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Poet Ross Gay

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KAYTE YOUNG: Welcome to Profiles. I'm Kayte Young and our guest today is Ross Gay.


Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington. He's the author of several books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which was the winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and a poetry finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards. He's the author of the essay collection, The Book of Delights in 2019, and his book-length poem Be Holding was released in September of 2020 with University of Pittsburgh Press. He's a founding editor with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal of Some Call It Ballin’ an online sports magazine. And he's an editor with the Chapbook Presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. He also works on The Tenderness Project with Shayla Lawson and Essence London. Ross is also an avid gardener and a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit Free Fruit for All, Food Justice and Joy Project. Welcome, Ross.

ROSS GAY: Thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG: I didn't mention you also completed a gardening internship with Mother Hubbard's Cupboard a number of years ago, back in 2010, I think, maybe.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: And that's where we met.


KAYTE YOUNG: I was also interning in the Hub's Garden program that summer. So welcome, Ross.

ROSS GAY: Thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG: It's wonderful to get the chance to talk with you today.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, I feel really lucky. I'm glad to do it with you.

KAYTE YOUNG: You're not from Indiana. Your position in the university is what brought you to Bloomington.


KAYTE YOUNG: But you are engaged with the community here in Bloomington in a number of ways. And I was wondering if you could talk about your involvement with organizations such as the Community Orchard and what drew you to that project.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. I mean, you know, one of the things - I love that you brought that up. I love the story that you and I met as interns at the (laughter) Hub's - Mother Hubbard's Cupboard’s gardening program and that we were students of Stephanie Solomon. That's how I feel like I was a student of Stephanie Solomon's. I basically I think I got involved in, like, the sort of gardening/growing community in town because I think I was riding a bike by, you know, the Harmony School or something and saw people doing something. And I said, hey, what's going on? And it might have been our friend Brice or something who's over there. They're like, you know, working through some Jerusalem artichokes or what they were dealing with. Very quickly I sort of got invited to like a compost turning thing over in Crestmont. And then I was an intern and then with you teaching a class. And then I was kind of tuned in to what was going on and heard about this call out for the community orchard, which our friend, Amy Countryman was sort of in the process of dreaming up, and then joined that whole kind of crew of people trying to work on that thing which is ongoing. It just had its 10th anniversary celebration. Those experiences, you know, gardening with the hub and the orchard, the work with the orchard has been like, totally formative in terms of my - I mean, many things like relationship, considering my relationship to the land, but also in a deep, deep, deep way, like I feel like it's been a practice and a study of like what it means to be in community - dreaming and being in community, practice and being in community. And it also like when I think of - you know, I write a lot about joy. And when I think about moments of joy in my life, it's a sort of overwhelming feeling. And it's the deep and abiding and sort of grown-up feeling that I think of. I remember leaving the planting day when we planted the orchard ten years ago. And because I was - I think I was getting in the car to drive back to New Jersey where my partner Stephanie was living at the time. And I sort of wanted to weep, almost did. I kind of kissed one of our friends goodbye on the way out. We had planted, you know, 70 trees, I don't know. Tons of people, all these trees, maybe they were going to make fruit. Maybe people were going to come around and gather around these trees. And I was so like part of something and so kind of dissolved into something. That's a long answer. But that's one of my experiences of joy. And I think of that, oh, that's one of the places where I realized that that's one of my main - that's one of my subjects in my writing.

KAYTE YOUNG: You also grow food at home, too, in your own home garden.


KAYTE YOUNG: Did you grow up with gardening in your family?

ROSS GAY: In the family, for sure. You know, like my mother comes from farmers in Minnesota in kind of northern Minnesota. It was kind of like five or six years, probably, of our childhood that me and my brother would go and spend like four or five weeks in this town of 559 people. And they were done farming at that point. They had moved into town. So they actually lived outside. But they moved into town. But one of the first things, you know, they had, they were like farmers. One of the first things they did when we would get to town would be like to drive us around and show us the gardens of, you know, oh, there's Avis' garden. And there's Seale's garden and this and that. And they - also like my grandpa, I'll never forget this. Every morning that - I can recall every morning him going out and looking at the rain gauge. (Laughter) And they're like, he's going to do that until he dies, you know.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, that's a farmer (laughter). Yeah, that's a grower.

