You said “ridiculous” and also “unabashedness,” through negation, raises the idea that there is something embarrassing or ridiculous about poetry that expresses gratitude. Is that something you’ve experienced?

I can’t say exactly where I get this feeling, but I have inherited this sense that seriousness does not necessarily go with grief, or seriousness does not necessarily go with joy, which to me is not glee, actually. Joy is this very complex, full, rigorous emotion. But yeah, I think the fact that I felt like I was being a little transgressive by titling it that indicates at least something about the way that I’ve come up in contemporary poetry.

Many of your odes also serve as elegies, or elegies that unfold seemingly spontaneously out of what began as an ode.

That’s exactly it.

Do you think those forms are connected or related in your mind?

Utterly related. I mean, the ode, or the praise poem, or the love poem, they’re all erotic — filled with admiration. There’s a way we want to hold up or call attention to what is lovely or beloved — and elegies do the same thing, except the beloved is dead. So there’s this powerful erotic component to both ode-ing and recalling someone who’s gone. It’s all about desire and want.

Do you feel like you could say whether you started writing poetry more in order to praise or to lament?

Ah! I don’t know for sure. I would guess to lament. I would say, actually, the process of writing my second book reminded me — or taught me — that I love praising, too, and that they’re very intertwined, obviously.

The last poem in Against Which is called “Thank You.” How do you think your sense of gratitude has shifted from your first book to now? Was it a kernel for the gratitude in Catalog?

The last poem in that first book is such a quiet poem, and at that point in the book — I can remember writing it — it comes out of this moment of feeling okay in the midst of not feeling okay. I do very much think of it as the kernel of what Catalog tried to expand on or meditate on. Actually, I think of Catalog as a meditation on gratitude and a meditation on joy.

There’s an etymological connection between “thinking” and “thanking.” Both have the same Indo-European root, tong, which means to feel or think. What, for you, is the relationship between thinking and thanking in Catalog, or in general?

Wait, there’s an etymological link between thinking and thanking?

Yeah. I just learned that.

My god.

It’s the same root in multiple languages — in Dutch it’s danken.

I’m made a little speechless by that. I love that!

Your poems seem to start from thinking, and then gratitude emerges from that, so they’re clearly intertwined in your mind.

That’s beautiful.

You mentioned Neruda as someone who clearly informs the book. Do you have a favorite among his odes, or among those of other poets?

“Ode to the Artichoke.” God, that’s amazing. Patrick Rosal in his second book, My American Kundiman, has all these odes — “Ode to the Hooptie” — all these thick, beautiful odes. There are quite a few that have kind of entered me. I love that it’s a form that a lot of people are using these days.

We were talking earlier about your tendency to break the fourth wall and make a rhetorical gesture. You provide a pedagogical moment, address the reader’s patience, or call out a poet’s tendency to “add some gaudy flourish to this memory.” Can you explain the role of the reader in your writing process?

There are a couple ways to think about that. One is that I’m the first reader, and so I’m always writing these poems to myself, and my self — my self as a reader — is someone who wants to be transformed in the process of reading poems. I don’t want to read a poem that I already know. Does that make sense?

Yes.

I want there to be a profound shift, some actual shift in the process of writing the poem, and I’m the reader for that. And that, to me, is actually the measure of a successful poem — whether I’ve had the transformation. That means I write plenty of successful poems that I do not publish, that do not become “good,” but they can do the psychic or spiritual work that I need them to do, which is to occasion or enact this sort of change in the process of writing.

And then I have this other reader — the readers. I’m writing poems for an audience that is beyond me, as well. I’m doing both things simultaneously. And part of why I break that wall — that I’m very self-conscious about the way a poem is constructed — is that I’m interested in audience, actually. I’m interested in the ways that I relate and want to relate to an audience. Part of what that book is trying to do is sort of to dramatize the desire for intimacy between a writer and a reader. And breaking the wall is like me saying, Look! I’m aware of you. I’m not just doing this thing for myself. I’m actually in conversation with you. And I also feel grateful that anyone would ever give a shit.

