“It’s all so goddamn compelling.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I think we can start by talking about how Bringing the Shovel Down maybe had a wider lens and was more overtly political compared to the new book. Catalog seems more jubilant, more interested in finding moments of grace, even when it acknowledges the tumult.
Yeah, you know I feel like part of it comes from the fact that I felt really happy to be done with Bringing the Shovel Down. I was very glad to have written it and very glad to have wrapped it up. There is an intense sort of brutality that sort of weaves through that book. It followed an arc, tracked a transformation through self-interrogation, into looking at one’s self and others with more loving, compassionate eyes. Some of those poems are brutal to read out loud. I often feel nauseous and beat after reading them.
So getting to Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, after finishing the second book, I just felt like I wanted to write about stuff that I adore. And I was totally reading Neruda’s odes.
Yeah, the book is filled with odes.
Exactly, exactly. Those poems written to things like buttoning my shirt, written like Neruda odes. Also, in my ear and in my head and hopefully in those poems, I think I naturally weave joy and sorrow, like Gerald Stern.
The way he blends that sort of joyful and sorrowful voice for sure. The other thing that I was going to say is that I also felt like I had a sort of revelation. I knew when I was going to title the book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and it was after being at this reading where I was noticing, like, “Holy shit, look at these wonderful poets and these wonderful readings.” But I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of light getting through, you know? They were sharing really good poetry, really important poetry, but I felt myself needing something like gratitude, something like joy, along with struggle.
Sure. I think that's one of the things that makes Catalog so refreshing. Its source of power seems to come from such a joyous place. It’s astonishing how rare that is. A lot of contemporary poetry is written with a detached, ironic, first-person speaker, which is comfortable and safe. And you sort of kick that to the curb. I’ve heard you talk about how the “me” and the “I” in these poems is you, is Ross Gay.
Yeah, if you’re writing from your own point of view and if you’re exalting things, which is what that book needs to do, I mean, it’s sort of a vulnerable spot because people can say you’re full of shit. And then it really hurts your feelings because you love this shit. You love it.
No one wants to be told that what we love is stupid or worthless or dumb, you know? It’s terrifying.
That’s the very real risk of writing poems like these.
Exactly, exactly. And I understand that. Even when I came up with the title, I was laughing. I could imagine a table of very smart, very ironic people all dressed in black taking a piss on my book.
Down to its bright cover and everything, you know? And again, I fully understand that sort of sentiment, I get being like, “Oh, god, he’s exalting again.” It’s probably annoying when you’ve made a life on critique rather than joy or love. (I have fully imagined my detractors, if you can’t tell. I’m not insecure, not one drop.) But I also read people reacting positively to these poems, and that is just something that I love to see. It’s something that I really love to see.
I’ve seen you read these poems to rooms full of people and watched the reactions. I’ve given the book to people who don’t even read books, let alone poetry. There’s something alchemical about what the poems are doing, creating joy in people where there was ambivalence.
Yeah, yeah, totally. Nothing could make me happier than to hear someone say, “Oh, I left your reading and I noticed the flowers on the way out.” How lucky is that?
You certainly address the big things—love and family and death— but some of my favorite poems are ostensibly celebrating much more commonplace things. I’m thinking of “To a Mulberry Tree,” where you write what begins as a poem about bird poop.
Yeah, the real story behind that poem is that years ago, I was working as a lifeguard, and I saw this friend of mine that I had grown up with. We were just talking, and I asked about her sisters. She told me that her big sister had committed suicide recently. Now I hadn’t seen her or them for fifteen years probably, and the thing that I remembered most about the girl who died, who appeared in that poem, is that I used to see her hanging out around a mulberry tree. She probably seemed like a normal slightly troubled teenager, but I was a little kid so I had a little kid’s perspective.
But to me the interesting thing about that poem is that it sort of imagines a poem's ability to create a world without negating the world. So there is a world embedded in the poem, and the world embedded in the poem is what lies behind that girl and that mulberry tree. What the poem aspires to do, I hope, is to enact the truth that sometimes we actually want to look back at the fruit. Can a poem enact training our eyes towards the thing that will bring us to light and closer to change, instead of focusing on the part of the memory that will bring us to and keep us in sorrow? It doesn't negate it, the sorrow is still there in the poem. That’s what the poem is trying to do. Both things at once. Which feels true to me.
Yeah, I just got goosebumps. That’s exactly what this book seems to do—acknowledge the existence of the world of loss and sorrow while sort of boosting the signal of the world of joy within it. “The three of us snugged in the canopy on our tippy toes gathering fruit for good.”
You talk about reading Neurda’s odes, and so many of these poems seem tethered to those. Can you talk about why, after writing Bringing the Shovel Down, you were drawn to that mode of writing?
In Bringing the Shovel Down, one of the things I needed to do was explore how mythologies, cultural mythologies, national mythologies, individual mythologies, are created and maintained, are so often violent. So by necessity, those poems are in a kind of third-person big omniscient voice. But there were a couple of poems at the end of that book, a couple of odes, that felt a bit more celebratory.
