The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show: Ross Gay
Ross Gay is an unemployed kettlebell instructor and he is not a demolition man, cool as that sounds. He is the co-author of two chapbooks (Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and River, with Richard Wehrenberg, Jr.) and author of three books of poetry, the most recent of which is Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. He works with a community orchard and grows lots of fruit.
When asked to share his turn-ons, Ross told our intern, J.D.:
I like people with loud-ass laughs. People who laugh ’til they spit their food out or sob or beg or fall down. I like dancing. I like the actual smell of the human body—often, not always. I like working in gardens. I like basketball. I like smelling things. I like dogs—not sure that I’m turned on by them. I like cats, particularly two, named Daisy and Ginger—not exactly turned on by them, but I spend a lot of time kissing them. Turned on by armpits. Loads and loads of turn-ons. I didn’t talk about my sweetheart, but for The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show I’ll tell you a few more things.
Oh I could go on, I’m realizing, forever on this. I’m turned on by this singer my friend just introduced me to, forget her name. I’m turned on by harmony, as in people singing in harmony. I’m turned on by people singing hard—like, intensely, not necessarily while erect, though that can be a turn on too. Turned on and turned on. Turned on by the way some people move their hands while they talk. By the way some people pick things up. A posture. A speaking voice. Turned on by the way bumblebees with their legs pry open the lippish mouths of false indigo flowers in late spring, like really turned on. Spring turns me on. Fuck, does it. All the smells in my yard, for the most part—the peach blooms, the apple blooms, the pear and Asian pear blooms, the latter of which smell like semen, by the way, which is itself a kind of turn-on. The strawberries will turn me on, and get me on my hands and knees to prove it. Or the grape hyacinths, also on my hands and knees to smell them, sometimes pushing through the smell. Sometimes the two cardinal thing. And cities I don’t know well—and cities I do. Being in unfamiliar spaces turns me on. Being with familiar people I like turns me on. Being with unfamiliar people I like turns me on. Being physically very hot, like sweaty and stuff, turns me on. Coconut oil turns me on. Turned on by coffee in a café someplace I don’t really know. Small city parks. Louis Kahn park in Philadelphia at 10th and Pine, I think. Basketball courts in unexpected places. Skateboarding. Hair. Building despite wreckage. Community. Potlucks. Good veggie burgers. So many dreams. The thing on the other side of the hill.
Ross is here to talk about his latest poetry book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, just out from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The Rumpus: Dear sleepy-eyed viewers of America, when we invited our guest to visit this humble show, we had no idea we were getting such a loveable, large-hearted man. Please give it up for Ross Gay! Welcome to the show, Ross!
Ross Gay: Thank you! Thank you so much.
Rumpus: Whoa. I think you’re maybe the tallest guest we’ve had. Comfortable enough over there?
Gay: I’m pretty comfortable. I mean, for a tall person.
Rumpus: Good, good. We’re excited you’re here. Backstage has been abuzz all afternoon. That’s a hell of a list of turn-ons, by the way. J.D. was so rattled I had to calm him with a donut.
Gay: Is that what we give the rattled these days? How about a hug?
Rumpus: Ah, if only J.D. did hugs. What’s the latest news from Indiana? Is there much to do in that garden of yours at this time of year?
Gay: My garden is seething with the good scraps me and my roomie throw out from all our veggies and fruits. I mean the stuff right out the back door is probably about four inches think with, well, you might call it trash. But it’s not, it’s banana peels and apple cores and all that stuff. And gonna cook down and make those plants right close to the back door—a persimmon tree, two little plums, a patch of false indigo, and some Nanking cherries and some grapes—freak the fuck out come spring. Excuse my language! The garden fires me up!
Rumpus: I’ve been reading about this garden in the new book, and it sounds sexy enough. When do you typically head out to those plants and fruit trees and get going? I have no idea when spring reaches your neck of the woods.
