ISSUE 41
November 2008

Ross Gay


THE CORTLAND REVIEW

INTERVIEW
Ross Gay
 

POETRY
C. Wade Bentley This marks an author's first online publication
Bonnie Bolling
Gabriel DeCrease
Pamela Hart
Roger Jones
Robert Lesman This marks an author's first online publication
James B. Nicola
Chad Prevost
Mark Prudowsky
Cassandra Robison
Michael Shorb
Avery Slater This marks an author's first online publication
Josh Stewart
Elisabeth von Uhl This marks an author's first online publication
Muriel Harris
     Weinstein
This marks an author's first online publication
 

FICTION
Paul Blaney This marks an author's first online publication
Neil Grimmett
 

BOOK REVIEWS
David Rigsbee
reviews All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems by Linda Gregg

David Rigsbee

reviews Heat Lightning: New and Selected Poems 1986—2006 by Judith Skillman

 

Ross Gay was born in 1974 in Youngstown, Ohio. His first book is Against Which (CavanKerry, 2006). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, Alehouse, and elsewhere. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a recipient of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. In addition to being a book artist, a basketball coach and an editor with chapbook press Q Avenue, Ross teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Drew University. Ross gives readings and workshops in various venues across the country.

A Conversation with Ross Gay

The following interview took place in Asheville, NC on February 15th, 2008. Ross was in town to give readings at Warren Wilson College and Malaprops Bookstore, and he was kind enough to record this interview with me. Ross and I spoke in my living room, where Jeff Davis had set up some recording equipment for me, and Jeff and I later introduced selections from the interview on the local radio show "Wordplay," hosted by Jeff Davis and Sebastian Matthews.


The Interview

JPC: Ross, you went to Sarah Lawrence College for your M.F.A. in poetry, and in your book, you thank some of your teachers there, including Tom Lux, Joan Larkin, Marie Howe, David Rivard, and, you say, "especially Gerald Stern." Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the M.F.A. years in your development as a poet? What did you find there, with those teachers?

RG: Well, every once in a while, I'll get a little bit of a shudder to think what would have happened—I mean, it's being dramatic—but to think what would have happened had I not studied, specifically with Tom Lux, who's just the kind of unbelievable teacher who is so deeply generous and thoughtful and considerate and an amazing reader of poems, and who has an amazing ability to put the poem that the poet wants to write in front of his own desires for the poem. So, his only desires for the poem are what the poet's desires for the poem are. He can do that better than almost anyone I have ever encountered, and by now I've been around quite a few teachers in different ways. So, I feel really indebted to that guy. And maybe if I hadn't studied with Tom, I would have been a lawyer or a semi-pro football player, or something.

JPC: Were those options that you considered?

RG: Those were the only options. [laughs] Yeah, playing football was something that I was considering. I was not considering being a lawyer, but who knows? You never know what would have happened. ross gayBut anyway with Tom, I do feel that really deeply. And then there were just other folks there who were so good. Marie Howe was a really good teacher for me. Joan Larkin is an amazing teacher. We had a craft class, and she's just so good with craft. She knows her stuff so well, and was a really smart teacher. Rivard: I got to study with Rivard there. I was a little bit too young, I feel like . . . . I was still kind of right out of undergrad and didn't know what being in a workshop really was, in a way. But, looking back, I know how good he actually was. And he's an amazing poet, for my money. And Jerry [Gerald Stern]. Jerry's a good teacher in the classroom, but a friend and a model for how to ingest the world in a way that a poet might do it—you know, he's really really really engaged with the world. Deeply engaged with the world, so that his heart's really out there. And that's something you don't really learn how to do, necessarily, if you're a man, or brought up in sort of a male way, or even if you're an American. To be deeply sensitive to the world that you're living in—that's not really what we're trained to do. Maybe it's partly "gender-ish," but it's also partly where we live and how we live. So, yeah, that was a really good place. I feel like I learned how to write a poem there. I don't think I knew at all how to write a poem before I got there, and then I got there and I got an idea. I learned how to write a couple lines of poetry.

