If you highlight the word “delight” on Microsoft Word and click on the Synonyms tab, you get word associations like “pleasure,” “enjoyment,” and “happiness”—mostly positive things. However, delight is more than just the happy-go-lucky and charm found in the everyday. Ross Gay’s newest book adds layers to what it means to have delight and be delighted by the world.
The Book of Delights, forthcoming February 12 from Algonquin Books, is both practice and perfection in an unassuming package. One hundred and two prose pieces, known as “essayettes,” span a year in Gay’s life. These pieces reflect and examine the natural world, masculinity, racism, and other topics with vibrancy. Most essays are a few paragraphs, a page or two at maximum, but it’s not the width or length of the pieces that ultimately grabbed my attention. It was the heart and intelligence found within his daily introspections.
Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Gay is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.
We spoke recently over the phone about The Book of Delights, his practice of writing poetry and prose, the “outtakes” of a collection, and how we are all ultimately connected to the earth and one another.
The Rumpus: In the preface to Delights, you explain that these were daily practices, including a great parenthetical about skipping some days. Do you think having that sort of guideline helped make this the book what it eventually became? Or was it just there from the start?
Ross Gay: I thought it was interesting to give it these guidelines—it did seem that was a way to really lean into the idea that this was a discipline, a practice. I don’t write every single day in my regular life. I get moved and I get obsessed and write like crazy for a couple weeks, and then I kinda don’t for a little bit, but I think there was something about this being a thing of “this is what you’re doing. Do other things, but at least do this near to every day as you possibly can.” It was like a framework. The discipline of the project was the project itself.
Rumpus: There’s this sort of pressure whether it’s from social media online or in writing circles that you have to write every single day, to have a sort of X-Y-Z structure. While that works for some people, clearly that’s not always the most realistic standard.
Gay: I think it’s just different people are different. We’re mostly different at different times of our lives. Even the word discipline, I use it in a certain kind of way. The word I mean is practice. Practice in a way where everything becomes practice. I like the word practice more than the word discipline.
Rumpus: It’s great you mention that because in your essay “Just a Dream,” you discover that the word “essay” is from the old French word for “trial.” You have that great line that says “maybe everything is always only a warm up” and you talk about how sometimes the discipline or the project is just that. It’s always just a warm up, and that we might not always get to that final result.
Gay: That’s exactly right. Part of what I liked about doing this practice was the idea of an effort or a trial or a warm up. That the relationship to work is not of greatness or triumph. It’s more of a little effort, a little meandering.
It’s only occurring to me now that part of the pleasure in doing a thing every day suggests that it’s going to be something you wrote in a day. It’s not going to be something you wrote in four years, it’s not something you wrote in three years. It’s going to be something you drafted in a day. Let’s imagine that as worthy of conversation.
Rumpus: Sometimes when you write in a certain emotional state or any state of mind, it’s hard returning to that state, especially when you draft something in a day. At the same time, there’s that sort of immediate truth to it that you write down, and sometimes it’s hard getting back to that. It’s interesting reading Delights and seeing all this being published and yet it still feels immediate.
Gay: I hear what you’re saying. Part of my revision process would be write them, tidy them up, read them out loud, hear how they would be heard, revise them more, and show them to someone or have a professional reader—that whole editorial process. But that is a good question. How do you keep that spirit of immediacy in the thing? They are what they are. They aren’t binding. They’re daily.
I’m working on a book that I’ve been writing on or thinking about for six, seven, eight years. That kind of arrival that you might get at a book you’ve written over a course of a year is going to be substantially different from the arrival you get at a book you’ve been thinking about for five or six or seven years.
Rumpus: I think some projects need more time to stew over, depending on that immediacy and that urgency. There’s this idea about writers that everything is done in a dark room and there’s not much transparency. What I love about Delights is that it feels open. I can read a couple of the pieces at night and then go back to it the next day and learn something new. Kind of like a book of days.
Gay: I love that. I love the idea of people dipping in here and there, reading a few. That makes me happy. Also the size of the book. Easy to carry.
Rumpus: So I keep thinking about Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and I read it for the first time in graduate school in a seminar about duende. One of your first essays in the book, “Flower in the Curb,” mentions Don Belton and I immediately thought of your poem “spoon” in Catalog, which is about and for him. There’s that innate connection there. How do you feel about Catalog being a kind of companion to Delights? Does it matter that Delights is prose?
Gay: I’m happy to think of them as companions in some way. I also think it’s really clear that the person who wrote Catalog has the same concerns and obsessions and even musical inclinations, etc., in terms of making syntax and making poetic lines or sentences, that they’re the same people. It feels lovely there’s occasionally in Delights an echo to Catalog. It feels nice to me.
Rumpus: I think there will always be subjects we come back to. People that know your writing often see themes of gardening and nature. In Delights, I’m finding themes of travel and motion and transience, and I’m really fascinated by that because when you’re on a plane or driving, you don’t have a lot of control and I think that relates a lot to writing.
Gay: The year I was writing that book I was traveling quite a bit. I write well when I’m away from home; usually I feel turned up a little bit, and I think that’s probably because I’m looking a little bit closer when I’m in a new space. I love that if you’re on an airplane you’re out of control. Part of the way we write is to be out of control. It never occurred to me before that to be in a situation where we have to relinquish control… You’re not steering the airplane. In a way, I know a lot of my best writing happens when there is a kind of relinquishment. That’s something I hadn’t thought of before.
