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Between the Covers Ross Gay Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release, Little Armageddon by poet, Gregory Fraser. Little Armageddon describes everyday explorations—the small explosions within life, family, and “ordinary survival.” Fraser writes at eye level, detailing the experiences of fatherhood, love, and the quiet of daily life poised at the brink of abrupt upheaval. These poems balance imagination and truth-telling with a rich verse that brings the reader’s ear closer to the quiet and how intense it truly is. Listeners of Between the Covers receive a 20% discount on Little Armageddon or any other Northwestern University Press title with promo code POD20. This offer is available at Today’s episode is also brought to you by Forsyth Harmon’s Justine, a debut illustrated novel that offers a sharp, intimate portrayal of girlhood on the edge of adulthood, and the thin line between friendship and obsession. Hailed as “showstopping” by Alexander Chee, “urgent and exquisite” by Melissa Febos, “an unsettling, adoring, insightful, and even a little frightening” by Victor LaValle, the novel chronicles Long Island teenager, Ali, who finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Justine after meeting her at the local Stop & Shop. During the ensuing weeks of summer 1999, Justine takes Ali under her wing, and Ali’s fixation on Justine grows. She begins to reshape herself in her new idol’s image, leading to a series of events that spiral from superficial to seismic. Justine is out on March 2nd from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m so excited for today’s episode with Ross Gay, as Ross has been an important poet for me, and also has felt like such a presence recently on the show. From the way his speech, his homage, his delivery of love to Nikky Finney became such a vital part of my conversation with her. Or how reading Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake in preparation for today’s conversation with Ross, ended up shaping and informing my two conversations with Natalie Diaz. Or just how many guests in the past have mentioned cherishing Ross’ work from Lidia Yuknavitch to Tyehimba Jess. Since Ross and I talked, it was announced his new book, Be Holding, is a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, along with past Between the Cover’s guest Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for her new book, The Freezer Door. This award is given to a work that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence. Be Holding is a book that is formally daring, dreaming, and doing the impossible. A book-length poem that looks deeply at a mere few seconds of footage and that looking makes those seconds, and what is being looked at in them become the world entire. This footage is sports footage of Dr. J’s move called the move, his baseline scoop, from the 1980 NBA Finals. I’ll include a link to the video of this in the show notes, something you shouldn’t miss even if you couldn’t care less about sports. Likewise, if you are a writer or artist who is sports phobic, or has a fatal allergy to sports, trust me, this book and this poem in this conversation are about so much from mushrooms and mycelial networks to cameras and the ethics of looking, to slave ships, to joy, to yes, basketball. For the bonus audio archive, Ross talks about the importance of Jean Valentine to him and reads one of her poems for us. You can find out more about how to subscribe to the bonus audio and look through the ever-growing variety of potential gifts and rewards you could receive for transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter by heading over to Enjoy today’s program with Ross Gay.


