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Being Beholden

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Ross Gay:  The way in American, that word used is I don't want to be beholding to anyone. That's the way it's said in American and this book is well we are beholding to each other. We are beholding to the microbes and like that I'm beholding to the wind through the trees. So how do we practice that?

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, poet Ross Gay, on witnessing gratitude, reading very long poems out loud and a particular layup from the 1980 MBA finals. That's all coming up after this.

Alex Chambers:  Okay before you listen to this interview it might be worth popping over to You Tube and looking up Doctor J's reverse layup. It is possibly the greatest basketball move of all time. I'm going to let you do that. Okay, got that in your head. Now come on back because today's episode of Inner States is about a book length poem that springs off from that move and then returns to it again and again. It's about what it meant for Doctor J to change directions in mid air, to pivot in flight and also what it means for us to witness that and to witness black pain and black joy and so much more.

Alex Chambers:  Today on Inner States Ross Gay talks about his book length poem Beholding with my colleague, host of Earth EatsKayte Young. Ross Gay is the author of books of poetry, Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the 2015 National Book Critic Circle Award, and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry award, and Beholding which won the Pan American Literary Jean Stein Award.

Alex Chambers:  His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, will be released by Algonquin Books in October of 2022 and I expect we will have him on again to talk about that.

Alex Chambers:  In the meantime let me present this conversation Ross had with Kate Young in 2020 about sports, digression and witnessing. Here's Kate.

Kayte Young:  Could you talk first about your relationship with sports and athleticism growing up or even now.

Ross Gay:  I'm working on essays right now about sport and playing sport. It's deep it's so deep and so formative and this poem I feel is a little of that formative understanding of the world. I grew up playing football and basketball. I played those sports in high school. I played football in college. I coached. I played whatever, good serious basketball until I moved here to Bloomington and then there was a little change in my life but I was coaching. I've coached from the time I was about 24 until I was about 31, 32, 33. Coach serious varsity high school basketball and I dream about basketball and football all the time.

Kayte Young:  When you're sleeping?

Ross Gay:  When I'm sleeping I often dream. If I dream about football I often end up crying. If I dream about basketball I often end up dunking a basketball. Which might give you some indication of my relationship to those sports. But my dad was a basketball player and our relationship, some of the closeness and some of the not closeness had to do with our both being very invested in basketball and probably being invested in my playing basketball. I think about it a lot. It's deep. So it makes sense to me that I write at least one long poem that had something to do with basketball or sport.

Kayte Young:  So let's get into the poem itself. Your book link poem Beholding, it seems at first anyway to be what I might call a close reading of a famous basketball move by Julius Irving or Doctor J. For our listeners who may not know, can you introduce Doctor J for us.

Ross Gay:  Doctor J he played in the ABA which was a side league to the NBA and the Pacers were actually were in the ABA for a while. But he played in the ABA through the 70s and he was the MVP of the ABA several times, maybe three times. And then he came to the NBA in 1977 or something. I was born in 1974 so this is history to me. And joined the Philadelphia 76ers. I grew up for the most part outside of Philadelphia so the sixers was our team and Doctor J was a hero to me. I know you asked about Doctor J and I'm turning it back to me. So Doctor J he was the first person who in the slam dunk contest, dunked from the foul line. People think of Michael Jordan doing that. Doctor J did it.

Ross Gay:  There were things that he did on the basketball court that were impossible before he did them. So I think of him in that way like a profoundly beautiful basketball player. Lovely person he seems like but like a profoundly beautiful basketball player who was able to imagine all these ways of flying that he had to imagine so that the rest of us could do it, to the extent that we could do it or even witness it or even imagine it actually.

Kayte Young:  I'd like for you to read a passage for us and I don't know if you want to say anything about the challenge of reading just a passage from this poem.

