Alex Chambers: When my younger kid was five, they would ask me to come check on them when they were going to sleep. They asked me to come in in five minutes. I said ten. They said seven, I said eight. And, to propose a compromise, they suggested [PHONETIC: seight]. I said, okay, only partly because it was an undefined period of time that I felt like I could probably stretch. That wasn't the only trick to getting them to go to sleep. Occasionally, I suggested they count as high as they could. Once, I recorded the counting from the hallway.
Child of Alex Chambers: 160, 161, 162.
Alex Chambers: Sure. How much are you going to count to? Do you know?
Child of Alex Chambers: Ten hundred.
Alex Chambers: Ten hundred?
Child of Alex Chambers: Mm.
Alex Chambers: Awesome. Okay.
Child of Alex Chambers: Where was I?
Alex Chambers: 162, I think.
Child of Alex Chambers: Oh. Okay.
Alex Chambers: Okay. Goodnight.
Child of Alex Chambers: Goodnight.
Alex Chambers: I'll check on you when you're asleep.
Child of Alex Chambers: Okay.
Alex Chambers: Okay.
Child of Alex Chambers: 166, 167.
Alex Chambers: It was only three years ago, but that voice has gone now. Eight and five are very different ages. When they asked me the other night to check on them in seight minutes, it was a self-conscious throwback. That five year old's not coming back. I think that's part of why those of us who are parents, or those of us who are teachers or other caretakers for young people, that's where we can feel such serious delight, every so often, when we're watching our kid do this or that surprising and wonderful thing, because that moment is about to be gone forever. On some level you know it, so underneath the delight, you're also feeling a kind of grief. But, if you're lucky enough to be able to share that grief, or the many more serious sorrows we all inevitably encounter; if you have people you love who you can share that with who will help you carry that burden, that's when it can also bloom into something else, which poet, Ross Gay, would say is joy.
Ross Gay: One of the questions that people will ask me is something like, is joy then serious subject? Is joy serious, is it worth our time? And, to me, that's a kind of evidence of a childish definition of joy. And that's kind of like the joy that you get when you get a new pair of shoes, you know, which isn't joy, it's something else. It's like, yes, you got a new pair of shoes. Joy, you know, the definition I'm sort of wondering about, being the light that emanates from us when we help each other carry each other's sorrows, is something else. It's not that at all.
Alex Chambers: Ross Gay's the author of four books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Be Holding, which won the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award. His first collection of essays, the Book of Delights, was a New York Times bestseller. This is Inner States, by the way. I'm Alex Chambers. And I asked Ross in because his latest collection of essays comes out on October 25th. It's called Inciting Joy, and a big part of what it's about is how joy and sorrow are completely, inevitably, intertwined, as are we, with each other, if we're willing to acknowledge it or, really, even if we're not willing. Okay, let's get to my conversation with Ross. Ross Gay, welcome.
Ross Gay: Thank you very much. Glad to be hanging out with you.
Alex Chambers: Yes, really good to be together. I was thinking maybe we could start with the movement from delight to joy. And there are two things, really, I think, that I'm interested in there. One is: what was the progression, like as a subject? Maybe it seems obvious on some level, but when I think about the Delights book, one of the things you were trying to do was to get at the ways that delight is complex, and, you know, has to do with sadness and hurt. Personally, I see that more clearly already in the word, joy. And so I guess part of the thought is that joy kind of allows you, maybe, to delve even deeper, and more expansively at the same time. Which brings me to the other piece that I'm curious to hear about, which is the move from essayettes to these longer form essays.
Ross Gay: You sort of nailed it in a way. The Delights are these short essays where, as I think of it, the ones that are, you know, if they're interesting to me at all. For listeners who don't know the book, it's the Book of Delights, it's a book of essays, 102 essays. But I gave myself the project back in 2016 to 2017, to write an essay every day about something that delighted me. And I gave myself these little constraints, and one was to write them every day, one was to write them quickly, and one was to write them by hand. If those are interesting to me at all as a project, it's because there's a kind of tension between delight and undelight, because sometimes people just want to imagine that there is such a thing as delight, a sort of untarnished, uncomplicated, unadult delight, you know. And I remember someone, I don't know, I can't remember if she was introducing me at a reading or if she just wrote an email or something, but she was just sort of noting that in the first ten essays, I'm talking about my father dying, my buddy having leukemia, scientific racism. You know, it's like about life, so we're going to go hard.
Ross Gay: But I think the way that you put it, actually, is almost precisely it. The move from delight to joy, it doesn't feel like I was moving from one thing to another exactly, in my head. At least I haven't yet thought of it. In a way, I think I was thinking about this fundamental question that arose in the Book of Delights, which was: what is the tension between delight and sorrow, for instance? Delight and undelight? And that sort of curiosity about that tension made me think about joy, which I think of. I figured this out in the process of writing the Book of Delights and an essay in it called: Joy is Such Human Madness, which is a quotation from a Zadie Smith essay called Joy, which is one of the kernels of this book, really. Where I started to think that joy itself is something like the light that emanates from us when we help each other carry each other's sorrows. That light that comes from that. And maybe it's coming from the tethers between us, you know, that are there regardless. And given as we all sorrow, that we may not all sorrow the same or have the same sorrows, we all sorrow.
