Ross Gay

2 posts

Poets: Damn Quirky Readers


When it comes to reading poetry, I admit to a few quirky habits. Let’s start with reading a collection. I’ll use as an example Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a book I picked up because it had won some awards (the Gratitude Awards or something).

First, the ritual I go through before I read a book of poetry. I count the number of poems in the table of contents. Here it is a nimble 24. Doesn’t seem enough to flesh out a full book of poetry (this is not a chapbook), but once you enter, the mystery is solved. Gay mostly writes long, strung-out single-stanza poems, often with lines that consist of 2-6 words. Note to self: Want to stretch a chapbook into a full collection, Gumby-style? Gay shows the way!

But back to the rituals. Acknowledgments. My second stop. The poet in me wants to know where these poems have seen the light of published day. Often, it’s a depressing exercise as I see a litany of top-drawer publications–the stuff of most poets’ rejections files. But in Gay’s case, it’s a motley– and to my mind, somewhat inspiring– set of obscure and maybe doable journals: Solstice, Gabby, Exit 7, Nashville Review, Bombay Gin, Oversound, etc. Hard as I listen (ear to the ground), however, I’ve never heard of them. Any of them, which makes me wonder how many are still in business? Poetry journals, like fruit flies, are fleeting things. Cover your glasses of grape juice, people.

Third ritual, I start reading the poems with a small notebook nearby.  I write down cool phrases from the poems as I read. I know from teaching that you never stop getting better and–news flash–there is no such thing as a “master teacher,” no matter how many years you teach.

Ditto with poetry writing. and “master poets.” You are an apprentice forever. The Sisyphus of Stanzas. Always pushing the rock. Always learning. If you want to be funny about it, you can recall T.S. Eliot’s line: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” as you read. Or how about the more contemporary Billy Collins lines from “The Trouble with Poetry”:


And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.
And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters…


By way of example of lines you might find in my notebook, here are a few I jotted down from Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude:


“pulling me down into the oldest countries of my body”

“mostly he disappeared into the minor yawns of the earth”

“purple skin like cathedrals of glass”

“filling the sky in my chest”

“cat’s shimmy through the grin of the fence”

“his tongue drowsed slack as a creek”

“In that gaudy, cement-mixer Leavettown accent that sends lemurs scaling my rib cage to see”


Eliot and Collins aside, the idea is to collect examples of how poets create new ways of saying old truths, to catch the unexpected word pairings that glow like newly-captured fireflies in a jar (I recommend catch-and-release).

Back to rituals. If we can shift gears, I also have habits when reading poetry journals. Specifically the senior among poetry journals called (of all things) Poetry. They have a wonderful habit of printing brief bios of contributing poets in the back. If it’s a first-time appearance in their august journal (even if it’s July), they place an asterisk near the poet’s name.

My quirky habit? I’m a bad boy. If I read a poem and think to myself, “This? THIS was accepted by the most august (even if it’s July) poetry journal in the land? It MUST be a much-published and well-known poet cruising on his or her laurels (outfitted with wheels)!”

Sure enough, I am 90% accurate when I go back and find no asterisk but plenty of previously-published works near the poet’s name. The poems I often like best? Often they are starred. Asterisked as new blood. Earning their way into the august heat via hard work and ingenuity with the pen (or keyboard, Brave New World-style).

It gives one hope, something every poet, new and old, carries in his satchel like Perseus’s mirror. The Medusas of Rejection are many, after all.

Why Do You Write? Seven Reasons


It was good to receive the holiday Poets & Writers “Inspiration Issue,” which includes inspiring interviews with seven established poets, none of whom look anything like me (instead, I sadly look like the Powers-That-Be I loathe in Washington Swamp. C., making me feel like an Ugly Duckling on the Good Pond Poetry, one who can only evolve in one way—talent).

Although there are many cool questions with cooler-still answers in these interviews, I’ll give you a sampling by sharing responses to the eternal question: “Why do you write?”

Sally Wen Mao: “I write in order to live; to be sane in this world; to expand my own ideas of what’s possible; for the girl inside me who did not believe she was valuable; for the woman inside me who trivializes her own pain; for all the living people, especially women of color, who feel the same way; to rail against silence and erasure; to center my own narrative; to recover history; to imagine a future; to record and witness the present; to tell the truth.”

Editor’s Note: This reminds me of essay tests I took in U.S. History senior year. When I wasn’t quite sure which answer was best, I put some semicolons to work and gave them all! Still, I’m pretty sure Sally’s answer speaks for many in today’s swampy climate (allusion to Washington Swamp C. and its head crocodile here).

Hanif Abdurraqib: (Hanif did not answer this specific question, so I’ll share his answer to “Who do you turn to when you feel like you’re losing faith?“): “I’m finding faith in writers who at least attempt to engage with a complicated honesty. I’m into writers who ask and answer with confidence, fully understanding that none of us really know shit.”

Editor’s Note: I love that answer, because Hanif fully understands what none of us fully understands. That can’t be said of some of the self-important writers out there, now can it?

Morgan Parker: “To explain myself.”

Editor’s Note: Boy, would E. B. White and his teacher, Mr. Strunk, love this succinct answer! Well done, Morgan!

Esmé Weijun Wang: “It’s the best way I’ve found to interpret the bewildering world.”

Editor’s Note: “Second place in the succinct sweepstakes!”

Ross Gay: “I write because I have questions; because I love books; I love the human voice; others have been so kind as to have written things I have been moved by and feel compelled to talk with; I like to talk with; I like to move; it is so fun; semicolons; the mysteries.”

Editor’s Note: Ross appears to be in on Semicolon Humor (it was once an ice cream franchise, no?). He’s also in on something I read about somewhere, but forget where: All writing is a dialogue with all writings that came before it. It’s as if we’re all at a big table with the masters, jockeying for seats near our favorites (I’m between Twain and Tolstoy), politely saying, “Pass the Plato of potatoes, please.”

Yiyun Li: “I would feel awfully lonely if I stopped.”

Editor’s Note: This sentiment makes sense when you receive occasional acceptances in your inbox. For the forever-rejected writers, however, their loneliness lives on, even as they continue to write. (As Head Swamp Crocodile once tweeted: “Sad!”)

Chigozie Obioma: “I write to redeem myself from the intrinsic pain that comes from trying to unravel the mystery of existence and, by doing so, to help others unpack theirs.”

Editor’s Note: I never considered that the mysteries of existence might be something in my Samsonite between socks and underwear, but it’s a rather cool image! Be careful with that luggage, kind sir!

And so, gentle reader, in seven semicolons or less, why do you write?