That’s funny, because I was going to ask, “Are these gestures of self-awareness?” but they’re more like gestures of audience awareness. I mean, they’re both.

Exactly. And there’s something about reading a poem or entering someone’s piece of art — it’s a generosity but it’s also a conversation. I think there’s something lovely about that. We’re going to do the thing together, make the thing together, have the experience together.

I’m thinking about the first poem, which sets the tone of community. This communal activity of picking fruit and also sharing and eating — it goes hand in hand with your idea of making poetry a conversation, a simultaneous experience.

Yeah, there’s a little nod in that poem where this guy is rubbing his stomach and I’m like, no, he’s really rubbing his stomach. And it’s so interesting, because when I read that poem, people hear it, and then when I say it again, they really hear it. I’m not pretending here. This is not just a poem — this is a poem.

I love that. In “feet,” you say “I love the moment when the poet says / I am trying to do this / or I am trying to do that.” Why do you love this gesture?

It’s from an Ira Sadoff poem called “Grazing.” It’s a fucking masterpiece. He says, “I’m trying to bring you closer.” In this moment he’s fully understanding that he’s negotiating with this constructed artifact. And that this notion of a voice is itself a kind of construction. But it’s so beautiful, because it does the thing of saying, oh, right, this is a made thing. And this gesture is an attempt, because he cares, to bring us closer, you know? So gorgeous.

I do love the gesture. I love it because it’s a way of acknowledging the automatic failure of, or the automatic possibility of, the distance between the poet and the reader — acknowledging that distance and trying to make it a little bit less.

Tangentially related to the idea of a poet calling out what he’s trying to do is that some people believe that all poems are about the act of writing poetry, or that they end up being about that act. Do you feel that way?

Yeah.

I thought you might be.

[Laughs.]

Do you think of any of the poems in the book as especially ars poetical?

I think “feet” does that. “Spoon” really does that — sort of digs in to what it means to make a poem, and what the aspiration for a poem might be, an aspiration that ultimately fails.

In “Spoon,” you write, “I can’t even make a metaphor / of my reflection upside down and barely visible.” What happened? Did you intend to make “spoon” the organizing metaphor, and then when it came time to it, something had changed in the experience of writing so that you couldn’t make it fit?

I think I was probably convinced that I was going to figure out a way, just like the poem says, of transforming the experience. That’s a lot of what the poems are trying to do — accommodate both the terrible and the possible. I don’t know if I had an idea when I started writing “Spoon” that that might happen, but I might have been waiting on it, like, where can I turn it, where can I turn?

So do you think it turns on your inability to turn it?

Yeah, I guess it does.

Well, it’s really effective. And, maybe similarly, in “The Opening,” you mention arriving at “the wrong metaphor.” Does announcing the wrong metaphor help you get closer to the truth? Why keep the wrong metaphor, when other poets might discard it and find what they thought was the right metaphor?

In some way I think I’m trying to get beneath how metaphors actually function. The wrong metaphor can often get locked in, and it causes great harm. I don’t want to make it regrettable. I want to dramatize the way that the wrong metaphor can in fact do that, and can also be very seductive. Terrible things can be very seductive. The wrong metaphor can be seductive. 

In “To the Mistake,” you tell your students to “let go their reins / and listen to the tongue’s / half-wit / brilliance.” Have you always written with such fluidity, an almost stream-of-consciousness-like freedom? Or is that something that you’ve worked to be able to do?

I’m trying to imitate a kind of fluidity of thought, for sure, but when I say I’m trying to imitate it, I’m trying to make the poem feel like that. I do that by figuring out how to make that sound. Often poems that just do that — which is to say, some of my first drafts — are boring, so what I’m trying to do is sort of craft an urgency of thought or a fluidity of thought that sounds accurate. 