JPC: You mentioned Gerald Stern, that idea of what you learned from him as a human being, what he modeled for you that shows up in a poem of yours called "The Voice," and you reference "the coal," which is from his poem "The Red Coal." There are these lines, ". . . it's there in your gut, burning,/ burning, the coal, he called it, we are at its/ mercy, he said, he who taught you/ how to wear tenderness like a shawl,/ or a fedora." That's such an important thread in your poems, that affirmation of tenderness, what my friend the poet Rebecca Howell recently called "making a case for tenderness," moving through the world and seeing everyday interactions as a chance, in your own mind, to make a case for tenderness. Was it through models like Tom Lux and Gerald Stern that you were able to see poems as a way to process the possibility of not being tender and turn it into something else?

RG: I mean, just in terms of the way they are in the world, the way they were with me, it was actually modeling tenderness. They were both models of tenderness and real, human, generous interaction. Also, if you look at their poems—and you can't say this about everyone's poems—but both of their poems are very often real investigations into other people's experiences or meditations on things that seem hard to understand, which is sort of what you might see as being the job of poetry, but a lot of poetry's not like that. A lot poetry's so self-involved that it doesn't actually provide for compassion, necessarily, or for compassion that extends beyond the self. So I think Tom's an amazing model for that in his work (and in his person, as well, but now I'm talking about his work). And Jerry, as well. You know, the poems of Jerry's that I think will really really really last are poems like "The Dog" and "The Jew and the Rooster Are One" and "The Dancing," and a poem that's going to come out in his new book called "Save the Last Dance for Me." All of these poems are really about compassion.


I'm trying to imagine ways that poems can help me become more compassionate, and other people, too. I mean, it's about being compassionate here, and it stops being about fighting something. It's about here.


JPC: You have this really great poem that's about a specifically male tenderness called "Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street."

Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street    

Maybe, since you're something like me,
you, too, would've nearly driven into oncoming traffic
for gawking at the clutch between the two men
on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,
which would not stop, each man's face
so deeply buried in the other's neck—these men
not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through
that first, porous layer of the body into the heat beneath;
maybe you, too, would've nearly driven over three
         pedestrians as your head
swiveled to lock on their lock,
their burly fingers squeezing the air from the angels
on the backs of their denim jackets
which reminds you the million and one secrets exchanged
in nearly the last clasp between your father
and his brother, during which the hospital's chatter and rattle
somehow fell silent in deference to the untranslatable
song between them, and just as that clasp endured through
what felt like the gradual lengthening of shadows and the
         emergence
of once cocooned things, and continues to this day, so, too,
did I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine
in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked
at their ceaseless cleave going deeper,
and deeper still, so that Broad Street from Fairmount
to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind
pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these
         two men,
sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,
yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth like sun-
         colored spittle,
the steel vehicle now a lost memory
as I joined the fire-breasted birds in listening
to air exchanged between these two men, who are,
         themselves,
listening, forever, to the muscled contours of the other's neck,
         all of us
still, and listening, as if we had nothing
to blow up, as if we had nothing to kill.

JPC: Broad Street is in Philadelphia. Do you think of yourself as a Philadelphia poet, or in part a Philadelphia poet?

RG: Yeah, I think I do. I was brought up right outside of Philadelphia and have lived most of my adult life in Philadelphia, and whenever I'm away I still consider myself, basically, a Philadelphian. Right now I teach in Indiana, but I also, you know, live at Walt's house, my buddy who lives in Philly. [laughs] And a lot of my social concerns come [from there]—we'll see how this evolves over the years, but [Philadelphia] informs my work. Often I'm writing about, say, guns. And guns are a very American problem, but in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, where the legislature has their heads so far up their asses about things like guns, it feels like a very serious thing. It informs my work. I don't know that I'd have that same subject matter if I lived in . . . Minnesota.

JPC: It's interesting that you mentioned Minnesota because I know that at least a couple of the poems in the book come out of experience in Minnesota, where your mother's family is from. Another element of the book, for me, is the sense of movement between places. Even within the "Biker" poem, the speaker is traveling. Can you talk a little bit about how movement between places has informed your work?

RG: You know, most people are kind of bicultural in some way, and there's what people—or maybe me, sometimes—might consider the overt or overriding bi-something. My dad's black, my mom's white. But then there's this different thing, which is equally significant, I think, which is that my dad's from Youngstown, Ohio, which is this steel town, basically. And my mom's from Verndale, Minnesota, which is a farming community. She grew up actually oustide of Verndale; she grew up outside of a town of 500 people, and she has a very specific understanding of things like government and community and personal relationships that's probably different from my father's. He lived in a steel town. A lot of his family worked at the steel mill or at the GM plant or were teachers, but in a large town, actually a large, vibrant black community. So, to be someone who holds those fairly disparate cultural experiences, has inherited both of those experiences, I think it's probably inevitable that that will come through in the work. I think it probably happens a lot with a lot of poets. We're mostly like that, I think, or a lot of us are like that. But I do think it informs the work.