These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

David Naimon: Today’s guest is poet, essayist, athlete, and gardener, Ross Gay. Gay earned his MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence, his Ph.D. in American Literature from Temple University. He currently teaches in the English department, his core faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington where he is also a founding member of the Bloomington Community Orchard—a publicly owned, volunteer-run, free fruit-for-all organic orchard—where he has taught classes on everything from pruning to propagation. A football player as an undergraduate at Lafayette College, Ross Gay has coached basketball and was a founding editor of the online sports magazine, Some Call It Ballin’. Most people probably know Ross Gay as a poet. He is the author of the poetry collections—Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude—finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, and winner of both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Equally loved is Ross Gay’s first essay collection, The Book of Delights, which chronicles a year of daily practice, birthday to birthday, of attending to the joys and wonders, however fleeting on any given day, no matter how uncooperative that day is. Tyehimba Jess says of The Book of Delights, “Ross Gay is back to remind us, in a voice raspily festooned with bank shots and flowers and candy and garlands of diamond-sharp sanctities, that delight is always lit from within. This is an illuminating and necessary meditation that unravels masculinity, race, tenderness, strength . . . all that is extraordinary yet hidden between the ordinary creases of life.” Gay is also the co-author with Aimee Nezhukumatathil of Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens and with Rose Zinnia of the chapbook, River. He serves as an editor at the Press’ Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press, works on The Tenderness Project with Shayla Lawson and Essence London, and his work at large has garnered him fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and from Cave Canem. Ross Gay joins us today on Between the Covers to talk about his most recent poetry collection, Be Holding, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press. A book-length, one-sentence-long, lyric meditation on one gesture, on one move, of a mere handful of seconds, on the move of Dr. J, of Julius Erving’s baseline scoop in the 1980 NBA Finals. Claudia Rankine says of Be Holding, “At once record, collage, group photograph, dance, and archive, Be Holding reveals a multifaceted intimacy and lyricism within the history of a game, tracing how this history is interconnected with the saga of our country. Ross Gay has once again proven himself one of our greatest poets.” Nikki Finney adds, “There are no idle spectators in this new bougainvillea book-length poem by Ross Gay. Tender, incisive, double-dutching couplets, stretch end to end. We are hula-hooped on and off the court then deposited inside photographs and lush gardens, calipers in hand, ready to measure the honey, the scent, the circumference of our eyes, hearts, hand.” Finally, Fred Moten says, “Nothing happens only when it happens. Right now, we’re all tree-borne watching the Doctor all but not come down, again and again. We feel the weight of our enjoyment, the heavy duress we’re under when it happens, where it happens, where nothing happens only where it happens. Behold! We are held in flight. Is that why Dr. J tried to give the last word on that move, saying it was ‘just another move, ‘ saying so all but sadly? Well, Be Holding unfolds that word, moves it and releases it, re-releasing that move in carefully watching, again and again, for all that differentiates it from all the descendant moves and for all that entangles it with all the ascendant ones. The flights in fallenness, the grave plays on stillness, the refusals of space and time, the reprovals of being and history, are so serious that it’s as if it were just a game, not a game, not a game, this practice of desperate falling into looking. We play it light, though. There’s no last word on what we hand and hold, or on what we behold, or on our beholding. Again and again, in the beautiful note he holds and hands, that’s what Ross Gay be saying.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Ross Gay.

Ross Gay: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be with you.

DN: Me, too. I should start out by saying you’re at the top of your blurb game with this book. 

RG: [laughs] Hearing that is just so lovely. It also feels like, oh, what beautiful readings of the poem, what beautiful considerations, so generous.

DN: I want to start with the language these others chose to praise your book with, particularly, Fred Moten, when he says, “Be Holding unfolds the word behold and moves it, and releases it.” But before we talk about what you were looking at, what you were beholding in this poem, I was hoping we could just start with the act of looking itself because it feels like a great segue from what will be the episode right before our conversation with Teju Cole, who is both a writer and a photographer, and a photography critic. He’s always thinking about the ethics of looking. I’m going to start by reading something from your speech, Be Camera, Black-Eyed Aperture, which you delivered to Nikki Finney in honor of her receiving the Aiken Taylor prize. In it you say about Finney’s work, “When the speaker’s eyes ‘labor to midwife / this moment out all the way,’ it also reminds us that proper witness—which is looking, yes, but also feeling, attention, and attending—is labor. Come seriously to the page. Pay attention. Do your work. Because looking is a generative act; it is a birth; looking, by which I really mean seeing, makes the world. This witness, black-eyed, is labor, and labor is birth. And labor, let me say it again, means work.” Let’s start with talking about Be Holding and looking, and seeing as praxis.

RG: One of the questions of the book—and it moves toward this—is like, what are we doing? What are we looking at? What is it? What are we practicing? All of this looking constitutes practicing. The idea of looking at the praxis or practice, something that each time, every time we’re in the process of looking, we’re always practicing something. One of the questions of the book which happens quite a few times is what are we practicing when we’re looking at anything? Probably, too, the things that invite our looking, what do the invitations suggest about our practice, but also what do the allowances to be invited, or something like that. “Okay, I’ll be invited to this looking,” how does that constitute a practice? That’s one of the first things that I think of. But also thinking about that little moment from that talk about Nikki’s work, I’m very interested in the idea of practice and all of the ramifications of practice—I’m writing this book with a friend about playing basketball, about this long-term, one-on-one game we have. The book probably, maybe it’s called practice—but I’m interested in practice, one in terms of the repetition of something to acquire a skill, but of course, I’m also thinking about practice in terms of a practice of meditation or practice of all of the other kinds of practice. But the idea that those practices which are engaged with labor, which are the result of labor constitute a making so that our practices are not the only things that we do, our practices are things that we make, among those things being the world. [laughs]

DN: This might be a tangent but I just thought of how Allen Iverson appears in your thank yous and you keep mentioning the word practice. I don’t know if it’s Allen Iverson in relation to the famous or infamous practice clip where he says the word practice 25 times.

