Essayist and poet Ross Gay questions things. It’s a quality that makes him a perceptive writer.
Sometimes he uncovers the answers through his work. Sometimes these answers just lead to more questions.
Take a poem he’s been writing for four years, about Philadelphia 76ers great Julius Erving. How can anyone describe a moment as dynamic as a Dr. J dunk? How does witnessing such a feat of athleticism impact how we look at ourselves? What does human flight even mean? He becomes fascinated by underlying doctrinal concepts, he says, and he can’t finish the poem until he’s ticked through them. Perhaps there is some comfort for the rest of us in knowing that even a National Book Award finalist needs time and space to find the words.
A Ross Gay work has a distinctive point of view. His essays and poems are by turns mischievous, provocative, bemused. Gay skillfully knits crass curses to $60-SAT verbs. He tackles meaty subjects such as racism (see his searing poem about Eric Garner, an African-American man who died after being put in a chokehold by a white NYC cop) and seemingly simple ones like gardening (though perhaps they’re not so simple; the Garner poem has a horticulture theme).
Gay has written four books and co-written two chapbooks. For his most recent work, The Book of Delights, the Indiana University professor assigned himself a simple task: He would compose an essay each day about something he found delightful. It didn’t have to be big. It didn’t have to be profound. Just something that caught his fancy.
Gay began the project on his 42nd birthday. He admits he skipped a few days in the year. Not many. The 102 lyrical essays that made the cut read like poetry, all rhythmic prose and intimate revelations and enviable sentence structure. His topics include getting an unexpected high-five from a stranger, a random praying mantis, nicknames (his and ones he’s given others), pecans, and fireflies.
Gay has been traveling the country this year giving readings from the new book. Forty-five minutes before one such reading, the former college football player sat for an interview. He had yet to decide which essays he’d read that day, but he knew his mother and brother would be in the audience, and he wanted to select material that would surprise and, yes, delight them. Did he succeed? This time, there’s a concrete answer – yes, they later reported, he did.
I read in an interview that you came to poetry in college. What about it appealed to you at that point in your life?
I was probably feeling – I was definitely feeling alienated in various ways, and feeling some unarticulated rage and sorrow about a number of things. Once I got introduced to the right poems, I became aware of maybe a way to express those things, articulate them.
What kinds of things? Why weren’t you expressing them?
I don’t think I knew that I felt them.
Well, was there a particular poem that spoke to you?
The poem that I was really changed by was “An Agony. As Now.” by Amiri Baraka. The first line is, “I am inside someone who hates me.” It’s about alienation. It really gets to the root of things that a lot of people feel, maybe more acutely at different times.
So you decided to try writing poetry?
I think there might be a kind of reflection in writing of seeing what you’re thinking. Trying to sort of drill into what you’re thinking more accurately, to communicate to yourself, first, what it is that you’re feeling. Often writers have expressed not quite knowing what they feel or think until they write or say it. So it’s a kind of dialogue on the page. It’s not that different than a dialogue with a person.
Do you know where the poem is going when you start it?
No. There are things that I do not know that I know until I think hard in a kind of sustained and deep way, I guess.
How has your work evolved or changed as you have aged as a poet?
You mean, has it gotten better or worse? [Laughs.]
No, not necessarily like that. I know that as I write, I find different things were easier years ago than they are now. But other things get easier with age.
I feel like over the years, I’ve become more invested in a kind of written spoken voice. And connected to that, that I’m interested in the audience in a different way than I was before. I’m interested in caring for my audience. I don’t mean taking care of them. I mean being understanding. I understand that someone reading something that I’ve written is a generosity.
Describe your process as you work on a poem. Do you wait for inspiration? Do you have set hours you write every day?
This last book of essays, I gave myself the task to write a short essay every day for a year about something that delighted me, that’s kind of what the book is. I had a task, and the task was to take 30 minutes to draft the essay. It wasn’t like “20 minutes at night every night,” I would get it in whatever time. That was the most regimented I’ve been for a while. I was usually kind of feeling around for it [the object of delight].
But usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit. I’ve been lucky to kind of ride it for some days. It might get quiet for a bit, so I’ll think and try to wake it up.
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Was it different to write essays rather than poems?
Yeah. Yeah, but in part, essays are a vocal thing, too, and I feel like it’s a constraint of the discipline. To take 30 minutes and write about something that delighted you is not that hard. To do it for 30 minutes allows talkiness, like you’re talking to someone. It is a little like telling someone something real quick.
The titles of your poems are so telling – they help tell the story just as much as the text of the poem. Do you name your poems before, during, or after you write them?
Only once in my life have I done that before. I usually do it after. It’s possible in the midst of a draft, I’ll think, “It’ll probably be called this,” but I think it’s usually after. It’s something in the poem or maybe even a jumping-off that might be left far behind in the poem. It’s a way to complicate the poem or deepen it. Sometimes it’s the first line of the poem.
Do you know how long a poem will be when you start?
No, never. If I know much about a poem before I start, I don’t write it. I like it because not knowing what I’m doing, I know that I have some sort of question that I can’t fully articulate, and I know I’m looking around for it. It’s a feeling of, “there’s something around here.” It’s really true, but I do not know yet how to ask the question I need to ask or what that thing is. It’s something that I don’t know that I really need to explore.
Sometimes there’s an answer. Sometime it’s more like a better articulation of the question.