Poetic Justice


Photography by CHUCK ZOVKO

Ross Gay ’96, winner of Claremont Graduate University’s $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his latest poetry collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, sits down with Leslieann Hobayan ’95, poet and creative writing lecturer at Rutgers, to talk about gardening, his new writing projects, and of course, their alma mater. Gay, an associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, was also a Finalist for the National Book Award and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. He is currently the 2015–16 Walter Jackson Bate Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute in Boston. The friends conversed at Forks Mediterranean Deli near campus.

L.H. How did it feel when you got the news that you won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award?
R.G. I feel lucky and glad to get to share the work. The nice thing about the attention the book is getting is that maybe a few more people will read it—really, that’s the hope. We work on these things for years, these little books—you know, it’s our job to make these things, and hopefully when they’re done, they’re interesting enough or necessary enough to us that they might also be interesting or necessary to someone else. Useful to someone else. That’s the hope, for me.

L.H. I feel the same way. So, gardening figures largely in this book. Tell me how you got into the whole thing.
R.G. There are probably three or four angles. One is that my partner is a gardener, so I think gardening was just a little bit more in my head. Two: I moved to a place where you could buy a house for a reasonable price. Three: That same town had a big gardening community. And four: I needed to transplant some trees.

L.H.You had to?
R.G. I felt the need to because my buddy Jay’s family—we all grew up outside of Philly—was getting ready to move, and I needed to preserve some of that aspect of home. Jay’s dad is an amazing gardener. So I harvested figs and goji and transplanted them out. Then I needed a place for them.

L.H. We all have this need to take a part of our childhood with us wherever we go, but it wouldn’t occur to me to take trees with me.
R.G. I would eat the fruit off those trees, but I wasn’t at all involved in the gardening. It was like this sanctuary, this thing that he did but I didn’t. There was something beautiful about going out and bringing in pears or figs. The first time I tasted a fresh fig was from his tree.

L.H. And the gardening just took off from there.
R.G. Yeah, it did. Do you know Ed Kerns [Eugene H. Clapp II ’36 Professor of Art]?

L.H. I know who he is, but I don’t know him personally.
R.G. I had a dream recently, I can’t remember where I was, but I had this sense of such gratitude for my teachers. I was weeping in the dream. And from far away, I saw Ed Kerns.

L.H. Really? Was this before or after you wrote this latest book?
R.G. This was just recently, like two weeks ago.

L.H. See? Lafayette has planted roots in you because now people are showing up in your dream. My sense, just from talking to you, is that you have a closer relationship with him than any other professor at Lafayette.
R.G. Ed’s been such a mentor and supporter. He would give me these books when I was 19—weird neuroscience stuff. Art theory stuff. It would take me forever to read. He’s one of those people in your life who are like: Push a little bit, I think you can. He talked to you like you were serious.

L.H. So, how did you know you were going to be a poet?
R.G. I don’t know if I know that story, but I do know that I got introduced to poems that made me want to read poems and write poems, here at Lafayette, by David Johnson [professor emeritus of English].

L.H.What class did you have with him?
R.G. It was a survey of American literature, and he had me present on Amiri Baraka. I think he sensed I was about to fail out of college [laughs]. He had me present on a handful of Baraka’s poems, and one of them was “An Agony. As Now.” which so articulates this specific alienation that I was feeling but did not know how to articulate. I started looking at that poem and thinking, Whoa—it’s not an easy poem. It’s really beautiful.

L.H. What vision Johnson had in you to assign that poem.
R.G. Yeah, amazing. Every time I see him, I tell him that. Enough where he’s like “All right, I got it. I got it.” [Laughs]

L.H. So at that point, did you try to start writing poems? After you presented?
R.G. I think I probably did. At some point, I started carrying around [Baraka’s] Transbluesency. I probably started writing poems around the same time. I was also reading widely and weirdly, like Sylvia Plath and Mark Strand and Sonia Sanchez. I remember sitting in the old Skillman library—they had these stairs in the sun that weren’t part of the library but were kind of emergency exits. So I would sit in the stairwell and read poems. It was so lovely.

L.H. [Laughs] I’m sorry. That sounds totally romanticized and sentimental—made-for-TV-movie stuff.
R.G. I know! It’s so romantic. It’s so romantic. It’s so real.

L.H. Ross reclines in the stairwell in the late afternoon, sunlight streaming through the windows.
R.G. Except I was 230 pounds. It wasn’t comfortable. It was just concrete steps.

L.H. What are you working on now?
R.G. This poem “Dr. J. layup, 1980.” He takes off and looks like he’s going to dunk the ball, but he jumps outside the lane on the one side of the basket—defense comes and makes that impossible—and he keeps flying and he goes kinda behind the backboard, goes to the other side.

L.H. What about your work at Radcliffe?
R.G. I’m writing about my relationship to the land, and in particular, perhaps, what might it mean to be African-American and to be deeply connected to the soil, the earth, and all the metaphors and visions and truths the earth gives us. I’m traveling around the country, spending time at some wonderful farming/growing/community projects, and I’m also wondering about my own little crazy garden, and my family, and my history, and my possibility.

A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, which means, perhaps, that with his very large hands, perhaps, in all likelihood, he put gently into the earth some plants which, most likely, some of them, in all likelihood, continue to grow, continue to do what such plants do, like house and feed small and necessary creatures, like being pleasant to touch and smell, like converting sunlight into food, like making it easier for us to breathe.

—Ross Gay ’96
Originally published by Split This Rock;
used with permission of the author