RG: Yeah, totally. It is. That’s what I’m hearing. That’s why I’m referencing that. The way that I think of that discourse on practice, to me, is like breaking the idea that the practice is something that you do just in the gym. Practice goes beyond the court, in that case.

DN: Let me take the line that you just said of practice no matter what we’re looking at and ask you a long elaborate question around that. In your Cave Canem talk called Fall No More, you talk about how you’re trying to understand how sight works in a poem, about how a poem might itself be a version of sight, and how making might be seen in scene-making as you just alluded to, and you go on to say, “Sight is a discipline for which muscles can be developed,” and what in our language accommodates the vision of our destruction, and more poignantly, perhaps how can a poem itself vision the not destruction? How can our poems make the unmurdered and unmurderable world? Maybe I’m asking, what kind of eyes does your poem have? Then, when I was thinking about the eyes of the poem and what they give birth to, I think of one moment in the book where you’re looking more deeply at the photograph on the cover. It would be easy not to notice that the boy in the aviator hat has something in his hands at all, as he seems to be retreating from the gaze of whoever’s holding the camera. But you draw our eyes to his hands and wonder what it is there, and through a more deliberate looking, it becomes many possible things. We go along with you in this generative process of what those things could be, and each thing that you name as a possibility changes the valence of what the photograph “means.” But we finally realize it’s an origami bird—which with the aviator hat and a lot of the other things you’ve been discussing in the poem which we’ll talk about—really makes that photograph cohere in a totally different way. It made me feel like that deep looking has a certain magic to it, that this generative labor of birth can happen by looking at almost anything. One thing I was thinking of was a past guest, Vi Khi Nao. She had a writing practice of looking at what at first glance might seem something very arbitrary or static—a film of sheep feeding in a field in the Alps under a cable car that was filmed kaleidoscopically in an art film by Leslie Thornton. Not only did she create her book, Sheep Machine, from looking at this film, from looking closely every day at a sequence of a few seconds of this film, but also through this writing process, she produced four books of prose and poetry just with this film, and not all sheep-centric. Obviously, it’s important what we look at, but also, I wonder because just like your book with Dr. J, it seems like it’s important that you’re looking at Dr. J on the one hand. I don’t make to mean an equivalence between him and Vi Khi Nao, looking at sheep which may or may not have meaning for her, but also paradoxically, it feels like maybe while there’s a vital importance in what we look at, maybe we can find the vital importance no matter what we look at if the looking is of a certain type, like what you call the looking of proper witness, of looking, feeling attention, attending of laboring.

RG: Yeah. The Dr. J itself is a feat. There are all kinds of reasons that I would be looking at Dr. J—I’m into basketball. I watched Dr. J with my dad. I grew up near Philadelphia and all these reasons might be a subject of my looking or that I might choose to look at that—One of the questions that the poem is asking is it’s not only what is being looked at, it’s, “Are there practices of looking that make whatever it is we’re looking at inform, or illuminate, or do something to the other looking that we might do?” Just looking so closely at this basketball move which as you said, it’s a couple of seconds long, you and I could talk about that [laughs] but it’s a basketball move. But then, by virtue of staying with it for so long, the basketball move, it’s the looking that makes the metaphors. It’s the looking closely and patiently, and maybe another step which maybe it’s the Be Holding. The loving looking that makes all of the other metaphors arrive, that might be something like that. If you study a tree, look at a tree for a long time, or you look at a kid’s hand for a long time. Of course, all kinds of metaphors can show up, too, but that’s what it makes me think, something about patience, and something about, I said loving looking and in some way, I mean that, and also there’s a particular kind of looking I suppose—I’m a little bit arguing with myself in my head right now—what I want to say is not utilitarian though a little bit but it is utilitarian like, “is there a utility?” and maybe the utility is something like a connection. Love is a word that I like. I love that word. [laughter]

DN: I do want to talk about what you’re looking at about Dr. J and about why. But before we do, I want to ask you about the Nikki Finney line that is also the title of your speech in her honor, Be Camera, Black-Eyed Aperture, what those lines mean for you not as a lens into Nikki’s work specifically, but if it’s a lens also into your way of looking.

