I'm delighted to share my interview with Ross Gay, poet, writer, visionary. This is part of my Align Your Story interview series where I talk to writers, activists, visionaries, change makers, who help us come into a more aligned story, people who both tell the truth and light the way forward with compassion, courage, and appreciation.
In this interview, I talk with Ross Gay about his wonderful work, his new book Be Holding, his Book of Delights, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and how to practice, attention, gratitude, and care both in poetry and in our difficult but also joy-filled world.
Read the slightly edited text version here or scroll to the bottom of the post where you can watch the video conversation as it took place over Zoom.
Nadia Colburn: Hello. I am Nadia Colburn, and I am here today with Ross Gay. I’m very happy to be having this conversation. I’m going to give a little introduction of Ross and then we will dive into a conversation. Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released by Algonquin Books in 2019, and his new book-length poem Be Holding was released by the University of Pittsburgh Press in September of 2020. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He also works on The Tenderness Project with Shayla Lawson and Essence London. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation and teaches at Indiana University. He is an incredible writer. I’ve been reading his work for a long time, and I’m so excited to be having this conversation with this incredible person, so… so good to be here with you.
Ross Gay: Thank you, it’s good to be with you too.
Nadia Colburn: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood; were there things in your childhood that prepared you for a life of engagement in poetry?
Ross Gay: That’s such a good question. It’s funny because the older I get, and the further away I get from childhood, the more I realize, the question is what wasn’t preparing me or a person for this possible thing. So when I say that, I just think of so many things. We grew up in an apartment complex, and so we had just tons of kids. We just had an abundance of playing. We fought, and we built stuff, and we were in the woods, these little shitty woods right next to the apartment right next to I-95. There was time and space in a way that a lot of kids today don’t have. It was good parenting; we were told, get out, don’t come back in. And so we were playing a lot; we were playing together; we were working things out; we were collaborating constantly as kids. I also feel like I have folks who have various curiosities about making things or language or stuff in various ways, the more I think, the more I hear…
I’m writing another Book of Delights and I’ve been transcribing them, and sometimes I hear very specific things that are in the corner of my voice that are actually my mother’s voice, or stuff from my father. It just comes through language attitudes, perceptions, misperception. It’s just like all of these kinds of inheritances. I could go on. I played sports. I still play a lot of basketball, but I played sports as a kid, and I feel, again, what is most dear to me about sport is practice. I love practicing and I love working on stuff, but I also like doing things with other people, so to be in team sports, that is another thing. I skateboarded as a kid. Basically what I’m saying is everything.
Nadia Colburn: Exactly. It’s all of it.
Ross Gay: All of it. The last thing I do want to say though is that we skated as kids and I skateboarded. This only recently occurred to me because I was writing about skateboarding and thought: if you skateboard on the street, you’re perpetually looking at your landscape, you’re perpetually looking at the built environment for what you might be able to do, you’re perpetually metaphoring…that’s where you put the cart, that’s where you take the cart from, put it against that and your board slides the cart, and on and on and on. So it’s a way of making metaphor, perpetually.
Nadia Colburn: I love that. That’s great. And where did you grow up?
Ross Gay: Just north of Philadelphia. A town in between Langhorne and Levittown. I guess the address was actually Langhorne. But I think Levittown is an appropriate way to say where I grew up. A lot of baggage there.
Nadia Colburn: I love that emphasis on play and that creative embodied practice. Your poems and your writing are doing so much with creative embodied play and practice… And you also talked about not only playing but also fighting, working things out, that dynamic relationship. There’s so many things I admire about your writing in general, but one of them is the way you can hold these different experiences so well—the heartbreak and the joy, and is that something that you think you’re just temperamentally, have always been able to do? Or is that something that you needed to work on? Is that kind of part of your poetic project?
