At the book launch for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude a few summers ago (which I attended), you made a statement about the poet’s lens or eye in their work. It seems that in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, your eye is geared towards finding beauty, joy and love. I imagine that takes some focusing, so what is your process for adjusting your poet’s lens? How do you train your eye to find love and joy?
Hmm. I think of that as a discipline—maybe that’s what your question is asking, how does the discipline work? Well, I spend a lot of time, when I’m able, attending to what I adore.[That] involves negotiation or chatting with the person in me who likes to spend time attending to what he can’t stand—of which, you know, there’s no shortage. But truly, there’s more stuff that freaks me out with happiness, I could start listing them now—guy who gave me a peace sign today as a hello; person behind me on the plane who sneezed in the silliest way; magnolia tree leaves reflecting the light; the vegan pasty I ate (seitan and leek) at the airport; the big beautiful raised beds my sweetie and I made last night; that we made them at like 10pm with headlamps; that I was hauling compost in a wheelbarrow with a flat tire and one handle; that she almost peed herself when she realized that’s what I’d been doing (I moved a lot of dirt!). And on and on. Anyway—I spend time doing it, you know. I also spend time writing poems and essays and sentences. I also spend time thinking about my teaching. I also spend time swinging kettlebells and skipping rope and shooting 15 footers. All of which is to say: practice. And…as for finding love—it is everywhere. Even now. Despite it. Watch how we gather to love one another and care. I know it.
Your poems often embrace themes of regeneration or continued existence. An example is your poem “A Small Needful Fact,” which attends to transforming the discourse around Eric Garner. In some ways that tangentially aligns with the idea of black people’s magic in the world, which in turn points to magical realism. How do you think that contemporary musing can help or limit how the black body is constructed in what Rankine calls the “white imagination”?
My interest is in attending to the ways we live, to the necessity of our lives, to the beautifying functions of our lives, and the ways our lives make other lives possible. I want to praise and witness the life. Our lives. Necessary, and unremarkable, and remarkable.
Who are the poets that you often return to in moments when you need to refocus? What are some poetic tools that you employ to accompany the narratives in your work?
You know, there are lots and lots. But I’ve lately been turning and returning to Kamasi Washington’s song “Askim” from his record The Epic. And Dizzy Gillespie’s song “Kush” from Swing Low Sweet Cadillac. And D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and most of Erykah Badu—oh that newish mix-tape, But You Caint Use My Phone. And good lord, Stevie Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants, which I’m only now truly studying. Books—there’s so many. So, so many. Audre Lorde is always nearby. Rebecca Solnit too. June Jordan. Toni Morrison. I tend to be more drawn to changing my focus in these last years, which has led me to Fred Moten, and Bhanu Kapil, and Jena Osman, and Claudia Rankine, and like a zillion others.
Toni Morrison says that “good characters” are hard to write. A lot of your work serves as portraiture of your subjects, and they are “good characters,” so to speak. How do you complicate (or what do you think about) complicating goodness?
I don’t know, really. I think real characters tend to be complicated and full—I mean real people and real characters. I’m interested in that—in the fullness of our characters, the frailness and weirdness and sometimes complete hiddenness. I want to, also, honor that. You know, as a person in the world—we are complicated and wounded and largely unknown to ourselves. I want to sort of appreciate and celebrate that, which does not negate the fact that I’ve started going to therapy so that I can get a bit closer to the unknown parts of myself. Which maybe is a little turn in which I say, what I know about people, and my characters I largely know from what I know or am learning about myself. At least that’s what I’m thinking right now.
You recently became the Director of Creative Writing at Indiana University, Bloomington, which I imagine keeps you very busy. But the question a lot of people must have is what’s next? Are there any creative preoccupations or inspirational rabbit holes that you see leading to a future project? If so, what are they?
Oh, yeah. I’m writing a long poem “about” Dr. J, and a book about my relationship to the land, and some collaborations with my beloved, and other stuff. And trying to figure out just where we will put the Institute for Radical Collaboration, which is actually already in action. It’s a mobile institution, you know? Wherever we are it is.
Ross Gay is the author of three books: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Catalog was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, the Ohioana Book Award, the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. For more information, visit http://www.rossgay.net/