Ross Gay:  Yes I should. So it's a 95 or so page poem and it's deeply digressive this poem and I love how you called it a reading of a basketball move. I think that's exactly what it is. It's a kind of lyric reading of a basketball move and by lyric maybe I also among the things that I mean is digressive. As I'm looking at this two and a half second move or whatever it is, three second move, I'm sort of following these trains of thoughts or these associations, like when the light does this I think oh what about this. So it goes many places and part of what is amazing, fun, interesting, curious to me about reading this poem in these fragments that are necessary in interviews and stuff like that is that it's such a breath for the poem. And actually now that I changed the beginning it begins with a lower case and and it begins in the middle and it ends in the middle.

Ross Gay:  As Irving went higher, now let me just describe the move though, a very little of it, 1980 NBA finals against the LA Lakers. That's a Lakers team with Jamaal Wilkes, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So Kareem and Magic and definitely two of the best players ever to play the game and some people think our buddy Dave one of them, that Kareem is the best player to have ever played basketball. He takes a dribble from the foul line extended and then he jumps and then a hundred pages later something else happens. Anyway here it is.

Ross Gay:  As Irving went higher and now began to extend his right hand in a precise arc beginning precisely above his head painting a broad and precise circle not unlike Leonardo's Vitruvian man, in his hula hoop of perfect proportions. If that little naked man wasn't little or naked and was palming a basketball, that was flying through the trees and I find myself again and again with my arm making the perfectly impossible circle again and again as I watch this clip on You Tube frame by frame, clumsily on a computer with gummy keys and a post-it note covering the eye hole scrawled discipline on April 5th 2015, at 1.48 a.m. again and again thinking what am I looking at, what am I seeing. Back to the first long step toward the baseline, the slight contact with Lansberger. The leap again long step, contact, leap again, long step, contact, leap again, long step, contact, leap.

Ross Gay:  And I notice this time in the background which is granted hazy, this being old footage and my eyes a big rheumy for the now nearly two hours studying this clip, I notice at about the foul line, Silk, a.k.a. Jamaal Wilkes who, for the record, Coach Wooden on the record said was his best player ever at UCLA, not Kareem and oh forever Bill Walton. And it's worthwhile to spend at least a moment with the name Silk. Among the finest basketball nicknames implying an ease and fluidity of movement. Implying a difficult thing, a painful thing made to look easy. A fiber prized for its softness, its smoothness on the skin, gathered from captive worms fed mulberry leaves. My court name was Beast for what it's worth and after a summer league game at the court at 10th and Lombard where those in the know would slide through a gap in the grimace of the wrought-iron gate to get in. A court that would be in time shut down in the most heinous of ways, removing the rims. The backboards lonely as gravestones. Because of complaints to the city from the condo owners across the street who did not want to hear god forbid all that negro gathering and celebration and care and delight, every goddamn weekend morning.

Ross Gay:  All that frolic and tumult. All that flight. Why can't they just go some place else. A slightly older opponent told me holding my hand and shoulder and pulling me close, he was holding me, beneath the stately oaks overhanging the court, looking kindly down on us and time to time blocking a high arcing shot and wishing a leaf or two upon the ex-ballers on the sidelines reading the Philadelphia Enquirer, sipping coffee, debating and laughing or acting stupid like refs making calls. Oh yeah he walked his ass off. The oaks dappling the old heads and their discourse. The best line of verse I will ever write. His shirt soaked through staring at me to be sure I was listening which I was. Then as now. You ain't no beast, you ain't no beast. You're a man you hear me.

Ross Gay:  I notice Silk's right leg and hip twitch before relaxing with what might have been the bodies ah shhh. Though if you look closely again and again in a certain kind of way again and again you'll see also what might be a kind of light descending upon Silk's high cheekbones and forehead. Again and again. Unfurling almost across his face as he cranes his neck towards the soaring until you'd almost swear tonight at 2.26 a.m. he was looking into a tree strewn with people. The human shaped shadows twisting across his body. The legs swaying into his torso. A gray hand birding across his face resting for a second at his ear. The pinkey become a beak from which wheezed a tiny song, you'd swear watching this sliver of the clip again and again. The shadow of one man's head seeming to lay itself on Silk's chest. For which in the clip you'll see Silk make of his arm a cradle, lowering his head as though to say I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.

Ross Gay:  With which the tree makes a kind of choir moaning, I'm so sorry. Twisting its roots in the molder with what they've been made to do. Wait wait, what am I looking at. What am I practicing.