Ross Gay: Well, that is very much my poetic and ethical and spiritual practice. Maybe my subject is really this thing called joy, and the way that I perceive it or think of it is fundamentally informed by the fact that we’re going to die; it’s fundamentally informed by the sorrows that you do not actually get to escape by being a creature, and it’s just like that’s part of the deal. We get to do that. And that kind of understanding of the possibilities of reaching toward one another in the midst of that understanding of the sorrows, to me is luminosity, it’s joy. We can’t necessarily see it, but it’s part of developing practice to more deeply study and wonder about and point to and think about. Which is also to say this is a way to study the profound matrix of care that we’re in the midst of at every moment.
As a kid, I didn’t know that. I always think of myself as kind of a melancholic kid. When I was 12 or so and Tracy Chapman’s fast car came out, the song that I listened to was the last song, called “For You”, and it’s such a melancholic, beautiful song. I’m a little bit like that. I’ve always liked the melancholy, always been drawn to the melancholy. So no, it wasn’t just temperamental, but I’m also really pumped about the other side of the melancholy.
Nadia Colburn: Well, that’s the beauty of it, right? That it’s both/ and. But it’s also nice to hear that the melancholic proclivity is there in you, too. And that sometimes we need to build up the joy muscle. I know I’ve needed to build the muscle of joy and I see that itself as a kind of radical act, especially in our world where just about wherever you turn, there’s bad news. You get kind of co-opted into this narrative of, there’s nothing you can do. We’re all separate. And it’s doomed, right? Okay, but here’s my life, here’s my body, here are my friends or the people I love. I don’t want that narrative.
Ross Gay: That’s it here. There’s the tree right now making it better for me. There’s the tree right now casting shade out there, there’s the tree right now making space for all of these creatures to live and survive and thrive. I never noticed that tree before in my life. Oh, there’s a zillion of them.
Nadia Colburn: Totally. Before we move on, because there’s just so much to say, I was wondering if we could go back a moment when you were talking about this realization that we’re all going to die, it’s all ephemeral. Maybe you could read aloud to us from the end of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. That would be great because you speak to this there. And just for people who haven’t read this amazing book, this is the title poem of the book, it’s an amazing book. Before you read, maybe we talk for a moment about the title Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, that’s such a great title. We’re often abashed by our gratitude. What is the shame around gratitude? Can you talk about that?
Ross Gay: I know it. And when I came up with a title, I always like to say that I came up with a title for a book after a really beautiful reading. I left the reading, being in my head, and then the next day in the field, swinging kettlebells with my buddy, I thought: Oh, I’m going to write a book called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I was like, Oh, I need this book in the world, I need there to be a book of unabashed gratitude…
I was fully aware exactly what you just said—that our gratitude, our enthusiasm, our wonder, is precious. A part of being a grown up is bashing those things. But you know, kids are batshit over stuff. They should be, because there’s so much to be batshit about. It’s just unbelievable and just too much to love, and I think so anyway, I came up with that title.
I was sort of spurred to get to have that title, and then I had to write the poem. I’ve never done this in my life—to be like, “oh, I’m going to call this book this”, and then “oh, I guess I should probably write a poem like that”… So that’s kind of where that came from. But like I said, it was fully cognizant of the ways that kind of enthusiasm and just wild beloving of what ought to be beloved is not always taken care of.
Nadia Colburn: I love that you loop that in that childhood, the light and that as adults, it’s like we have so many reasons to get mistrustful. With my family, if there was ever anything good said, we had to immediately knock on wood… very superstitious—don’t take it away. And we’re kind of ashamed of our good fortune. Or this kind of a weird economy, like you’re part of some kind of hierarchy or power structure instead of just that child’s amazement at being alive.
Ross Gay: I don’t know that a kid would say this, but it’s sort of like this has been given to me, like the sun coming through through the trees or the sun filtering through that squirrel hanging on that oak tree, through the question mark of that squirrels tail, the sun is actually filtered, that has been given to me. I don’t know that a little kid would go: Ah It’s given to me. But a little kid goes like: Ohhh.
Nadia Colburn: Yeah, you walk down the street with a little kid, it’s like: Come on. They take so long looking at every little thing.