RG: First of all, it’s one of the things that I’m even glad to talk about is that Nikki is such a formative poet for me. That directive or kind of “this is one of your jobs,” I forget the title of the poem, but it’s like instructions. The process of thinking about Nikki’s work and thinking about that phrase, in particular, made me think, “Oh, one of the things of being a camera, but what kind of camera are you going to be?” The other thing is what is a black-eyed camera? Which is to say, not to simplify, but what is a camera that isn’t informed in particular ways with the brutality of looking that is possible by virtue of the camera, by virtue of everything else that might instruct us in these other ways of looking? In terms of instruction of other ways of looking, I was walking with a friend yesterday and she was reading Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake, which I was deeply informed of. This book really helped me to write and finish it. She’s meditating hard on looking as well and my friend was like, “I think your book is a wake work,” which is her theory or notion of work that can come out of the wake that follows or that we live in of the afterlife of slavery, to quote Saidiya Hartman. Is there a looking that we might be holding, be trying, be practicing that emerges out of understanding the violence that so much looking perpetuates?

DN: Yeah. That phrase also made me think of something from Teju Cole because he talks about how, the very technology of photography which we might presume, I mean we still, even with all the scholarship that we have around photography, we are already, the instinctual thing we have about photographs is that they’re objective and that they capture something, unlike a painting, even though we know that’s not actually true. But he goes farther and says, “The technology of photography which we presume is neutral in and of itself, that the hardware of the camera makes it hard to capture black skin, that the dynamic range of film emulsions was calibrated for white skin, and that’s true for the light meters in the camera.” It made me think that “Be camera” isn’t enough in that phrase. If the camera isn’t itself neutral or objective, that being the black-eyed aperture requires not just a certain quality of looking but also a looking at the looking. Then also the fact you meditate in this speech about why she says, “be camera” rather than “be a camera,” but one of the ways when I thought of Teju Cole was maybe when she says, “be camera,” she could also be exhorting the camera to be like “be camera” like “be,” become maybe through this black aperture.

RG: It’s also neat. The word aperture means opening and so that part of the command to be might also be like, is there a black looking and is there an opening? Even talking about the ways that cameras have been used often, they’re not about the opening, they’re about closing. They’re about, “case closed, here’s the picture.” As opposed to that Carrie Mae Weems photograph at the end of this book, which is called Homecoming, I think, is the name of the photograph of the two women running toward the camera, my experience of that photograph is an opening feeling. It’s actually an opening. We know plenty of photographs that are not only the opposite but that are really used to close, that are really used to do the opposite of opening.

DN: As we move to talk about Dr. J, I want to say that it’s been fun to watch you introduced by various sports-phobic booksellers around the country who are surprised to find themselves completely engrossed by your book, and also amazed by the 10-second clip that you’re meditating on of Dr. J. I think it’s safe to say this poem is very, very much about Dr. J and very, very much not about Dr. J. or becomes many, many other things that have nothing to do with Dr. J in sports by looking lovingly at Dr. J and sports. Tell us about Dr. J, why he is the subject of the book, why he’s the enduring figure of interest.

