Visiting Poets

Ross Gay

Ross Gay

Ross Gay has said, “Almost everything that interests me is in the small moments, the very precise and nearly invisible moments that, upon meditation, have to do with everything.” His poems look for the light in bruises, racism and addiction. In the words of NPR’s Tess Taylor, they engage with “manure, mulberry-stained purple bird poop, dirty clothes, hangovers; but also the pleasure of bare feet, of pruning a peach tree, of feeding a neighbor.”

Gay’s third and most recent collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, has placed him in the spotlight of the poetry world, having won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts and the National Book Critics Circle awards and been named a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award. Speaking for the National Book Foundation, Nicole Sealey declared that his poems ask that “what is dark be illumined and what is low, raised and supported.” Aimee Nezhukumatathil called the collection a song of “singular compassion for the wounded world with… inimitable musicality, intelligence, and intoxicating joy,” and the Apogee Journal declared that the poems “bevel the edges of words to forge a precarious perch from where we might look out onto an elsewhere.”

Other collections include Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and Against Which (Cavankerry Press, 2006), characterized by Gerald Stern as “a powerful tension between two forces I’ll call rage and tenderness (or destruction and creation; or violence and love).” He has also co-authored two chapbooks, Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (with Aimee Nezhukumatathil) and River (with Richard Wehrenberg, Jr.). His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Sun, Massachusetts Review, Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Orion and The Rumpus, and in many anthologies including From the Fishouse (Persea Books, 2009).

Gay earned his PhD in English from Temple University and an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied under Thomas Lux, Joan Larkin, Marie Howe, David Rivard, and Gerald Stern. He has taught at Lafayette College, Montclair State University, and, most recently, in the low-residency MFA program in Poetry at Drew University and the Creative Writing Program of Indiana University. He has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, and is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, as well as an editor of the chapbook press Q Avenue. His Artists’ Books, in collaboration with Kimberly Thomas, are The HaloBRN2HNT and The Bullet. An avid gardener, Gay is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He is currently working on a non-fiction book on gardening.

Select Poems

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

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arm pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard

rising and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the
silk of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I asked about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me
so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a

sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a
constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three

or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
yellow-jackets sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
like there was a baby
in there
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night

and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sunbaked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty

forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.

If you think you know enough to say this poem
is about good hair, I’ll correct you
and tell you it’s about history
which is the blacksmith of our tongues.
Our eyes. Where you see misunderstanding
I see knuckles and teeth for sale
in a storefront window. I see the waterlogged
face of a fourteen-year-old boy.
The bullet’s imperceptible sizzle
toward an unarmed man. And as you ask me to sign the book
that is not mine, your gaze shifting between
me and the author’s photo, whispering,
but that’s not you? I do not
feel sorry for you. No. I think only that when a man
is a concept he will tell you about the smell
of smoke. He will tell you the distance
between heartbreak and rage.

Poetry Center Reading

Fall 2016