Kayte Young:  So I think it's pretty clear in that passage that this is and is not a poem about basketball. We can see the pivots that you make here from one basketball court to another basketball court and then from a court to the site of a lynching and these kinds of moves are happening throughout the poem and book. And I'm thinking about the word pivot. I'm thinking about it in basketball and also in just ways that it has come up for instance, since the pandemic started, where a restaurant talks about how they have to pivot. And so I'm thinking of a pivot as what you do when you're faced with the unexpected, with unforeseen, I didn't see it coming. Just a pivot to survive. And so I was wondering if you could reflect a little bit on the word pivot and these leaps that you've taken in the poem and what that means for you.

Ross Gay:  I love that word and you might not know this but do you know what pivot means in basketball.

Kayte Young:  I feel like the little bit that I know about basketball yes but you could talk about it.

Ross Gay:  I mean this is something we can write another 20 pages on, but the pivot foot is like a plant foot, you've got to keep that foot on the ground. If you pick up your pivot foot, you walked. You've got to be able to pivot. There's this thing that a buddy of mine Sam Stephenson who's a really beautiful writer, Gene Smith's Sink is his book. Now we talk a lot about this thing, this idea of lyric research, it's like this little triggers or these little moments in something that you didn't know were there until you just listened to them for a second and then boom you open a door or something and you fall through it. And suddenly that's the poem or suddenly, oh I had no idea that this was even here and as you know, that happens again and again in this book.

Ross Gay:  I don't know but I feel like, maybe it is, I mean it's a kind of digressive thinking which I can also point to other artists who I just admire who do that. Gerald Stern being one of them. John Coltrane being another one. I feel like there's something in those pivots which turn into these digressions that are probably making, and I'm saying this as a question, that are probably making some kind of assertion about what is happening any time anything is happening. I think that's probably the case. Which is to say I'm looking at a basketball move. But at the time I'm looking at a basketball move. In fact maybe I'm making an argument that there's a dude on 10th and Lombard saying you're not a beast, you're a man. And there's a basketball game going on in 1980 and there's my dad and mom on a beach in the Jersey shore.

Ross Gay:  I think probably those pivots are making some kind of argument about that. I think Patrick [UNSURE OF NAME] I think in one of our conversations he started pointing that out to me but when you say it and me hearing myself saying it more now I'm more like this is one of the arguments that that pivot does. And I feel also the more I write the more parenthetical I'm becoming. Everything I say there's parenthetical things behind it. And I don't know what that is. Maybe that's getting older. Or maybe that's loosening up what one believes is the story.

Kayte Young:  It's something that happens in conversation all the time. I mean it feels like it's more connected to how we really relate with one and other and talk with one and other. We never stay on track.

Ross Gay:  Yeah and how often when we in conversation, and just the other day, it was happening with Stephanie and I, and she said two words and then she blew by and then went on to something else. And how often we do that. And I was what were those two words. And those two words were this really full story. I mean probably the bottom of the story actually. And probably for something that we might consider like continuity or meaning or understanding, maybe we are the opposite. I'm more inclined the more I write and read to understand that a lot of our thinking is actually complicated and full and full of absences and unsaids and so it's in a poem to try to figure out ways to hold a glimmer of that.

Kayte Young:  Well I was thinking, when you said the thing about how your pivot foot has to stay on the ground, just to keep going with the metaphor, I was going to ask you how do you know when maybe your leap has gone too far and you reader is not going to be able to stay there with you. Or were there any times where you went somewhere in the poem and then you're like you know what I've got to cut this. I've got to rein this in a little bit. I was thinking that the pivot foot, that thing that's got to stay on the ground even though you can move around.

Ross Gay:  Yeah that's like the theme or something if you're doing my favorite things da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. And then you can go for 25 minutes but you've got to come back da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-. People go oh my god, he came back, he came back.

Kayte Young:  Oh that's right we were doing several things.

