Ross Gay Waters the Seed of Joy: A Rumpus Interview


I first met Ross Gay during my MFA program, and if he’s at AWP, or any other writing conference, he is un-missable. He is many things—an award-winning essayist and poet, but also a community gardener and former basketball coach—and these roles are the details that till the soil of what blooms in his writing. During a part of the pandemic when it seemed like the lockdown in California turned the corner from “stay home for a month” to “this isn’t ending anytime soon,” I went live on Facebook to read his poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” as a watering hole around which friends near and far might gather, exulting in and longing for the time before, of gathering together in-person, choking up at the end as Gay writes of all the hands touching—pulling down figs to feed strangers who emerge from this experience changed.

Gay exudes a generosity of spirit. It’s true in person and on the page, evidenced in his newest collection of essays, Inciting Joy. I’m glad that poetry is how I got to know his work because it explains his approach to essays too. Joy is the follow-up to his previous collection of essays, Book of Delights. Over Zoom I mentioned how the poet comes through in his prose, to which he replied, “I love the catalog—big lists. I was reading Inciting Joy for the audiobook, and reading it out loud I realized I was a list-making motherfucker.” So, we start with poetry and delve into unknowing as a way to forge a deeper path into creative work.


The Rumpus: How does litany provide the rhythm of remembering? Can repetition be an anchor in writing, or even a spin-off into something new like what cover songs can do in music?

Ross Gay: Whatever you call it—psychological or musical or spiritual, psychic—whatever mechanisms by which we dig—I wonder if litany is like that.

“You are who I love”—if you say it enough times, it’s like first you’re sweeping and then you’re digging, and then you’re really plumbing. It makes me think of a cover that I love and I reference barely—if you call it a cover—it’s a standard. It’s John Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things.” If you see or listen to him doing that, the tool is melody. John Coltrane, by repeating it and digressing or departing from it, he’s gonna come back, and then it’s like, “Oh my God. {laughs} We went so fucking deep, we went so fucking far, and here we argued with this thing that we can mostly kind of hold onto.”

Rumpus: You give so much homage in the book to other artists. What is it about the cover song that transfixes you? Do you feel like a different way of looking at the cover is that it celebrates the connectedness of artists?

Gay: Part of what’s so beautiful about that piece [“The 10th Incitement, How Big the Boat: The Cover” wherein Gay writes about the 1988 NAACP Image Awards where Dionne Warwick is honored and Luther Vandross covers her song, “A House is not a Home”] is that the performance of Luther Vandross is just amazing, as to be expected. But it’s also the way that she’s witnessing—she’s beholding his holding of her song. So, there is this kind of celebration of lineage in a way, or a celebration of ancestry. And that’s a really moving thing to me. It is also like artistic ancestry. So, how do we take what we’ve been shown how to do and keep carrying it forward? That’s really beautiful to me.

Cover songs are instances of sharing. They trouble the idea of property and many versions of a certain thing—it suggests that, “Oh, we can all have a kind of a way of doing this thing or interacting with this thing or holding this thing.” None of us has it.

And I mentioned at the end of that essay, and when I was first drafting this essay for the first in  Book of Delights—that’s a departure actually. The last time I tried to write about this I was like, “Luther, whenever he sings songs, he takes them.” But I was like, “That’s not it. What actually is happening—the reason Dionne Warwick is crying—is cause she’s like, ‘My God, the boat is so big. There’s room for so many of us.'” I think cover songs do that. Like all those things, the ancestry and the lineage, but also this kind of capaciousness. We can share—we can inhabit these things together.

Rumpus: What role do departures play in your writing? Does Lucille Clifton unconsciously sneak into the family reunion? Do the departures happen on the off-shoot or later on when you’re coming back to the work and thinking Lucille Clifton needs to be at that family reunion?

Gay: Totally. Both ways. One, in the original making of the thing, our minds—I should say my mind—is aggressive and it’s the way that everything is like something else. And everyone looks like that person walking down the street, [who] reminds me of so-and-so, and then, I’m there with them. And so, there is a way that that comes out.

I feel like the best simile I’ll ever write is in that [10th Incitement] essay, and it’s where I talk about Dionne Warwick’s face at Luther Vandross’ cover of her song being like a basketball {laughs}. That’s a departure that’s gonna leave a lot of people behind. Some people will be, “Holy shit.” Right. Some people will be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And that’s kind of a function in a way the departure lives. We don’t all go to the same places.

