Last Sunday, Pam and I walked over to the library to hear an acclaimed poet read at the poetry series. Ross Gay, who lives in Indiana, had just published his poetry collection Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and was doing readings around New England.
Glenn Mitchell, who organizes the library’s poetry series, was able to publish an advance interview with Gay in the local paper.
She wrote, “Gay says his inspiration for writing poems is a determination to practice joy as a discipline. He is a finalist for the 2015 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award in Poetry.
“Gay also works in the field of literary sports writing. He is a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, a publication of reflective essays written by well-known poets, essayists and fiction writers along with podcasts of contributors.
“He serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, food justice project.
“An associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, Gay is residing in Cambridge while a 2015-16 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.”
Here is what Gay told Mitchell about the poet that inspired him to write poetry: “[Amiri] Baraka’s poems were such a clear articulation of the kind of alienation I was experiencing when I went off to college — a kind of racial alienation and class alienation — that I had no idea how to begin to talk about other than wanting to break things. I knew I was full of rage (which I later knew was a version of sorrow, too), but I didn’t know how to put it into words, which Baraka’s work made it possible for me to understand was possible.”
To her question about gardening coming into his life and the difference it made, he says, “I think close looking, paying attention, going slow, a kind of training in receptivity — I think those are things I learn from the garden … I approach poems like that, usually. I like to listen to them as much as I try to impose my own will on them. … A garden or a poem is potentially a device for pulling people together, they are both food, I’m saying, which we might feed to each other.”
In his Sunday reading, Gay included a poem about strangers sharing figs from a tree unexpectedly flourishing near his Philadelphia home — a poem that expresses some of his thoughts about our history of racism and the possibility of goodness.
He says, “The poem ‘To the Fig Tree at 9th and Christian’ gets at it—gets at what it means for us to come together despite the brutal history we’ve inherited, or even enacted. I think that fig tree is a kind of mercy.”