ROSS GAY: I know. And then my dad's family, he comes from people who grow. And his were gardeners and avid gardeners. His grandmother was a kind of legendary gardener in our family. But his uncle, my Uncle Bennett, my nana, you know, she was growing greens and tomatoes and stuff on the patio of her apartment until, you know, fairly recently. And so I come from that. At home, we didn't - we, you know, lived in apartment complex. Didn't really have a garden, but we - or space for a garden. But my mother did always manage to put in like a couple of lilies. And she always had impatiens hanging. And we were in the woods. We had like this little strip of woods near the apartment complex that we were in constantly. And so while we weren't, like, growing down there, we were like sort of like when the raspberries came out, like we would go get the raspberries. And I don't know if my brother was, as you know, excited about the raspberries. But I'd go back with, like, my little Tupperware and then I'd come home. And I'd make - like my mom had made waffles or my dad had made waffles, and then we'd like - I'd put like vanilla ice cream on and put the raspberries on. It was a big deal to me, you know.



KAYTE YOUNG: Your connection to growing food, the being in the space of the garden is something that you do write about. It shows up in your poetry a lot. I'm thinking especially of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. It's really there. But your 2020 release, Be Holding, it has a lot to do with basketball. And we're going to dive into that. But 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. And it's - so that's how I was like, it's deep. It's so deep and so formative. This poem I feel like is a little piece of that formative understanding of the world. But I think, you know, I grew up playing football and basketball. I played those sports in high school. I played football in college. You know, I coached from the time I was about 24 until the time I was about 31, 32, 33, and coached serious, you know, varsity high school basketball. And I dream about basketball and football all the time.

KAYTE YOUNG: Like when-you're-sleeping dreams?

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 (laughter) which might give you some indication of my relationship to those sports, you know. Yeah. But, you know, 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 is deep. So it makes sense to me that I'd write at least one long poem that had something to do with basketball (laughter) or sport, you know.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah. Is it ever surprising sort of in the poetry and literary circles that you move in for people to learn about your interest in sports? And I mean, these worlds don't often collide. But in your work and in Some Call It Ballin’ and in this this book, they do. So how has that been for you?

ROSS GAY: Yeah. You know, it is interesting. When Pat and Karissa and I thought of doing Some Call it Ballin’, we just wanted there to be some decent lyric writing about sport because for all of us, all writers, we had a deep relationship to sport. And we mostly understood that one, that was sort of like serious writing about sport was not - lyrical writing about sport - not a ton of it, I'll say, you know. So we wanted to do some of that and to, you know, curate some of that, which is kind of like a slide. It's a just to the side of your question. I think people are sometimes - I guess I feel two ways. Like one is that I feel like I'm around a lot of people who are so deep into sport and who are also writers and deep readers. And I also feel like (laughter) this kind of exchange in essays that I'm doing with my friend Noah, who graduated from the program here, when people are kind of like, you know, we had this longstanding one court one-on-one basketball game. And when Noah comes to - when Noah'd come to a reading or come to class or something and have like a big handprint on his face, you know, because, you know, (laughter) there's people who'd be like, who, Ross? Like, you know, (laughter) that's not delightful.


KAYTE YOUNG: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Kayte Young and our guest is poet Ross Gay, author of several books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a collection of essays called The Book of Delights and the 2020 book-length poem Be Holding. Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University.

So let's get into the poem itself. Your book-length poem Be Holding, it seems at first anyway, to be what I might call a close reading of a famous basketball move by Julius Erving or Dr. J. For our listeners who may not know, can you introduce Dr. J for us a little bit?

ROSS GAY: Yeah, yeah. Dr. J., he played in the ABA, which was a kind of a side league to the NBA. And the Pacers were actually - were in the ABA for a while. But he played in the ABA, you know, through the '70s. And he was, you know - I don't know - he was the MVP of the ABA several times, maybe three times. And then he came to the NBA in 1977 or something. You know, so I was born in '74. So this is history to me and joined the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers. I grew up, for the most part outside of Philadelphia. And so the Sixers was our team. And Dr. J. was a hero to me. I know you asked about Dr. J. and I'm turning it back to me (laughter). But so Dr. J., you know, he was the first person who in the slam dunk contest dunked from the foul line. People think of Michael Jordan doing that, Dr. J. did it. And, you know, there were things that he sort of did on the basketball court that were, you know, that were impossible before he did them. He imagined them into being. I think of him in that way, you know, 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, you know, to the extent that we could do it or even witness it or even imagine it, actually.

