Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, was released by Algonquin in October of 2022. Cesar Toscano What do you believe makes poetry so diverse in craft and exploration? What makes it different from prose writing? Ross Gay With essays, for instance, essays are really open form. It's a really capacious form, the way I think of it, an essay just means attempts, you know, because a word just means attempt. And I think for that reason, you've seen a lot of strange essays or some essays that are instructional or informative. And then essays that are like, “Is that an essay?” Or is that a poem? So that's one way of saying that I'm not sure if essays are more controlled than poems are, in a lot of ways my own relationship to poetry, I think, is that poems actually feel a little bit more controlled. Maybe it’s because I have a particular relationship to the traditions of poetry, So I have a stronger idea about what a poem should do. And maybe, that's just because I came up writing poems, and I came up studying and all the forms that that poetry comes to us in? But it's sort of like maybe a generalized thing is that poems are thinking hard about the mind. Even prose poems are thinking the line, it's implied as a question, it's refusing the line. And the line in a poem to me always makes me think of breath. And so in that way, poems have a particular relationship to the body. If it is the mind or breath, there's some kind of relationship to the body that is different to me than in nonfiction or essays. That's something that is very generally made of sentences. That is not about breaths, that’s a difference. And that's a difference that we could probably write a couple of books about. But I'll just float those differences. And also, I love both forms, equally excellent. CT When it comes to your poems, I noticed how you can switch suddenly between vastly different emotions, why and how do you do that? RG I think I do it because it's how I think, or there's that element of it. It's also probably that I enjoy things that do that. Yeah. When I think of that, I've been thinking a lot about who my teachers are as a writer, you know, how I've learned how to do this stuff. And one of them is Richard Pryor. Comedian Richard Pryor. Yeah. Richard Pryor is this sort of antecedent to every comedian? You know, every comedian, comes out of Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor can be telling a story in his mode of humor and it's not his alone. I think the punch line is actually what this is, is that he'll be taking you somewhere somewhere somewhere. And then rips you into a different direction. And with him, often enough. It's not like funny. It's like, look what we're looking at, you know? So we're all kind of laughing together. And then we're kind of like, whoa, what are we laughing about? People who I admired, do that. And that in itself, too, is like, you know, if you're thinking about poems like the Volta, it just means a turn. Yeah. And I think Richard Pryor you know, like Emily Dickinson, amazing turns in her poems, Shakespeare, whatever, you know, all these people, but also, but I think it's a very good chance that I learned it more from Richard Pryor. So that's a long way of saying, one, I have models and are aspired. My models, among other things, taught me how to think and make stuff. So I'm kind of imitating my models, I'm learning how they did stuff. And I'm like, oh, that's the way I respond to stuff. So let me try to do that. But the other thing, I think is true, too, I think most people, walk around with, all kinds of things very much right next to each other. Yeah, the plain heads right next to the horrific, and the kind of like, toggle between them. CT Do you believe a poem should be a puzzle? Or do you believe it should be something else? RG I don't know about should anything with a poem. I don't believe a poem should anything. I'm kind of like, “Should” is one of those words that I'm like, should? Like, maybe you should try to get your garlic in. Before a certain, you know, because if it doesn't have enough days, it's going to have a hard time. But like, what a poem should do? I'm not really on that. CT That's fair. I'm asking because I've heard a lot of people be like a poem should be like, complicated, and complex all the time. And I don't agree with that. I think a poem could be anything. RG And I'll tell you to, I probably say that sometimes, but I just want to be very clear with you that I don't believe it. My truest part doesn't, my truest part doesn't believe that. Okay. You know, there's stuff that I like, what do you what I really shouldn't say when I say should, I should say I really like and here's why I like it. But should I really, I really don't want to get into should about almost anything to tell you the truth. CT My teacher always says that a poem doesn't have to be a puzzle. Yeah, and a lot of people think poems have to be puzzles. RG There are a lot of poems I love that are puzzles, and plenty of poems I love that are kind of puzzling. Yeah. So you know, it can be both. CT Poetry is cool because you can do a lot of things. It doesn't have to just be a complex puzzle, it can be an ode poem, simple as telling someone something. RG It can be a very complex simple thing. Yeah, like I love cardinals. When they sing to me in my dreams. CT Yeah, I love your poem, “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” because it's so simple but complex in emotion. RG Yeah. And I guess the other thing is that anything considered deeply ceases being simple. CT When I see you read I've seen a lot of readings it's like you have a reading dynamic persona. Is that just natural, or do you actually practice a voice? RG I've learned over the years how to read, you know how to be with an audience, and how to interact with an audience in a way that's fun for me. One of the things that I'm trying to do is make a reading that I like. And if I'm the one up there reading, I still have to figure out how to like it. And I think sometimes what makes me like it, it is not just if I read, quote, unquote, read well. But if stuff happens with the audience, you know, there's some kind of interaction. And again, this was about learning how to do that stuff. One of my teachers is a writer named Gerald Stern, another poet, actually, who can go very quickly from what's pleasant to what's difficult. And Jerry, I was just watching on YouTube. He died in October. And I was just watching on YouTube, Old readings of his and he's amazing. He's such a good reader, but I saw him read when he was living, 50 or 100 times from his so early 70s, mid-70s and then up until probably his early 90s. And he was a force and he could listen to an audience. He was eruptive. He was like, playful and funny. He kind of erupted. He, like burst through the poem, often, sort of like politically. You know, he did, he was irate. He was politically irate often, you know, he was great. If you get a chance to just look a Gerald Stern, like old readings, you'll see, it's wonderful. But you also might say that, like, oh, okay, that's how you learned. Other people too. Amiri Baraka is a poet who I remember seeing read at the Dodge Poetry Festival, a big festival in New Jersey. Watching him read, I'll never, I'll never be the same. I'll never relate to the reading. How I relate to it after that. It's also taught not only this, Amiri Baraka is large in a certain kind of way, bombastic in a certain kind of way, on the podium. There are also poets like Jean Valentine, a really wonderful poet who died probably in 2020, or 21. And she writes these very tight, strange kind of dreamish poems that are just amazing. And read in this beautiful manner, and sometimes I wouldn't know if she was reading because she would talk in between the poems a little bit. And sometimes I wouldn't know if the poem ended, or where it began. It was just like, the most beautiful, strange thing to witness, and I feel that was really instructive to me. I'm way more interested, frankly, not way more, it depends also too on, but I love watching people read. And I'm more inclined actually to go watch them read than to read, their poems. These days, not all the time, but if it's like, even with my students, they ask me to go over poems, and I'm like,” Read them to me”. Read them again. Read them again. Read them again. You know, I kind of want to know what they're doing in the air.
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