JPC: Do you think you'll start writing Indiana poems now? Is living in Bloomington, Indiana going to show up in your work?

RG: Well, yeah. Already . . . I've been out there for a couple months, basically, and there's a really great farmer's market, and the people at the farmer's market are coming into my poems. [Laughs.] Yeah, so I don't know. We'll see, but I remain in Philly or Jersey or the East, too, so that will be interesting to see how that evolves.

JPC: Your book is called Against Which. A great title, and it immediately sets up a gap or lacuna that draws us forward because the reader immediately wants to know "against what? who against what?" The phrase comes from your poem "It Starts at Birth."

It Starts at Birth    

The newborn railing against the thing behind
the sting of air and light;
against which, too, are castles built, and moats;
against which the futile howl of the body's
trillion cells; against which he will bloody
her nose, often, and she will clasp and kiss
the fists; against which the weight
of lactating breasts, and the gardener's mudpacked
hands, and eyelifts, and the collector of the baby
teeth of his departed children;
against which we put up our hoods and walk
backwards, as if into an icy wind with the appetite
of a river; against which the dazzle
of gold-threaded embroidery inside
the hangman's mask, the perfume
of an ex-lover he sprays beneath the nose hole; against
which the membrane strangling
the general's heart, and the blossom
of blood staining the ballerina's toe-shoes,
and the wet eyes of the dog
whose lungs are muscled
with tumors; against which thousands
of languages, each one broken and blessed
as the last; against which the coil of lovers blent
beneath moonlight, and their sounds: wind
through the trees; against which the ascent
of a crow into the night, a tendril of carrion
dangling in the clutched beak,
and a moment, a diamond
of starlight streaking its black wing,
which is what we, against it, are: impossible,
golden, longing, gone.

The title of the book resonates in so many ways. "It Starts at Birth" is a poem that suggests that all human gestures are products of some inescapable lack or some deep knowledge of death. So, your book itself almost becomes another one of those gestures—"Well, here's another one." But so many of your poems are also about a repudiation of brutality and about bearing witness to pain and loss, so it resonates in that way, too. How were you thinking of the title?

RG: Actually, I have a friend, a former student, named Nora Kennedy, and we were talking one day after class or during class, and she was talking about how it is the case that so often we go through our lives without acknowledging that we're going to die. Yet we act crazily all the time on account of the fact that we're going to die. So, that poem ["It Starts at Birth"] actually comes out of her. And I feel like that's sort of its point, that so many of the things we do, many of the ways we operate, a zillion different ways which are beautiful and also zany and awful, are often about—when you boil it right down—it's about fear of dying or about trying to hoard as much life as you can, which doesn't seem to work. I thought that made the book a pretty interesting metaphor, that if the book is called Against Which, and the book is another attempt of holding off that thing. . . . which is interesting because when I wrote this book, I sort of believed that. I believed that a book of poems is a good gesture against which . . . or against which, a book of poems. But I don't feel that way anymore.

JPC: Why? What changed?

RG: I don't think I'm writing poems in relation to mortality anymore. I'm not thinking about it. I'm trying to imagine ways that poems can help me become more compassionate, and other people, too. I mean, it's about being compassionate here, and it stops being about fighting something. It's about here. That's really inarticulate because I feel like it's really this emerging thing in my head. But it's different.


The work's really rough a lot of times. There are these explorations of violence, but the explorations of violence want to—and this is a critical assessment of my own work from inside the work, which is not always the best way to do it—but I think they want to investigate violence or investigate harshness or stupidity so that we might understand better how to avoid that kind of thing. Which is called compassion. Itís called compassion when you understand people who do violence to you. Thatís compassion, as well.


JPC: When I read your poems and I think about the philosophy that emerges from them, there's this inter-related almost Buddhist celebration of the moment—a kind of Zen "just be here"—and then this almost pagan clinging to "just be here." I know you've done some reading in Buddhism and have an interest in it. Do you feel like that informs this process for you, of thinking through these issues?