Gay: Oh, I’ll probably start putting seeds for things like kale and collards and the Asian greens and even things like scarlet runner beans, which are among the most beautiful things that grow, in March. Once I can work the soil a little bit. Might plant some favas this year too, which dig the cool weather. By mid-March, for sure.
Rumpus: This is one intense garden!
Gay: Oh you have no idea.
Rumpus: Serious business. You know, I went back to your first book, Against Which, this morning, just to see how it compares to the new work. That first book has just as much heart as Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, but it’s edgier and more hard-nosed. I think your garden has tempered that edginess in the new book. I see it in your diction, for example. Does that sound about right to you?
Gay: Oh, interesting. I think that’s probably right. I think probably those poems, also, actually emerge to some extent out of the actual landscape of Philadelphia, which is where I was living. These poems all were written while I was living in Bloomington, all while I had a garden and was working on community gardens and such. So yeah, that makes sense. My life is actually substantially different. Radically different.
Rumpus: These new poems are more effusive, more joyful. And praising too. The book’s title is spot-on. You praise some surprising things here, like weeds and bird shit. Even bird shit that lands on you!
Gay: I think I probably knew I was the only one who was going to praise bird shit, especially bird shit landing in my mouth. Actually. It landed in my mouth, Dave.
Rumpus: Well I didn’t want the viewers to, uh… hey, whatever inspires you, man.
Gay: But it’s fun to say, especially when you’re reading it to a school of like 150 kids, many of whom are like six and seven and eight years old, which I mistakenly did, having to say again and again, “this bird shit in my mouth” or however I say it in the poem, which, eventually, provoked some little nine-year-old child sitting cross-legged in the front row to scream out, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!?!?!”
Rumpus: Ha! That’s great. I’m glad we started this little segment with the topic. Here’s why. I want to know more about the voice speaking to us in Catalog. I know it’s dangerous as a reader to equate the speaker in a book with the poet, but the stories and situations you share in the new work sound so specific, so authentic. When I’m reading your poems I feel like I’m very far from Ezra Pound’s “Mauberley” or H.D.‘s masks. How close does the speaker in your new work resemble the man we know and love, Ross Gay? Are they one in the same?
Gay: It’s me. I mean, you know, it’s a poem’s me, but it’s me.
Rumpus: Has that always been the case? In all of your poems dating back to Against Which?
Gay: Hmm, not as much. No. In Against Which I think there’s often a speaker that’s kind of like me, but you know, who speaks in highly metrical, super-chosen speech, lots of spondees and such. In the second book there are a few poems with a speaker who feels close to me, and many who are entirely invented for the poems. And in these poems, I think to a one—almost to a one—that guy talking is like this guy talking. I talk better in the poems though, it’s true. You know, I make them sound like it’s me talking, as best I can. I mean, as good as I can. I mean, to the best of my ability. I mean… you get my point.
Rumpus: I really really wanted, in the case of your book, for the speaker to be big old lovable you. Hug?
Rumpus: I needed that. Whew.
Let’s dive into one of these poems. You said before the show you thought “Sharing with the Ants” is fairly representative. Can we talk some about it?
Gay: You bet.
Rumpus: The audience can link to it here. In the first quarter of the poem or so you share some hilarious euphemisms loaded with sexual innuendo. The first few I’ve heard before, like “hiding the salami,” but what about these others—“tending the hive” and “eating the melon”? Are they invented? Because if so, you have a talent for inventing good sexual euphemisms.
Gay: Yeah, I’ve always been pretty good at that. It even said so on my fourth grade report card; remember the ones with the little keys: 1 = Good manners; 2 = Helpful; 3 = Orderly; 4 = Talent for inventing good sexual euphemisms; 5 = Follows directions; etc.
Rumpus: I love that kind of humor… and the whole concept of starting a poem from this angle of approach.