It’s so refreshing to hear you say that you have drafts, because I could not imagine these poems in another form.

Oh my god, of course.

Tell me about your editing process. The poems seem like they were first delivered that way.

No, they’re not. I don’t get close to delivery very often. In the moment of delivery — I love that metaphor that you’ve brought in, first of all.

They happen often in the revision process. I’ll get a sort of feeling for what a poem’s going to be, and then I’ll go back into it and try to find cracks or openings where something might happen. It’s almost always the case that what feels really interesting to me about a poem arrives through the long and slow revision process — really sitting at points where I’m stuck in the poem or not telling the truth, and then finally, hopefully, arriving at the thing that opens the poem up to me. That actually is the moment I referred to earlier that transforms the poem into a thing that transforms me. Sometimes it’s a pronoun, literally — and it takes me months to figure it out.

What do you mean by a pronoun? In terms of the person that the poem is being addressed to?

I have a poem called “Glass” in my second book, and I was working on that poem almost daily for a couple months. All I needed to do — not all I needed to do, I was doing things along the way — but what I needed to do was change a “they” to a “we,” and once that happened the poem materialized. I was banging my head into this poem so hard, and then that happened, and it felt like, oh my god, this is what I did not know until now.

I really like what you said about going back in and looking for an opening. Do you feel like in your first draft you’re more verbose or inclusive of your train of thought? Or is the first version more limited?

The first one often feels like I’m being more verbose, but the stuff that I’m including is what’s available in my mind at the time, and that could feel sort of big and wild. The way that a revision might open up to include things is very different.

I mean, I even think of that “Spoon” poem — that poem went through many drafts, and it took a couple years to write it. At first, that poem was really just about a spoon. It ended in a sort of sweet, boring way. And then I broke it back open, and I realized there was more, and then I broke it open again, when I realized that I could not get to where I thought I was going to get. Like you said, that was a turn in the poem where I got to understand something about my poetic process or my imaginative process, but also about this more complicated relationship with people who are no longer with me.

The poem is dedicated to your friend Don Belton. Was he not in the poem when you started it?

No, only I would’ve known. I probably wasn’t ready to write the poem. I probably wasn’t ready to tell the truth, in the way that I think the poem tells the truth now. I didn’t want to encounter the sorrow in the way that poems require.

Were these poems written in close proximity to one another? How long was it before the book took its final shape?

I wrote these poems between 2010 and 2014, so about four years of writing. The three longest poems, and I think the most difficult poems, all happened in close succession. So “Spoon,” “The Opening,” and “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” all happened within about six months of one another, and that’s like a third of the book. Weird, now that I think about it, that those ones all came close together.

Was something going on in your life that allowed those poems to happen in that way? Do you think it was because you were approaching the end of this book and you were finally getting at some of the more emotional turns that you wanted to take?

Yeah, maybe I’d learned some stuff in the process of writing some of the other poems. I also wasn’t teaching at the time when I wrote at least “Spoon.” I was on leave, so I had a different amount of time, actually, in my life. The “Catalog” poem — same thing.

Do you think you could dare to articulate what you learned?

Oh, I don’t know what I learned. [Laughs.]

So that’s interesting that you were on leave, because I was going to ask you how teaching informs your writing. Has it changed it in any way?

The most interesting thing in my teaching right now is that I’m trying to stop teaching the way that I’ve taught, and been taught, most of my life. So I’m not really interested in workshop too much anymore. I’m not interested in workshop the way we think of workshop, you know? I’m interested in workshop the way you go to a place and make stuff. I’m trying to figure out how to make my classes — everything I teach — more like a lab or an experiment zone.

I’m trying to encourage weird accidents of the imagination. I’m trying to set up a classroom as a place where people can make really beautiful mistakes, and where collaboration is among the highest achievements. Radical collaboration, deep collaboration. I feel like something is happening to my work — I don’t know what it is, but something that I trust is good.