Ross Gay: It seems to me that joy is available to us all. If that definition, [LAUGHS] which I like,holds, it suggests that we all have access to joy. I hadn't thought of it like this, but to sort of expand the thinking that's happened in the Delights, in a way it required, I think, maybe a kind of formal expansion so that the essays and the Delights are maybe three to five pages for the most part. These essays go from, you know, the shortest one is maybe six or seven pages, to, I think, 45 pages or something. Too long, you know. The longest one's too long. [LAUGHS] And that just seems like the question of joy, the deep and abiding question, and I think of it as a question that's the equivalent in significance to a question like what's gratitude, or what's love? I think it makes sense that you'd need all kinds of attempts, and some of those attempts would be very long.
Alex Chambers: And more discursive too.
Ross Gay: And more getting lost.
Alex Chambers: I was really struck by the joy in the footnotes, you know, especially toward the end where there's multipage footnotes.
Ross Gay: You're right. [LAUGHS] Yes, totally. I love the essays as a form in part because it just holds the fact that these are just attempts, these are not going to be masteries. These are going to be like artifacts of my being lost and wandering through that. And the footnotes, they kind of feel like maybe they are some of the evidence of that because, in a way, what the footnotes are doing is saying yes, I'm saying all this stuff, but here's this whole other thing that I could get into. Which, to me, probably implies. And then there's all this other stuff that I'm not getting into, and if you were to talk about this, you'd get into all this stuff. So, yes, those footnotes were part of the funnest part of [LAUGHS] writing that book.
Alex Chambers: I guess I'm curious a little bit more about the writing. As you were getting into it, moving on from the Delights to these longer essays, did the writing feel different, like the feel of the relationship to the process itself?
Ross Gay: So I wrote, you know, the Joy book more or less in, what year was that? 2021, I think, is when that book more or less was written. So, you know, Delights was 2016, August 1st, 2016, August 1st, 2017. So it's like four years later that I wrote that book. In the meantime, I've been writing all kinds of other stuff, you know, writing about land and gardens and basketball. And I also think in those intervening years, I learned how to write longer, and more weird to say, hard to imagine, but more digressively. [LAUGHS] So there's something about those essays, and I think the footnote is actually a way, a formal way, to sort of hold the digressions, but that's something that I learned in the last four years, whereas before, I think, in the Delights, I'm inclined to sort of veer off a little bit. Because I was drafting them in a short amount of time, I couldn't go too far. With these, there wasn't an end point to how far I could go, or if I needed to come back. And that's a thing that I learned in the last four years. I mean, that's a thing that I was not doing before. But in the course of all this, other different kinds of writing, some of which is writing with students too, you know, trying to sort of help students get lost in their writing. I was doing that too.
Alex Chambers: So, one of the things I was wanting to talk about that essay, Dispatch from the Ruins. I guess maybe we could go back to where you were, which is working with students, and think about your trajectory toward learning with students.
Ross Gay: I've been a basketball coach, or I was a basketball coach for years. One of the ways you teach basketball is by playing basketball with kids, you know. And I learned that, and I was with other coaches who did that. I also am friends with theater artists. Watching their kind of drills with their students and stuff has really informed how I think about what a classroom space can be. But there is this other sort of real thing, which is that, you know, I came up in a very kind of normal hierarchicalmodel of education where there was, in various forms, a leader of the class, and there were, in various forms, passengers to the class. You know, in creative writing classes, they're called workshops, and there's the workshop director, and then there's the participants. And the goal of the class, it seems to me, is for the students to either have their work be fixable, or to have their work be liked. You know, it's to either be fixable or good. And that is not necessarily what I'm interested in, [LAUGHS] either for my own work, but also as a teacher or someone in class with other people, studying with other people.
Ross Gay: I'm not interested in being fixed, and I'm not interested in being good, actually. I guess if that's what other people want to do, I'm happy for them. But I'm not interested in it. So I think I was teaching undergrads and grads, and myself being sort of the figure at the top of the hierarchy, giving grades, correcting, fixing, [LAUGHS] saying what's good and bad, and I felt horrible a lot of the time. I felt guilty, I felt like a failure, I felt always fraudulent; a little of me, like, "What do I know?" always. I remember spending so much time, because I built out, of course, a kind of pristine and impenetrable rubric for my classes and the grading systems, partly because I would be teaching in classes where I'd have TAs, I'd have graduate students teaching. So we had to map it out just perfectly, so they knew everything: what to do in class and how to grade, and what to take off for what, you know, how many points. And there was so much time spent talking about what we take points off for. I did it, probably, a few times, knowing how stupid and sad, actually, this was.
Ross Gay: Just really setting up a situation where kind of the main job of the teacher is to just start taking points off of someone's [LAUGHS] soul, it felt like. [LAUGHS] And at some point, I was just like, "I'm not doing that anymore, I can't do that". And there are all kinds of reasons, you know, like someone who's important to both of us, the writer, Fred Moten, I saw him talk about teaching at some point. He was here at IU, actually, and he talked about teaching. And he said something like, you know, he had a professor who right off the bat said everyone was going to get an A, just so people could think and actually be creative and take some risks. That blew my mind. You know, I had been, over the years, of course, reading Noam Chomsky. If you look around, you hear him say such things, and other people like that too. My partner, a long time ago, I remember her saying that grading is cynical. It was, at the time, puzzling to me, and then it became clearer and clearer that it's absolutely cynical because it's not anything to do with learning; it's purely to do with a way of measuring whether or not a person is obedient and can just follow the rules, which is just, you know, it's a sorrow to be participating in that..