But to come back to your question, in early drafting processes—that’s very much part of what happens. In the revision process, I think probably some of those departures get whittled out. And then other ways where I’m trying to sort of get deeper into what the essay’s trying to show me, then something like Lucille Clifton will show up or a different song will show up or some way that might feel like a leap, but it’s a leap that helps me get to where the essay seems to want to go. So, both.

Rumpus: I love the image of the boat and the idea of it being big enough. Can you parse this idea of unfixing poems as an alternative way to workshop and as a way to find yourself wandering or allowing others permission to wander—permission to have curiosity instead of removing that from the process?

Gay: Even as I start, I wanna recommend Fannie Howe’s essay “Bewilderment” and other folks I’m very indebted to: Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, and, so many of my beloveds: Patrick Rosal and Aracelis and all these people who I’ve been trying to think through these things with.

The thing of unfixing to me—it’s a relationship I have in my own work. It’s a relationship I think I want to have in my relationships actually, which is to say that, like my poems, like someone else’s work, essays, whatever, like who I want to be in conversation with or relationship with—I don’t want to assume that I know what the thing ought to be.

I don’t want to impose a system of knowledge on the thing. I don’t want to impose an end point on the thing, which is to say I don’t wanna fix the thing. Often, when I’ve been in and taught workshops, and when I’ve witnessed other young writers in workshops, I notice that there’s two objectives: one is to fix the piece—you could have a good workshop if something got fixed. And the other thing is that you could have a good workshop if people liked your work. So, it’s like “I’m fixable” or “I’m good.” And those just sort of, on principle, seem to be antithetical to the side of this question of how you make a meaningful thing or how you make a transformative thing.

So, can I be fixed? Can I be good? That’s a kind of sorrow. And, when I see it in classes, I have stopped doing it, but still because I’m around grad students a lot, I’m still around that impulse to be like, “Yeah, but if you did this, or if they did that or  . . . ” {laughs} For years, I would read books with this thing rather than just witnessing what I’m reading and observing it. I would often be like, “Yeah. If they were to cut that stanza,” which is just a shitty way to relate to the world. “Oh, this could be better, this could be, here’s how you can fix it.”

So the idea of unfixing to me is that sort of revisionary process [where] you have something, and can you observe that something with enough tenderness and curiosity that that thing or relationship or person will actually reveal itself to you in ways you could never have anticipated? And partly, the unanticipatability of them is that they’re not going to be right.

Rightness and goodness and fixedness is not the objective. The objective is to just be curious and wonder about the thing, which doesn’t at all require that you forsake learning how to write in meter. It doesn’t mean you have to forsake reading all your elders and listening to all the music and doing all this stuff. It just probably means, having some kind of different relationship to what it is that we’re making. And largely I think that relationship is like, “Can you just observe with curiosity? Can you observe with curiosity and can you ask questions?”

Rumpus: “[A] good poem, like any good art, is unruly, insubordinate, uncoachable, insolent, and churlish.” So, how do you ask a poem what it wants, and did you employ that idea in these essays?

Gay: Yeah, totally. This is how I think about that idea of asking a poem what it wants. It’s funny because when you talk about it, in a way, you get into the mystical—and I think that can be part of what is a little bit resistant. What we can feel—I can feel—resistant to is that, in a way, when you’re asking what a poem wants, there’s some kind of submission to something beyond oneself, you know?

And I think we often approach poems, like the rest of our lives, with a fantasy of being able to dominate the thing—to impose our will on a thing.

In a very practical way, what I’ll do is write something, and then, in the process of revising the thing, I will try to observe, take note, be present, wonder where there are fissures in the poem, wonder where there are places that seem to want to break apart, wonder where are things that seem like maybe something is being concealed or withheld.

There’s almost not a way to talk about it outside of a certain kind of relationship to the mystical, to the unknown, because it feels actually kin to that experience. It’s like relating to your dreams in a certain kind of way, which I take very seriously. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to think about your dreams and to wonder what’s beneath your dreams. What are your dreams showing you or telling you, which maybe is a long way of saying, I don’t know exactly how. <laugh>

Rumpus: Maybe it’s just the act of being open. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s just being open to it and not feeling like you have to hammer the thing into…

Gay: That’s it. That’s it. I feel like this book is a lot of refusal, actually. The refusal of, I’m not going to know where this conversation’s going to go. I’m not going to know what you feel about something until I ask you. I’m not going to know what this poem is going to become. I’m going to do this weird thing that we can do, which is to have all of this training and information and skill. And I’m still not going to know what the last line of this poem was going to be until it avails itself to me, and it avails itself to me in a way that maybe will change me forever.

Rumpus: Your footnotes are like postcards of incitements. I’m curious about your approach to footnotes. How did you decide what was going to be in the footnote? There’s so much departure that happens there.

