Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry: 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. He teaches creative writing and grows living things in Indiana.
Ben Evans: Must all progress be incremental, or do you believe a society is capable of swift & radical change?
(Likely what is necessary for our species to survive).
Ross Gay: I was just looking at this big old map I have hanging in my house, like an old school map, it was South America I was looking at, lying (laying?) on my couch, and I was looking at those borders, and thinking of borders and nations, and thinking there will likely need to be a radically different relationship to borders, a different relationship to relating, for our survival. Things do happen quickly for the good, I notice it all the time. At different scales, it seems to me too. This doesn’t quite answer your question, but at least I get to tell you that radical collaboration is always happening, there are models everywhere for how we can solve problems. How we can take care of and love one another.
BE: The title poem of your 2015 collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is a masterpiece and as good as any poem I’ve ever read. It is sublime, and reads as if it were the direct intention of whatever is divine. I trust its movements and intuition as much as I do a river’s. Therefore, I come to these lines—
“Soon it will be over,
which is precisely what the child in my dream said,
holding my hand, pointing at the roiling sea and the sky
hurtling our way like so many buffalo,
who said it’s much worse than we think,
and sooner; to whom I said
no duh child in my dreams, what do you think
this singing and shuddering is,
what this screaming and reaching and dancing
and crying is, other than loving
what every second goes away?
Goodbye, I mean to say.
And thank you. Every day.”—
BE: and think, he knows, I know.
Tell me, are these lines artifice meant to create tension in the poem; to offset and make sharper the ecstatic catalog preceding them? Or do you truly sense it, an end?
RG: Sense it? Something’s definitely going to end. At the very least my life and yours and everyone we’ve ever known and loved. And, too, our time on this planet is limited, there’s no doubt about that. (That’s what the child came to me in my dream to tell me.) Everything is ending, which is no reason not to labor beautifully toward preserving it. And from what I understand we can preserve, or extend, our time, and the time of countless species by doing some work. I might be getting the quote wrong, but I’m pretty sure it is the poet W.S. Merwin who, when he was asked what he’d do if he knew the world was going to end the next day, said plant a tree. I’m with him.
Which isn’t to say I don’t like the rhyme of those last three lines, which is pretty corny: “away”, “say” AND “day”.
BE: Do you think a collective crisis forces (or licenses) an artist to be less abstract; to seek a more direct line of communication in their making?
RG: When are we not in a collective crisis? I am asking both about “crisis” and about “we”.
BE: Do you think the majority of (close) readers look to poetry for an affirmation of values already held, or as a challenge to them?
RG: That’s such a good question, and I really don’t know. I suspect I sometimes, maybe even often, look for clearer articulations of things I know to be true but do not know that I know, that kind of thing. Deep knowledges or questions that I have but didn’t know, quite, that I had them.
BE: Does an artist, through tone and content, self-select her/his audience? That is, if one is a pessimist who fears death, are they more likely to be drawn to Philip Larkin? And, is great art that which can transcend one’s dispositions to enact, at least briefly, inner change?
RG: Lord, you’re asking me to tell you what great art is. I can tell you that I am moved by shit that rips my head off, as Dickinson said. Which is, yes, a way of saying inner change, and a way of saying transcendence. The old lightning bolt through the brain thing. Sometimes that is familiar, a thing that articulates a thing I knew but could not necessarily articulate (or that I maybe didn’t even know I knew or felt). Baraka’s “An Agony. As Now.” was that for me. And sometimes it is completely world-destroying and world-making. M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! was that for me. Morrison’s Beloved. Bhanu Kapil’s Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and Ban en Banlieue. Patrick Rosal’s long poem, Brooklyn Antediluvian. Simone White’s everything. The older I get the more I’m drawn to things I don’t understand, for what it’s worth. These are literary examples. There are many outside of books obviously that are just as important.
BE: The title of your most recent book speaks to just how bold an act joy can be. Why, particularly in poets, this skepticism of joy, of the unqualified “good”? Is it because a perpetuation of the art itself hinges upon there being uncertainty? I ask because, at the present, the distinction between “good” and “evil” in the world seems quite stark.
RG: Hmm, you know, I don’t want to believe in evil. I know I’ve been pretty lucky in my life, but still. I know I’m capable of a range of things, things that could be considered “good” or “evil”, and that the “evil” ones would mostly be occasioned by fear and stupidity. Surely plenty of what I’m doing—particularly as a participant, as an agent in this commodity culture, as a buyer of stuff and a world-destroyer—could be considered evil.
That said, joy to me is really complicated. Joy is not, to me, the unqualified good. Joy is, to me, an adult sentiment or feeling or, maybe it’s a knowledge or understanding, that holds the fact that everything is disappearing, everything is going away, possibly, hopefully, gently. Often not. Often terribly. Holds that pain, psychic and physical pain, are part of the program. There’s something, too, about the community we can make of this shared knowledge or experience, something about not experiencing it as fear but as communion. I think wonderful things probably emerge from this holding.
BE: Do you believe in pure action—that human acts, wholly unflawed and unguided by ego or motive, can exist?
RG: Probably it happens all the time. I mean if someone fainted in front of you in line at the supermarket you’d probably catch them, right? So I think that’s a yes. And I also, I think, besides my own petty ego shit, don’t care if people behave well guided by ego or motive. If someone wants to get rich and famous by doing something that’s really good, or if they want to be praised and adored for doing something that’s really good by doing something that’s really good, I think I don’t care. I mean, therapy’s useful, but not if it keeps a person from doing something that’s really good!
BE: You are an avid gardener and founding board member of Indiana’s Bloomington Community Orchard. Here in Detroit, the urban agriculture movement is thriving and over 1500 gardens now exist in the city alone. Many of the best individuals I know have been called to farming in the past 5 years and now make their living growing organic produce. Interest in the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) organization seems to be growing by the day. To what would you attribute this renewed—in some cases new—cultural interest in farming and growing?
RG: I’m not sure. I met people who were doing it, and then I wanted to do it. I suspect that’s how a lot of people get into things. But surely there is also a real desire for a closeness to the earth, to the changes, to the transformations, to the real. As far as I can tell we live in a culture of profound illusion—there is no there there mostly. You ever stand in a supermarket checkout line and look at those fucking magazines? Or watch a few hours of television and suddenly need a new something or other? Ever prepare a tenure file and Google yourself again and again? Ever Google yourself? Ever go 100,000 in debt for a college degree? All of this illusory life, accumulating and insulating and proving and alienating, can be healed some by putting some seeds in the ground. And maybe sharing what comes up.
Taking care of each other is a truth, and growing food, real food, is a way of taking care of each other. And people, as far as I can tell, mostly like to do that. We just have to show each other how.