KAYTE YOUNG: So I'd like for you to read a passage for us. And, you know, 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 you know, it's a 95 or so page poem. And it's like 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 mean something like among the things that I mean is digressive. So 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 thought or these associations like when the light does this, I think, oh, what about this? Or so it goes, many places. And part of what is kind of amazing, fun, interesting and curious to me about reading this poem in like these fragments, like, you know, like, is necessary and interviews and stuff like that is that it's such a breath of the poem. You know, it - actually now that I changed the beginning, it begins, you know, with a lower-case and. And it kind of begins in the middle and ends in the middle. This is what we got (laughter). This is what we got.

(Reading poem): As Irving went higher - and now let me just describe the move like very, very little bit. The 1980 NBA finals against the L.A. Lakers, that's a Lakers team with Jamaal Wilkes, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Kareem and Magic are definitely like two of the best players ever to play the game. And some people think that Kareem is the best player to have ever played basketball. He takes a dribble from the foul line extended and then he jumps. (Reading) 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 and 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 YouTube, frame by frame, clumsily on a computer with gummy keys and a Post-it note covering the eyehole scrawled, "discipline" on April 5, 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 Landsberger, the leap again, long step, contact, leap, again, long step, contact, leap, again, long step, contact, leap. And I noticed this time in the background, which is granted hazy, this being old footage and my eyes a bit roomy 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, (bleep) 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 weekend, morning, all that frolic and tumult, all that flight. Why can't they just go someplace 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 arching shot and wishing a leaf or two upon the x ballers on the sidelines reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, sipping coffee, debating and laughing or acting stupid like refs making calls. Oh, yeah. He walked is at 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? I noticed Silk's right leg and hip twitch before relaxing with what might have been the bodies. (Expletive). Now, 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 toward the soaring until you could almost swear. Tonight at 226 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 burning across his face, resting for a second at his ear, the pinky become a big 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. With which the tree makes a kind of choir moaning, I'm so sorry, twisting its roots in the motor with what they've been made to do. Wait, wait. What am I looking at? What am I practicing?


KAYTE YOUNG: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Kate Young and our guest is poet Ross Gay.

So I think it's pretty clear in that passage that this is and is not a poem about basketball.


KAYTE YOUNG: We can see the pivot 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 kind of moves are happening throughout the poem, throughout the book. And I'm thinking about the word pivot. I'm thinking about it in basketball and also in ways that it's come up. And so I'm thinking about a pivot as you know, it's, it's what you do when you're faced with the unexpected, with the unforeseen. I didn't see it coming, you know, just kind of 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 take in the moment and what that means to you.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, yeah. 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.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: But you could talk about it.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. I mean like your pivot foot. It's the foot that you can - I mean this is something to can write another 20 pages. But the pivot foot is the - when you put it like a plant foot, you can - you've got to keep that foot on the ground. If you pick up your pivot foot, you walked.


ROSS GAY: So there's some way this is an awesome metaphor to use. Like, you got to be able to pivot or else you, you know, whatever.

KAYTE YOUNG: It allows you to change direction.

ROSS GAY: It allows you to change direction.

KAYTE YOUNG: Without walking.

