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Q&A

Poet Ross Gay is on a roll: He talks gardens and gratitude

Ross Gay is on a roll. His third poetry collection, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” is currently in the running for the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the NAACP Image Award.

The odes and elegies in “Catalog” celebrate bounty while focusing on the most seemingly mundane of objects --  buttons, feet, armpits, ants, trees -- to reflect on the deeper significance of their impermanence. In the collection's first poem "to the fig tree on 9th and christian," the speaker exalts in the resilience and capacity of the fig tree to grow in foreign land as he joins strangers in picking fruit from its branches: "people gathered beneath / the tree looking into / it like a / constellation pointing / do you see it." By the collection's end, the speaker's infectious reverence and irreverence does effectively lead the reader to "see it" -- meaning life, love and the connections between things -- in all its rich, spontaneous possibility.

Gay teaches in Indiana University's MFA program. He is also a co-founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call It Ballin' and an editor for the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. He spoke to us by phone.

How does it feel to publish your third book -- one that's up for literary awards?

It feels real good—sharing the work feels good and kind of lucky.

Any expression of “unabashed gratitude” seems an anomaly in today’s highly cynical and ironic age. To what extent was this departure intentional as a form of, say, resistance?

"Resistance” is not the word I would use. It just struck me that it would be useful for someone to write a catalog of unabashed gratitude as a way to publicly imagine what it means for a person to be adamantly in love with his life. I wanted to realize joy as a fundamental aspect of our lives and practice it as a discipline. Joy, at least the way I understand it, comes from the realization that we’re all going to die. So as a kind of rigorous holding of one’s life, joy becomes the capacity to train our gaze on many things so that what we see includes what’s terrible but also what’s wonderful and beautiful.

Many of your poems in your recent book center on gardens and gardening. Are you a big gardener yourself?

Yes, I’m a gardener. I have my own orchard, and I also work with the Bloomington Community Orchard which has been one of the best experiences of my life. My paternal grandparents were farmers, my partner's a gardener, a few of my best friends are gardeners. I bought a house here in Bloomington that has a big south-facing yard, which is just what I was looking for, and I just started planting. Recently I started growing these plants called goumis, and they’re such a miracle of a plant – they basically make their own fertilizer and they grow like crazy even if you do nothing to them. And they taste unlike any other. It’s unreal to me that I can eat these things right out of my own garden. I also like growing raspberries, Nanking cherries, greens, potatoes – beautiful blue, red or purple potatoes – and garlic, and lots of other things.

Does gardening inform your writing in any way? Can you draw any connections between them?

Sure. I suspect that for one it makes me happy, and I think that's important. And two, there’s probably been nothing else in my life that's trained me to go slow the way gardening has, that’s compelled me to look very closely. Part of the delight of my garden is that you just get lost in it before you’ve even started to do anything. I walk out to my backyard garden at certain times of the year and I can't get 30 feet without stopping for 20 minutes because the goumis need trimming. And then I watch the wasps and notice that the lavender and the thyme right next to it need weeding. I love how my garden is very productive outside of the logic of productivity – it makes a lot of stuff that’s edible and nourishing and all that, but it's also “productive” in ways you wouldn't think necessarily to measure.

You’re well known for compelling live performances of your poems. Are you aware of any differences in the way you approach writing poems intended for public performance versus poems for the printed page?

I don't think I make a distinction like that anymore. I am just as interested in poems as things in the air as things on the page, which is to say I'm interested in the current passing moment as much as I’m interested in things that stick around “permanently.” As far as reception of my work goes, speaking anecdotally, there are plenty of people who might not have taken to the work on the page and then will be “Oh now I get it” after the reading, and that to me is great, that's totally great. And then other times, people seem to know more about the poems than I do from having a certain reading of them that I didn't realize was there, and I love that.

What are you reading these days?

In my bag is “The Little Edges” by Fred Moten and Vievee Francis’ “Forest Primeval.” I'm also reading this book by Lauret Savoy called “Trace.” I'm reading Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I also keep going back to Rebecca Solnit – I've re-read “The Faraway Nearby” many times in the three years it's been out. And I keep going back to James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” I read it again and again.

What’s next?

I'm working on a book about African American farming, or I should say, about my relationship to the land. And a book about Dr. J and sight or vision or possibility – I'm not sure yet, but it's about looking I think. It’s about seeing and flight.

Licad is the books editor for Hyphen magazine.

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