Gay: It’s ridiculous, I know. I think with a few of these poems I start with this kind of overt talking to a reader, a reader who makes assumptions, etc. And in this one I’m anticipating the assumptions as a kind of mislead or something—you think the poem’s going to be about sex, and then you realize it’s not, and then you realize, umm, well maybe it is, if human/ant coitus counts.
Rumpus: What buoys that first half of “Sharing with the Ants,” where there’s a lot of establishing of voice, is all the sexual humor and sharp sensory detail. Even though there’s a good deal of warm-up before the dramatic element kicks in, you keep luring us in without energy slacking. It’s funny.
But all the tonal variations help too. For example, “…and the meticulously unnamed zone behind the knee/over the hamstring into/use your imagination for Chrissakes.” Great turn there.
Gay: Tonal variation, that’s right. I was just realizing, reading this book by Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey called The Undercommons, that I trust tonal variation. I trust people who, in the same conversation, use more than one voice, more than one register. Maybe it speaks to a kind of urgency. But I think it might, more accurately, speak to a kind of intimacy.
Rumpus: In a poem like this one, that is so voice-driven, those tonal riffs are daring and elegantly constructed without feeling too determined. I admire them.
Rumpus: But the poem is really about the anecdote that comes in the poem’s second half, right? We’re about 50 lines in, when I guess the cue arrives here: “…but that’s not at all/what I’m talking about/I mean actually/sharing with the ants/which I did September 21/a Friday in 2012,” etc. It’s another surprising, winning swerve.
Gay: That’s right. The beginning is lots of fun misdirection, and also a kind of hint toward where it might actually go, but a way of getting close to a reader, teasing, cajoling, mind-reading, talking shit. The poem, though, is all about biting into a fig and there being ants in it. That’s the poem.
Rumpus: Can you remember what it was like to write all that “fun misdirection”? At some point I can imagine you maybe worrying, while you’re composing, if it’s getting out of hand.
Then again, in another poem, “To the Mistake,” you possibly tip us off to your method when you write, “who/knows where the poem/will lead you.” That’s an ars poetica right there. Maybe even an anthem.
Gay: Nah, I don’t think so. I think I was enjoying pushing it, I think I had a sense of how far. I figured if it started to bore me then it would bore a reader, but I wasn’t quite bored yet.
Rumpus: Good for you. It reminded me of good standup comedy.
Gay: Yes! I was just talking to my friend Malik and we were talking about Richard Pryor, about what an amazing teacher he is to poets. Timing, timing, timing.
Rumpus: For sure. So you really ate some ants, huh? Gardening isn’t for wussies. First bird shit landing in your mouth, then ants in your fruit…
Gay: No, I didn’t eat them. I gobbled around them. I left them in peace. Except for that one ant, with whom I got especially cozy.
Rumpus: These fruit trees, and especially the fig tree, play an important role in Catalog. They appear several times over. The fig tree is in some sense the center of the book’s joy. It’s a communal place.
Gay: Yeah, I think you’re right.
Rumpus: Everyone gathers around and eats figs! A fig tree in every neighborhood, I say.
Gay: Me too. And you know, up in Indiana we grow figs. In the Bloomington Community Orchard, we grow figs. At my house, we grow figs. Where it can be negative 15 degrees. And this is why I love that you mention those figs as a central feature of the book, because they seem to many, where I live, unlikely.
Rumpus: So the fig tree magically thrives in a place it theoretically shouldn’t.
Gay: People go nuts when you show them or give them figs up there. Additionally, in my story, the first fresh figs I ever ate were from my dear friend’s dad, and that guy, as I mention in the poem, escaped from his country. And had the most miraculous garden I’ve ever been in. Something about celebrating what seems unlikely, unlikely and beautiful.
Rumpus: You know how to celebrate life more than most poets. Most citizens too, I think. There’s very little cynicism or even sarcasm in this new book. You seem an expert on joy and make a lot of space in the book for praise. Even the weeds get praise. Even birds shitting on you!