Ross Gay: They’re noting all of this stuff that is so often as an adult, we don’t notice. Part of the practice is actually to maintain that, to maintain that wonder or the gratitude actually.
Nadia Colburn: I was going to say, I have this new poetry class that I’m putting out where I’m teaching your work and I call it the Poetry of Attention, that is, looking at the way poetry in various forms can help us pay attention, and so I want to come back to the attention that you’ve been holding.
But before we get there, let’s just stay with the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude a bit longer. I also want to say for those people who don’t know the poem, the poem also goes to really difficult places. You say thank you for taking my father, you have the death of your father, you have a murdered friend, it doesn’t shy away from really difficult subject matters, it’s right there in the poem. And what was that like to write thank you for taking my father or to put that in the poem.
Ross Gay: The next line is a few years before his father went down. And it’s sort of like in the midst of this route of sorrow was some little glimmer of: Man, I’m so glad his father was gone before his son… So my papa died before my dad but it wasn’t long and my papa was not well for most if not all of my life. He probably never in a million years could have imagined that his son would follow him in three years. That’s a little moment of grace, maybe you call it, that he was able to leave before my dad did, none of which is not sad, which it is, all of it.
Nadia Colburn: I had this experience with a therapist when she asked: Do you see the glass half full or half empty? I didn’t like that question. I sat with it for a long time. And then when I started to really learn about Buddhism and practice meditation I realized: Oh, it’s not half full or half empty. It’s all empty. And it’s all full. It’s both/and it’s not either/or. I feel like your poems have so much abundance in them because there’s often also this radical emptiness…
Ross Gay: Yeah, that’s good. I like that.
Nadia Colburn: Can you read the last little part of your poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”?
Ross Gay: I’ll read the last three stanzas.
and thank you the way my father one time came back in a dream
by plucking the two cables beneath my chin
like a bass fiddle’s strings
and played me until I woke singing,
no kidding, singing, smiling,
thank you, thank you,
stumbling into the garden where
the Juneberry’s flowers had burst open
like the bells of French horns, the lily
my mother and I planted oozed into the air,
the bazillion ants labored in their earthen workshops
below, the collard greens waved in the wind
like the sails of ships, and the wasps
swam in the mint bloom’s viscous swill;
and you, again you, for hanging tight, dear friend.
I know I can be long-winded sometimes.
I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude
over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward,
the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems
slipping into your eye. Soon it will be over,
which is precisely what the child in my dream said,
holding my hand, pointing at the roiling sea and the sky
hurtling our way like so many buffalo,
who said it’s much worse than we think,
and sooner; to whom I said
no duh child in my dreams, what do you think
this singing and shuddering is,
what this screaming and reaching and dancing
and crying is, other than loving
what every second goes away?
Goodbye, I mean to say.
And thank you. Every day.
Nadia Colburn: Thank you. That’s so beautiful. I love to hear you read your poems. I stumbled upon this book in a bookstore, I think right when it came out, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, I was just wondering, is there any new contemporary poetry that I’m interested in…and then: Oh my god this book is amazing. And then I heard you read that year when you were at Cambridge, I thought: Oh my gosh, you’re such a good reader. That music and the embodiment. The careful attention to the natural world, the address to the reader—there’s just so much there.
I have so many things I want to talk to you about, but could you talk a little bit about your work in community gardens and working with the earth because it’s such a big part of your poetics too.
Ross Gay: For sure. When I moved to Lamington, which is 14 years ago now, I started gardening in a serious way, and I never had before. I just always lived in apartments so didn’t have access to that. And there was a confluence of things; my partner is a gardener. I moved here and gardening was just very much wherever I was going, it was like gardening was happening. And also, one of my best friends from home, his dad was a gardener and they were getting ready to move, and so I got in my head: Oh, I’ve got to have a place to transplant Mr. Lao’s figs and his other stuff. So there are all these pressures. Anyway, I started gardening back in probably summer of 2008.