Rumpus: I think there really is that craft element of never being in the same place or giving up a part of yourself in order to access another part, whether that’s from some sort of exterior or interior force. So reading Delights and kind of picking up on the travel made it more universal. We’re always on the move somewhere, always in a car or flying.
Gay: Yeah, exactly.
Rumpus: One of my favorite pieces was “Tomato on Board,” the little bit about bringing the tomato plant on the plane. The last line in particular struck me: “… the encyclopedia of human gestures.” You were able to take that strange, fun, and unique moment and then compare it to when you stop the car too quickly and your arms fling out to protect a person in the passenger seat, or in this case, the tomato plant. How hard is it for you to find the small, maybe even strange things and bring it to the forefront?
Gay: That’s the practice thing. I do feel like what’s neat about writing this book this particular way is that I had this job for the year to have my alert on for the things that delighted me. To be with your eyes turned up like that for that specific thing. It was a challenge at first, to dive into the practice, but once the practice got going, it was everywhere. The beautiful mundane is everywhere. It feels, and I suspected in the process of writing the book, the more I was on the lookout, the more I was like “God, wow—beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty.” So that’s what the experience was. You write it and you write it and you try to get down into that feeling. What is that feeling, what is that feeling? I wrote a lot of these things and I came down to one hundred and two of them. I could get pretty close sometimes, you know?
Rumpus: You mention that one hundred and two of these were published. Did you have any that didn’t make the cut that were kind of interesting?
Gay: Lots, lots. There were probably another forty or fifty that were in the mix. I was just going through some notebooks, and there were a bunch that had interesting things, but I just couldn’t get a hook on them. And then I had a notebook that I left on an airplane—one of my best ones was in there and I never got around to transcribing it. Lots of ones that were pretty solid and just maybe were redundant, but plenty of them were not good, but kind of neat.
Rumpus: I feel that with any collection, whether it’s prose or poetry, there’s always some type of blooper reel or outtakes, which doesn’t quite exist in the written word. I’m always curious what doesn’t make it into the actual publication, but at the same time, talking about practice and trials, there’s always some value to having that still exist in some shape or form even if it’s not published.
Gay: I agree. If I were to have the opportunity to read an unfinished book by some writer who I admire, like a “failed” essay, I would be very interested in seeing it. Like, how does their failure indicate something about what they think about what they want to share? To just listen to outtakes of stuff. Sometimes outtakes have moments of beauty that are more beautiful than what we think of as the final product. I’m with you. I think it’s very interesting to know what doesn’t make it.
Rumpus: I know that I’ve cannibalized lines of unfinished poems to become new poems, and I can tell exactly where certain lines or ideas were taken from in those poem drafts. Was that present in Delights as well? Things that kind of cannibalized or ate each other and then you just combined?
Gay: Yeah, yeah. I know that parts of some essays bled into others. I feel like even some of the pieces that didn’t work, they became other things. They kind of hang around. That’s the other thing about practice—it’s all just material. Remnants and artifacts. Sometimes the artifacts are useful to be reused.
Rumpus: In preparing for this interview, I read some of your earlier interviews and book reviews, and I kept finding the word “tender” pop up in association with your writings. What, if anything, does tender and tenderness actually mean to you?
Gay: I love the word tender. I think it’s one of my favorite words. I think what I think of tenderness, I do think of an available softness. Maybe vulnerability is another word for it, but I love the word tender. It does imply touch. That there’s a risk involved in something like that. I love that the word is kind of complicated. A tender is one who tends, the way you tend a garden. A tender of a garden. Tender is also an exchange, like legal tender. This word has all these layers and one of them is softness.
Rumpus: In “Get Thee to the Nutrient Cycle,” you talk about urine, bottling it, and that almost unfortunate incident with your partner’s daughter. What I really love about that piece and what your work deals with in general is this idea of waste being expelled from us. Even the very word waste implies this sort of negativity when it’s not. It’s natural and you’re using it for something else that requires it. You’re able to write about this in a way where it’s not gross.
Gay: Sometimes I read it and people are like, “Gross.”
Rumpus: I don’t think it’s gross. Generally, people treat it as a taboo.
Gay: You know, the more I look at this book, the more it occurs to me that it’s such a study of interdependence. So often the things in the book that delighted and delight me are things that shine a light on interdependence, or shows how interdependence is constantly happening. Like a kid wanting to high-five me thinking I’m doing homework. I feel like some of what delight is is like these momentary flashes on the web that connects us all.
I was recently making these broadsides, and these little cards on a letterpress and I was using the word “interdepend.” I gave that to some people and it made people think, “What? What does that mean, to interdepend?” I was thinking, one of the sorrows of a certain kind of life or belief is that we are not deeply intertwined. That to me feels like the end of the world. There’s kind of an American ethos sometimes that valorizes independence, something as a state of independence, but it’s not. It’s just a blindness to interdependence. Even talking about saving your pee is a way of recognizing that we are intertwined with the garden, but also the earth, and our awareness that we are the earth and we are nothing without the earth, that feels like not only a delight, but a fundamental truth.
Being in a garden, writing about the earth and meditating on what that is reminds us that interdependence is not occasional, it is fundamental. It is structural. Everything that we do is reliant on something else. I’m breathing, I’m breathing because of the generosity of the fucking oxygen. If a plant won’t grow because the sun didn’t come out… God, I’m so grateful.
Photograph of Ross Gay © Natasha Komoda.