Ross Gay: Sometimes you have to. Sometimes, to get paid and keep your insurance, you've got to do that. But I got out of that situation [LAUGHS] and I hate it. And I love this new mode of teaching, which feels like really the thing that I'm curious about is: how do we be together and care for one another's what we don't know? That, to me, is like the coolest thing. You know, let's be together and wonder together; let's be sort of mutually befuddled and care about it and tend to it. So, yes, those are the kind of classes I want to be in, and they tend to be, obviously, more exciting classes, partly because I'm not longer a cop. That's part of it.
Alex Chambers: That undertow is so intense, both in terms of to grade and to rate and all that stuff. But also, I think, to wanting to make their work better.
Ross Gay: Yes, and is though we know how. I know how to write a simile, and I know how to coach people up on writing similes, that's not hard for me. So, you know, if it's like that. There is the thing about, you know, we can coach each other up on how to do that stuff. But there are bigger questions, there are always bigger questions. I have, like, a joke in the book where I say something like: if your job is, [LAUGHS] you know, putting stents in hearts or something, [LAUGHS] or making the LSD, or doing the things on the tires, I hope you are on it. And I suspect there's a way that you can determine that. I can't determine about a poem, and if I can, it's probably not the poem I'm that interested in.
Alex Chambers: So what are some of the bigger questions that you end up trying to get into?
Ross Gay: It's funny, like, just the other day in our class, we were reading a beautiful book by someone named Heather Christle. It's called The Crying Book. It was in between that and reading Muriel Rukeyser's incredible book, The Book of the Dead. And we were talking, and this question about need came up, and this question about how do we tend to each other's needs and how do we be honest about having needs? And how do we be generous about, you know, receiving or tending to the needs of other people? Kind of felt like a serious question, you know, a bigger question than how do I do what you want me to do? [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: Or even how do I do what I think I want to do to make this poem better?
Ross Gay: Yes, how do I improve?
Alex Chambers: How do I improve? Right.
Ross Gay: Way more interesting than, like, how do we honor and care for one another's needs? I'm way more interested in that than I am in how do I make my poem the best poem?
Alex Chambers: Yes.
Ross Gay: I wish for your poem everything that it wants to be, I really do. And I'm happy to talk with anyone about it. [LAUGHS] But I'm way less interested in that, frankly, than what's maybe behind the questions of the poems. Because the poems always have questions that are bigger than the thing of making a good poem, and maybe that answers your question in a certain kind of way. There's always these bigger questions, the great question, that focusing on fixing the thing or making a better thing, or making the best thing, actually obscures. If we follow that through, part of the sorrow may be of a lot of education is that there is this sort of fundamental, or a set of fundamental and abiding and necessary and beautiful questions, like, "How do we care for one another?" That really get obscured by, "How do I be the best? How do I succeed? How do I get this last parcel of As, you know, at the exclusion of these people sitting around me?"
Alex Chambers: It's time for a quick break. You're listening to a conversation with Ross Gay about his new book: Inciting Joy. This is Inner States. We'll be right back.
Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers. When we left, poet Ross Gay was telling me how he tries to focus on bigger questions when he teaches, not how to fix this or that poem, but how do we care for one another? Let's get back to it.
Alex Chambers: So, you have this essay about all this. But it's also about Benito Cereno.
Ross Gay: [LAUGHS] It really is.
Alex Chambers: So, I was wondering if you could maybe tell the story of Benito Cereno for people who aren't familiar. And then what I want to do is ultimately get back to what we were just talking about with students and caring for each other in the classroom.
Ross Gay: Yes, so Benito Cereno is a Herman Melville novella. It's probably 100 pages. I can't remember if it's before or after Moby Dick. There's a ship, and there's a character named Amasa Delano. And Amaso is an American ship captain who sees this ship casting in the distance and can tell that the ship's in trouble. So he takes his ship, he drives his ship over [LAUGHS] to this ship that's in trouble and he hops on it. [LAUGHS] And he notices that there's all these black people, all these Africans aboard decks, you know, I think that's how they say it. And he thinks, "That's strange," but he just kind of rolls with it. And then he meets the captain of the ship, who's always attended to by this character named Babo. The captain of the ship is named Benito Cereno, and he's with Babo. And Cereno looks kind of, I don't know, like he can't trust him. [LAUGHS] That's what's Amasa Delano's thinking. And Babo's always right there next to Cereno, so anything Cereno says, Babo's kind of looking at him. [LAUGHS] Delano is just really suspicious of Benito Cereno and thinks he's up to something, and he doesn't trust him, and it kind of carries on through the book.
Ross Gay: There are so many things about this book that I just could talk about. But, ultimately, you find out is that Amasa-- .
Alex Chambers: Well, maybe before that, even, there's one scene, I think, especially, which you describe in here.
Ross Gay: Yes. It's [LAUGHS] one of the best things I've ever read in all of the literature, and I haven't read a lot, so that's not saying a lot. But I've read some. So [LAUGHS] it's, yes, one of my favorite passages, put it like that. At some point, Babo is shaving Benito Cereno, and Amasa comes into, maybe it's the captain's quarters or whatever, where this is happening. And Babo puts the Spanish flag as a towel over Cereno's chest. And Amasa Delano, a proper upstanding liberal American, thinks, "Oh, isn't that cute? You know, these blacks, they're like Newfoundland dogs, they're such good attendants. He doesn't even know what he's doing." [LAUGHS] And, of course, Babo's doing everything, Babo's running the whole show. Babo's sort of the puppet master or the orchestrator of the whole situation. It turns out that it's a uprising or an insurgency, and the people are on deck because they've taken over the ship. That's what's happening. But because Amasa Delano is who he is, he can't imagine that that could have happened. So anyway, I was going to say the whites win, but it's more complicated than that, actually.