RG: Yeah, those texts matter to me. But all the interesting teachings on compassion have become more interesting to me lately, all of the concepts of compassion that run through all of the spiritual teachings. Like, say, compassion in Buddhism, or I don't know if it's called compassion in Christianity, or maybe in Judaism it's "the pity." I mean, I've been thinking a lot more about that lately. So, it's certainly true that I'm conscious of its informing my newer work, but that's always been something that's interested me, I think, though in these really complicated ways. It comes through in the work. The work's really rough a lot of times. There are these explorations of violence, but the explorations of violence want to—and this is a critical assessment of my own work from inside the work, which is not always the best way to do it—but I think they want to investigate violence or investigate harshness or stupidity so that we might understand better how to avoid that kind of thing. Which is called compassion. Itís called compassion when you understand people who do violence to you. Thatís compassion, as well. So, yeah. Your question was basically "Does Buddhism affect me?" And I think that the main Buddhist tenets, yeah, they're amazing. They're great. [laughs]

JPC: I'm interested in your exploration of violence and how that's ultimately a gesture toward compassion. Is there some kind of moral imperative not to be too interested in the violence, or to balance it out by always thinking about what you're really doing with investigations of violence? In fully inhabiting the matter-of-factness of it, do you reinforce a sense of "yeah, it happened, get used to it"? Or do you fully inhabit it to the point where you crack it open and question? One of your poems for me that was on a fuzzy line between those was about a kid who kills a dog or considers killing a dog. A version of this poem got published in The American Poetry Review. Is it correct that you wrote two versions, one in which he actually kills the dog and one in which he recognizes the dog as a fellow being and doesn't kill him? And you chose to publish the one in which he doesn't kill the dog?

RG: No, I didn't choose it; they chose it. I submitted both versions.

JPC: Was your idea to publish both of them?

RG: No, but probably at some point I will. In the book, maybe.

Bringing the Shovel Down   

Because I love you, and beneath the dying stars
have become the delicate piston threading itself through your
         chest,

I want to tell you a story I shouldn't but will and in the
         meantime neglect, Love,
the discordant melody spilling from my ears but attend,

instead, to this tale, for a river burns inside my mouth
and it wants both purgation and to eternally sip your
         thousand drippings;

and in the story is a dog and unnamed it leads to less
         heartbreak,
so name him Max, and in the story are neighborhood kids

who spin a yarn about Max like I'm singing to you, except
         they tell a child,
a boy who only moments earlier had been wheedling
         through sticker bushes

to pick juicy rubies, whose chin was, in fact, stained with
         them,
and combining in their story the big kids make

the boy who shall remain unnamed believe Max to be sick
         and rabid,
and say his limp and regular smell of piss are just two signs,

but the worst of it, they say, is that he'll likely find you in the
         night,
and the big kids do not giggle, and the boy does not giggle,

but lets the final berries in his hand drop into the overgrowth
at his feet, and if I spoke the dream of the unnamed boy

I fear my tongue would turn an arm of fire so I won't, but
know inside the boy's head grew a fire beneath the same
         stars

as you and I, love, your leg between mine, the fine hairs
on your upper thigh nearly glistening in the night, and the
         boy,

the night, the incalculable mysteries as he sleeps with a
         stuffed animal
tucked beneath his chin and rolls tight against his brother

in their shared bed, who rolls away, and you know by now
there is no salve to quell his mind's roaring machinery

and I shouldn't tell you, but I will,
the unnamed boy

on the third night of the dreams which harden his soft face
puts on pants and a sweatshirt and quietly takes the spade
         from the den

and more quietly leaves his house where upstairs his father
         lay dreamless,
and his mother bends her body into his,

and beneath these same stars, Love, which often, when I
         study them,
seem to recede like so many of the lies of light,

the boy walks to the yard where Max lives attached to a steel
         cable
spanning the lawn, and the boy brings hot dogs which he
         learned

from Tom & Jerry, and nearly urinating in his pants he tosses
         them
toward the quiet and crippled thing limping across the lawn,

the cable whispering above the dew-slick grass, and Max
         whimpers,
and the boy sees a wolf where stands this ratty

and sad and groveling dog and beneath these very stars
Max raises his head to look at the unnamed boy

with one glaucous eye nearly glued shut
and the other wet from the cool breeze and wheezing

