Interview with Ross Gay, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
(University of Pittsburgh Press)
This past summer I asked Ross Gay about his obsession. To which he replied, “…my obsession is my garden. It’s a wild time of year back there, and I’ve designed it, and continue to design it, both meticulously and carelessly. Or with a kind of faith or something.” This, I imagine, also describes Gay’s writing process. Wild. Meticulous. But always with a kind of faith—or something. Gay’s most recent collection, catalog of unabashed gratitude, asks, just as any good sermon worth its salt asks: What is dark be illumined and what is low, raised and supported.
Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry: Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down and, most recently, catalog of unabashed gratitude. He teaches at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he is also a gardener and member of the food justice organization, Bloomington Community Orchard.
Nicole Sealey: Is poetry and gardening related?
Ross Gay: Gardening and poetry feel very closely related. I mean, besides both being something you work at and can be beautifying and nourishing and pleasing and all that—there’s something to the sort of metaphor work, the imaginative training that both crafts/vocations/pleasures involve or train in. That is, in making a garden, it seems to me, we’re often training in this kind of crazy imaginative work—like the seed is this little, sometimes nearly invisible, thing that contains in it all the carrots. It’s not only the seed for the carrot that will grow deep into the soil in the next couple months, but it’s the seed for the hundreds of seeds that carrot will make, each of which might make hundreds of carrots—so that in two generations of carrots you could have, I’m estimating here, 800 zillion carrots. Understanding this—the little filament of seed disappearing in the crease of your paw could make carrots the equivalent in tonnage to the Empire State Building, or at least a Hummer, in just a few years—is an imaginative act, requires that metaphor part of my brain (which is in my body, my stomach and taste buds and eyes and everywhere else), which (a-ha!) is like making poems!
NS: You’ve said that you “just knew” that your book was going to be called catalog of unabashed gratitude. What else did you “just [know]”?
RG: You know, that’s just about the only thing I knew—and I came to just know that late in the making of the book. I was about two thirds of the way done (I didn’t know that, but in retrospect I realize that I had three big poems yet to write, “Spoon,” “Opening” and “Catalog” and the book would be done), and I thought, after being at a very good reading by some younger writers, you know what, I’m going to write a big ass poem called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”. And then I thought, shit, that’s what I’m going to call the book. For a while I toyed with the idea of making it a book-length poem of gratitude, but it didn’t quite get there. Then I thought (and maybe I’ll do this) I might just keep stretching it out, the way Nathaniel Mackey and Rachel DuPlessis just keep writing on the same projects forever. You know, the life-long catalog of unabashed gratitude!
NS: I can’t imagine the collection without the long poems. There are moments in all three when I’m on the verge of tears after reading one line and then smiling from ear to ear after having read the next.
RG: Smiling ear to ear on the verge of tears.
NS: Exactly. How do you know which moments warrant/are worthy of such poems?
RG: That’s a question I can’t totally answer. When writing I don’t think I know at the outset if something is worthy. It takes a while for the worthiness to show up, which sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, we all have ostensible “subjects” that are worthy, but it seems like a worthy subject does not make a worthy poem. I have something like 50,000 drafts of poems in a very large drawer that have worthy subjects but are awful poems. I don’t know until after the poem really gets moving, kind of happens, if it’s worthy. Which is to say, maybe, that moments seem not to be inherently worthy or unworthy. For instance, this answer—not worthy. But I had to write it all out to know.
NS: I think about influence as a kind of revision. With catalog, who were your influences and were you revising/reimagining the work of those influences?
RG: For about two months, while I was writing catalog, I was carrying around a Mary Ruefle poem in my pocket. And I was reading Eileen Myles quite a bit. Gerald Stern’s long and digressive self is there. Marie Howe too, who sometimes just talks in a poem, just says it, which I love. Then people like Patrick Rosal and Aracelis Girmay. My collaboration with Aimee Nezhukumatahil on the chapbook, Two Gardens, made some of the poems possible. And June Jordan and Etheridge Knight and Lucille Clifton. Cornelius Eady, “Gratitude”. And Toi Derricotte, who, to my mind, has invented a kind of poetic vulnerability, or openness, that I’ve been studying for a long time. And Virgil! Virgil’s Georgics are, in fact, all over this book. Neruda’s Odes. Thomas Lux’s long poem “Triptych: Middle Panel Burning.” Ira Sadoff’s poem “Grazing” was in my head. Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Amiri Baraka. Komunyakaa—I’ve been trying to learn how to make an image from him for years and years. Some Levis.
You asked if I’m revising/reimagining the work of these influences? Hmmm, I’m stealing it, that much I know for sure. Some of the work I’m sort of explicitly talking to the influence, or revising the influence, or talking a little shit to, which might be something only I know, or the influencer and I know, or a really close reader of the given poem and the influencer and I would know. Mostly, though, I’m learning from them—how to make something occur in a poem that previously I probably couldn’t have quite imagined. So I’m really glad for them, and the many others I can’t think of right now.
NS: Customers who bought catolog from an on-line bookseller, also bought Larry Levis’ The Widening Spell Of Leaves.
RG: That’s weird. And sweet and great. I love Levis’ poems, love that book, and spent years with his three last books basically always in my pockets (they’re big books, so I looked funny). But I admire so much about his work, so much. I love the digressions, I love the imagination, I love the merging of the political and the apparently autobiographical, I love the cinematics, I love the movement in time. I love the humor. The sort of sad humor.
NS: “Spoon” and “Catalog” have that sort of sad humor. Both read as much elegy as ode.
RG: I think of the ode and the elegy to be always deeply entwined, whether explicitly or not. Because, you know, odes and elegies are ultimately love poems.
NS: At a reading earlier this year, during the Q&A, someone asked how you maintained your own love of life, your own happiness? And, how were you able to write a collection of happy poems? You said something to the effect of: on the other side of happiness is death.
RG: If I agreed that I was happy all the time, I was being full of shit, because I’m not. I think I remember that exchange, and what I meant is that while these poems reflect or express or document or imagine a kind of happiness, or possibly even joy, they are, like joy, made with (and very much about) an awareness that our lives are filled with difficulty, with pain. We age. Our friends are killed or die. Our family gets sick and dies. The planet, you know. And on and on. So the joyful poems are occasioned by the truth that we are suffering, we are dying, it is pain. I’m saying “joy” so much because I’ve been thinking about it, and seeking it, and think it is very much connected to the awareness of and fact of that pain. So it’s maybe a kind of cherishing—knowing that we are not together long. (Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock fully came into my head.)
NS: Will you request “Joy & Pain” at the NBA after party?
RG: Yes, the Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock version, and the Maze version.
Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.