That said, I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the book is overloaded with happiness in a Hallmark card kind of way. The joy you express is tempered by true loss, like your father’s passing, the loss of your neighbor, and a few others I noted.
Gay: I think I’m trying to let the poems be gestures of or artifacts of the discipline of gratitude, the discipline of praise. And the discipline, maybe, of joy, which I think truly exists in the deep appreciation of sorrow.
Rumpus: Can you talk about that more—the “discipline of joy”?
Gay: That we are not alive without profound sorrow, loss, horror even. And that, maybe, is what makes the praise or the gratitude feel real, if it feels real. Everything is going away. Terrible things are happening. A bird, maybe a titmouse, snuggled in the crotch of my little plum tree this morning and didn’t fly off when I tossed the compost out there. The bird’s more meaningful, more delightful, more joyful, knowing that today I found out about a friend’s wife passing, the mother of two kids. You know.
Rumpus: Darkness always lurks. In another poem in the book, titled “Spoon,” you write, “I swore when I got into this poem I would convert/this sorrow into some kind of honey with the little musics/I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts/of our desolation.” Moments like these speak to what you’ve just said.
Gay: That’s right. Sometimes sadness wins.
Rumpus: And speaking of joy and pain and the like, can you please explain this clip to our audience? Break it down for us like you would a workshop poem.
Gay: Well, a few things. My shorts were falling down. My shoes were cool as hell. My brother Patrick Rosal is smooth as hell. And I got footwork for weeks, I don’t care what anyone says. The move we do with the clap beneath the legs is called the “Girmay.” Song is “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness. What else do you want to know? We might come out with the sequel, watch out.
Rumpus: You think we can make a trio?
Gay: Can you dance?
Rumpus: I have a few robot moves.
Gay: I’m sorry if it was offensive the way I asked that.
Rumpus: Honestly? I can probably just barely out-dance this guy. What were you and Patrick up to there? Context is everything, as they say.
Gay: When he was teaching for the year in Austin I went and visited him and, well, duh, we decided we wanted to go choreograph a dance. So we spent a couple hours in the dance studio dancing, then we choreographed a dance real quick. A beautiful, beautiful dance.
Rumpus: It is beautiful. I’ve watched it about 37 times. My wife thinks I’m creepy.
I just have no idea how we can translate your many talents to the viewing audience. Most of them still think poets are brooding, beret-wearing, clove cigarette-smoking, slouchy, neurotic introverts.
Gay: Yeah, well at my book party in Philly, in Pat’s apartment, we danced hard enough after the poetry that the neighbor downstairs’ light got knocked off. I think we busted the circuits.
Rumpus: You’re a man of many talents. You also paint, right?
Gay: I do paint. And I make lots of drawings, mostly childish and inappropriate drawings. One day we will have a show. After I’m dead.
Rumpus: You paint, dance, write poems, teach at a top university, grow fruits and vegetables. Is there anything you can’t do? Like, if I rattle off some activities, will you tell us how competent you are at them?
Rumpus: Scale of 1-10? 1 equals lousy, 10 is expert.
Gay: Good. 9.
Gay: Compared to non-wrestlers in my age group, probably a 9. To wrestlers, probably a 3, 2.5, truth be told.
Gay: Oh, when I’m on my game an easy 10. Admittedly I’m not always on my game, because, you know, I can be self-loathing and self-protective and paranoid and vindictive and resentful and… whoa! Sorry about that. Glee glee glee! I’m a 10+!
Rumpus: So I guess you’re not in the market for one of these then. I’ve got a used one I’m trying to unload.
How about whistling?
Gay: Probably a 7. I have a friend who is much better.
Rumpus: Geez, you’re good at everything. Cooking?
Gay: I knew you were going to ask it. I was waiting on it, and now I’m gonna crack it over right field: I’m a knockout. An 11.