Ross Gay: But one of the things that's amazing about this book is that there's such sophisticated narrative techniques. And part of that is that there's a narrator. The narrator, often he was very closely to the ignorant American good liberals. [LAUGHS] I think that's what you'd call him. He feels familiar to me as a character. And the narrator, often he was close to Amasa Delano. So, you get a narrator, and then you get a very close to Amasa Delano voice. And then you get this third voice, at least, which is this transcript at the end of the book, and the transcript is the people who are still alive. Because there is an uprising, it does become violent, people get killed. People reporting on what happened. And it gets filled out. So there's all these voices, these tellings of the story, all these perspectives, which is to say, on the one hand, it's sort of a master class on irony. Everything that's being said, there's another angle to learn it from. So you can put it all together. And I think it's for that reason that people don't know if Melville is being racist by depicting so articulately Amasa Delano's racism. [LAUGHS]
Ross Gay: It's hard to know. And that's, to me, what makes the book brilliant, and really one of my favorite books. I think it's one of my five favorite books. Anyway, among the things that happened, I think you learn in the deposition, the court document afterwards, is that the owner of the ship where these enslaved Africans were being transported; after they took over the ship, they killed and boiled the owner of the cargo [LAUGHS] and they hung his bones on the, I think you say bowsprit, maybe bowsprit, I'm not sure. But on the front of the ship. And scrawled beneath where they had hung his bones was: "Follow your leader," the phrase, "Follow your leader," which I think is a pretty nice touch. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: Right, which brings it back to the question of teaching, education. So, okay, I think I might want you to read this.
Ross Gay: Yes, and I'll read this. And let me first contextualize. The way that it gets prompted in this essay and in my sort of thinking about it is that basically, Stephanie and I, my partner and I are driving home from Vermont where we had a little vacation and we keep getting caught behind these Amazon trucks, and their smile, whatever, that smile and arrow. And it happens enough times that I think of the phrase "Follow your leader". And I'm thinking, right now I'm following my leader, whether or not my leader is Jeff Bezos or the corporation of Amazon, or the sort of economic, etcetera, horror show that we find ourselves in the midst of which is, you know, one of the many ends of our time on this planet. Seems to be. And it helped me to understand that, though that story of the rebellion on the ship is an abolitionist story, it's a story of overthrowing the owners, the masters, the dominators, it's also a story about labor.
And it's a story about workers being brutalized, going on strike, putting an end to the brutality, [LAUGHS] and which is to say, the brutalizers are also the ones who are participating in, or maybe leading the charge to the end of the Earth. And, so, in a way, I'm wondering about this book as the story of a revolt against who wanted, actually, to destroy the Earth.
Alex Chambers: And that brought us back to the part of the Ross's book that I wanted him to read. A quick reminder: he's talking about Melville's Benito Cereno, specifically that moment when Babo's shaving Benito Cereno, the supposed captain of the ship.
Ross Gay: "One of the things that happens during the shaving scene, where Babo very intentionally is draping the flag of Spain over Benito Cereno's neck, and Amasa Delano is thinking how cute, that he doesn't even recognize the [LAUGHS] potency of his symbology. He actually drags the blade a little bit along Cereno's throat and he nicks it a little bit, and a little blood comes. And Benito Cereno kind of gasps and faints [LAUGHS]. And Amasa Delano is like, "Easy, it's okay, he didn't mean it." As I say, Amaso's like, "Yo, relax, it's only a little blood, Babo didn't mean it." But Babo, who is, incidentally, along with Xuela from The Autobiography of My Mother, Sixo from Beloved, and a few others, among my favorite characters in all of literature, meant it, which Amasa realizes last second, just barely dodging being shuck food as he disembarks back to his own vessel, followed by a freaking-out Cereno, a few of his freaking-out crew mates. And finally, the very much not freaking-out, though powerfully abolitionist, Africans, Babo at the fore, dagger swinging.
Ross Gay: In the midst of which, the drape drops from the ship's bowsprit to reveal the owner of the cargo, looking worse for the wear, given that he had been killed, boiled and hung there, a skeleton, you see, by the abolitionists. Which must have been unnerving to him, for he thought those people were his. And scrawled and chalked beneath his bones, the words, Follow your leader", which, at the conclusion of the book, Cereno, now dispatched to convalesce at a monastery in Peru - how does a monastery get to Peru? You're correct - and suffering from what these days would be called chronic PTSD, likewise dies at the ripe old age of 29. That's what I was thinking, driving in the wake of all these Amazon trucks, behind their evil unidirectional grins, the smirk, I suppose, of progress pointing into the future, which is here, which is ashy and hot, which we'd know if we cared what the birds thought, the trees, the trillion gratitudes, who lived with a trillion gratitudes. Or if we listened to those who cared, or if we knew how to listen to them, or were permitted to listen to them. By which I mean, if we were not tricked out of listening to them by the owners, who also own the authorities, the leaders who, for some reason, we entrusted to protect us while they were organizing every single thing into exchangeable - I know, I know, just bear with me - units.