Like “Ode to the Beekeeper" and the poems like that.
Exactly. In a way, I’m following through. The last third of the second book tumbles into the third. More first-person Ross Gay talking in the poems.
That’s really interesting, I’d never thought about that progression. You’ve said, “Almost everything that interests me is in the small moments, the very precise and nearly invisible moments that, upon meditation, have to do with everything.” Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book and the poem, seem to be very tied to that idea. Can you talk about how the poem itself came about?
You know, I decided I was going to write a poem called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” and I didn’t know what it was.
Really? You never hear of poems being written that way.
It was the only time in my life where I’ve said, “I’m going to write a poem called this.”
There’s a moment in the beginning of the poem that sort of feels like the charge toward the end of the poem, where there’s a guy up all night spraying his peach tree so that the early frost won’t waste the crop. That was a poem I was trying to work on for a long time. Just about this guy, a beautiful story of a friend and mentor of mine going to these strange and lovely lengths to save his crop. There was a handful of that kind of thing. Loved ones gone. Losing my bees. I was trying to figure out how to write about that. There are all these simple poems of gratitude and sorrow woven together. And then I had to figure out how my speaking voice could come through. I was self-conscious about talking so much.
That’s one of the real charms of the poem.
Thank you. My buddy Patrick Rosal is one of my main readers and he gave me really good eyes and ears on that poem. That is one of the gratitudes.
Patrick Rosal! I only just discovered your guys’ sportswriting site Some Call it Ballin’! It’s such a dream—I’m a huge closet sports nerd. I was talking to Oliver de la Paz on Facebook about how I wished there was a hyperliterate sports site for writers. There was this old Rumpus column called "Fantasy Football for Poets" by J. Ryan Stradal that was one of my favorite things on the internet, and I wanted there to be a whole site of stuff like that. Oliver pointed me toward Some Call it Ballin’ and it totally blew my mind. I lost the rest of my day.
I just dove in. You’re a great non-fiction writer too; I loved your article about concussions. You played college football, right?
I did. I played football at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
I think that what gets lost in the era of Madden and hyperanalytics is just the human confrontation of it. In the NFL, you have one guy holding a ball against eleven of the best athletes in the world. Eleven of them all want to physically remove the ball from his arms, and he just has to charge into that. The bravery and the human confrontation in that moment is just absolutely staggering. It’s one of the most compelling things in the world to me.
Yeah, exactly. To me what’s really compelling about it is that there’s the violence of the game, and behind or beneath the violence of the game there’s all of this tenderness. It’s complicated and mixed up with gender and sexuality and race and power and patriarchy and love and desire and it’s all so goddamn compelling.
It’s going to be so interesting when tackle football isn’t a game anymore—or is very much a marginal game rather than the one so many American people adore, the one we pin all our national, racial, sexual, etc. fantasies on. I’m so interested in that transition.
I love that. I love the project. How did it start?
I was sitting in a café in New York with my buddy Pat, Patrick Rosal, and we were sort of lamenting the general shittiness of sports writing and the way it’s political discourse and it’s a lot of yelling and very little nuance and very little mystery. It’s all about mastery, even though the game itself is as much about mystery as it is about mastery. And we were like, “If there’s all this stupid shit, we should just make something good.”
I love when people notice a hole and then fill it. We are constantly having conversations that begin with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if,” you know? It’s wonderful when people actually do something about it.
Yeah, totally. We were just having coffee and we decided, "Yeah, let’s do that."
So many things are so easily within the realm of possibility. This is maybe a stretch, but in CPR training they teach you that if you’re providing CPR to somebody, the first thing you do is point to another person in the crowd and say, “Go call 9-1-1.” You say it to a specific person because if you just shout at a crowd, “Someone call 9-1-1,” everyone is going to assume that someone else is going to do it. You have to sort of deputize a person. And so when people deputize themselves to create, to fill a hole, that’s really cool.
Yeah, yeah, I love that metaphor.
Okay, moving back to your own poems—I've touched on how watching you read from this new collection was a really special, moving thing. But I’ve also heard you talk about how sometimes people are surprised. Either surprised that you read so well, or surprised that the poems in the book are as good as they are because of how well you read, how there’s this assumption that you’re either good on the page or in the air, but never the twain should meet.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s almost this weird dichotomy that I see particularly in academic circles, though it’s actually changing as we speak. I’ve definitely been confronted by, and I’ve confronted plenty of people who believe that, if you put your body into your work, then your work must not be very good on its own.
That’s a great way to say that.
And you know, there are so many things to say about that. One is that it’s definitely a gender and race discourse, because the body that is assumed to be the norm or the universal is a white body, a white straight male body. That assumption diminishes the essential fact of our lives, which is that we negotiate the world with our bodies.
And, you know, the university very much does that. Like, libraries are vitally important, but they aren’t more important than people, you know?
And there’s a way that universities can forget that. I’m sort of wandering around the question a little bit but I feel like it’s an interesting literary moment. I feel like there are more people who are coming from an overtly performance background who are infiltrating, who are coming into academia, and vice versa. It’s a really interesting moment to me. I think it’s probably a very uncomfortable moment for the old guard, who have to wonder why these people read their poems so well. So bodily.
