By Bob Sykora
When Ross Gay says “I am grateful. I just want us to be friends now, forever” in the middle of his poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” it’s hard not to believe him. Ross Gay is very tall, he has an enormous smile, and he may stop in the middle of his poetry reading to give a hug to one of his friends, as he did when he read for the UMass Boston Slam Society this past February. His 2015 collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, was a finalist for the National Book Award and recently won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book lives up to his title, celebrating fig trees, ugly feet, and armpits, while also exploring the grief that makes gratitude so important. Breakwater Review spoke with Ross Gay via email to learn more about his work.
Breakwater Review: I know you love gardening, and I imagine that’s harder to do in the winter months, how do you foster that side of yourself all winter?
Ross Gay: I read gardening catalogues eventually, when they come my way. I can get lost in that. Or I sketch little garden plans and stuff, you know. Or right now I’m getting ready to plant some muscadine grapes, an ad from a nursery I like came over the internets and I’m going to get some. But when I really get my shit together I will be gardening year round with some high tunnels or a good greenhouse (which I started building but never got around to finishing), so that I’ll foster that side of my self by gardening. Next winter!
Photo by: Natasha Komoda | www.natashakomoda.com
BR: Which is more challenging: writing poems or gardening?
RG: They’re both really fun.
BW: In addition to writing and gardening, you teach, you write about sports at Some Call It Ballin, you’ve been responding to Virgil’s Georgics, you’re a kettle bell instructor - in other words, you seem to have a pretty diverse set of interests. Will all that going on in your head, what does a perfect Ross Gay day look like?
RG: Hmmm, a perfect day might be something like remembering a few dreams, some solitude, some berries, some coffee, some friend and/or sweetheart time, some exercise time, maybe a couple drawings or something. A couple lines for something? Saying hi to someone while on my bike. That’s a good day.
BW: Reading Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and perhaps even more hearing you read some of those poems live, I think I was shocked with the way the poems convey such a sense of joy, even in the face of pain or grief. It seems radical to have so much joy, to actually deliver on the gratitude of the text’s title. Is this just your personality or was it a conscious choice to make these poems radiate joy?
RG: I can have a good attitude, you know (I can also have a very bad attitude), but this was a conscious choice. It is a conscious choice to remind myself (and anyone else who’s kind enough to listen) that the ground of our lives is our lives, our living, which is many things, delight among them. In other words, my pain is not the only part of my life. My pain, my sorrow, certainly is a crucial part of my life and my living–and those feelings are crucial parts of this book, you know–but they are not the foundation of my life. My joy–which, to me, exists only because of my sorrow; joy being a grown-ass emotion, a knowing emotion–is the foundation of my life. It is the ground of my life. I hope for that anyway. I work on that, anyway. I think these poems also work on that.
BW: The poems in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude tend to have little punctuation – many only have a period at the end of its final line. It feels like another way these poems communicate their joy – like the words can’t stop coming out until they’re done. Can you talk about this choice?
RG: Yeah, I’m trying to go fast, have a kind of emotional rev revving, and also a kind of falling feeling often. I’m also sometimes imitating–making, I mean–the feeling of a thing falling from my mind or mouth. You know, making a poem that seems kind of like how the mind works, veering and tripping and backing up and falling.
BW: One of my favorite poems in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is “c’mon!”, and one of my favorite moments is the line “That’s one of those poetry lies.” I think I have an idea what that means, but was wondering if you could elaborate. What is a poetry lie and is it a good thing?
RG: I have no opinion on if it’s a good thing, but I was meaning something like how you say something really pretty for a poem, and prettying it up is a little bit of bullshit. Not good or bad bullshit, just, you know, a little bit bullshit. Which I can love in a poem sometimes!
BW: In Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, you talk about a bird shitting in your mouth, disliking your feet, finding ants in a fruit you were eating – all talked about with both joy and a sense of reverence. Does anything bring you down?
RG: Many things break my heart, every day.