Ross Gay — a poet, essayist and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award who is known for his study of joy — read extracts from his books “Inciting Joy,” “Bringing the Shovel Down” and “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudes” to Brown students Wednesday evening.
The event was part of the Nonfiction@Brown series hosted by the English department and organized by Michael Stewart MA’07, senior lecturer in English, and Elizabeth Rush, assistant professor of the practice of English. The same afternoon, Gay attended a class session of ENGL 1190X: “Nonfiction Now,” which is co-taught by Stewart and Rush.
Earlier that afternoon, this reporter met up with Gay at a coffee shop. With a smile and sincere apology, Gay arrived ten minutes late, though he had given The Herald a heads up that this was quite typical — even though his watch runs five minutes fast, Gay still tends to be late to most places.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Herald: What is your relationship with lateness, slowness and inefficiency? How does that interact with experiences of joy?
Ross Gay: There’s something important about planting a tree that you know won’t make fruit for like four years … It’s a kind of patience. There is also something about — which is indicative about how I tend to be — how gardens tend to be distractingly beautiful. Very infrequently do I manage to walk out and do the thing I set out to do. It compels us towards a kind of digression. The digression — I don’t know how, I’ll write about this at some point — implies some kind of abundance of connection. When you digress, you’re like “Oh that! And that! And that! And that!” — and joy is ultimately also a question of connection. There it is.
I’m curious about the capacity for collectivity within the literary sphere — particularly how you position the reader so closely to you. You address your reader as “friend.” How are you thinking about the relationship between your writing and your reader?
RG: To me, the more I get into this, the more I think of these books as the evidence — the temporary evidence, the ongoing evidence, the everchanging evidence — of a kind of gathering up of mysteries that I want to share with your mysteries. A gathering up of questions that I want to share with your questions. That’s the process, but also the ethics of it. The writing is not intended to impose, or displace, or occupy. It’s actually intended to join with whoever is kind enough to join with me. The last year I have been touring for these new books, I’ve realized that the book doesn’t get finished. The book becomes a thing that I go out and share, and then it becomes sort of unfamiliar to me. It keeps on unbecoming itself to something else.
Do you have an imagined reader to whom you write?
RG: Anyone who would join me. There are people I know for sure I’m tuned to. Like I’m tuned to my brother, I realized. If I read in the presence of my brother, there are things he will respond to in ways that no one else on the planet will, just because we have this long, shared vocabulary of experiences. That’s why it’s so fun to read in front of him — because no one will laugh at something, and I think “Oh, I guess that’s not funny,” and then he’ll be there and he’ll lose it. And I’m like, “Oh, I’m writing to you, I guess.” There are other beloveds who I’m writing to. I’m writing often to the people whose works I love, which feels exciting and moving to say.
How do you prepare to sit down and write?
RG: I fetishize notebooks and pens. I sort of believe that they’re the things that are doing it. And I like that. My partner’s daughter was helping me clean up a space one time and she was like “What’s up with all these f*cking notebooks?”
Solidarity is often a response to distance from otherness. Under such conditions, how can solidarity be organized around joy and hope, rather than war and destruction? What do you say to the questioning of joy amidst despair, the guilt that’s often attached to hopefulness?
RG: I really wonder if that guilt is — I’m going to be deeply vague here — almost a neoliberal defense. Good people like to throw the word “privilege” around as a way of declaring that they know enough to know that conditions are bad, as opposed to using a word like lucky or fortunate, which actually points to action (against hierarchy), often to action of care. In the last five or seven years, I’ve watched in myself and in people I’m often around, which are academics, or people close to the academy, get into some of these ruts or theoretical bullshit zones that are actually distractions from labor and care. There is something really compelling about “the fight,” about “the war.” I’m always curious about whether we do better work when it’s not a fight or a war but rather the implementation of the (collective) dream.
Your writing is filled with luminous, delightful details. Do you collect those purposefully, or do they come to you as you work? How often are you surprised by what you’re writing about?
RG: Always surprised. I never know what I’m going to write. I might know, “Oh, I’m going to write about yesterday!” But I never know what that means. That’s so exciting … I’m writing every day about this book tour. And I realized at some point as I was sitting down to write, I was thinking “Oh, I get to see what happened yesterday!” And I felt like I was going to go read an installment of this book that Ross Gay was writing. I felt like the first reader. It’s so pleasurable, you’re just sitting down to witness what’s going to come from you.
Liliana Greyf is a senior staff writer covering College Hill, Fox Point and the Jewelry District, and Brown's relationship with Providence. She is a sophomore studying Literary Arts and a proponent of most pickled vegetables.