Ross Gay On Inciting Joy (and Gratitude)
The celebrated poet on his latest collection, and holding space for gratitude
WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK & REBECCA LASHMAR | ILLUSTRATIONS BY BRANDON HICKS | INDIANA | ARTS & LETTERS
NOV 07, 2022 | ISSUE 10
ROSS GAY BY ELLA MAZUR
If you began to make a list of all the things you’re grateful for, how long would it run? Would you be grateful for the last green light that spared you just a few more seconds of traffic? Or for your first love from so many years ago that broke the ground you’re still tilling till today? Or perhaps gratitude for the relief on your doctor’s face when the results of your bloodwork came back negative? Or even for the polyp that’s slowly gathering somewhere in the rough engine of your bowels as you’re reading this? Yes, we are tempted to be grateful too for those difficult and unwanted objects that we find in the valleys and hills of our lives. This list could go on forever, and soon enough you’d be grateful for this list itself. So it is no small feat when an artist, in this case an internationally celebrated wordsmith, is able to sit still long enough to catalogue the strange and beautiful creatures in the wild garden of gratitude. That’s exactly what the poet Ross Gay did with his epic “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”. Published in a poetry collection of the same name in 2015, the poem has been enjoying a new lease on life since the band Bon Iver set it to music in 2021, with Gay’s voice lifting each word high above the low-flowing soundtrack.
In his latest book of essays, Inciting Joy, Gay returns to this garden, to the soil of this garden, and sift through it with the higher resolution of detail afforded by the essay format. This collection of essays is composed of 14 “incitements”, each of them is a chapter-length exploration of the joys we can inspire in one another. These loosely arranged incitements touch on everything from “Death” (the second incitement), to The Garden (the third), to “Pickup Basketball” (the ninth) and, finally, in the fourteenth incitement: “Gratitude”. While Inciting Joy exists independently of the aforementioned poem, it seems we’ve been primed to arrive at these essays through a path cleared by “Catalog”. Like gratitude, joy is a fragile skiff in the current of current events, and all too often they are both drowned in the latest meanest reason for despair. And so these essays occasionally read as if they are search-and-rescue missions for the joys we’ve forgotten, or are yet to discover.
With various literary awards to his name – the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, to name a few – his latest release will be met with both high anticipation and expectations. We are grateful to Gay for joining us in a conversation about this collection of essays, and its corollary in poetry. Grateful also to the University of Pittsburgh Press for their permission to print “Catalog” in its entirety. Here, he reminds us of all the playful things that can be done with an essay, the depths it can plumb and the joyful heights it can scale. Here, too, he reminds us that poetry is not just a sullen art, an elegy only for the crestfallen—it can also be a colourful hymnal, flowing warmly out of the business end of French horns and sousaphones.
Catalog of Unbashed Gratitude - Ross Gay
Ross Gay - Photo by Natasha Komoda
THE BRICK HOUSE
MZC | At the core of this conversation is the different modes of thinking that exist between composing poetry and composing essays—and the bridge that exists between the two. You open the 14th incitement with the following quotation:
“I am a brick in a house that is being built
around your house.” from “Gratitude” by Cornelius Eady
I looked through and found that “brick” was used eight times in Inciting Joy, and couldn’t help but think of each of these 14 incitements as a giant brick in a house that’s being built around “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”. To what extent are these two works in communication with one another?
RG ── I love that. I love that question and the observation that it’s totally corresponding with that poem. It’s absolutely the case, and that poem is also in conversation with poems of mine earlier. It’s interesting to think of it as a theme or a through line to the work, but I love what you’re saying about this. I think this book is like 14 walls being built around the Catalog book, to house it, in a certain kind of way. And I think that’s right. One of the things that this book is trying so hard to do is to study, contemplate the ways and the practices that help us become aware of tending to one another. I have this working definition of joy: which is the way that we carry each other. With Catalog, which again comes from all kinds of writers and teachers, I think I was trying to contemplate what is wondrous, what is beautiful and lovely and astonishing. And, also, what is heartbreaking. To disentangle them means to disentangle ourselves from life, from being among the living. So, that means when I’m texting my friends, “Yo, you got to get the long beans and the okra and the tomatoes, it’s all coming on right now. You got to get over there,” they do the same for me. And it’s great to witness the ways that we’re constantly in those sorts of networks. And that feels very much like the kind of wall that those essays are making. Like a holding wall, not a “‘I’m bigger than you” wall. Or more significant, but a holding wall of gratitude. I think that’s right.
