What struck me most about poet Ross Gay, during a Q&A at Smith College this afternoon, was his response to many questions: a huge smile, a pause, and then a thoughtful “I don’t know.”
When people asked his intentions in any particular poem, and stated what they themselves had taken from it, he often answered, “Maybe. I like that way of looking at it. Sure. I don’t know.” He seemed to have a poet’s need to express himself via experience and poetry itself, rather than metadiscourse.
Only when he entered the “thinginess” of things, escaping from intellectualizing, did he light up and suddenly begin speaking. His comments were full of people, basketball, experimental teaching methods, making meals together with friends, gardening, mulberry birdshit, making puppets. Nouns. Actions.
He did, however, have wonderful comments about his newest book, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and the drive behind it.
“Isn’t that what we do, to write poems we wish were in the world?” he said, when asked if he writes for any particular group in society. “Really what I’m doing is assuming other people have similar hopes and fears and desires [as me].” He said he never assumes people will read his poems, that it’s always a surprise.
He spoke a great deal about the vitality of writing what we love: but that there’s a risk in doing so.
“I’ve spent a lot of time writing against things, things that I don’t want. But it’s also important to write about love.”
Asked about the relationship in his poetry of joy and loss, he said, “Maybe that’s the way I’m made up, to adore things because of the going-away-ness of them. Even the title, it’s about wanting to adore the fleet world.”
“To adore things is also to make space for others to adore them. In my poems, I want to love people. And the earth, and other things, but – people.”
“What I notice about my grad students, is that there’s a reticence – it makes you vulnerable, to love something. Sometimes people think love is not rigorous, joy is not rigorous in the way critique is. But they don’t realize that love can be critical.”
“Good feelings are never just good feelings. Joy is joy to me because it contains sorrow. Joy is a complex feeling, it’s rich.”
In perhaps my favorite comment of the evening, he added, “Writing with profound attendance requires that we see fractures in things. It’s not just all joy, joy, joy, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful all the time. It just isn’t.”
Asked how he sits with sorrow, he said, “I’m still learning that. Part of writing this book is recognizing that there’s an aversion to sadness. An abiding aversion to sadness. It’s like self-mutilation.”
Currently, he’s working on a “Book of Delights,” a series of mini-essays or prose poems on delight that he tries to write daily. He dug into his bag to read us a gem of a prose poem in progress, titled “Irrepressibles” and detailing an escaped amaranthus plant poking up from the asphalt, attended by bumble bees (ballerina bees, Gay called them) and his memory of the “irrepressible” intellectualizing of his bookish father: that by the laws of physics, the bumblebee cannot fly. “That’s impossible!” exclaims his father, pointing to a ballerina bee waltzing by.
Gay also spoke at length of his experimental teaching style. He values play, and runs a course where students make puppets, or sing, or discuss their dreams with one another, then choose the dream with the best narrative elements and create a three-minute performance. Gay described his class as exercise for the imagination.
As a a boy, he said he didn’t like to read, but rather to play sports and play pranks – like leaving fruit in his locker on Friday to attract clouds of fruit flies by Monday. At home, he remembers hearing through his headphones, as he read the back of an album cover, his father say to his mother: “At least he’s reading something.”
He described his admiration for a particularly creative basketball maneuver by famous player Dr. J (Julius Erving). Gay stood up, tall as a beanpole, to act out the maneuver. He explained how Dr. J’s layup, dodging around two top-class defenders and coming in from the back of the baseboard, resembles poetry: one can’t go in a certain direction, because there’s a brick wall, so another route must be found.
“Duende,” said a member of the audience.
“Duende,” agreed Ross Gay, and laughed.