Ross Gay:  I am so moved by that in all kinds of ways. I really like long jokes. I love a long joke. A lot of people hate long jokes. But I love a joke that takes four days then eventually you come back. I'm also really interested in that just in terms of making something in how far that question you asked of how far can you go before people are okay this is no longer a poem about Doctor J. Oh yeah right. Yeah. It's not. It's not. And I had these moments. Even in terms of how to describe the move which is in itself so beautiful, the part of one of things that I was trying to figure out how does this poem end, I did have to wonder if Doctor J at points returns to the poem. That was part of my thing in terms of honoring the digression or the theme, the so-called theme. Does the move sort of move on or something. So that was one of my contemplations and revision processes actually.

Ross Gay:  I love like a cantilevered building.

Kayte Young:  Yeah and that shows up in the poem.

Ross Gay:  Yeah. And I love it because how far can you go before the thing snaps off. I love that. I love that.

Alex Chambers:  If you're just joining us we're listening to a conversation between my colleague Kayte Young host of WFIU's Earth Eats and poet Ross Gay upon the publication of his book length poem Beholding a couple of years ago. When we come back we'll hear about what foiled Ross's plan to only ever read the whole poem when he was invited to readings. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers. We're listening to a conversation between Ross Gay and Kayte Young about Ross's book Beholding which came out in 2020. Here's Kayte.

Kayte Young:  So I find myself reading this book out loud. I feel like maybe that's always true of poetry but I feel like this poem and the way that it meanders, the way you're shifting and pivoting from a basketball court to a beach, to gazing upon Doctor J in flight, to gazing upon bodies hanging in trees and I sometimes needed to read it out loud to follow it. I really had to hear it to know how to read it in a way. And I was wondering for you how important is the performance of poetry and in particular with this poem and reading aloud and being in the presence of others, your body with other bodies, as you embody some of the gestures that happen in this poem and I was just thinking about what's lost with doing virtual events. Your book tour's been entirely virtual due to the restrictions of the Corona virus pandemic and I know that we adapt and that you've adapted and you make the best of the situation.

Kayte Young:  But I was wondering if you could spend a moment just considering the place of physical presence in reading poetry.

Ross Gay:  I mean one of the things, just in terms of how I was sort of imaging the life of this book and me with it, is that I was sort of so excited because I was only going to read the whole poem. I was never going to read anything except the whole poem and it takes an hour and 15 minutes to read which is just too long for a poetry reading and it's another one of those things, how long can it go. But I was really excited about that in part because it begged the question of how long can we stay together sort of like that.

Kayte Young:  Yeah not just how long can we stay in the same room but how long can we have someone's attention.

Ross Gay:  Which is hard. If you read an hour and 15 minute thing, you know it's also a holding to know that you're going to go on your digressions while I'm reading and that is just beautiful and part of the thing. But this practice of hanging with each other, hanging tight, is powerful to me. And it also felt lovely because I had all these ideas, I had all these expectations, and now I'm like well you know whatever. But I liked the way that that related to commerce actually. I like the idea of the non-acceptable meditation and I still like the non-acceptable meditation and I think it exists in all kinds of ways probably in this book too. But that's all to say that I was and am really committed to the body, my body sharing the poem or bodies sharing poems. Bodies period. Poems period. But my body sharing the poem in part because it is why I'm interested in poetry readings because my body is going to be different today than it was yesterday. And my body might not be a body tomorrow. Or might only be a body tomorrow. And that is really fascinating and moving and the source really of all the contemplations in that poem.

Ross Gay:  It's really like the fact of our dying is one of the questions of joy and this poem in it's way is trying also to sort of figure out how does our study, how does our practice result in joy.

Kayte Young:  So I wanted to talk a little bit about the title of the book. Beholding. And one of the ways to read that is to behold. To look at something. To see. And there are so many ways that looking is happening in this poem. We're looking at Doctor J. We're visually studying the move and then there are also these photographs. There are three photographs in the book. One of them is not actually in the book but that are being discussed. You are doing again a close reading, a close study of these photographs in the poem and I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that beholding and that looking.

Ross Gay:  Yeah and you're saying the looking at the photographs.

Kayte Young:  Yeah I mean all the looking.