THE WOMAN FROM CALIFORNIA
MZC | I’m physiologically unable to read or listen to “Catalog” without tearing up, and so many of the folks that I’ve shared it with are similarly unable to finish it without crying. In the first incitement, you briefly describe an encounter that reflects this typical reaction to the poem: “I’ll never forget a woman at a reading in a public library in April of 2016 in Claremont, California—one of those weird, beautifully ugly sixties California buildings; it was a rancher of a library, maybe with some faux stone on the front, maybe white brick—I suspect she was in her late sixties or early seventies. And as she asked me to inscribe Catalog, she was crying, just a little, not very able to talk. And she said, quietly, wiping her face, ‘I didn’t know you could write about joy’.”
What other types of emotional responses have you received regarding this poem?
RG ── Laughter. I think the poem is very self-conscious, and it’s aware of itself, like all my poems I write with love. So, I’m reading them to people who are trusted readers and my buddy, Patrick, a beautiful poet, suggested “reaching out” to the audience. And you see that in places where I was like, “And thank you, dear reader, for staying with me...” After that one Pat was like, “You might actually need kind of a pattern, to make it into a structure.” Like a brick in the building actually. But to also make it a kind of pattern that allows for the humour, despite the seriousness, the gravity of it. So you have places where I’m like, “I know that my gratitude is immense, and I want to rub it all over you, which is awkward, I know.” So, people will laugh. People will cry. I love it when people are like, “Yeah, I don’t really think of myself like that, but I listened or I heard that poem, or I heard you read, and I was noticing more of the trees.” That. That makes me glad.
MZC | Like that lady in California, I, too, “didn’t know you could write about joy.” I’m curious about the difference between joy and gratitude. “Catalog” is a poem about gratitude, but it’s also a poem about how much life can suck sometimes. But what makes the tears start to flow is realising that you can feel gratitude for how much life sucks, and for joy. So in a way it might be easier to write sincerely about gratitude than about joy. Why is it so hard to write sincerely about joy?
RG ── I think it’s hard. It’s hard for people to write sincerely about joy because they have an idea of joy that I don’t. And I think it makes sense too, because we think of joy as something you achieve, or an accomplishment, or you can buy it. If you get your clothes straightened up, you’ll have more joy in your life. Or if you declutter. If you get the right shoes. It’s kind of a sorrow to me actually, because when I think of joy, it is a profoundly grave emotion. And I say grave because it implies that we’re dying and it’s serious. It’s the way that you dance with people when you know that they are dying. The way that you share food, when you’re like, We will not do this again. And it’s the way that you are in community. I try to make it a point now when I give readings or I get to visit classes, to be like, This group will never again be together. And it’s to me a kind of adultness actually. It’s a kind of adultness that I think we’re often counselled out of, but it’s just being an adult. We know it’s heartbreaking.
"CATALOGUE" BY BRANDON HICKS #1
MZC | In the sixth incitement, a friend of yours, Dave, says about you, “Sometimes when you laugh you look like you’re dying.” Later on you quote from one of Dave’s poems, “Laughter is our way of letting the universe know we agree with the passage of time.” In a footnote for this section, you incite the reader to “argue,” “refuse,” “tango” with this passage of time. You add that we should also “rage, rage” against this passage, which of course calls to mind a stanza from the famous Dylan Thomas poem: “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” from “Do not go gentle into that good night”
How do you see laughter as a different kind of animal from joy, especially when it comes to contemplating growing older and death?
RG ── I feel like it’s a symptom of joy actually. Joy is the evidence of our connection. But in a culture that demands alienation from one another and our alienation from the earth, laughter is evidence of our connection. It’s evidence of our bodies in time and space. We make each other laugh. It’s often a symptom of joy. I wonder if that’s partly why laughter is often policed, because when we laugh together, we know that we’re in on something together.
In the book, I start talking about when you’re in school and you hear kids laughing. “Oh, they’re up to something.” Yeah. They’re being together. They’re being connected. And I love that. I love that line from my buddy Dave’s poem. A lot of these footnotes in this book are a way for me to engage and argue in an inviting way with a reader, to be like, You might not agree with it…