ROSS GAY: Without walking. Yeah. Without without traveling. Yeah. I feel like, you know, there's this thing that a buddy of mine, Sam Stephenson, who's a really beautiful writer. Gene Smith Sings is his book. And we talk a lot about this thing, this idea of like lyric research and sort of like these little triggers or these little moments in something that you didn't know were there until you just listened to him for a second and then you open a door or something and you fall through it and suddenly that's the poem, or suddenly, oh, this is I had no idea that this was even here and now. And as you know, like that happens again and again in this book. I feel like that it's a kind of digressive thinking, you know, which I can also point to other other other artists who I just admire who kind of do that, Gerald Stern being one of them. I feel like there's something in those pivot's 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, in fact, there's a dude on 10th and Lombards and you're not a beast. You're a man. There's a basketball game going on in 1980. And there's, you know, my dad and mom on a beach and the Jersey Shore, you know, I think probably those pivots are probably are making some kind of argument about that. I think Patrick was - I think he kind of in one of our conversations, he started pointing that out to me. But when you say it and me, hearing myself say it more now, I'm like, oh, I think. That's one of the arguments that that pivot does. And I feel also like, you know, like the more I write, the more parenthetical I'm becoming. Like everything I say. There's four parenthetical things behind it, you know, or something. And I don't know what that is. Maybe that's like getting older or maybe that's loosening up what one sort of 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 another and talk with one another. We never stay on track.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, yeah. And how often we do that? I'm more inclined the more I write and read to understand that all of our thinking is or a lot of our thinking is actually complicated and full and full of like absences and onsets and, you know. And so it's in a poem to sort of try to figure out ways to hold a glimmer of that.


ROSS GAY: You know?

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, I was thinking about like, when you said the thing about how your pivot foot has to stay on the ground just to kind of keep going with the metaphor, because I was going to ask you, how do you know when maybe your leap is gone too far and your readers are not going to be able to stay there with you? Or you know what? Were there any times where you you went somewhere in the poem and then you're like, you know, I got to cut this this I got to rein this in a little bit. And I was thinking that, you know, the pivot foot is that thing that's got to stay on the ground so you can move around a lot. But you got to.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, yeah. That's like the theme or something I really like in all kinds of ways. Like I really like long jokes. I love a long joke. A lot of people I hate long jokes. But I love a joke that takes, you know, four days and then eventually you come back and you - I also - yeah. I'm really interested in like that just in terms of making something like how far - that question you asked of like how far can you go before people are like, OK, this is no longer a poem about Dr. J. Oh yeah. Right, yeah. Yeah. It's not you know, it's not. Even in terms of like how to describe the move, which is itself so beautiful, the part of I was, you know, one of the things as I was sort of trying to figure out, how does this poem end? I did have to wonder if Dr. J as points returns to the poem, you know, that was part of my thing, like in terms of like, you know, honoring the digression or the theme, the so-called theme has to move, sort of move on or something. That was one of my sort of contemplations and revision processes.


KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kate Young and you're listening to Profiles with WFIU. Our guest today is poet Ross Gay, author of several books of poetry, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a collection of essays called The Book of Delights and the 2020 book length poem Be Holding. Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University.

I find myself reading this book out loud. I feel like maybe, 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, you know, gazing upon Dr. J and fly 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 happened in this poem. And I was just thinking about like what's lost with doing virtual events. Your book tour has been entirely virtual, I would think, due to the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. And I know that we adapt and that you've adapted and you make the best of the situation. But I was wondering if you could spend a moment just considering the place of physical presence in reading poetry.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, that's - yeah. That's like a real - I mean, one of the things just in terms of like how I was sort of imagining 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 like anything except the whole poem. And it takes, you know, an hour and 15 minutes or something to read, which is just too long for a poetry. You know, and it's another one of those things. It's like, how long can it go? But I was really excited about that, in part because it begs the question of like, 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 like how long can someone's attention to - how long can we stay in attention to that?

ROSS GAY: Yeah. Yeah, which is hard, you know, and and you know, like if you read an hour and 15 minute thing, you know, it's also a kind of holding to know that you're going to go on your digressions while I'm reading. And that is just like beautiful and part of the thing. But this kind of practice of hanging with each other, you know, hanging tight is powerful to me. I liked the way that that related to commerce. Actually, I like the idea of the non-excerptable meditation thing. It exists in all kinds of ways, probably in this book, too. That's all to say that I was and am really committed to the body, my body sharing the poem or body sharing poems, bodies, period, poems, period. But my body sharing the poem in part because - and it's why I'm interested in poetry readings, because, you know, my body is going to be different today than it was yesterday. And my body might not be a body tomorrow. And or might only be about it. And that is really fascinating and moving and the fact of our diet is one of the - to me that's one of the questions of joy. And this poem in its way is trying also to sort of figure out how does our study, how does our practice result in joy?