Ross Gay: If only we had read Benito Cereno, a complicated novella about a volatile strike by stolen and brutalized workers against the owners of the world, or better yet, a story about a rebellion against who murdered the world, I mean, the Earth."
Alex Chambers: It hits.
Ross Gay: Yes, it gets hot in there, in the essay [LAUGHS].
Alex Chambers: It really does, and it's so fascinating because at the beginning you're talking about being in this meeting in the English Department where there's an administrator who's referring, I know, I know, apologetically, to the students as units, and it seems like it could be kind of a thoughtful piece about pedagogy, which it is, but, it's so much bigger than that too.
Ross Gay: Yes, it is. I think it's like that thing of getting behind those trucks, all these connections, I think, that happen in the piece. You hear someone say, refer to students as units, it's hard not to think of them as like stuff you put on a shelf and put into a shipping container going somewhere. Yes, it's hard not to think that. And I think that's a point, too. I think, actually that's what they're thinking. [LAUGHS] I think that's what they're thinking, whether or not they would say it.
Alex Chambers: Right. They are the exchangeable thing.
Ross Gay: You are the object, you are the object of the product. You are the unit. And when we talk about teaching where that, in a way, the production of units is actually the job in a certain kind of way, and you're evaluated on your capacity to produce units, you're not evaluated on your capacity to express care; you're not evaluated on your capacity to love people; you're not evaluated on your capacity to have people do something they never could have imagined doing. You're really evaluated on your capacity to produce these units, who are themselves evaluated on their capacity to be units. It's really sad. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: It is really sad. And I think what I love so much about this moment is that it becomes, well, both about the history of slavery and how that and capitalism are part of what led to the world we're in today. But also that thinking of students as units then also connects to how we're burning up the planet. [LAUGHS]
Ross Gay: Yes, exactly. It's part and parcel. But these institutions, which are all part of the whole, the same machinery, even just like on the couch just thinking about this, if you think of the university as a place that might be refuge, actually, from the brutality, and then you learn, in fact, it's just part of it. In a way, it's one of the places where the brutality gets laundered into something as though it's like philanthropy, as though it's something beneficent, and, in fact, it's just part of it.
Alex Chambers: It's part of it and it's laundered like philanthropy, or a place where people learn to make the brutality look nice.
Ross Gay: That's it, yes. You learn to fit into the brutality, one way or another.
Alex Chambers: And reproduce it in a way that you can disguise it from yourself.
Ross Gay: Yes, totally. It's wide for listeners. I'm making a face.
Alex Chambers: It's rough.
Ross Gay: It's rough, and it's also like I mentioned having a little footnote about David Graeber's brilliant book on Bullshit Jobs,[LAUGHS] and he talks a lot about academia because he was a teacher a lot. And this kind of mandate to produce units is one of the things that makes a kind of beautiful job, a potentially beautiful job, a job about really, ultimately about caring about each other into this other job, which is a brutal job, which is really about regulation, regulating people into packageable units, at which point, it becomes a bullshit job. Like one of the most meaningful jobs, I think, just like a sort of an inherently meaningful job becomes the opposite.
Alex Chambers: Yes, yes. Can you talk a little bit about realizing that Benito Cereno is partly about labor?
Ross Gay: Well, yes, I was just sort of watching all these different kinds of strikes that were happening all over the place: graduate student strikes, farmer strikes all over, trucker strikes. You know, Kellogg's, John Deere, on and on and on. Strikes in Haiti. One of the things that I was sort of realizing and thinking about is how there's a great utility to the owners, or whatever you want to call them, to making it seem as though those strikes are not connected, that the desire to have tenable working conditions across continents, across demographics, demographics that will be sort of made to appear at odds. I think they're very sophisticated at that, and I think when those things break apart a little bit, it's trouble, big trouble.
Alex Chambers: You're listening to a conversation with poet, Ross Gay, here on Inner States. We'll be right back.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. I'm talking with Ross Gay about his new essay collection Inciting Joy. And I had to admit to him that I almost missed the bigger point of one of the central essays in the book. I was going to say this when I stopped rolling and took a break, but I'll say it anyway. The masculinity essay, the grief essay, but it starts talking about masculinity. And that's how I started thinking about it, partly because you've got that quote at the beginning from Eileen Myles asking someone to write this. And it seems so important to the writing and thinking about the masculinity kind of overshadows the grief, which also seems like a metaphor. [LAUGHS] But anyway, so to continue from what we were talking about before about these questions about, like, the university as a way to transform this brutality into something that looks different but might be the same, I found that to be the case in the grief essay as well. Was it hard to write that? Was it hard to engage with the masculinity? Or did you feel like, at this point, you've gotten to a point where you can do it?
Ross Gay: Yes. So I sort of express the wariness of writing about masculinity throughout the essay, in part because I think, as I say, I'm sort of resistant or hesitant to reinstantiate what I think of as the boring binary. And at the same time, let me try to talk about it. [LAUGHS] But one of the things that was an interesting sort of way in like that was that's one of the earliest pieces that got written. I realized this later, because I was looking through some writing that I'd done on basketballs and basketball writing: correspondence, essays, pieces, that I was working on with my friend, student,[PHONETIC: Noah Davis]. And in some of these pieces, digressive pieces, where I was also learning how to write these longer, expansive pieces, I realized I had written a bunch of the sections, versions, a year and change before. And it's kind of interesting that the way into that, thinking about masculinity, as I have been for decades now, was by thinking about sports. So, in that way, it kind of wasn't difficult. Though I do feel like there's something kind of vulnerable about it.
