Happy Labor, Sad Labor: An Interview with Ross Gay

by    /  July 2, 2019  / Comments Off on Happy Labor, Sad Labor: An Interview with Ross Gay

Photo by Natasha Komoda

In February, Ross Gay visited Alphabet City to launch his newest release, The Book of Delights, an essay collection in which he explores the ordinary and beautiful moments, things, and people he encounters in his day-to-day life. Prior to his reading, he took the time to visit with Sampsonia Way staff writers Sarah Gross and Maggie Medoff to chat about his writing practice, the brilliance of his students, and his ever-widening range of delights. [Spoiler Alert: There’s joy in losing your cell phone!]

Ross Gay is an American poet and professor and is the author of three collections of poetry, Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude for which he was awarded the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award  for poetry and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is also a founding board member of Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit and free food project. Gay grew up in Youngstown Ohio and currently lives in Bloomfield, Indiana. 

Turning the Undelightful Into Delight

Sarah Gross: I noticed that a lot of your delights take place in airports. But airports are not places that I hear many people describe as a delight! Do you think that because of this project, you were able to find the delight in otherwise annoying things? Like you had a whole chapter about bindweed.

Ross Gay: I mean that’s part of the funny thing about the project. There are times when I’m like, “OK, let me just see if I can turn this into a delight.” And bindweed is something that gardeners despise. And so I acknowledge that in the essay. I’m like, “I’m going to do this, and you’re going to want me to die. But I’m gonna do it anyway.” So, I mean, one thing is that I like airports a lot. They’re dramatic places to be. You can’t go anywhere, so you just get to hang out and not do anything.

I think an interesting tension of the book is studying delight. But there’s this whole background of violence, worry, anxiety, and sorrow that is sort of informing all of this stuff. That question just makes me think that the delights are interesting because they’re in tension or in conversation with the undelightful, which is a constant feature of our lives as well. 

Maggie Medoff: There are moments in the book where you kind of weave in that sadness, but it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of left field. I do think that sadness and delight are sometimes working in tandem. It seems like those two things can coexist, and it happens a lot in your book.

Ross Gay: Yeah, they do coexist. That’s just the thing. You can have a nice experience and you are going to die. And that’s just the deal, however we feel about it. You can have a nice time and someone is making money off of a private prison right now. They are not mutually exclusive; they exist together. It’s life, you know?

SG: And I know that in the world there’s a lot of hostility and fear. Not only in our political climate, but in our physical climate. And I know a lot of people approach that fear or resistance to these forces through anger and violence. Do you think you try to approach all of these terrifying things through peace?

Ross Gay: Through curiosity. How can our common difficulties, sorrows, or fears be approached with a kind of curiosity that compels us to reach toward one another, as opposed to holing up? So yes, obviously it’s more peaceful. It’s more loving. So much of our culture encourages the withdrawing. I lost my cell phone the other day, and it was the best day of my life. I had to ask for directions like six times. And I was so lost. And of course everyone was like, “Yeah, let me help you. Let me help you. Let me help you.” To me, that’s the ground of our lives. Mostly we want to help each other, but we’ve got to resist the other seduction of not helping.

MM: There are a lot of moments in the book where you talk about racial tension and experiences of extreme discomfort. It feels like you approach those with the same curiosity that you were just describing. You kind of end those passages in a place where they just have to sit with you. I’m wondering if your responses to interactions and experiences changed throughout this project?

Ross Gay: I say it’s a practice. I’m practicing something. Because part of the process of making an essay out of something is sort of holding a subject, turning it over, and not necessarily coming to a conclusion. Not necessarily being right. It’s sort of thinking about something, or feeling something, or trying to articulate a feeling. 

MM: So is there just this shift into allowing yourself to notice things more?

Ross Gay: Yeah. To be very clear, I have to work hard not to be defensive and not to be ready to fight. Like that’s kind of who I’ve been. So part of the exercise, like you’re saying, is a kind of… it’s kind of a breathing exercise. It’s labor. Some kid at a reading the other night addressed the labor of the thing and I was like “Oh, you got it.” It’s labor. Happy labor. It’s a labor of love. And sad labor too.

SG: So, you’ve been thinking of it as a breathing process. Do you think patience was a big aspect of what went into this project?

Ross Gay: The formal constraints of the project largely impacted the process, since I wrote these essays every day for a year. More or less every day. And I wrote and drafted these essays in a half hour. So, in a way, it was also very quick. It wasn’t complicated. But my job involved putting on a clock and just writing. The study that’s going on in a project like that probably is a kind of patience. Or a kind of stillness. Because it requires patience not to immediately get into other distractions. 

Writing by Hand and the Patience of Dailiness

SG: You said you wrote almost every day. How did you decide which essays made it into the book?

Ross Gay: I didn’t do it every single day, but some days I wrote several. I think I had nearly 300 and cut it down to like 140 or 150. I wrote them all by hand, and I left one notebook on the airplane. And it was one of the best if not the best ones. And then I tried to rewrite it and it was like… No, the magic was gone. Over the process, there would be so many that would just be false starts and I wouldn’t transcribe them at all. But I tried to transcribe most of the ones that had a kernel of OK-ness. And then my editor helped me when I was being very repetitive — like too much coffee

MM: How did you find a balance between self-editing and also allowing yourself to let the responses to delights happen organically? I would imagine there were moments when you reacted to something in a particular way and then you kind of went back and thought, “Well, maybe this was different.” 