I’ve worked in some community garden stuff and other little things, but one of the projects that’s been so important to me and shows up some in this catalog book, and elsewhere—I’m working on this other book, and I have a kind of a longer meditation on this community orchard called the Bloomington Community Orchard. The project was started by Amy Countrymen, who’s a dear friend and a neighbor actually; we’re always trading stuff from the garden. But Amy was an undergraduate at Indiana University and was just trying to join a project thinking about food security, and so she just did a survey about the urban canopy, which means the trees that grow in the city that the city manages. How much fruit food does it produce? Next to nothing that we were using for human consumption, and out here it would be like persimmons, black walnuts, which is good food, but it’s labor intensive. But anyway, the point was that maybe we should have a community orchard, a place when we could grow together. So her logo that she came up with was free fruit for all.
So I’m kind of echoing that food justice and joy project. But anyway, Amy had a call, a bunch of us came out, a bunch of hundreds of people came out, and then as this kind of somewhat amoebic, but somewhat kind of coherent, collective started doing the work to plant this, make this orchard. We had a little land that the city let us use—an acre or so—and all this wisdom; we had a lot of elders involved, plenty of whom are gone now. It was just an amazing project, and we also had to contend with hard things—the real things of when you’re doing community projects like an orchard.
To me, one of the most important things I always talk about this that came up in the making of this orchard was the question of whether or not you lock the door, lock the gate to the orchard, and because we put in a zillion hours and because it was funded with grant money from so and so, and of course, in a certain mindset, you lock everything, but the orchard itself was a dream of some other kind of mindset, it’s an enactment of an elsewhere… So there’s not a lock on it, and it’s fine, of course. So anyway, that whole project of working together—and I’ve had many of those in my life—but this one was so moving because if I’m coaching or if I’m on a team or if I’m doing a lot of teaching and a lot of other things I’ve done, it feels like often you can kind of see within six months what you’ve done. Although of course, as you teach, you realize: Oh, you might not know, and you’re lucky enough to be alive two decades later and then someone calls, texts, emails you like: Hey, you don’t know this and you don’t remember me, but… That’s nice. But with an orchard, it was a real practice and experiment and endeavor in doing something the fruit of which you very well may not be around to witness, which means it was kind of like we’re doing this for each other. “Each other” we do not know, but it makes all the “each others” us. It’s very informative even when I talk about a fundamental question about this thing called joy, it’s like: Oh, that’s one of the places where I was deepening or learning that question.
Nadia Colburn: I love that you said an enactment of elsewhere, that’s a beautiful phrase, and this is a way of changing the mindset, right. We don’t need the locks; “Unscrew the locks from the doors ! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !” Whitman says. We can imagine something different. I mean, I have an apple tree in my tiny little front yard and we got so many apples this year, it’s just so great, and then there’s an apple tree I was noticing down the street right outside a community center where the apples are just growing; they’re up high… and they could be great food for so many people. I want to go there, I think, I’ll actually do that this afternoon and talk to them about those apples. There’s this possibility of abundance, the possibility of the world provides for us… To come out of the scarcity mindset and to imagine something different.
Ross Gay: That’s it. That’s just true. And then to sort of practice that understanding, I think it makes us inclined to share… I wonder if I know that apple tree actually, the one that you’re talking about, because when I was living there, that fall when I’d be walking home from the Radcliffe Institute, I would, every night, grab three or four apples off the ground, and they were like some of the best apples I’ve ever had.
Nadia Colburn: Actually, I’m going to go there later today and see if we can do something with those apples. I will probably knock on the door, but that’s so cool to think about fruit and to think also about this land that had so much food on it, it was cultivated for thousands of years like a garden.
I’m mindful of time, so I just want to jump forward to Be Holding; there’s so much we could talk about, but Be Holding is an amazing book. For those of you who don’t know the book, I highly recommend it. It’s a whole book-length poem, and it starts with, you’re looking at a YouTube video of when Dr. Jay made this amazing shot in basketball, kind of like flying up.
