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Poet Ross Gay celebrates life.

When Ross Gay read at our library, I liked his poems and his way of talking about them and I bought a book. Recently, I noticed that his writing and his joy in nature had come to the attention of both Maria Popova at Brainpickings and the environmental radio show Living on Earth.

From Living on Earth
“STEVE CURWOOD: In an endangered world, gratitude and appreciation are difficult to balance with practical and existential fears. … Poet Ross Gay took a moment almost every day for a year to write about something that delighted him and has published these observations in his latest volume, The Book of Delights. In this exercise, he found joy in everything from bumblebees to folding shirts at the laundromat and noticed beauty he had never seen before. Ross Gay spoke with Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb.

“BOBBY BASCOMB: What inspired you to take on this project?

“ROSS GAY: I was just in the middle of a [pleasant] walk. I was having a nice, delightful moment. And I thought, Oh, how neat. … It’d be interesting to write a book about something that delighted me every day for a year. …

“BASCOMB: You had a few rules of engagement for your project for writing about delight. Can you tell us about those? …

“GAY: I wanted to write it every day. I didn’t exactly get to that. But you know, pretty close. And I wanted to write them sort of quickly. And I wanted to write them by hand. …

“BASCOMB: Would you mind reading a passage for us? I’m thinking of an essay called Black Bumblebees. …

“GAY: There is a kind of flowering bush, new to me, that I’ve been studying on my walks in Marfa. On that bush, whose blooms exude a curtain of syrupy fragrance, a beckoning of it, there are always a few thumb-size all-black bumblebees. Their wings appear when the light hits them right, metallic blue-green. I have never seen anything so beautiful. Everything about them- their purr, their wobbly veering from bloom to bloom — is the same as their cousins, the tiger-striped variety that shows up in droves when the cup plants in my garden are in bloom, making the back corner of my yard sound like a Harley convention. I wonder how I can encourage these beauties.” More.

At Brainpickings, Popova starts her appreciation with a Hermann Hesse quotation: ” ‘My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.’ …

“Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, [poet Ross] Gay composed one miniature essay … about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. …

“One is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

“He writes: ‘Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind. …

” ‘It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study. …

“One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.)

“In an early-August essayette titled ‘Inefficiency,’ he writes: ‘I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. …

“[But his] transmutation of terror into transcendence haunts the book as a guiding spirit. ‘It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay.

” ‘Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.

‘What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?’

More at Brainpickings, here. (Want to bypass Amazon? Buy the book from Algonquin Books or IndieBound, here.)

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For the longest time, it looked like nothing at all, this art installation of 10,000 sunflowers where route 195 once polluted the soil.

Adam E. Anderson, the brains behind the community-building project, writes on his website, “Ten Thousand Suns is a summer-long botanical performance in which over 10,000 sunflower seeds have been planted and being nurtured over the course of the summer months, on land that until recently sat under a highway, with high compaction, low-organic material, and embedded with toxicity.  …

“Rather than using high maintenance and energy intensive large swaths of turf grass, the installation uses the bio-accumulating (removes toxins) and habitat creating properties of Helioanthus (aka, Sunflower) planted in rows in a series of large circles, leaving paths in-between for intimate exploration.

“The project will create a spontaneous and unique cultural identity for the citizens of Providence and its visitors during the summer months.”

With little rain all summer, the project looked like a hopeless cause for many weeks. Until it didn’t.

In celebration of the cheery results, I want to share a few lines of a poem about a goldfinch loving a sunflower. Because who wouldn’t love a sunflower?

From poet Ross Gay‘s “Wedding Poem”

Friends I am here modestly to report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claws
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
its wings
again and again
until swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch …

Read more about the project at Adam Anderson’s site, here, and on Facebook, here. Click on my photos to check the dates.

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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.”

More here.

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