Ross Gay:  Yeah I mean one of the central questions of this book and I say it, I mean obviously it's one of the central questions, I keep saying it again and again, what are we looking at, what am I looking at, what are we studying, what's my practice, what are we practicing. And so the looking of Doctor J, the looking of this impossibly beautiful moment of flight is itself a kind of practice. But all of the beholding I think it's really asking this question of how does how we witness make the world. How does how we witness make our lives. I'm sort of trying to figure that out by looking at all of these modes of looking. Looking at all the evidence of looking.

Ross Gay:  That picture that's on the cover of the book, it's a grandmother and her grandson in Alabama in the 1930s. That's maybe the title of the photo or something like that. I spent a long time looking at this photograph and this picture and one thing I think is interesting is that I get to looking at that photograph because in real life I was at the Library of Congress looking through the WPA photos because I wanted to see what share cropping in Arkansas in the early part of the century would have looked like because I was looking for my great-grandfather effectively. And I came upon this photograph which then certainly became one of the central images of the book but you could almost be like this is the pivot of the book actually.

Ross Gay:  It was an accident. I was looking for my great-grandfather. It was not an accident at all. But I was looking for my great-grandfather and them boom here he is. But in studying that photograph I feel like what I'm really trying to do is study how I'm studying the photograph. Studying how I'm studying looking and I keep asking these questions or making these corrections, like the grandmother looks like this or rather maybe she's this and maybe it's this, or the little boy has in his hand it could be this or it could be that.

Ross Gay:  So I think what I'm doing all this beholding is really figuring out how we witness the world. There's a little moment in the poem that I think is really interesting.

Kayte Young:  You can read it or tell me whichever works for you.

Ross Gay:  I think maybe I'll read it. This little boy in the photograph, so there's the grandmother and the little boy mostly and there's a little kid peeking out from the back.

Ross Gay:  In his right hand he shelters something almost floral. A rose perhaps. Pale yellow or even you think. Maybe he owns the nave of a magnolia bloom or it could be it's true a few bills a little money but by and largely in the boy until he fills the field of my vision, I can see it's an origami bird he has made and on which he might with his left hand be putting the finishes touches to the beak. So that the bird might better lullaby. The wings folded lightly against his fingers. The bird's sharp head twisted back toward the child looking into his dream of the sky etc.

Ross Gay:  Maybe it's an origami bird.

Kayte Young:  You decided at some point that it was.

Ross Gay:  Yeah.

Kayte Young:  You landed on that.

Ross Gay:  Yeah and it was like a practice of looking I think. And that the poem was asking for it I think. Or guiding me toward it.

Kayte Young:  Yeah the looking at that photograph is so interesting and engaging. I think I've told you before how much I love looking at an image and really talking about it and thinking about it and studying it and I really appreciate that in this book through all the ways that you do that. And also the questioning of what is the violence we do by the looking or that the photographer's doing by capturing, by shooting these images, the relationship and then then the relationship of us as viewers. It's complicated and important to think about.

Ross Gay:  I want to say too that the title of this book used to be Flight. And then I read Christina Sharp's book In the Wake and she talks a lot about the hold and she has this sort of turn at some point in the book about beholding. How do we beholding to each other. And after reading her book, I mean to me it's like this story, I'm going to tell this story, because it's lovely about the book. When I went to Cincinnati, I was okay I'm going to go to Cincinnati, I'm going to find the end of this poem. I was probably four years into writing it and there's some turn to this. And I was deeply reading In the Wake, Christina Sharp's book, I had been reading Saidiya Hartman's book Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments. I was probably reading the under-comments. Fred Moten and Stefan [UNSURE OF NAME]. Those three at least, a lot of book is in conversation with [UNSURE OF NAME] work. Patrick Rizal's work.

Ross Gay:  There's a lot of this stuff but I was deeply reading In the Wake and so I go to Cincinnati. That poem I just don't know if I'm going to get it and I'm working for three or four days, just got a little place, and then working. Eventually I go this little coffee shop and it's just a regular fine little coffee shop. And this is the night before I'm leaving. Hope something happens. I have my coffee and I remember across the way is a writing group and I could hear it was multi-generational. I could hear kids, seem like college kids and then people my age, and maybe someone more in their 60s, hanging around working on stuff. And I'm just drinking my coffee. And then a couple bells went off in my head. And one of them was the Allen Iverson talking about practice.