Max catches the gaze of the boy who sees,
at last, the raw skin on the dog's flanks, the quiver

of his spindly legs, and as Max bends his nose
to the franks the boy watches him struggle

to snatch the meat with his gums, and bringing the shovel
         down
he bends to lift the meat to Max's toothless mouth,

and rubs the length of his throat and chin,
Max arcing his neck with his eyes closed, now,

and licking the boy's round face, until the boy stands,
taking slow steps backward through the wet grass and feels,

for the first time in days, the breath in his lungs, which is
         cool,
and a little damp, spilling over his small lips, and he feels,

again, his feet beneath him, and the earth beneath them, and
         starlings
singing the morning in, and the somber movement of beetles

chewing the leaves of the white birch, glinting in the dark,
         and he notices,
Darling, an upturned nest beneath the tree, and flips it
         looking for the blue eggs

of robins, but finds none, and placing a rumpled crimson
         feather in his mouth
slips the spindly thicket into another tree, which he climbs

to watch the first hint of light glancing above the fields, and
         the boy
eventually returns to his thorny fruit bush where an
         occasional prick

leaves on his arm or leg a spot of blood the color of these
         raspberries
and tasting of salt, and filling his upturned shirt with them he
         beams

that he could pull from the earth that which might make you
         smile,
Love, which you'll find in the fridge, on the bottom shelf,
         behind the milk,

in the bowl you made with your own lovely hands.

JPC: How did you come to write two versions? Did you make it an exercise for yourself to do one that was "dog-eat-dog world" . . .

RG: And then "dog-save-dog"? No. I wrote the original poem, and it's called "Bringing the Shovel Down" because in the original poem the dog gets killed. The original poem, in which the dog dies, is a meditation on how we come to be violent. And how we come to be violent is very human; it's out of terror, and it's actually, precisely, I think, the way that we as a country were convinced to go into a war. And I didn't exactly realize this while I was writing this poem, but it's exactly the thing. I mean, all our political rhetoric lately is based on making people terrified and feeling that there are enemies that want to kill you, want to hurt you bad. So, in the poem the same thing's happening with this boy. This boy feels threatened or terrorized by this dog, and he spins it out of control, and in the first poem, he kills him. And he feels better. And I was thinking about what that actually means and what might be the poem that begs a different question, the thing that I might ideally want to do myself. So, the thing that I would ideally want to do myself is to be able to encounter the thing that I imagine wants to kill me and to realize that probably it doesn't. And then give it some hot dogs. [laughs] But the thing of it is, how am I able to be a real vocal or insightful critic of an administration—or a nation that is historically a war-mongering nation—how am I able to be a critic in that way if I'm not able to understand or not willing to understand or interrogate my own capacity for violence or capacity to be stirred toward violence based on fear? I feel like if I'm able to interrogate it in myself, then maybe I'll have a greater understanding of what the hell we're doing.


If we're going to recover—or not even recover—if we're going to re-imagine what it means to be a nation, then casting light on our history is pretty significant. . . .


JPC: You have other poems that bear witness to historical violence, and specifically a couple about racial violence in your book. One is about the murder of Amadou Diallo, called "Marionette," and another one called "Postcard: Lynching of an Unidentified Man, circa 1920."

Postcard: Lynching of an Unidentified Man, circa 1920   
                                      –after Lucille Clifton

It's not his imperceptible sway, or the whine
of the rope's braid straining against his weight,
or his right pant leg shoved above his shin; it's not
the wide blade of light slicing the snapshot, behind
the body, or through him, depending on your
angle, it's not the way his still-tucked white
shirt becomes that light, becomes the source of that light,
not the way the dead fist inside his chest
becomes the source of that light; it's not the way
everyone save him
looks at the camera, poses—
one young man, nearly handsome, pushing
the hanged body so he might fit more snug
into the frame—or the way an adult turns a child
toward the camera
as if to say, "stand still so they can see
what we've done;" it's not the neck's torque and bulge
or the skin's color—
              it's the angle of his head, its impossible,
owlish twist toward something only he can see, or away
from something only he can see, it's as though
the same flash that makes the dumb-looking boy grin,
to the hanged man
it burns.

JPC: There's a beauty to that poem ["Postcard"]. Do you think there's something redemptive in that? Can you talk a little bit about it?