To be like, I'm going to talk about this [LAUGHS] masculinity, and I'm going to talk about it by talking about football! You know, it's almost [LAUGHS] maybe I feel shy because it's too obvious, it's too, like, "Well, of course you are." [LAUGHS]. When I ended up, I guess I am.
Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS] Was it writing about joy that brought you that, because it's about masculinity and it's about grief? And in my notes I just wrote "crying and masculinity", you know. So, there's so many moments where you're writing about this desire to hold in tears.
Ross Gay: Like I said, I had written a lot of the parts of it before, and my editor actually asked me: "Do you have a piece on masculinity?" And I think it was because she had read another essay of mine. Now that I'm thinking about it, I think she had probably read these basketball essays, and I think she had probably just pointed and said, "Maybe there's something there to write," which is kind of interesting because that was the only one that was not an assignment exactly, but someone else suggested it and it becomes the longest [LAUGHS] piece in the book. And it does, like, some of the most important work in the book. And I think of a through line. Actually, I'm thinking of your colleague, our friend, Kayte Young, there was an essay in there that I drafted and I was trying to figure out, on foraging. And I feel like that's foranother book or someone else to write it. But partly what I was trying to think about in that foraging essay is how, in a way, we are shown how to forage, where to forage, I was thinking specifically about Kayte and her partner [PHONETIC: Carl] taking us to a place in the woods where there was a pawpaw grove, two years ago probably.
Ross Gay: I was thinking that there's a way that we become particularly permeable. Our need becomes evident in a certain kind of way, not that I needed pawpaws, but I kind of needed pawpaws [LAUGHS]. And so you had your friends be like, "Okay, we can show you where the pawpaws are." So that piece was, I think, going to be some kind of way to be thinking about how one of the beauties about foraging is that you always have to be shown how and where to do it, almost always. Sometimes you'll stumble upon the thing. But when you do, you're going to show someone else, if you're a reasonable human being. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: I know. Some of those morel spots.
Ross Gay: I know [LAUGHS]. So anyway, that was kind of in my head. And as it fell away, this grief slash masculinity essay started to come up. And I think there is this through line, one of the through lines, that the grief, masculinity essay catches hold of, or is carrying, is that one of the things that I think joy does, or it requires us to attend to, is how there is something really fundamentally - again, we're permeable - that we are tethered to one another in these ways that can be terrifying. The kind of tethers we talked about actually.
Alex Chambers: Precisely. And you said it in a way, and I'm going to almost quote you. I may have adapted it a little bit [LAUGHS]. But it's something like: oh well, you said it can be connection. Connection is not always good. It can be about connection, and you said it another way.
Ross Gay: Part of what I was sort of realizing is, I tried to define this thing called joy. And as I tried to imagine or figure out or articulate what are the practices that incite it or inspire it, I was becoming more and more aware that many of these practices, really what they're doing is trying to articulate and illuminate our connection, which is immense and incontrovertible, and you can't get out of it. And what grief, it feels like to me, or, I should say, maybe this sort of question of masculinity, it feels like one of the sorrows of masculinity, is that it is sometimes adamant resistance to that connection, which might be more easily articulated as need. One of the most devastating things about a certain brand of masculinity, I'd say, would be the nightmare fantasy of being needless, be without needs, that you could be, and you will do anything to anyone and anything to prove that you're without your needs. You might get you some slaves. You might be horrible to the people that you love. You might destroy the land that you're so lucky as to reside on, or near.
Alex Chambers: Okay, just cutting in here. You know whose footnotes we've been talking about? I asked Ross to read one of them. It's from that big essay on grief and masculinity, and I should note that this one mentions the existence of a somewhat solo sexual activity. In about a minute and a half, in case you want to skip it or, I don't know, skip to it.
Ross Gay: "I find myself sometimes asked to talk about quote 'masculinity' in the context of my poems, which have gardens, and weeping and soft things in them, I guess. And I'm asked to offer some insight on the workings, or, more accurately, not workings of so-called men, which I always hedge about, in part because I'm reluctant to reinstantiate the ridiculous and remedial binary that I am not interested in, or at least I want to not be interested in maintaining. The back of which binary, or rather, having been trained up in it, I find myself almost daily, trying, or trying to try, to scrape out of myself, for it is bad for the heart, mind in the collective. And so, I'm inclined to say, well, maybe boys, or so-called boys, or quote 'boys', etcetera, just as I'm inclined to say, well, maybe masculinity or so-called masculinity, or, quote the "masculine", etc". Also, a lot of, I don't know, maybe sort of, kind of and not sure. I'm inclined to hem and haw and resist the desire to pin down or fix in these conversations what constitutes a boy or a man or the masculine, or the ways those ideas overlap or converge.
Ross Gay: Part of my hemming and hawing is, in fact, a desire to point out that those things often don't overlap. And when they do sometimes, their overlapping also overlaps with us shaving our legs together, or masturbating together in our bunk beds. Hang on up there. Or applying Nair to each other's backs. Or spooning, penetration or not. Which is to say, it seems to me anyway, that the very premise of the, quote 'woman, queer, oddly behaving man' is deployed to maintain the lie of the fit between the, quote 'man' and the, quote 'masculine'. Or, perhaps, more to the point, the premise of the woman, queer, or oddly behaving man is maintained in the maintenance of the lie of the nonsense between the, quote 'man' and the, quote 'feminine'. Which means, in addition to liking pink and pretty stuff maybe, and flowery earrings and colorful scarves, and jasmine oil and cute itty-bitty things you can carry in your purse. And crying, being permeable, porous, tender, soft, gooey, yielding, leaky, mutable, amorphous, indiscreet, attached, polymorphous, relating, emotional, influx, movable, bonkers, unfixed and unfixable, and in perpetual need of care.