Gay: Yeah, yeah. I remember when I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and he has these footnotes where it feels like there’s a book happening and then there’s someone behind the book who comes out and is like, “You need to know this if you’re gonna understand what we’re talking about. You need to know this, this, and this.” Whenever that book came out, it just stuck with me. I love the marginalia—people who have good, weird lyric end notes or such things, I read that first. I’m into marginalia. I feel like you find a lot there and so that’s where some of that stuff comes from.

I think that’s the origin. But I’ve been trying to think, in these various ways, what are the formal ways that we can be in a conversation with someone and reach across the table and be like, “Hang on, you gotta know this. If we’re gonna go on, you gotta know that this is actually what I’m thinking. Like, you might hear the rest of this shit, but if I don’t tell you this, you’re gonna be thinking I think this, but you should probably know this.”

Part of the thing that I love is that it allows me to have supplementary essays. Some of them are a paragraph; some of them are short, some are a line, like a regular footnote. The longest one is probably the same length as the shortest essay. And there are footnotes where you’re just like, “Oh shit. I just learned a lot about his dad and his relationship, or I just learned a lot about how he’s thinking about this book by Herman Melville and that he’s gone way off.”

Had they not been there, it would’ve been kind of an interesting, but maybe, way more shallow conversation actually. I’m curious about these formal devices we can use to get closer and deeper. But closer is really that thing in a conversation where someone interrupts you to be like, “I want you to know this thing about me. I want you to know this thing I’ve been thinking,” which is like the coolest thing about conversation, when people are like, “There’s all this backstory to why I’m thinking about this.”

Rumpus: It’s going back to where you were talking about the relationship and the unfixing of the relationship. So, you’re unfixing the relationship so that it actually can go deeper, right? So, there can be more knowing.

Gay: That’s it. That’s it. Yeah. I think those footnotes are ways of unknowing. Because those footnotes—they emerged through the process of revising. And so, I feel like it was actually a technical or a formal way to unknow the essays.

Rumpus: Does the completion of one incitement spark another one? Is it accurate to think of joy as a seed that keeps going?

Gay: I think so. And one of the reasons I say in the introduction: “There’s a lot of stuff I could have written about, but I want you to do it. I couldn’t get to it.” I think that’s absolutely the case. One of the projects of this book is to pay attention, to study, note, wonder about these various practices that seem to be places where we’re able to actually learn, tend to one another’s bodies changing, tend to each other’s sorrows in a way, but the fact that we’re not long for this place, and everything else and all of these practices that—not explicitly, but just seem to be born of that understanding which is, “Oh, we have to figure out how to care for one another—to make room for one another and share with each other.”

Paying attention to those puts your eyes on, like, “Oh, and that too is kind of a practice that is kind of like an incitement to joy or that incites joy. And that too.” So, absolutely. I feel like that’s actually one of the actual dangers, <laugh> of joy: It’s not like happiness at buying a pair of shoes. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about these practices that alert us to our fundamental need for one another because that, as I understand it, as I think about it, as I think I’ve witnessed it, is where the institutions—which have a lot to say with how our lives are able to be lived. The institutions—which steal a lot of our fucking capacity for survival—are threatened by that. When we are practicing being beholden to one another, this other world is possible and this other world is happening all the time.

The more we witness it, the more we’re able to witness it and replicate it and witness it and replicate it and witness it and replicate it. So yeah, that’s a long way of saying, I think joy incites joy. Or, to say it better, I think joy incites more of the practices that incite more joy that incites more of the practices that incite joy.

Rumpus: I want to stick with seeds and this sentiment of yours that “Planting seeds is an act of faith.” Are words seeds too?

Gay: Totally. Absolutely. There’s some degree of faith or something that writing a book like this will be some kind of seed for something. At the very least, a seed that will kind of transform my body into another thing—transform my life into another thing. But I’m totally hoping that this would also reach someone else and offer questions to someone else who then might offer questions to someone else. And maybe that someone else would be me.



Author photo by Natasha Komoda

Annelies Zijderveld is a poet, cookbook author, and writer of arts, food, and culture based in Oakland. Her cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea (Andrews McMeel, 2015) was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of their favorite cookbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Scapegoat Review, The Acentos Review, Ethel Zine, L.A. Taco, and more. You can find her articles in epicurious, Eater SF, San Francisco Classical Voice, the Kitchn, and others. She is Assistant Editor of Interviews for The Rumpus and holds an MFA in poetry from New England College. While she doesn't really tweet anymore, you can find her there @anneliesz or on Instagram. More from this author →