RG: Whenever I write about this kind of violence, you know, there's a question of aestheticizing it, which is a tricky thing. I think part of what you're asking is whether there's something not redemptive in the violence, but maybe redemptive in the poem's assessment of the violence and maybe the work that the poem can do against the violence or in helping us understand it. ross gayAnd I think that there probably is. And even looking at the language . . . although it's dead there's a "fist inside his chest" and there's a lot of light, so maybe the poem itself is about casting light on that history, which I think is probably a really significant thing to do. I mean, there's no "probably" about it. If we're going to recover—or not even recover—if we're going to re-imagine what it means to be a nation, then casting light on our history is pretty significant, and reorganizing our mythologies. Which is to say, maybe having a sense of why we have the old mythologies, which are wrong. Which are lies, you know. Mythologies of equality and progress. These things that aren't actually true, but they seem to sustain us in our perpetuation of other things. And then maybe figuring out other mythologies. Looking at this poem and the end of the poem, finally it's about trying to understand that that was a man. This is a poem in response to Without Sanctuary, that book of postcards of lynchings that was touring the United States eight years ago, or so. It's about really acknowledging that in that body there is a man. Because those photographs . . . there's a way that dead bodies stop being people. You know, the people who are alive in those photographs are the white people, the people who are in some way complicit in the violence. I think this poem means to make us understand that was a living person.

JPC: What are your habits? Do you write every day?


I don't feel nervous if I'm not writing. . . . if I'm reading a lot, I don't care. . . .for me anyway, reading is as much of the work as writing is. . . .I think really pounding through a lot of reading is probably just as much the work as writing is. You know, all my teachers have said that.


RG: No. I mean, I probably write lines or words every day. And by words, I mean, like a word, just to remind myself of an idea for a poem that I might have. I'm sort of always with little notes on paper that I'm carrying around, but I don't have a real firm schedule. I don't wake up early, I don't stay up late to do that kind of thing.

JPC: Do you have specific places that you like to write?

RG: I travel a good bit, so I think I write on airplanes and in transit. But, you know, not real specific. I used to drive so much that I got into a habit where I could only write in my car. I stopped being able to sit down someplace that wasn't my car. I think it was just because I was in my car all the time.

JPC: What? You would drive and write at the same time?

RG: Yeah, yeah.

JPC: That's dangerous . . .

RG: It's totally dangerous. [laughs] I was driving to basketball practice every hour of my life. . .when I was coaching. But I don't have a real steady schedule, and I was just telling a student yesterday that I don't feel nervous if I'm not writing or if I don't write for two weeks. I mean, I might get a little something . . . but if I'm reading a lot, I don't care. I feel like, for me anyway, reading is as much of the work as writing is. I think that's probably the case for younger writers like me and my students. I think really pounding through a lot of reading is probably just as much the work as writing is. You know, all my teachers have said that. Jerry always says something like read 90% and write 10%. I believe that.

JPC: Do you have to write a lot to get a poem? Does it kind of compost, where you produce a lot?

RG: I like that, "compost." Yeah. I throw a lot out. I try a lot of starts, and I chuck that out. That's part of my thing. I know some people who are more able to get a good clean draft right off the bat. Me, I feel like I have a lot of starts that don't turn into anything for a while, and I think that's often because I write toward a subject. I have an idea that I want to write about, and so entering it is tricky. I don't know what I want to say about it, but entering it is always tricky. As opposed to some people who start with a musical thing, a couple words or a line, and they'll see where that goes, and maybe it's a little more intuitive, so it's a different kind of process.

JPC: There are several poems in your book that are elegies to your father. It seemed to me as a reader that you were experimenting or finding new ways to write about the experience of your father's illness and death. A different music comes out in some of those.

How to Fall in Love with Your Father   

Put your hands beneath his armpits, bend your knees,
wait for the clasp of his thinning arms; the best lock
cheek to cheek. Move slow. Do not, right now,

recall the shapes he traced yesterday
on your back, moments before being wheeled to surgery.
Do not pretend the anxious calligraphy of touch
was sign beyond some unspeakable animal stammer. Do not

go back further into the landscape of silence you both
tended, with body and breath, until it nearly obscured all
but the genetic gravity between you.

And do not imagine wind now blowing that landscape
into a river which spills into a sea. Because it doesn't.
That's not this love poem. In this love poem
the son trains himself on the task at hand,
which is simple, which is, finally, the only task
he has ever had, which is lifting
the father to his feet.