KAYTE YOUNG: So you have had the experience of reading it all the way through.

ROSS GAY: Yes, I have to experience. Yeah. Yes. That feels like - and you were there for one of those. Yeah. So it feels like, you know, the poems changed even since then.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, that, I think also felt like sort of the - when I think back on it, the opposite of what's happening in the pandemic, it was the opposite of social distancing. There were a lot of people packed into a very small room. And you're sitting there for an hour and 15 minutes while you read.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, as the light changed.

KAYTE YOUNG: As the light changed, it got darker. Yeah, yeah. yeah. So I'm glad that you had that experience.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, I know. I know.

KAYTE YOUNG: At first I thought that the the book - that the poem was one long sentence. I couldn't - I wasn't finding any periods. And then I went back and specifically was searching for punctuation and I found what I think is the first one on page thirty-nine. And it's in the midst of a pretty difficult and painful section. And it's after the line. But let's breathe first and you invite the listener to breathe with you. Can you talk about the ways in which you connect with readers and you invite them to engage with you. I feel like that - I'm thinking about the title poem in catalog of unabashed gratitude when there's moments where you're offering tea to the reader and acknowledging that it's getting long, and here, you know, asking us to breathe with you.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. It kind of comes back a little bit to that. How long can you go or how far out can you cantilever? I feel like in some way those, those gestures of like we're still here together, which I think is - I think is really the hope for those gestures, is to be like we're still here together. And I think I probably they kind of arrive at moments where maybe in a poem it feels like me, the poet Ross Gay has kind of left. And I feel like those are gestures of like little reminders of like in the midst of this difficulty. Let's remember to breathe. You know, there is one of those that's really funny to me where, you know, I'm just basically talking I'm talking about some white woman looking at my mother, my white mother and me and my brother, they had a little brown curly headed kids. And my mom I'm describing my mother, and they're sort of very florid way. You know, my mother has given me all this. And I say something like that, which for the record, my mother at this point would be like, Rossie, that's a little much. And, you know, it's like instead of me kind of interrupting myself when I'm kind of going in to be like, I'm still here. I'm still here. I'm still here.

ROSS GAY: So I wanted to talk a little bit about the title of the book, Beholding. And, you know, one of the ways to read that is, is to behold, to look at something to see. And there were so many ways that looking is happening in this poem. We're looking at Dr. J. We're visually studying the move. And then there are also these photographs. There's three photographs in the book that, I mean, one of them is not actually in the book, but that are being discussed. You're doing like again, a close reading, a close study of of these poems. I mean, of these photographs in the poem. And I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that beholding and that looking. I mean, I think like 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? The looking of Dr. J, the looking of this impossibly beautiful moment of flight is itself a kind of practice, all of the beholding is really I think it's really asking this question of like, how does what how does how we witness make the world, you know, 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, you know? And always being like, what is how the looking that I'm looking at saying what is how I'm looking at the looking and saying/doing? All of these sort of - how does what I've seen make what I'm looking at up here? One of the ways to do that, I think, is to sort of like these photographs are just like such powerful opportunities to meditate on, to not like - to both meditate on, but also to practice kinds of looking into and to sort of like think about like work through modes of looking. Like that picture that's on the cover of the book. It's a grandmother and her grandson in Alabama. In the 1930s, I spent a long time looking at this photograph in this picture. And one thing I think is interesting is that I get to looking at that photograph because I was at the in real life. I was at the Library of Congress looking through the WPA photos because I wanted to see what Arkansas, what sharecropping in Arkansas in the early part of the century would have looked like because I was looking for my great grandfather effectively. You know, and I came upon this photograph, which then became certainly one of the central images of the book. But you could almost be like this is the pivot of the book, actually. It was an accident. I was like looking for my great grandfather. It was not an accident at all, but I was looking for my great grandfather and then here he is. But instead studying that photograph, I feel like what I feel like what I'm really trying to do is studying how I'm studying the photograph, studying how I'm studying and looking. And I keep making these sort of asking these questions or making these corrections like, you know, the grandmother looks like this or rather maybe sees this and maybe it's this or the little boy has in his hand. It could be this or it could be that. So I think partly what I'm doing, all of this beholding is is really figuring out how how we witness makes the world. Like there's just little movement in this form that I think is really interesting. And I'm going to tell you about it.

