Seeds of Delight: A Conversation with Ross Gay

Photo of the writer Ross Gay

In the following interview, conducted by Greg Holland, Ross Gay addresses the ways in which his writing stems from transformative experiences of his life as they appear in his newest collection, The Book of Delights, and throughout his larger body of work. Gay explains in detail how his writing manages to reconcile the joy and metaphorical beauty of a vibrant garden with the senseless cruelty and injustice that often characterizes the human experience. With keen attention and striking music, Gays work never fails to approach the extreme and passionate paradoxes of modern life with grace, gratitude, and poignant delight.

In addition to The Book of Delights, Ross Gay is the author of three poetry collections: Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Additionally, Gay is one of the founding members of the Bloomington Community Orchard. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He currently teaches Creative Writing at Indiana University.

Greg Holland: A lot of your work explores a balance between intense suffering and flurries of intense joy. I was wondering if youd like to talk a bit about when you first found yourself able to capture that paradox in your writing?

Ross Gay: Looking back at some of my some of my earlier poems, I think one of the things I am interested in is just thinking about the complexities of our lives. And, looking back, Id say that in my work Im acknowledging that theres some brutal fucked up shit and theres some really beautiful stuff as well, at the same time. But I think that also always has puzzled me, and thats why I continue to think about it.

Holland: I was reading through your newest collection (Book of Delights), and as I read, I found myself hearing similar things that Ive heard in your other books regarding voice and sound happening on the sentence level–even without engaging with lineation and form in the same way youve done previously. Would you be willing to speak about how music functions in your work, and how your relationship to sound progresses from text to text?

Gay: Yeah. I think there was some kind of discovery in Catalog, and I think a lot of that element of voice is related to this relationship between writer and reader. I think youre right that a lot of whats happening in The Book of Delights is something related to music, and I think that has a lot to do with who I was reading, my teachers, and who Im reading now too.

Holland: Could you speak more specifically about how mentors or predecessors have influenced sound in your work?

Gay: Sure. For instance, the poet Thomas Lux was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence, and he is just such a meticulous syntacticiannew word[laughs] and very meticulous about diction. I think that theres a lot of relationship between the way the words sound and their meaningand something related to what you asked earlier about the sort of joy and brutality of life. I think Tom really helped me to find a way to ask those questions through the sound and the arrangement of the words themselves.

Holland: One of the central motifs throughout your collections is the act of gardening. I was wondering if you would say a bit more about how gardening became so integral to your work?

Gay: The garden, for me, is the space for some of the most profound metaphors. For instance, a seed, something the size of the head of a pin, has the potential to turn into so much food, like endless food, actually, and thats a deeply embodied metaphor. Not to mention the sensory opportunities therenot to mention the way gardens interrupt our relationship to production and time, the way maybe poems can or do. Theres always dying and blooming happening in gardens.

Holland: Discussing Catalog and the relationship between writer and readerdo you think its possible to fulfill the promise of connection between writer and reader when the poem is an inherently constructed thing?

Gay: I mean, obviously the poem is performing the desire to connect; it is constructing a kind of wish to connect, which becomes, I think, an action of connection. Poems are little events of reaching in and reaching out, and I think those gestures are in some of my poems. This overt reaching out maybe wants to make clear that fact: that I know, if I am lucky, someone is reading this thing. I know, if I am lucky, someone is listening to mewhich is no small generosity, to be listened to. I want to honor that generosity and also honor the smallness or desire or something of the reaching. Maybe its the tenderness of the reaching that those gestures are interested in lighting up. The tenderness of the reaching.

Holland: Youve spoken in the past about the importance of failure or perhaps to characterize it more generously, the importance of maintaining status as a novice, this idea that expertness leads to stagnation and limits creativity. As your writing progresses, what are some ways in which you attempt to maintain that sense of newness and wonder regarding your own work, and was this pursuit a part of your decision to work with a different form in The Book of Delights?

Gay: Yes. Theres something really pleasurable to me about not knowing how to do a thing, about trying to write something I dont know how towhich is really every poem, every piece of writing. But I do think working in other forms or genres also makes that feeling morelike, there is really this kind of discovery happening, because you have no idea how to do the thing you are trying to do. Like even more no idea than normal, which I think allows for things to emerge in ways you could never anticipate. I wasnt thinking this when I got into the Delights, but writing themand all the formal constraints with the project (write by hand, write daily, write quickly)made the fact that I was an amateur really evident to me. And the word amateur, as you know, comes from the word love.

I like, too, that you mention the word wonder. As far as maintaining wonderI think looking closely at anything does that. You know, you look at a dandelion closely for a little while, notice the million flowers in the one, and suddenlyyou know.