RG: The simple things like Dr. J is one of the best basketball players to ever play and those kinds of things and then stuff that I grew up just outside of Philadelphia. The ‘76ers were our team. I was coming to be a conscious little person. My dad would have been getting turned on to the ‘76ers because we moved there in 1979 from Ohio. Doc got traded to the ‘76ers in 1977. It’s just occurring to me now. [laughs] We all got there at the same time. [laughs] I’ve said this to someone, I can feel many things as though I was sitting at my dad’s feet watching the TV. He’s like home, stinky from [Roy Rogers 0:31:29] or whatever—in his vinyl pants, and it’s blue vinyl socks and stuff. We’re watching something and there are two figures who made me feel most relevant in my imagination. One of them is Marvin Hagler, but the other is Dr. J. I could go on and on, it’s so mysterious and mystical in a way. When I was six years old, my dad could dunk a basketball. When I was six years old, Dr. J could dunk a basketball. [laughs] There are these overlaps. These are stories in my brain, and things that I was looking at, and was witnessing. We were regularly watching games. We went to games. It’s like a time when you could go to a basketball game and they probably weren’t that expensive if we were going. The fact that I actually saw Dr. J played basketball live, then there were all these other things that I was getting but I didn’t know that I was necessarily getting. The Dr. J and Larry Bird fight is a thing in my mind. This is an interesting story, when Dr. J retired, his final season, it was a big deal probably to a lot of us, probably to a lot of people. I was just watching something about Doc just the other day and he was talking about he wanted to leave playing good. He is one of these people who left and he was really good. He made the point of being, “I was second-leading shot-blocker in the league that year, or third in steals,” or something, I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was really good, which actually complicated my idea of how good at defense Doc was. But for years, I can remember after his last game, watching his last game, which in my memory must have been an afternoon game because I went to the little elementary school near the apartments where I grew up, and I shot hoops, and almost cried because it was the end. I remember the game which was against the Bucks and that was good, Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings in them. In my memory, it was a tight game and Doc missed an elbow jump shot that would have won the game last second. That’s what I had held for years. Then in 2006 or 2007, I was with my buddy Patrick Rosal. He was teaching down in Texas. I went to visit him for a few days in Austin and YouTube was this new thing. I was like, “Let’s see if we can find Dr. J’s last game.” We watched it and I got blown out. What I remembered wasn’t at all that happened. [laughs] For years, I had also this deeply pained relationship with the way that Doc’s last game went. It was 20 years of understanding and experience. When I first started writing poems about Dr. J, that was the first thing that I was writing about. I was writing about what it means for so many years to have one of my most important public figures, have the way that things ended for their performance life, or whatever, be like that, then to come back too and be like, “Huh?” [laughter] Anyway, that’s all to say that he’s just with me as a figure. Like I said, there are some other people who are like that. In terms of a visionary in the game, sometimes it’s just so easy, nowadays, you talk to people who don’t know what he did, and you go back and watch a whole clip of any game. There are three things in every game that he did that is the best thing that ever happened. It’s unreal. [laughter] Finger rolls, from 15 ft out over someone—I can go on and on.

DN: I want you to. You sent me back to look at clips from my childhood that only have resided in my imagination until I looked at the clips and then experienced some dissonance myself.  We shared a little back and forth because our basketball childhood fandoms overlap in time. I told you that my Dr. J was David Thompson for the Denver Nuggets, who was all but a god to me as a child. But I hadn’t seen him play in decades since. I hadn’t sought out videos. I, like you, went to the games often with my grandfather, and would wait after the games, and get autographs. One thing I discovered which I shared with you was that Dr. J and David Thompson were the finalists in the first-ever dunk contest. Dr. J clearly wins that. I also discovered that it required some effort on my part to see what made David Thompson so special. Much as Fred Moten says you’re looking at Dr. J’s move, “for all that differentiates it from all the descendant moves and for all that entangles it with all the ascendant ones,” it felt like David Thompson’s moves had been so incorporated into Michael Jordan who chose David Thompson to induct him into the hall of fame. Jordan’s David Thompson moves had been incorporated by Kobe that in a way, I’d been watching David Thompson throughout my whole life without knowing it. He’s become part of the language or DNA of modern basketball moves in a way that makes him, looking back, seem familiar rather than extraordinary. But then when I watch Dr. J, there is still an immediate sense of wonder for me. There’s something about the way he moves that both feel more like ballet, or dance, or poetry, but it also feels like something specific to a past era or a lost era of players of another time. Kareem has some elements and they’re not the same moves but there are some qualities that maybe they share that feel absent or lost. I don’t know if that feels true to you. I feel that loss around childhood also, of course, but I don’t feel that loss looking at my childhood hero but I do around Dr. J. Do you have thoughts on the descendant-ascendant aspect of his moves?

