Rumpus Exclusive: Cover Reveal for Be Holding


We are thrilled to bring you this exclusive first look at the cover of Ross Gay’s forthcoming book-length poem, Be Holding, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Pitt Poetry Series on September 8, 2020.

Be Holding is a love song to legendary basketball player Julius Erving—known as Dr. J—who dominated courts in the 1970s and ‘80s as a small forward for the Philadelphia ‘76ers. But this book-length poem is more than just an ode to a magnificent athlete. Through a kind of lyric research, or lyric meditation, Ross Gay connects Dr. J’s famously impossible move from the 1980 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers to pick-up basketball and the flying Igbo and the Middle Passage, to photography and surveillance and state violence, to music and personal histories of flight and familial love. Be Holding wonders how the imagination, or how our looking, might make us, or bring us, closer to each other. How our looking might make us reach for each other. And might make us be reaching for each other. And how that reaching might be something like joy.

Below, Ross discusses how and why he chose his cover art.


Ross Gay on selecting the cover art for Be Holding (Pitt Poetry Series, September 8, 2020):

I’ve been working for some time on a nonfiction book about my relationship to the land, and part of that story, one of the many origin stories of that relationship, involves my great-grandfather’s story of flight and reinvention. While he was working as a sharecropper he was picking extra cotton and selling it on the side in some kind of arrangement with a white man who, eventually, ratted him out. Something happened after which my great-grandfather disappeared, flew, north, changing his name, our names, in the process.

I went to the Library of Congress in March of 2016 to poke around in their WPA Farm Bureau photos to see if I could find any pictures from Henry Jones’s Arkansas. I wanted to see what a cotton field or a sharecropper’s shack might look like at that time. Something of the landscape or the sky or the soil. I wanted to know where he would’ve been, what he would’ve been looking at, or walking through.

As I was flipping through the many drawers of photos looking for my great-grandfather, I came across this photograph, which is not in Arkansas, and is about twenty years later than what I was looking for, but it was exactly what I was looking for, though I didn’t know it until I found it, and it was for what I sometimes call The Dr. J Poem (because among the things the poem does is meditate on the best lay-up ever, not up for debate), a poem I also call Flight, a poem that is also called, now, Be Holding.

The boy wears a Lindy cap looking just beneath the gaze of the camera next to his grandmother. The grandmother looks just past the camera, arms crossed. Another child peeks from inside the house. The boy looks just beneath the camera’s gaze, and to the side. There’s a key on a string around the grandmother’s neck. There’s something in the boy’s hands he holds with all the care, all the tenderness, in the world.

It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that this photograph holds so many of the questions, the wonderings, that this poem, this attempt, needed to have: flight, the imagination, looking, holding, love. Love probably especially. Not probably. Not probably at all. Love especially.


Photograph of Ross Gay by Natasha Komoda. Book design by Joel W. Coggins. Photograph on book cover: black-and-white film negative of a grandmother and her two grandchildren, Heard County, Georgia, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.