I grew up without a TV and without knowing anything about sports, so I was one of those people who had to actually look this up, probably one of the few people… that’s my little confession. But, anyway, it was a joy to learn and to watch the dancing and the playing…
So you’re watching this YouTube video and then you’re thinking about a lot of different things. You’re looking really carefully at something in motion, but you’re slowing it down. It’s in the past, but the whole poem also takes place in the presence of watching, so it’s doing really interesting things with time, past and present, and then of course, future, and then also with watching and also movement and stillness because you’re watching the video, but you can also stop it and go back and then they are still photographs through about the book. It’s really about a lot of things, so I won’t say what it’s really about, because it’s about so many things, but one of the things I’m really interested in is this active perception, which we’ve been talking about…
We’ve been talking about how you can change the story. But this book also talks about how perception and attention can also be dangerous. We’ve been talking more about a kind of sacred attention—the philosopher Simone Weil says absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. We can have this form of attention that’s a kind of sacred attention. But then there’s also a form of attention that is commodifying. In the book, you look at some photographs of black people and you consider the pain and the commodification of that pain. I mean, maybe you can even think if there’s a part of the poem that you want to read but I wanted to just kind of have a conversation also about the challenges of perception and the possibilities of perception.
Ross Gay: I think some of the questions that this book raises are those questions. The central action of the poem is actually it’s just me watching Dr. J flying through the air, doing something impossible, it’s me just watching this moment of genius, impossible flight, which he does. So that’s one of the modes of looking, but in the meantime, I’m sort of contemplating all of these other modes of looking that are commodifying, that are murderous that are all of these other things, and in a way, I think what the book is trying to understand is how the ways that we witness are themselves world- making…
Well, which basically begs the question, what are we looking at? What are we practicing? The looking in itself is a kind of practice and the way that we look is a kind of practice.
Toward the end of the poem, there’s a kind of loving and beloved looking and throughout the poem, there are all these moments of trying to witness, constantly trying to witness the loving… The more I think about it, I love this poem in part because I’m learning things about it all the time, but also the ways that it works with time, the bracket of time that the action of the poem happens in is like five hours or something, but then there’s all these other time things that are happening. But in the course of how long it takes for Dr. J to make the shot, the speaker’s trying to learn how different systems can kind of corrupt the capacity to see in the ways that we might want to be seen, which is also to say our capacities to see in ways that might make our lives livable.
So the poem is trying to figure that out, and by the end, it sort of ends on this Carrie Mae-Weems photograph where there’s been all of this wondering about what is this mode of look into it, thinking about— from the photographer’s perspective sometimes, and from the viewer’s perspective sometimes—but by the end, that Carrie Mae-Weems photograph feels like an example of a photograph that is beholding its subject, is regarding its subject so much that the act of looking is absolutely an active care.
And then one of the ways you can tell is because in this photograph, the people are trying to run through the camera to squeeze the person probably who’s taking the picture. That’s what it feels like. So I know I just went on for a while.
Nadia Colburn: That’s beautiful. You said that the ways we witness our world can make it beautiful, and that in that interaction of perception, there’s a relationship, and the way we tend to that relationship is the way we tend to our world. I don’t know, someone I think about a lot is Martin Buber who says in so many brilliant ways we don’t need I/It relationships, but I/Thou relationships. A lot of times in the poem, you’re like: actually feel this, slow down, that was hard, that material I just gave you; breathe, take a moment, pause. There’s so much emotion in the poem…
Ross Gay: Thank you for noticing that.
Nadia Colburn: So can you tell us maybe a bit about your creative process, like how do you sit down and write… How do you revise? What does that look like for you?
Ross Gay: It’s like many things. I’m a sort of a writer who gets taken into a thing. I think my proclivity is to get taken and to be all in and just working and working and working. And then quiet time. And then it happens again.
But when I wrote this Book of Delights, which is a collection of essays that I wrote between August 1st 2016 and 2017, it was a daily practice. So in a way, I almost feel like I learned something different, and I didn’t do it every single day, but I did a lot of days… So then I had a daily practice, which is a little bit different from me. I tried that before.