RG: Yeah. When you see it, it’s interesting because you would think like Michael Jordan would have chosen Doc. Because we think the lineage of that is Doc. People are also like David Thompson. Then Michael Jordan who does Dr. J’s dunk in the dunk contest. First Dr. J dunks from the foul line, first Dr. J does it. [laughter] Doc does it again 10 years later, too. Then Michael Jordan does it. That’s the trajectory, that’s the lineage that Jordan is looking at. But I think you’re right. People are always doing magic stuff and part of what is so beautiful about all of these Doc, and David Thompson, and Kareem, and all these folks, partly, what they’re doing is being like, “This is the possible magic.” Changing our imaginations is what it is. I hadn’t identified this as a feeling but when I watched Doc and like what I just said, every game he does three things that are impossible, a little bit is what you’re saying is everyone’s doing impossible stuff. I was just watching the highlights of Steph Curry. [laughs] It’s just ridiculous. I was watching Harden and I’m happy for him. Who knows what the trajectories are going to be. Doc does magic stuff every game partly because I haven’t seen it incorporated in the same way that you’re talking about so that it remains in a certain way like magic like, “What are you doing?” [laughter]

DN: Do you feel like there’s something particularly poetic about basketball, compared to other sports? I think of all other poets who write about basketball—you, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, Samiya Bashir, Sherman Alexie, Yusef Komunyakaa, Major Jackson—I don’t think of football poems and when I think of baseball, the iconic baseball things are novels. I think of novels with baseball, there are tons of baseball novels. Is there a twinning for you around poetry and basketball or is that a stretch?

RG: I don’t think it is. I’ve never thought about it but now that you said it, I’m going to offer some theories. [laughter]

DN: Okay, let’s hear them.

RG: I played football in college and I think football is a stupid game. There’s something about the event and then the long rest, and the preparation, that’s a feature of football. What I don’t know is the average play is five, or six seconds, or something. Then there’s a long time in between. Baseball is the same thing. I dig baseball, I’m not interested in it at all but I get it. It’s neat. But basketball is a game that I wonder about. I’m thinking particularly basketball, real basketball. When I say real basketball, I mean without coaches and without refs. It is a game that each thing that happens, occasion is the next thing. Without the instituted pause or the instituted break and re-configuration, or something, things go out of bounds and all that. It’s the way that a poem might unfold, I wonder, a way that something becomes possible only because this other thing happened. Once the boat arrives in your poem, suddenly, all of this other stuff is possible in a way that the steady flow of things happens. I would say soccer is a game like that, too. That’s my first theory.

DN: I feel that connection. I don’t know that I can articulate that connection. When I was a kid, I followed every sport and now, basketball is the only sport that I follow. It’s like everything else has fallen away. Partly, just time management for me but that is the sport that endures even a very ridiculous fantasy basketball league with a variety of writers, and editors, and agents. [laughter] But I want to talk about the possible and the impossible, and about the notion of flight, and the meaning of flight—the flight of Dr. J, the impossible flight of Dr. J—but I want to set that up first by talking about joy before we talk about flight and what joy means in the context of your work. In your Be Camera speech you say, “If we make the brutal the ground of our imaginations, of our poetic lives, we come to need the brutal for our poetic and imaginative lives. Our poems will need the brutal which is not good for our poetry, not good for the soul, or each other. This is to me a profoundly important point or question: How do we write a rich poetry of witness that does not make brutality the ground? A rich poetry of witness that articulates or responds to or contests or resists brutality, while not granting brutality the status of essential truth.” I think of that when I think of your recent conversation with The Black Joy Collective where you talked about how different areas of focus in the academy, even when they are peopled by thinkers working to make the world better are often skewed towards studying what not to do rather than how to do it well. You described, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the academic focuses as trauma studies, incarceration studies, brutality studies, misery studies, terrible sh*t studies. You asked why we don’t study what we want to celebrate. Why don’t we have sharing studies and joy studies? In the poem, Be Holding, you say directly to us that you fear becoming a docent in the museum of black pain. But I also wondered if there was a fear on the flip side, too. You are often known as the Poet of Wonder, or the Poet of Joy. People love you for this. I love you for this. But your notion of joy is pretty complex and something that I do want to unpack because it involves a lot of essential ingredients that people don’t normally associate with joy. I wondered before we do that if you also fear not only making black pain the ground of your work but also being loved and engaged with as if you were joyful in a more facile way, as if you were the happy poet, the happy person making the happy poetry.

