Ross Gay
Ross Gay. (Photo: Natasha Komoda)

Topics: Ethical Living, Jan./Feb. 2021 | Interview

Poet Ross Gay explores a joy informed by deep sorrow

He thinks that people sometimes misread his work as being "happy"


In one of his most famous poems, A Small Needful Fact, Ross Gay remembers Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York City police officer in 2014. Gay notes that Garner worked as a gardener once, and “in all likelihood / he put gently into the earth / some plants which most likely / … continue to grow.” It’s a powerful poem, shared widely on social media, in which the poet accesses a deep emotional landscape through specific observations. He witnesses.

Gay, who teaches at Indiana University, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize for his 2015 Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. In the title poem, he meditates on loss, joy and sorrow, all for which he gives thanks.

His latest collection, Be Holding, published in September, is ostensibly a book about basketball Hall of Famer Julius Erving (a.k.a. Dr. J). More specifically, it’s about 20 seconds in Dr. J’s career: a jump shot considered by aficionados as the most beautiful “flight” in the game’s history. And from it, Gay observes the world. Leah Rumack spoke to Gay this past fall.

Leah Rumack: Talk to me about the title Be Holding.

Ross Gay: Just to be very real, the book used to be called Flight. One of the subjects is flight, and flight meaning not only the beautiful flight of Dr. J in this move, but also the flight of my family from the Jim Crow South, and the connections between looking and flight — what kinds of looking make flight necessary? And then I was reading In the Wake by Christina Sharpe. She uses the word “beholden,” and after I read that I realized this is a book about how do we “be holding” — what kinds of looking constitute holding? “Holding” meaning care, “not holding” meaning holding back or holding down.

LR: When I first heard about this book, I was like, “Ugh, I don’t want to read a book about basketball.” But it’s not really a book about basketball.

RG: It’s not a book about basketball. Basketball is in the book and very much a part of the book. When I’m talking about the basketball courts, I’m talking about these expressions of tenderness and care and being with each other that are obviously connected to other questions of the book.

LR: You write about wrestling with the creation of what you call the museum of Black pain. How do you feel about the conflict between looking that’s an act of care and the possible building of yet another totem in this museum?

RG: The book is a sustained question of that. How do we witness in ways that don’t replicate or enact violence? It’s a deep and abiding question for me.

LR: Are you doing any writing that’s particular to the Black Lives Matter movement that’s happening now?

RG: All of my writing is that. All of my writing is engaged with these questions.

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LR: You wrote a bestselling book that’s essentially about joy. Finding hope and joy are themes you return to a lot. Why?

RG: Joy is my subject. I hear people talk about joy meaning something like happiness, but the joy I’m talking about, the joy I’m reaching toward, is informed by the profound sorrow that we’re constantly in the midst of. The joy I’m interested in — sometimes I call it “adult joy” or “grown joy” — it’s not just happy.

The joy I’m talking about makes it absolutely clear that I’m not alien from you, and furthermore that I’m not alien from the earth of which we are expressions. It’s the depths of that feeling. It’s probably a feeling that a word like “love” might also be an adequate near synonym.

LR: It sounds like you’re talking about connection and of being present to experience that connection.

RG: I think that’s right. One of my favourite things is mycelia — the fungal networks in the forests. What would it be like if joy feels like when those networks get luminous periodically, and you kind of feel it, and the feeling isn’t “Hey, we’re all connected” — it feels like an entanglement that is grave. And when I say “grave,” I mean grave in the most beautiful way — as in “important” and “informed by the grave.” How do I live? How do I be?

LR: You know, sometimes I interview politicians and the conversation isn’t like this.

RG: (Laughing) I bet. I bet!

LR: The cover image of Be Holding is an archival photo of an older Black woman with a young boy. Tell me more about them.

RG: I was looking for images of 1920s Arkansas at the Library of Congress. I just wanted to see what it looked like where my great-grandfather was a sharecropper, and he had to flee from there for his life.

I found this photograph, and it’s a grandmother and her grandson, and he’s wearing an aviator’s cap and he’s holding this…something. In the poem, I say it’s an origami bird. But there’s all this flight and all this looking — all this awareness that someone is taking their picture.

That was a photograph I came upon accidentally, and it totally swerved the poem. The way I write is I don’t know what I’m writing. I’d actually been stalled for a while, and then this photograph, this little kid in an aviator’s cap showed up and started pointing me toward questions I didn’t realize I had.

Photo: Natasha Komoda

LR: What is poetry’s role in the fight for justice?

RG: The poems I love often help me to re-see or re-understand the world. They challenge and move me. They destabilize me and what I thought I knew and felt. Poems also witness, and that feels significant.

LR: Do you ever feel pressure to be “the delights guy”?

RG: I do sometimes feel that people are misreading my work as being really joy-joy-happy-happy. And maybe when you call something The Book of Delights — well, all right, you might set that up a little bit. But as soon as you start reading Delights, it’s very clear that I’m contemplating delight and joy as a practice that envisions worlds that we need to get to that are not often here.

I have this book called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and people are sometimes like, “You’re so happy!” Almost every poem in there is an elegy. I don’t necessarily feel pressure to be the delights guy, but I do think people are often misreading my project, probably because they want to.

LR: Why do they want to misread it?

RG: Because we have a sort of immature relationship to life. We want to imagine ways of getting out of it, and that’s not what I’m doing.

LR: Do you consider yourself a person of faith?

RG: What does that mean — faith?

LR: I mean it broadly. There’s a very clear “Are you religious?” — to which I think the answer is no. But do you feel the presence of a higher power?

RG: You’re right, I’m not religious at all — or I think I’m not. But I feel profound faith in the fundamental wisdom of the earth, and it feels like a deep knowing that is not my knowing, but is a knowing connected to the knowing. Maybe when I’m talking about joy, I’m talking about a faith in this other thing. It’s funny, I always picture it residing beneath us. The metaphor that’s in my head is the flourishing of the forest floor. Even in this conversation between you and me, I’m definitely not picturing it bouncing through a cell tower! I picture it as a strand of fungal-like hypha, a connection that’s running between us beneath the ground. I don’t know what that means, except to say that it doesn’t feel like it comes from above.

LR: It’s a difficult time right now: the pandemic, protests, Trump. How do you find joy, that love, in this moment?

RG: I think part of the practice I’m talking about is just practising witnessing the constant expression of care. That care might be the honeybees asleep in the morning in the sunflowers, or it might be the ways that folks make things for each other with such devotion, or it might be the way that our inclination is — I believe this — our deepest inclination is that if someone needs something, we give it. It’s the practice of witnessing in the midst of what is always all so difficult.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2021 issue with the title “Flights of joy.”

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