Ross Gay: Which, sorry to tell you, are just the qualities of a creature, regardless of genitals or gender. It is called entangled life, which is also just called life, to which we are regardless of any systems and stories to the contrary, or rage, rage against it, subject to. Or glass half full enthrall too. Another word for which is gratitude. Enthrall of our truly infinite entanglements. No, quote "man" requires it not be so. He refused the irrefutable fact, and will do anything to prove it. In this way, the man is like the white, the corollary other being the black. Or whatever other serves and aids that day's conquest, that day's theft. Deep in the lonely dream of unentangled life, and murdering the world to stay asleep and alone. And no frailer critter on Earth. But when our creatureliness or softness, or permeability or movability or neediness becomes undeniable: your heart broken, your coach hurt your feelings, you can't reach that hairy spot on your back, you're in love, you're losing your mind, you're dying. If we do not yield to and join our need, if we do not accept and even admire and exalt it, there seems a very good chance we might kill everything around us.
Ross Gay: Not only that, there seems a good chance we will kill everything."
Alex Chambers: As we're getting to the end of that, and I also have a book here and just kind of looking ahead, I realize that the two things I've asked you to read now kind of ended in the same place, which is like, we're gonna kill everything. [LAUGHS]
Ross Gay: Yes, yes.
Alex Chambers: And to that, I don't know if that reflects something about my choices, but it kind of got me thinking something about the way I think. In some of my work, I've tended to focus on the things that I fear the most. Like the end of the planet or whatever, the end of the livable planet, at least. And thankfully that's not where your [LAUGHS] stuff ends. Well, I don't know if it begins there or not.
Ross Gay: A little bit. Yes, and I'm actually glad you've pointed that out. I didn't notice that before, but there are a handful of ways that this book originates, and one is that because I wrote Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and The Book of Delights, I'm the lucky participant in a lot of conversations about this question of joy. And one of the questions that people ask me is something like, "Is joy serious? Is it worth our time?" And, to me, that's kind of evidence of a childish definition of joy, and that's like the joy that you get when you get a new pair of shoes, which isn't joy, it's something else. It's like, yes, you got a new pair of shoes. Joy, the definition being, my definition, the definition I'm sort of wondering about, being the light that emanates from us when we help each other carry each other's sorrows, is something else. It's not that at all. So, that, in a way, answers that question. And the book is a response to that question too, in part. It's funny that you chose that teaching essay because so much of what I think of teaching is like, how do we survive the various collapses that we're going to be surviving, that we are surviving?
Ross Gay: And this book is in part a meditation on the ways that there are already practices set up to help us do that. So, you kind of nailed it [LAUGHS] when you saw those things.
Alex Chambers: Yes, absolutely. That totally makes sense, that these practices have had to be in place for so long already, because all of these other things have already beenplaced too. You know, we're looking at climate change and all these, breakdowns of various sorts in society and the extraction of labor and hardship of having to live in this system. Yes, those have been going on for a long time.
Ross Gay: Yes, exactly. All of these brutalities, all these collapses. And one of the things that I think is important is that joy is one of the things that, I think I say, I think of it as a kind of survival. It has to do with our survival. And it has to do with our survival, in part, because on the one hand it's like, we are the evidence of people caring for us, having cared for one another, actually. We're the evidence of that. We're the evidence of people sort of enduring and carrying together their sorrows. Always. And there's this other thing, which is that we often talk about epigenetic trauma, but we don't as must talk about epigenetic joy. And I was just in Youngstown and visiting with my Aunt [PHONETIC: Butter]. And when I think of her being around. She's 96 or so. First of all, that's amazing, it's wonderful, to have such a beautiful, long life. But I also think of the work that she's often doing, which is the work of stitching the cousins together. And part of that stitching together, which she takes so seriously, it does not come out of yes, you all have been together forever, it's always been safe and comfortable and happy.
Ross Gay: No, it's out of, that was the institutionalized instruction of our families, and we have survived that, joyfully. And I would like us to keep on recognizing that there are practices by which we will continue to survive that, and survive other things. So, call your cousin in Chicago, who you've never met. [LAUGHS] It can feel like, oh yes, I was supposed to call my cousin. And then you realize, no, this is a command from joy. You belong to someone, you belong to people.
Alex Chambers: And just to extend that a little further, I just loved at the end of the grief essay. Now I'm calling it the grief essay.
Ross Gay: Yes. [LAUGHS]
Alex Chambers: We had to talk through all that when we get there. And there's a couple of places, I think, where you talk about falling together. Also, though, the section where you kind of come to this thing about grief, where it's about change, and that we all, ideally, change. Even though we're so inclined to try to hold onto something because we're used to it, even if it's painful and maybe brutal, it seems like what will make sense. And so we don't want to change. Can you talk a little bit about that? I'm curious if that's something you kind of figured out as you were writing.