So you’re trying to depart from how you’ve experienced poetry being taught?

Yeah. I’m so uninterested in proficiency, and I’m so uninterested in mastery. I mean, there are times I’m like, holy shit, what a master, you know? But mostly I’m way more interested in people who are doing things they don’t know how to do.

Are you doing that in your own life with any hobbies or interests outside of writing?

Everything that I’m writing now I have no fucking idea how to write. I’m writing these little mini-essays. I’m writing a nonfiction book. And then I’m writing this very long poem, that is completely out of my league. Also, my relationships. My partner and her child just moved in with me, and we’re figuring it out. It’s delightful, and it’s like, really, how do we do this?

I like that a lot. I read that you’re involved in the Bloomington Community Orchard. So many of the poems seem to be set in and above orchards, or among fruit trees. Why are you so fascinated by that space? How has your involvement in this orchard seeped into your poetry?

First of all, I like love fruit. [Laughs.] But that orchard is a place — and I haven’t thought of it this way — but, again, in terms of a workshop, a place of experiment. It’s a civic experiment. It’s something that a student — this person in the town sort of dreamed up. She’s an undergraduate, and she wrote a paper on food security, and proposed a community orchard as a solution to food insecurity. They had a call-out in town, and I was one of the people who gathered at this call-out, and we just sort of started figuring out how to put this thing together.

It’s just been an incredibly fascinating experience. Nothing that you could’ve mapped out. No step one, step two, step three. It was just a bunch of people who really loved this idea, banging their heads together, really going for it, beautifully, sloppily, constructively, pursuing a thing with really serious love. So that has been a model, and people sort of hold it in their minds — this thing, an orchard, which is a tangible thing. How are we going to get to it? How are we going to maintain it? It continues to be this incredibly inspiring thing for me even in the last couple years, when I’ve been less involved because I’ve either been traveling or away.

Although an orchard is a tangible thing, when we plant it, we don’t know what’s going to be there in five years. And we don’t know if we’re going to be there in five years. And that, to me, is really moving — to participate in the planting and growing of a thing that’s going to feed people after you’re disconnected. That’s really beautiful to me. It’s an ethical example that I’m lucky to get to witness and participate in.

The way you said “to feed people after you’re gone,” that seems like a perfect way to think about poetry, too. And your poems often contain these acts of someone feeding someone else, or this act of eating communally. In the title poem you describe a dream orchard as “the realest place I know.” Is that based on the Bloomington Community Orchard?

It is.

I just thought it was interesting that it’s a dream, and, if I’m reading it correctly, also the realest place.

Yeah, that is interesting. I like how you’re reading it.

Can you recall a moment when you felt especially discouraged as a poet and then, on the contrary, a moment when you felt renewed or affirmed?

I’m lucky that I get to feel renewed often, by many things, like reading other people’s poems. I get to have my poetic horizon broken apart by all these people. And feeling discouraged with poetry? I’m sure I have, but it’s not coming to mind right now.

That’s good! I’m wondering about “Last Will and Testament.” Did you write that to be a last poem?

I did, and I thought an orchard poem would be perfect after the catalog. Somehow, I didn’t want to land on the big number. I wanted to have this one last thing that was in some other way the closing piece.

How did you know when you reached the last lines, “you better buckle in / when I kick it”? It’s such a different gesture, sort of uncanny. There’s something you can’t quite pinpoint about those lines.

I think the last poem is the most rambunctious gesture of the belief in the transformative possibility of the earth and the imagination. So that’s my little testament to that — realizing that it’s fun, silly, and sad. It wants to sort of steep in the transformative possibilities of the imagination — that we might go away, but we also might become flowers, actually. It’s a sweet poetic thing, but it’s a true thing, too.

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Callie Siskel is the author of Arctic Revival, selected by Elizabeth Alexander for a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is a Dornsife Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California, and a poetry editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books.


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