Marie Howe is one of my teachers, and I think I remember her talking about having a real proper schedule. Every morning, between 8 to 12. And I’ve known other people who would just do it like that, and I tried that and it’s not really my way.
But then I gave myself this little project that I had to write these essays for just a half hour every day. So sometimes I am kind of a daily writer. But I think what’s more interesting to me is that I love to revise. So I’m in this moment of revision right now, and actually have an essay here that I just revised, and I had to print out and I’d gone through it and I’m like: Oh, let me read it again. I know at this point, one of the great pleasures is to just keep going. Because for me, revision involves you writing the thing and then you start to see the thing differently, and then the things start to teach you what in fact you’re looking for or what in fact you didn’t know you needed to listen to…
And I know that, and even if I lose track of that sort of consciously, I know because my devotion to revisiting is the devotion of someone who’s been rewarded. I’m so in it, because I just know that the switching of a little bit of syntax might then change everything.
So anyway, that’s all to say that I sometimes have a daily practice. I’m writing another Book of Delights, so now I have another daily practice, but when I’m in it, my daily practice is often revision. And basically, any moment I get that I’m not doing something else, I’m probably making notes.
Nadia Colburn: That’s great. I love revision also, and I love the practice of asking, What is it that I’m trying to say? What is behind here? Or what is it that I don’t even know that my work knows that it wants to teach me. What can I learn here?
To close us out, I like to ask three final questions to share with readers or listeners, just some enthusiasm, some ideas, and practices. The first is: is there something that you want to recommend, that’s bringing you some joy, a block, a piece of music, a kind of tree.
Ross Gay: Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace”. I’ve been listening to that for the last two or three months. And since June, the movie is amazing, the documentary that came out, I don’t know, two years, three years ago. But I’ve just been listening to that, that album so much, and it’s just like itself is a kind of set of rabbit holes because she covers Marvin Gaye holy home, which is kind of pushed me back over to what’s going on that album, but that record and two songs in particular, “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Never Grow Old”… I’ll put those on and I’ll do my work out.
Nadia Colburn: That’s great. And is there a practice that you have for centering, alignment, joy. We talked a lot about practice actually, and there’s a lot about practicing and beholding.
Ross Gay: I think I do actually… It is, sometimes it’s a practice where I’m sort of writing 30 minutes every day, but I do have a practice of acknowledgement, I think just sort of steadily. Even like this morning, I was drinking my coffee and looking into the garden and I was like: Oh, that cardinal is eating our ground cherries, no wonder I love the cardinal so much, because we have loves in common. It’s just like what you’re talking about, trying to pay attention and the paying attention not only as a way of noting, which I think is really important, but also as a way of acknowledging and thanking.
Nadia Colburn: Beautiful. And then my final question: is there some form of social or political action that you engage in, and I know we’ve talked about just world-making in the imagination, and then also the community garden, but is there anything else, because I think so often we get siloed into just one form of action and to just hear about what else you might be doing.
Ross Gay: My partner and I are the often recipients and often givers of things we grow things, we could cook, so that practicing sharing and being the recipient of other people’s desire and interest to share as well.
Nadia Colburn: That’s beautiful, I love that. Giving and receiving both in that answer.
Ross Gay: That’s like a practice too… When someone gives you something, to not be like, Oh, here’s something too, here’s something back. No, we’re tied together forever. Let’s have this going forever, you don’t have to give me some right now. We’re together. Let’s do that.
Nadia Colburn: That kind of time span that you’re talking about with the trees as well, it’s going to be bearing fruit for future generations…
Ross Gay: We’re practicing on how to take care of each other.
Nadia Colburn: That’s really beautiful. Thank you so much. This has been such a joy to be here with you.
Ross Gay: My pleasure, my pleasure.
At the end of the interview, Ross read a new piece that’s still in progress. You can listen to him read it starting at minute 49 in the video:
See more about Ross Gay, read more of his work, and buy his books here.
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