Mood Enough to Witness: An Interview with Ross Gay

By Lucian Mattison

Ross Gay is the author of Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down. His work has appeared in several literary journals, includingAmerican Poetry Review, The Sun, and Ploughshares. He is an orchardist and kettlebell instructor. He teaches at Indiana University and in the Drew University low-residency MFA program.

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Lucian Mattison: I thought to start off the interview I would ask you about a specific poem. I got my poem-a-day email from poets.org and you were in my inbox the day you were set to perform at ODU. Tell me a little about “To My Best Friend’s Big Sister.”

Ross Gay: You know, this poem emerges from bumping into this person, this “Best Friend’s Big Sister,” in a SuperFresh supermarket in Philadelphia, probably about 12 years after the scene.  It was just one of those weird—really weird, and really human—events that slip away, for whatever reason.  My sense, as I share at the end of the poem, is that it slipped away as a memory for so long because it was, in a way, shameful—the way things can feel shameful that we don’t at all categorize as abuse or violent.

I make the poem funny, because it’s kind of funny—I was a big kid, and not in any physical danger (as in, this woman was not going to hurt me with her hands…).  I was also, you know, probably 15 years old or so—not sexually active, but most of the time wishing I was (kind of).  And here’s this kind of sexy 21-year-old woman telling me to take off my shirt and spin around for her!  Well, yeah, but, as I say in the poem, I wasn’t that kid.  I was kind of a chubby kid who wasn’t sexually active, I imagine, for many reasons—like I wasn’t yet ready to have sex, or be sexual in that way.  For Christ sakes, I didn’t even start shaving in earnest until I was like a junior or senior in college (although I weighed 250 lbs. and started on the football team).  Anyway, I try to map the conflicting emotions, among which are desire and shame—two of the most motivating emotions, I would suspect, we have.

I do want to say, though, that that woman was being, in her odd way, generous, getting me to take my shirt off and twirl before her, talking about her seemingly great sex life with her boyfriend (I left that part out of the poem, but it was exciting to hear about).  She was telling me what she found attractive about me (which parts I remember), and telling me quite gently that I ought to do some crunches and bench presses.  I guess part of the engine of the poem, too, is that this is a bit of a genderly inverted story.  That is, I think the image of a very big boy being handled in this way by a fairly small woman is in itself interesting.  I think so anyway.

LM: “Two bikers embrace on broad Street,” “How to fall in love with your father,” “Unclean Make me,” and “Broken Mania” are truly distinct poems, but in all of them a small moment of action seems to inform the larger body of the poem’s idea. What do you have to say about this relationship between your poetry and the small moment sprouting into the large?

RG: Almost everything that interests me is in the small moments, the very precise and nearly invisible moments that, upon meditation, have to do with everything.  In “Two Bikers” it’s the embrace between these biker guys that I was lucky enough—I was in the mood enough—to witness.  That’s important, being in the mood.  Being available.  I mean, I think it’s important for writing poems, but it’s also important for being happy: being available to witness and meditate on the puzzling and wonderful.

LM: While on the topic of sprouting, tell me about growing up.

RG: I grew up in an apartment complex with my two parents and my brother about five miles outside of Philadelphia.  I-95 was a literal stone’s throw away.  There were loads of kids always outside—mostly outside, unless we’d pile into someone’s house, usually while the parents were gone, to play a tiny bit of Atari (yup) or watch What’s Happening or Three’s Company.  My folks worked constantly, and were constantly terrified (my mother more than my father) of being all the way broke.  We were most ways broke.  My father worked in fast or fast-ish food, always as an assistant manager or store manager: Red Barn, Pizza Hut, Roy Rogers, Burger King, Red Lobster, and Applebee’s, where he worked for the last working month or so of his life.  I got my mom to laugh by saying—by remembering—that had he lived he would still be working at Applebee’s, so maybe he was lucky to get out.  My mother worked fixing the copy of catalogs, I think.  She never really talked about it, besides praising the good benefits the job gave her.  She left at 7 and got home at 6.  So probably her hours were 7:30 to 5:30.  We played loads of games as kids—huge gangs of kids playing manhunt, football, building street ramps for skateboarding, playing knock knock zoom zoom or throwing snowballs (sometimes girded with gravel) at cars.  There was a mulberry tree nearby, and raspberry bushes, and a woods, adorned on its edge by big trash (sofas, washing machines, etc.) that rolled into it from the maintenance shack.  It was interesting and complicated, like growing up is.

LM: To what extent does it come out in your poetry?

RG: I suppose in every way some way.  Most simply, sometimes I write about things from my childhood, like most poets.  Also, I have been informed, I think—put on various courses, I think—by the experiences, the witnessings, of my childhood.  In other words, I thing being most ways broke orients a person—though who’s to say how?  I think having a white mother and a black father orients a person, though who’s to say how?  I think living with a huge number of kids and playing constantly outside orients a person.  Etc.  In other words, it connects whether I know it or not.

LM: In the collection of poems Bringing the Shovel Down the feeling is more political. “Love, I’m done with You,” “Hollywood,” “Bootstraps,” and “The Syndromes” are, to name a few, charged with an electric intensity and pointed anger. Why did this book take on this tone?