KAYTE YOUNG: You can read it or tell me whichever works for you.

ROSS GAY: Yes, I think maybe I'll read it. So there's the grandmother and the little boy mostly, and there's a little kid, the kid peeking out from the back. In his right hand, he shelters something almost Floro rose, perhaps a pale yellow or even you think maybe he holds the nave of a magnolia blue or it could be. It's true if you build a little money, but by and large, 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 finishing touches to the beak so that the bird might better lullabye. The wings folded lightly against his fingers, the bird sharp head twisted back toward the child, looking into his dream of the sky, etc. Maybe it's an organic bird. You know?

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, you decided at some point that it was, landed on that.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. And it was like a practice of looking I think.

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

ROSS GAY: Yeah. And I should I want to say to the title of this book used to be Flight. And then I read Christina Sharpees book in the Wake and she talks a lot about the whole world. And she has this sort of turn at some point in the book about how do we be beholden to each other. Where I went to Cincinnati, I was like, OK, I'm going to go to Cincinnati. I'm going to find the end of this poem. I was probably, you know, four years into writing it and kind of like it's just - there's some turn to this. And I was deeply reading In The Wake Christina Sharpe's book. I had been reading this idea, Hartman's book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. I was probably reading or had been The Undercommons - Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. 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, kind of just got it like a little place. And I'm working. And eventually I go to this little coffee shop. I am like, all right, this is the night before I leave and hope something happens, you know? And I just have my little bad coffee. And I remember across the way was like a writing group and I could hear, like kind of multigenerational. I could hear kids see my college kids and then like people my age and maybe like, you know, someone more like in their 60s hanging around working on stuff. And I'm just kind of drinking my coffee. And then a couple of bells went into my head. One of them was the Allen Iverson talking about practice, we talking about practice. A couple of things started to tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, leading to this this this kind of connection between beholding and beholden, which is absolutely indebted to Christina Sharpe's book In the Wake. And I just feel like it's a beautiful thing that before the book, before I read In the Wake. The book is called Flight, and that to me, that remains one of the titles of the book. Fight the many valences of flight, but after I read Christina Sharpe's book plainly and it's in the margins of the book - of her book, my copy of her book. I realize, oh, what I'm talking about is beholding. How is looking - how can looking be an act of holding as opposed to an act of capturing, etc.?


KAYTE YOUNG: I'm Kate Young. And you're listening to Profiles with WFIU, our guest today is poet Ross Gay.

And also that question of, what am I practicing? I feel like this seems like one of one of your big questions is looking at black pain and looking at black joy, the racialized violence, the police violence against black bodies, the killing of black bodies and the looking at that. But it's so connected with the looking and I know that a lot of people are asking questions about what that looking does. Yeah. Do you have any thoughts about that? Just sort of where this book lands in that.

ROSS GAY: Yeah, I think the book definitely lands in it a kind of recognition. I mean, there's that moment in the poem where. There's a moment in the poem where early in the poem - I think I read it, where I'm watching something happen. I'm watching Dr. 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 Dr. J is doing with my body. I think that's an argument. One of the questions that the poem asks about how, what we how and what what we witness does to our bodies. So I land on, you know, it's very complicated, you know, and there are all these modes of witness, and I think there are modes of witness that are committed to taking care of us. There are modes of witness that require violence that they exist.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, it feels like something that you grapple with yourself in your own practice. You know, 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, you know, here I am wishing this right on this little boy right watching this. It's just really interesting to see that kind of internal, you know, questioning of what you're doing, why you're doing it.

ROSS GAY: Right. Right, right. Like in the poem, I think I dreamed it.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, dreamed it.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. Maybe there's not a central question, there's many questions, many central questions in the poll. And one of the one of the questions is like, I mean, how as an artist, I guess, but as a person, how do you - as an artist say how do you make sometimes or often about pain without making pain. Can I say this?

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, yeah, go ahead.