JPC: For instance, the poem "How To Fall in Love With Your Father" seems quieter to me than some of your other ones, simpler music, almost.

RG: Yeah, it is. It sort of lilts.

JPC: And there's another one called "Litany" that almost does the opposite, where everything becomes even more torqued.

Litany   

say birdsong
at death's bed-
side plus honeybees
their hover and thirst say
thickets of clover
aquiver the gold
swell limning
morning clouds
the light behind it
say wet eyes
the orb's cock-eyed swirl
extubate
say the honey
between nape and scapula
a slow ride
between two points
the plush rug of ivy
swallowing this tree
pissing
in a wood say
the last rattle of the thorax
the peristaltic earth
say home say

RG: Very different poem. The racket is way different. It's, like you said, torqued or sped-up. The lines on the page are super enjambed. The narrative is embedded, but it's an imagistic poem, in a way.

JPC: And it's a different type of elegy. You mentioned the term "praise poem" at a recent reading. It almost seems like it's elegy plus praise poem, or two different ways to celebrate somebody or remember somebody at the same time.

RG: Yes. Because [the phrases] butt right up against [each other]: "the orb's cock-eyed swirl/ extubate/ say the honey/ between nape and scapula." So, there's all this death and life and body and love butting up against each other, whereas the other poem is basically just a narrative that gives you a little history about a father and son.

JPC: You mentioned that in some of your new poems you're exploring compassion. Are you writing more joyful poems?

RG: I'm always writing joyful poems! I'm writing joyful poems, for sure. I don't know if they're more joyful poems. Because there are a lot of these tough, dog-eat-dog poems in this second manuscript, too.

JPC: How far along are you in the manuscript?

RG: I'd say I'm probably two-thirds through a book. Maybe a year away from being done. Something like that. But I have some long poems in this book, so they fill up the book quicker. [laughs]

Opera Singer   

Today my heart is so goddamned fat with grief
that I've begun hauling it in a wheelbarrow. No. It's an anvil
dragging from my neck as I swim
through choppy waters swollen with the putrid corpses of
         hippos
which means lurking, somewhere below, is the hungry
snout of a croc waiting to spin me into an oblivion
worse than this run-on simile, which means only to say:
I'm sad. And everyone knows what that means.

And in my sadness I'll walk to a cafť,
and not see light in the trees, nor finger the bills in my pocket
as I pass the boarded houses on the block. No,
I will be slogging through the obscure country of my sadness
in all its monotone flourish, and so imagine my surprise
when my self-absorption gets usurped
by the sound of opera streaming from an open window,
which means only that my budding neurosis has bloomed
         into delusion,
for this is North Philadelphia. But I continue walking,
and the sun peeks ever-so-slightly from behind his shawl,
and this operatic singing is getting closer, so that I can hear
         the
delicately rolled r's like a hummingbird fluttering the tongue
which means a language more beautiful than my own,
and I don't recognize the song
though I'm jogging toward it and can hear the woman's
breathing through the record's imperfections and above me
two bluebirds dive and dart and a rogue mulberry branch
leaning over an abandoned lot drags itself across my face,
staining it purple and looking, now, like a mad warrior of
         glee
and relief I run down the street, and I forgot to mention
the 50 or so kids running behind me, some in diapers,
some barefoot, all of them winged and waving their pacifiers
and training wheels and nearly trampling me
when in a doorway I see a woman in slippers and a floral
         housedress
blowing in the warm breeze who is maybe 70 painting the
         doorway
and friends, it is not too much to say
it was heaven sailing from her mouth and all the fish in the
         sea
and giraffe saunter and sugar in my tea and the forgotten
         angles
of love and every name of the unborn and dead
from this abuelita only glancing at me
before turning back to her earnest work of brushstroke and
         lullabye
and because we all know the tongue's clumsy thudding
makes of miracles anecdotes let me stop here
and tell you I said thank you.


Joanna Penn Cooper is a poet, essayist, and scholar of American literature. She recently moved from Asheville, North Carolina, to New York City, where she teaches at Fordham University. She is the author of the chapbook The Crocodile Lady and Other Poems, and her book reviews have appeared in Pleiades and in the Web Del Sol Review of Books.

 

 

Ross Gay: Interview
Copyright ©2008 The Cortland Review Issue 41The Cortland Review