Ross Gay:  And then a couple of things started to tick, tick tick tick tick tick. Leading to this connection between beholding and beholden. I'm absolutely indebted to Christina Sharp's book In the Wake, and I feel like it's a beautiful thing. Before I read In the Wake, the book was called Flight. To me that remains one of the titles of the book. Flight, the many valences of flight. But after I read Christina Sharp's book plainly and it's in the margins of her book, my copy of her book, I realize oh what I'm talking about is beholding and how do we be beholding. How can looking be an act of holding as opposed to an act of capturing etc.

Alex Chambers:  This is Inner States presenting a conversation my colleague Kayte Young had with poet Ross Gay about his book Beholding. We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. We're listening to a conversation Kayte Young recorded with Ross Gay a couple of years ago upon the release of his book length poem Beholding. Kayte wanted to talk about the major themes in Ross's work.

Kayte Young:  One of your big questions is looking at black pain and looking at black joy and you know it's so relevant to so many things that are going on today in terms of the racialized violence, the police violence against black bodies, the killing of black bodies and the looking at that has been the spark for this social unrest, this uprising that's happening in our nation. Some call it a racial reckoning but it's so connected with the looking and I know that a lot of people are asking questions about what that looking does. Do you have any thoughts about that and where this book lands in that.

Ross Gay:  Yeah I think the book definitely lands in a kind of recognition. There's a moment early in the poem where I'm watching something happen. I'm watching Doctor J. I'm watching the most beautiful moment of flight and my body starts doing it. My body starts doing it without even noticing it. I'm doing the same thing that Doctor J's doing with my body. I think that's an argument or it's a question say, one of the questions the poem asks about how what we witness does to our body. So I land on, it's very complicated, there are all these modes of witness and I think there are modes of witness that are committed to taking care of us and there are modes of witness that require violence that they exist. That's tricky.

Kayte Young:  Yeah it feels like something that you grapple with yourself in your own practice. That question, what am I practicing. It's just such a powerful question and it just feels like you're grappling with it throughout the poem. Like when you're looking at certain images, how are you looking at this, or when you see something that's not there and you're asking yourself, here I am wishing this on this little boy watching this. It's just really interesting to see that kind of internal questioning of what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Ross Gay:  In the poem I think I dreamed it upon that boy.

Kayte Young:  Yeah dreamed it.

Ross Gay:  And the boy was just sitting there. He was just sitting there watching or not watching. In the poem Doctor J at Record Park. Yeah that's exactly right. Maybe there's not a central question, there's many central questions in the poem. One of the questions is how as an artist and a person how do you make sometimes or often about pain without making pain.

Kayte Young:  Yeah that's a very important question. I'm just thinking about the looking at what happens to George Floyd has a powerful effect in the world that is positive and could lead to change even as it's doing violence for people to be watching it. I'm thinking also about the photograph that you talk about in the book that you wonder about. You don't include it in the book and you wonder about the violence of looking at it and yet regulations around fire escapes were changed because of that photograph. So how do you reconcile that.

Ross Gay:  Exactly. What is our looking for. That's another one of the questions. What is our looking for. Because we clearly need to witness, there's no doubt about that. We need to witness. So what is the work that our witness does or how does how we witness do work.

Ross Gay:  I think also one of the questions tied up with those other questions in terms of being someone, let's say period. I'm thinking a lot of writing and making art but I'm also I think I'm thinking period. Is that if your practice becomes reliant upon horror, well what's your relationship to horror. And that's a question about the soul. It seems to me that part of our practice needs to be figuring out how to witness in the ways that we need to witness but also wondering about, I think I am back to thinking making stuff, wondering about if my subject is brutality, do I need brutality to have my subject. Very much the way when I think of people who do mass incarceration studies. That sucks. Abolition studies do you know what I mean. How about free people studies. There's some element in this question too.