Rumpus: An 11! Can I be your roommate?
Gay: Check it out: lentil barley kale soup. Dal. Chickpea sweet potato stew. Veggie burgers you’d cry over. Best oven fries going. Lentil sloppy joes. Oh, I could go on and on. Sweet potato cookies that my sweetheart is actually selling out of every single day at her new vegetarian cafe and juice bar called PULP!
Gay: Seriously, I can cook my ass off. Though it’s true I like my cooking more than anyone else, so take that whole last thing with a grain of salt. Except for the cookies, and PULP. It’s really yummy.
Rumpus: I want to try some of these “stove top sweet potato biscuits” you write about in your poem “Spoon.” Sounds like something I could eat right out of the pan.
Gay: Oh, those are ridiculous.
Rumpus: Damn, I’m starving! Okay, enough about the gourmet food.
I also happen to know you’re a basketball freak. Any weakness in your game?
Gay: Not in my dreams. I fly in my dreams, lord. These days, you know, turf toe for the last 15 years hasn’t been great, and this weird thing in my right knee is a bit tricky. But…let me be real honest. I’m a good basketball player. I’m not a great basketball player. But I’m mostly pretty smart on the court and try hard and am hard to move. If I’m playing with decent or very good players, I’m usually golden. Very quick guards will get by me. Very good post players will handle me. My ball handling is suspect. My shooting is ok. This is SO WEIRD because, seriously, I will never lose a 2 vs. 2, as long as my teammate can do good stuff with a screen. Believe me, when my buddy Dave and I play the college kids, we never lose. We send them and their diapers packing. All because he knows how to work with the screen and makes his 15 footers like clockwork. I don’t know. This is a very big can of worms. This is the most important question of my life. Lots of weaknesses. Fewer than in yours.
Rumpus: Hmm… I hope we get to play sometime. For your next appearance on Late Nite we’re going to set up a dance floor and a cooking station with ingredients and utensils. And we’re going to make sure we have a hoop set up in the studio too. You and I can do a little clinic on the pick and roll, get the audience involved. Poetry is poetry, but basketball is poetry too.
Rumpus: So we’ve got this little closing procedure on Late Nite called the Three Obstructions. Heard of it?
Rumpus: It’s an assignment meant to put a full-court press on your poetic neurons. How’s that for a stupid metaphor?
Gay: It’s a good stupid metaphor! Kudos!
Rumpus: Okay then. Here you go.
If anyone in the audience wants to give this a try, post your draft in the box down below. We’ll send a copy of Ross’s book to the first viewer who posts a response.
Your Three Obstructions:
- Write a poem in 50 words or less.
- Title: “Tiny Ode”
- No bugs, fruits, birds, or birdshit allowed.
Rumpus: How intimidated are you? Is this a layup or a prayer from half-court?
Gay: Tiny bit scared. But I’ll be ok…I hope.
Rumpus: My expectations are high, I must admit.
I did not stop for the car smashed
the wrong way on 287
because I was waved on
by one of the no fewer
than ten folks who had already done so
and calling for help
and pressing their hands
to the glass to say you’re ok.
Rumpus: 49 words! Just under the wire. Was it hard writing such a short poem?
Gay: No, but I meant to break the rule, shit. Just like my best students do. Smile and nod at me and then do what they want.
Rumpus: Anything you want to plug before we roll outta here?
Gay: If you’re in Jersey or Pennsylvania or the Western Hemisphere, get ye the tempeh—coconut, bacon, cashew—cheeseburger with the inimitable PULP kale immediately, at PULP. Seriously. And check out Ledge Mule Press, too. Cool new project in Bloomington I’m helping with, making books and teaching little kids and having readings and putting out a 7-inch featuring Rachel McKibbens and Matt Hart in a few months, watch out!
Rumpus: World, watch out.
Visit Ross Gay’s website here.
Stay tuned for Episode #11 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with a very special guest.