Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Russell Janzen, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ross Gay about his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press), which is the National Book Critics Circle Award poetry winner for 2015.
Russell Janzen: I first encountered your work when I heard you read a few months back in NYC. You’re incredibly charismatic when you read your work, and it was a pleasure to hear your voice as I discovered more of your writing in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I’ve struggled with how to phrase this question, but would you be able to speak to the connection, or disconnect, between your speaking voice and your voice on the page? Is reading poetry aloud a part of your writing process?
Ross Gay: Oh yeah, I read the words as I write them, and hearing them (or not hearing them) is part of my revision process. It's also, the more I think about it, part of my composition process. I wonder if I'll actually be able to say a phrase in a reading, you know? It can be a tongue twister, but not one I can't say. So that's part of it. As far as my speaking voice and the page, I'm trying to approximate something like a kinda Ross Gay voice in a certain kind of mood in a poemy kinda way situation I think. You know? Like I am trying to get close to a familiar diction or thinking, but I'm also building that, and imagining it, and crafting it, and you know, they're poems!
RJ: What was it like putting together this collection? It’s so cohesive, and has recurring themes and characters. Is most of your work in keeping with this collection - work that deals with gratitude, your garden... or is this a curated selection to highlight something specific? Were there some poems written specifically for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude?
RG: These are the poems that I, with the help of a few friends, decided were the ones good enough to be in a book, written between like 2010 and 2014 or so. Also, yes, it's curated. I left several poems that I wrote over those years out. Most of them, actually; I write a lot of duds, and I left most of those out (I hope). Some I left out because they didn't fit, which is a different kind of curation.
RJ: Your garden features prominently in these poems. Have you always had a garden? (It sounds so impressive!) How has it influenced your work?
RG: I have not always had a garden, though I've always liked fruit and stuff. My garden is very impressive to me, though I think most people would think it's a goddamned mess. Well, if you read those poems, you can tell that the garden (and the other gardens and orchards in my lucky life) is an influence. It always sneaking in there. It's like a wisteria planted next to a house that way.
RJ: In “to the mistake” you write about “the miracle of the mistake in a poem.” What kind of a mistake are you thinking of here? Do “mistakes” often end up in your final products? Or is it that you (are encouraging your students to) use them to help attain a more fully realized poem?
RG: Oh, most of my final products are borne of a bunch of curated mistakes. You know, something that arrives in ways I never could have predicted, a misused word or something, or even a placeholder or something that absolutely doesn't belong in my poem until it does, other things too. You know Rebecca Solnit's book A Field Guide to Getting Lost?
RJ: Many of your poems address a “you.” Sometimes it seems to be a specific you and sometimes it’s more universal. In the moments when it is not articulated in the poem who the “you” is, do you have a “you,” a reader, an audience in mind? And does this change or remain relatively consistent?
RG: Hmmm. I think that you is often me and often a reader I do not know (and sometimes a reader I do know). Which is to say it is many things at once, I think. Including you.
Ross Gay is the author of two previous collections, Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Orion, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor of poetry at Indiana University and teaches in Drew University’s low-residency MFA program in poetry. He also serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard.
Russell Janzen is a very part-time student at The New School and a dancer with the New York City Ballet. Since 2013 he has been a student in the Riggio Honors Program where he explores queer identity and art's participation in larger contemporary conversations through his writing.