Ross Gay: You know, it's funny because that little thing I say is I wonder if.I'm going to offer a definition of grief, and it's the metabolization of change, which came so clearly that I feel like I must have read that in Maggie Nelson or something. [LAUGHS] But part of what I think I'm wondering about in that essay and in that moment of the essay is that I'm sort of talking about figuring out how to be present with my mother's sorrow when my father died, which is also to say how to be present with my own sorrow when my father died, which was not easy and is not easy for me. In part because, as I sort of speculate in the essay, one of the things that grief does is it joins you to the grieving, period. When you connect to your grieving, you connect to the grieving, which means your boundaries or borders start to fade away. You become less self-possessed, you know, all these things. And, the other thing, what can feel very painful, as you're saying, like change when we're in relationships, you know, the ways that we love one another, we can often refuse to acknowledge other people's changing.
Ross Gay: And that might just be by not asking them what they feel and what they think, sort of common, regular behavior. [LAUGHS] But it seems like sometimes it might be that common, regular behavior might be a way to ward off the grief of understanding that we are forever unknown to each other, which could also be a kind of delight, because we get to constantly be getting to know one another. But that kind of unknownness to each other, it seems like that can be very difficult. But then pinning the knownness on someone itself, it's kind of rough. I mean, we do it on ourselves too. It's kind of rough. So if we aren't able to allow ourselves to change, and I'm not at all saying get better or improve; I'm not talking about that. I'm really talking about change, like just age, you know. It seems like something we need to practice doing: allowing each other to change, which is not only in personal relationships, but I also think in terms of how we think of, and I talk about this in the essay, how we've been brutal with one another. If we don't have the sort of belief in, or the capacity, the belief in, I'd say, or an understanding of change, that it happens, that we're always doing it, always doing it, always doing it.
Ross Gay: It seems like we might be more inclined to fix one another in the place where, well, that we ought to be fixed.
Alex Chambers: Yes, I mean, because we get these ideas of how we could or feel like we should be better, quote unquote, and also how we might want the other people in our lives to be better. It's so funny, because we can talk about the abstract, but right now I'm kind of feeling it, and it's scary.
Ross Gay: Oh yes. Totally! [LAUGHS] I mean, because it's a kind of groundlessness. And, again, to me, it's like one of these places where if we have ways to imagine or think about or organize - maybe organize is the wrong word, but hold it. It is another moment, instance of potential joy, because it's like, this is a kind of groundlessness together. We're always unfolding, we're always becoming unknown to each other. And how do we care for each other through that, love each other through that?
Alex Chambers: And because we're always becoming unknown to ourselves too.
Ross Gay: That's it, yes, that's it. I have this story in [LAUGHS] the book, and I talk about where I decided to stop doing Brazilian jujitsu because I realized, at some point, not on my own, that maybe I was cultivating this defensiveness, which was already a pretty strong quality in my [LAUGHS] character, you might say. And I thought, well maybe I should let this Brazilian jujitsu go, and I'll just tell this to my buddy, Jay, who have been besties from since I'm 13. And I said this to him. And I imagined the very probably nothing silence that was on the phone for a second. I imagined him looking at me like, "That's weird." Which he didn't. He did nothing. But I imagined it. And I think probably because I was looking at myself, and being unknown to myself. And the feeling, the actual feeling was that my body had sort of dissipated into a million particles. That was the actual [LAUGHS] feeling. I'm talking to my bestie, you know, and I feel like I'm completely like ephemeral thing, which I am. [LAUGHS] But it was weird. It was a weird feeling, and really instructive.
Alex Chambers: Do you have time to maybe read the end of that passage?
Ross Gay: "I suspect it was the feeling of changing in the presence of someone through whom I have come to recognize myself. I recognize myself because he recognizes me. And whose recognition feels like safe harbor. Stanley Kunitz, in his poem, touched me, says it as well as I've heard it said. And it is especially moving that he kept saying it until he was about 100, 'Remind me who I am.' The difficulty, though, arises when that safe harbor who knows us does not allow us to pick up anchor and unmoor, another word for which is change, or when the safe harbor then refused this harbor. Believe me, Jay refused nothing. This was my scene. As I think we have all probably done to those we love, because unknowing someone whom we think we know, and through whom we think we know ourselves: parent, child, lover, friend, nation, belief, it can also be terrifying, disintegrating. It can feel like dying. But when we allow and expect each other to change, and, even more to the point, when we witness the learning, the changing, the grieving, with curiosity and patience and care and love.
Ross Gay: When we make room for and witness and invite each other's unfixing, and so are unfixing ourselves. When we join the grieving, and when we join in grieving, and when we do it again and again, making of that soft, mutual, curious groundless witnessing not only an endeavor, but also a practice, we talk about practice again. When we do these things, we fall apart into one another. We fall into each other. And when we catch the grave light shimmering from the tethers between us when it happens, our dying again and again in each other's presence, this falling together, it is called, this holding each other through the falling, I am pretty sure of this, one of the names anyway: joy. And given as we are always falling, we might always be holding each other like this, we might always be holding each other through our falling. And submerged that way in the grave light of joy."
Alex Chambers: Ross Gay, thank you so much.
Ross Gay: Thank you. It was good to talk to you, as always.
Alex Chambers: That was poet, Ross Gay. His new book of essays, Inciting Joy, comes out on October 25th. You can read it wherever you get your books. And this is Inner States, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at WFIU.org/innerstates. 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 Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Ross Gay. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. All right, time for some non-verbal listening.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to a hawk over town on a fall day. I think it's a red-tail, but if you're a bird person, feel free to correct me. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.