ROSS GAY: Let me see if I can say this. I think also one of the questions, you know, like tied up with those other questions in terms of being someone. You know, as a - let's say, period, I mean, I'm thinking a lot about writing and making art, but I'm also I think I'm thinking period, is that if your practice becomes reliant upon horror, it's kind of like, well, what's your relationship to horror? And that's a question about the soul, like, you know, like how - 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 maybe back to being thinking about making stuff - wondering about if my subject is brutality. Do I need brutality to happen to my subject.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I think I see what you're saying, so if your study relies on almost the continuation of...

ROSS GAY: That's my subject.

KAYTE YOUNG: ...These violences.

ROSS GAY: This is what I study. It's what I study. It's what I study. If it's what you study, you can get really good at it. I mean, that's such a powerful thing to me in watching that. And someone pointed out to me in a reading that, you know, like something about embodiment. And it made me think 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: Then that question of what am I practicing becomes pretty important. And so it's really it needs to be kind of a shift in the way that you're studying what's central to it. If your body becomes it, you want to be careful.

ROSS GAY: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Because you can witness holding the vision of - or it seems like that that might be one of the practices to witness, fully witness with the vision of care, you know, with the vision of love.

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

ROSS GAY: Yeah, I would love to. That's one of the questions, too, of this book, you know, and it's like the sort of the the very closeness of like, you know, if you were saying behold, you know, just in conversation, be holding and be holding are basically the same word. So one of the questions is like, is it possible to behold one another such that we're constantly practicing and are beholden to one another? That I mean, I feel like that whole book is trying to figure out and I mean is working toward this this in working toward a theory maybe of like looking and witnessing and and behold. And it's also it's so tied up in that in a kind of also - a kind of theorizing or believing in this thing, like you said, dead or this thing, which is another word for that, is gratitude. And when I am 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 of us to to believe it, but where we practice understanding that we are not without everything else we are now. The book is trying to - I think is trying to, among other things, trying to figure out how that kind of a life infused with or or an inquiry infused with that kind of understanding that I am not here without you to the micro, to the macro. There's all these - like all these - you know, the kid in the palm and the person in the poem gets held a lot like, you know, my body dancing is always holding me. Through to the court is hold me. My mother is holding me. My father is holding me. My brother is holding me. Like, you know, 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.

KAYTE YOUNG: Beholden, being beholden to.

ROSS GAY: Being beholden to. Like the practice of the beholder, and I think that's I think that's what I say. And that's sort of like, you know, what Christina Sharpe gave me, like the practice of the beholden. You know, the way in an American that word is used is that I don't want to be beholden to anyone. That's the way it said in America. And this book is sort of like, well, we are behind each other. We are beholden to the microbes in my gut and I'm beholden to the wind through the trees. So how do we practice that? You know, which is, it's practice.

KAYTE YOUNG: I wanted to ask you what you're working on now, what's or what's coming up next.

ROSS GAY: So I'm working on a few things. I've been working for a while in this book about my relationship to the land, as you know. And that's a book that's been you know, I've just been kind of trying to find what that book is for the last 10 years or so, right around the time that Orchard came into being. I started thinking about this book. Maybe I'll be turning that into six months or something. I'm also working on this sort of gathering of essays about basketball and sport collaborative book of essays, I think that's what it is.


KAYTE YOUNG: Well, I want to thank you for us for spending this time with me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

ROSS GAY: Thank you. Yeah, I learned a lot talking with you. Thank you.

KAYTE YOUNG: You've been listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Kate Young and we've been speaking today with poet Ross Gay about his book Beholding, released in September of 2020 with University of Pittsburgh Press.

AARON CAIN: For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to


Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.


Ross Gay

Ross Gay (Photo courtesy of Ross Gay)

Ross Gay is a professor of poetry at Indiana University and has a bachelor of arts from Lafayette University, a masters of fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD from Temple University.

He is the author of several books of poetry, including Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He is also the author of the essay collection titled Book of Delights, and his most recent work is a book-length poem titled Be Holding, released in September 2020 with Pittsburgh University Press. 

Gay is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin'in addition to being an editor with the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press.

When he is not writing, Ross Gay enjoys gardening and is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project.

He spoke with host Kayte Young in the WFIU studios.


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