Kayte Young:  I think I see what you're saying. So if your study relies on almost the continuation of these violences.

Ross Gay:  That's my subject, this is what I study. If it's what your studying you going to get really good at it. I mean that's such a powerful thing to me in watching that. Someone pointed out to me at a reading something about embodiment and it made me think oh damn right. In the poem I'm talking about my body becomes the thing that I'm studying. It is a question. Does your body become the thing that you're studying. I suspect it does.

Kayte Young:  So then the question of what am I practicing becomes pretty important. And so it really needs to be a shift in the way that your studying. What's central to it. If your body becomes it you might want to be careful.

Ross Gay:  Exactly. Because you can witness with the vision holding the vision of, or it seems like that might be one of the practices to witness, fully witness with the vision of care. With the vision of love.

Kayte Young:  You already spoke to something that I wanted to ask you about which was Christina Sharp's work but also your acknowledgments are nine pages long. I'm thinking about the concept of debt and the way that you touch on that a little bit, talk about it a little bit in the acknowledgments. So I was wondering if you would be interested in talking about that a little bit.

Ross Gay:  Yeah I would love to. That's one of the questions too of this book. It's the very closeness of if you were saying beholding just in conversation, beholding and beholden are basically the same word. So one of the questions is is it possible to be behold one and other such that we are constantly practicing our beholdingness to one and other. I feel like that whole book is trying to figure out and I mean it's working toward a theory maybe of looking and witnessing and beholding and it's also so tied up in a theorizing or believing in this thing like you said debt, or this thing which another word for that is gratitude. And when I'm talking about gratitude, I want to be very adamant that I'm talking about a kind of profound entanglement by which we understand and we practice understanding because I think it is difficult for a lot us to believe it. But when we practice understanding that we are not without everything else. We are not.

Ross Gay:  The book I think is trying to among other things, trying to figure out how that kind of life infused with or an inquiry infused with that kind of understanding that I am not here without you. To the micro to the macro. The kid in the poem and the person in the poem gets held a lot. My buddy dancing is always holding me, the dude at the court is holding me, my mother is holding me, my father is holding me, my brother is holding me. All of these people, some of whom I'm related to and many of whom I am not, are holding me. And to be held like that and to practice witnessing that kind of having been held like that, I think maybe is also a way of expressing this debt or again gratitude. Do you know what I mean.

Kayte Young:  And being beholding to.

Ross Gay:  Being beholding to. Like the practice of the beholding. I think that's what I say and that's sort of what Christina Sharp gave me. The practice of the beholding. The way in American, that word is used is I don't want to be beholding to anyone. That's the way it's said in American. And this book is sort of well we are beholding to each other. We are beholding to the microbes and like that I'm beholding to the wind through the trees. So how do we practice that which is practice.

Kayte Young:  Well I want to thank you Ross Gay for spending this time with me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Ross Gay:  Thank you. I learned a lot talking with you. Thank you.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me Alex Chambers with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Her executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Ross Gay and Kayte Young. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright time to go somewhere and listen.

Alex Chambers:  That was the sound of sand pouring from a shoe at the Indiana dune in June 2022. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Keep listening.

Detail from Be Holding, by Ross Gay

Detail from the cover of Be Holding, by Ross Gay

Before you listen to this interview, it might be worth following this link over to YouTube and looking up Dr J’s reverse layup. It is, quite possibly, the greatest basketball move of all time. Got that in your head? Good, because today’s episode of Inner States is about a book-length poem that springs off from that move and then returns to it, again and again. It’s about what it meant for Dr J to change directions in midair, to pivot in flight, and also what it means for us to witness that. And to witness Black pain, and Black joy, and so much more.  

Today on Inner States, Ross Gay talks about his book-length poem Be Holding with my colleague, host of WFIU's Earth Eats, Kayte Young. Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against WhichBringing the Shovel DownCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Be Holding, which won the Pen America Jean Stein Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, will be released by Algonquin in October of 2022, and I expect we’ll have him on again to talk about that. In the meantime, I'm happy to present this conversation Ross had with Kayte Young in 2020 about sports, digression, witnessing, and how your body becomes what you study.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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