RG: I began writing these poems in 2005 or so, during the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.  I also was about to be a new uncle.  I was newly struck by the notion, which I imagine will be true, that these children of my brothers will be living only in a nation at war.  It will be hard for them to conceive of a nation not at war.  Maybe it’s hard for me to conceive of it too—but this new constant war, which seems like maybe it will never end, felt to me especially horrifying, given these little kids I loved.  So the anger, I like to think, comes out of love.  But I also hope that through the book, over the course of the book, enacted by the poems in the book, is a kind of transformation toward love—something past the anger into understanding and love.

LM: In Bringing the Shovel Down, we see lots of pet names, repetition of pillow talk? Please talk about this craft choice.

RG: I think that’s just my desire to be talking in poems.  You know, to be a voice, a person, talking to another person.  When you call someone “love” in a poem, it might indicate a kind of intimacy, or act out a kind of intimacy.  But looking at my newer poems and their desire to kind of sit right across the table from the reader and share a pot of coffee, I think I was thinking about intimacy.  Of course, in some of the poems I’m using the intimate address ironically—“Honeybunny” connected to “blood” and all that is ironic, and is kind of critiquing or at least troubling the dream of intimacy between citizen and nation.

LM: Talk about the move between Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down.

RG: The most significant thing to mention, I think, is that Bringing the Shovel Down was conceived, early on, as a book.  I knew there would be a framework.  I knew there would be a subject.  So every poem I wrote in the four years or so while I was writing that book either fit into that framework or didn’t.  If they didn’t, maybe they went nowhere, or maybe they went to a magazine, and then that was it.  Against Which (my first book), on the other hand, was more or less the best chunk of poems I’d written up to the time I submitted the manuscript.  So that’s a kind of structural observation.  But really, like really really, Bringing the Shovel Down has the same concerns and obsessions as Against Which—power, nation, violence, love—but, for my money, Bringing the Shovel Down articulates those concerns better, as a book.

LM: In your reading for ODU’s Literary Festival, you read new material. The tone of your new poems are more celebratory and manic in contrast to the last book. Where does this come from? What has changed?

RG: Oh when I finished writing the poems in Bringing the Shovel Down, when I wrapped that thing up, I was so goddamned happy.  It feels like a kind of tough book—it is a kind of tough book—and to move past it into something else made me more or less giddy.  I think I was happy, too, for having written what I think is a really strong book—as a book, a made gathering of poems—and also happy to loosen up a little bit, to just start writing poems.  So yes, you hear the celebratory, the dancing, in the new poems.  I was reading Neruda’s Odes when I started writing these new poems, this new book (it’s more or less done), so plenty of them are Odes in the manner of Neruda.

But I also, crucially, started gardening in the last five years or so.  It’s about as important as anything I’ve ever done in my life—and utterly foreign, utterly wacky.  I mean, I don’t even remember sprouting potatoes in science class, or sprouting seeds on wet paper towels, which a lot of people told me they did.  So when I started growing things, learning about and tumbling about in the mysteries of the earth, well, my life, which was pretty good, got much better.  I mean to walk in your slippers into the garden and pull some strawberries to toss in the oatmeal?  Or to snag a handful of huge collard greens, growing in the closest things to rows you know how, to cook up with some garlic that yes, you grew?  Last night I sautéed some garlic and kale and mustards, and added some butter beans (didn’t grow the beans…but one day!), and gave them to my sweetheart.  I’ve been away from my own garden in Indiana the last handful of months, which is sad sad (though happy happy to be in New Jersey with my sweetheart and our garden here) and my beloved friends, who are kind of looking after the garden, will send me text messages with, say, a bowl full of strawberries or blackberries.  Or my subletter, who is my dear friend Dave’s son, tells me he’s been eating figs like crazy, that he can’t keep up with them.  Tell me a happier thing.

LM: Tell me a little about your writing process, your habits, daily practices.

RG: I don’t know that I have habits exactly.  I’m off this year, so I’m trying to have decent habits.  When my partner goes off to work, I sit down to work.  Two hours or so, then to the gym for an hour or so, then back for a few hours.  Those hours might be spent reading or writing or taking notes or thinking, and it is in no way precise.  I’m in those hours right now.

I’m writing these non-fiction books right now and am feeling like new habits will emerge as I settle into the whole-essay writing life.  Like the schedule thing—the sitting at a desk (wherever the desk is) thing—will make more and more sense to me.  Poems, while mostly revising and grinding, do, for me, come weirdly, surprisingly, unpredictably.  So poem writing time might be any time.  Whereas essay writing time feels like it can be some 5 or 6 hours between 7 and 5.  Oh but who knows, everything I just said might be bullshit.

LM: Just out of curiosity, what are some if your favorite literary journals out there?

RG: Oh, a handful.  But what I like most of all is to hear a writer readtheir work.  Above all, that.  But I also really like reading poems in magazines other than “literary journals,” like Orion and The Sun.  I like the idea of poems being in conversation not only with other poems or short stories, but also with essays, journalism, letters, etc.  And as a writer I want to share my work with more than just other writers, for whom literary journals, as far I can tell, mostly end up being.

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Lucian Mattison’s poems can be found or are forthcoming in apt,Digital Americana, Muzzle Magazine, The Quotable, Stone Highway Review, and others. In 2014, he won the Elizabeth R. Curry Poetry Contest. He edits poetry for Green Briar Review and Barely South Review. He is currently an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University. Email him at Lucian.c.mattison@gmail.com