Ross Gay: I transcribed them on a computer. The first bit of transcribing, say the first five, I edited them as I went along, cleaning them up. And I was like, “Oh I’m killing these things. I’m ruining them.” If you ever put a clock on for 30 minutes, you’ll be surprised. Writing a poem is one thing, but write an essay. It’ll maybe free you up to work on some weird stuff. And as I got the bodies of the essays, I would read them out loud, hear them, and I would have an idea of how to go into them. But I wasn’t only revising individual pieces. I was revising the book. 

SG: You said that your editor mentioned you repeat things too much, but you did have a couple of things that were repeated in here, and I was wondering why those were kept? 

Ross Gay: There’s a lot of repeated peeing in the essays! Did you notice that? There’s one in the car, there’s one where I keep my pee for my garden. But those ones, they’re all really good. They’re all hits. [Laughs.]

SG: I was actually going to ask about the color purple. You had one about the flowers, you had one about a lilac scarf. There are others.

Ross Gay: I love the color purple. I love color. But I think I was on a purple kick.

SG: Why did those themes stay? Gardening was a really big one. And then some of the other subtle ones were purple and… pee apparently. I did like the chapters where it gets a little bit more vulgar. There was an honesty in that. Of being like, “hey, shit happens.” 

Ross Gay: I know, I know! When I read some of those, people always come to me like, “me too.” The other peeing one is… where I was peeing in a bottle and my partner’s kid got in the car and went to grab the bottle. Bad news! It didn’t… It ends fine.

SG: It would’ve been really easy to cut that stuff out to make yourself look better. 

Ross Gay: Yeah, I’m not interested in that. Not at all. And that’s the thing that’s interesting to me about the book. With books, often we aspire to a level of greatness. I’ve been working on a single poem for like four or five years. This book I wrote in a year. So there is something about the dailiness that is different. 

SG: Along a similar line of thought, in one of the essays, you specifically discuss how books last forever and people don’t. So do you think you have that philosophy about your own books too? 

Ross Gay: Yeah. I love my books, but… I’d choose myself. [Laughs.] I think that’s something you can push on a little bit and complicate that whole conversation. But I do think, there’s a way that we kind of valorize or glorify things that are not equal. And that has to be thought about, that’s very troubling. 

Small Wonders in the Garden

MM: How do you think that relationship to nature in your garden expanded your curiosity, in terms of this process of daily delights? I think it’s easy to stay within the confines of focusing on people. 

Ross Gay: I mean, for one, gardens are just like… they’re delightful places. All of the stimulation. Things look beautiful. They smell beautiful. You’re touching the flowers. You’re touching the soil itself. Everything about the garden has this sort of sensory potential for delight. But there are these other things that I realized over the course of writing the book. I have this one in there called “Janky.” I’m talking about gardens as being places where so often jankiness exists. And I think this is partly because you don’t want to spend all kinds of time fixing something, you want to do something quickly, because you’re caught up in the swoon of the garden. 

There’s a relationship to commerce that the garden disturbs. Or a relationship to capital, or production, that it disturbs. You want the garden to be productive. But that productivity can be measured in all these ways, among which is its ability to make you do nothing — to be entirely unproductive. [Laughs.]

And the garden, of course, offers a constant steady supply of things growing up and dying. And the dying is the nutrients. They are a social place, gardens, even if you’re by yourself. They almost require you to share. You’re an odd gardener if you have extra and you do not reach out to someone. That’s not the norm. The norm is to have extra stuff. And it might be like, “I got too many zucchini and like I hate zucchini, man. I don’t love this stuff, but I wanna share it.” Or, it might very well be like, “I love this, and I need you to take some of it.” That’s just how gardening is. Sharing seeds, saving seeds, sharing your tools, feeding the neighbors. 

Lessons in Human Connection

MM: It seems like you take pride in your interactions with other people and that you feed off of that in some ways. Some of the delight comes from observations of other people or little moments of interaction. I’m wondering how those qualities about yourself made it easier to find delights in other people? 

Ross Gay: You know, I’m actually pretty shy. I hate going to parties and stuff. Or if I do, I talk to like one person. But I love asking for directions. Maybe the older I get the more I love it. And the more I love just little interactions. The common social goodness. Innocuous stuff like, “nice weather!” 

MM: It sounds like you do a lot of people watching. So, maybe that also contributes to your ability to notice delights in other people. 

Ross Gay: There might be a tendency sometimes to sit back a little bit and to witness, to sort of watch a bit. Sort of like studying. I think that’s exactly right, that studying kind of encourages me.

MM: And so if you find encouragement from watching strangers, how much encouragement do you get from your students? 

Ross Gay: You know, I have really brilliant students, it’s crazy. The last semester of this class that I taught, we did all these collaborative experiments. The final project was that we had to write an impossible-to-translate screenplay. And then the next thing we had to do was hand it off and perform these impossible screenplays. I figured out that my classes are kind of laboratories where we’re all making stuff together. For the most part, the spirit of the class is just excited-making. 

I also do all the exercises with my students. I’m working on this book about my relationship with the land. It’s this long nonfiction book, and there are moments that I’ve been able to get to because I’ve done some of the class exercises. Being around young folks who are going so hard and writing beautiful, intense, vulnerable stuff that they don’t know how to write, I admire that. And that’s what I try to do myself. It’s taken me a while, but I figured out how to teach in a way where I come out of the class exhausted and so inspired. I’m really moved by our great writers. And I’m really moved by my students.

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