Yeah. It’s a strangeness you touch on beautifully, a really bizarre way to penalize being skilled, being adept with your body and with your voice and with your mouth.
It’s so weird, given the actual facts of our literary world where only a handful of people sell many books. And if it’s poetry, selling a lot of books means selling a few thousand, you know? The rest of us sell books because we go places and we read our poems and we communicate and we connect with people. So it’s such a bizarre fantasyland to think this old-timey, deeply privileged notion that people should just buy my work because my work is brilliant.
Yes! Like, “Once I hit SEND, it’s off to the publisher, and I can finally step back and wait for the kudos to roll in.”
So, one of your new poems sort of went viral—“A Small Needful Fact.” It corresponded with a really horrible cultural moment. The poem is for Eric Garner, and its ending is just devastating. It gave people words to wrap around their grief and anger and fear, sort of gave a voice to the unutterable. Can you talk about writing a poem that’s turned out to be so practically useful in that way?
What I’ll say is that I—the poem was basically just what I read in an obituary. It was about a fact of his life, when the dominant fact of his life was feeling like it was becoming his death. And that felt actually counterproductive to all of our rage and sorrow. It felt like what we needed to do to was not dwell, but to actually to make it make us more capable of loving each other. It seemed like what would be useful was to talk not about the death but the life.
It was so moving. It was just so moving for me when I read that he worked for gardening department. There are probably 8,000 other things that are moving about this individual, about any of us, but when I heard that fact it just shook me. It deepens the sorrow and it also, for me, just made me feel cherish. It just made me feel more cherishing of Eric. Which again deepens the sorrow. Which is necessary, I think.
That’s a lovely way to say it. It seemed like a very useful poem, helping people move into cherishing.
Useful feels nice. If it’s useful, I’m really happy.
I want to talk about Lace and Pyrite too. I talked to Aimee Nezhukumatathil not too long ago for this site, and I really loved that book. It’s a project where you and Aimee were writing an epistolary correspondence in poems about your gardens and by the end of it, you’re playing off each other’s cadences and tonalities. The poems are very much talking to one another and informed by what the others are doing. How did the project happen?
Well, she came out to read at Indiana University, where I teach, and we were talking about gardening. We are friends and we just decided, “Oh let’s just hold each other to sending a poem once a week to just have a little bit of accountability.” We both thought that’d be a good idea. She’s more of a flower gardener and I’m more of a fruit and vegetable gardener. We were able to have this correspondence that was pretty much regular. Once every few weeks, we’d have a poem.
It’s interesting because I think you’re right. At first the poems are finding how to talk to each other. And then they really start to talk to each other. There’s a really interesting moment in the poems where my poem expresses a kind of sorrow or fear about the earth itself and Aimee writes a poem that sort of acknowledges that but won’t succumb to the fear. I think it’s a really interesting project. It was interesting to me that I wasn’t writing in a vacuum, that I was writing poems that were dependent on her poems. That felt really moving and sweet to me.
Absolutely. O’Hara talks about how writing poetry is all about figuring out the one person to whom you’re writing.
Yeah, it was fun. It was also fun because Aimee did such a crazy good job, so her diction and syntax, all her mechanical powers, were making me work really hard, you know?
And you both write from a place of wonder and joy, too. To sort of loop it back around to your old teacher, Gerald Stern is another writer of that tribe whose writing celebrates gratitude and wonder. Can you talk about his hand in all of this?
Chief among the things I’ve learned with Gerry is just how to be wildly stupidly in love with stuff. That’s one of the things that he does. He’ll have a little statue of a pig that he got at a market, and he just loves the pig, you know? With him it’s never one thing. With him as a person and him as a writer, it’s always adoration and also always heartbreak. That, to me, feels real. I can identify with that and I always have, which is why I was so drawn to him, to his work and his self.
Additionally, one of the things he does so beautifully is his intense digressing. He’ll be going somewhere in a poem and then he really leaves. That’s the kind of thing he was doing early in his work and I think he probably influenced a lot of people, among them Larry Levis. I don’t know any other poets whose imaginative capaciousness matches up with his capacity for adoration.
Absolutely. I know he and Larry Levis were friends; I think that’s a really smart comparison. I definitely think that sort of digressing was present in Levis’ work. Okay, I don’t want to keep you for too long. Do you want to talk about what you’re writing right now?
Yeah, I’m writing about Dr. J.
I sure am. I’m writing a poem all about Dr. J. What else am I working on—I’m working on a book about African-American farming. It’s a non-fiction book.
Are you putting together an anthology of writing or is this all you?
Oh that’s awesome, that’s great. I didn’t know about that. There’s a collection I looked at recently about the past few centuries of African-American nature poetry. I can’t remember the title—
Yes! I liked that book a lot.
Yep. I’ve got editing projects too. We’ve got Some Call It Ballin’ moving and I do some work with a few little presses. I’ve got a good bit of stuff going.
Interview Posted: November 2, 2015
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