RG: Yeah. An occasional irritation that I have is when someone will say a thing like, “Oh, you know Ross Gay, he can make anything delightful.” [laughter] I’m just like, “You didn’t read the f*cking book.” It’s called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. As I think of people who have a real relationship with gratitude have a complicated relationship with gratitude. Gratitude is not like, “Hey, I got my new MacBook and come on.” It’s something else. There is a certain way, one of my ways of saying it is adult gratitude or adult joy. That might be shorthand for meaning some way of being there’s a notion of gratitude, and a notion of joy that is offered among other things at least in a capitalistic way, which is something you just buy.  It’s a kind of a commodity, a tradable good, or something. If you get this stuff then you’ll have more joy. I’m not actually thinking about that and when I say the word joy, I don’t mean anything like that. That’s another thing. When I say joy, I don’t mean satisfaction. I don’t mean contentment. That’s a long way of saying that it’s both irritating, and probably there is some degree of fear or worry. I suppose I wonder if this is being read in a certain way that diminishes what is the depth of what I’m trying to say, that can worry me. When I’m talking about joy, I like to say the word grave because when I’m talking about is joy, I’m talking about something that is informed fundamentally by the fact that we’re going to die, and what we love is going to die. When I’m talking about joy, again, joy is a long study for me, but I’m talking about some kind of feeling that emerges when we are trying to hold each other’s sorrow and trying to be with each other in the midst of, in the face of, etc, of the fact of our pain, and the fact of our sorrow, and the fact of our very imminent deaths. Joy is something else. I understand some people want to be like, “You’re happy because you have these happy moments in your poems.” [laughs] I’m like, “That poem is about someone who died, or that poem ends with me considering the day that my mother’s going to die.” This poem called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude ends with the child of my dream saying, “The end is near and it’s sooner than we think.”

DN: That’s why I wanted to bring this up because this will be a key to flight. I feel like maybe most people would associate joy as flight, as transcendence, perhaps something that where you leave the body, at least something that’s buoyant, or something that lifts people up. You just articulated, especially with the word grave and as you said in your conversation with The Black Joy Collective, “The joy arises from the understanding of something we share in common, which is that we’re going to die, death.” It feels like joy in a strange way is being tethered or grounded in this thing that we both share. You say this thing that’s interesting and I don’t know if it brings us back to the aperture or not, but you say that if two people in conversation acknowledge that they’re both going to die, some softening happens. I wondered if you could take the ball there around that, that softening to me at least suggests an opening between those people.

RG: I think so. I can primarily speak for my own experience but something that makes me softer is when I consider the person with whom I’m interacting with or whatever is going to die. We understand that even in close relationships and things are unpleasant, or difficult, or whatever and there is an understanding that this will not matter soon. The “this will not matter” is that one of us is going to be dead and soon. [laughs] It’s going to come quick. That’s what I think and I kind of practice. I think of joy as also a sort of practice. Maybe this is a question, I wonder if one of the practices of joy is to be walking with that understanding perpetually with us. This is changing. Not only that, this very well might be the last time that we are together. A year ago, I would be with a group of people teaching a workshop or something. There came a point where I was like, “We will never be together again. This group will never be together again,” and probably, that’s so often the case. Which to me is a source of joy, it’s also a source of sorrow. The fact of the sorrow and the fact of the joy, the sorrow is why it’s joy, too. In a way, the joy is how the sorrow is manageable. It is like the evidence of the moments of its manageability or something.

DN: Joy isn’t the forgetting of death for a moment. It’s very much being accompanied by death.

RG: Yeah, that’s what I think. It’s funny, if you write about joy, people want to talk to you about joy. It feels like the people who want to talk to me about joy aren’t mostly like, “Look at my new shoes,” [laughs] We’re thinking about this together and this one person said something, she was somewhere and there was a little kid, bouncing around, seeing her reflection in the puddle, and then bouncing it in. The older person who, that person was probably a parent or something, was watching the kid doing this, and the kid was looking at the adult, and the adult was in all this stuff. This person just started weeping witnessing this. We were having this conversation about joy. I suspect that feeling that she had, which was probably a feeling of intense connection, although she never said she communicated with these people or anything, it was a kind of witnessing I think. I would imagine, whether consciously or not, it was informed with an understanding of time passing. To me, an understanding of time passing is an understanding of death.

DN: This would be a great time to hear a little bit of the poem. If you’re okay, I selected a little section, is that all right?

RG: Beautiful. That’s great. I’ll just set it up a little bit.

DN: Sure.

RG: This is at the beginning of this move where Dr. J, as we’ve talked about, the best move ever in the history of basketball is happening. [laughter] It travels in time a little bit. At this point, there’s the person, someone who’s Doc was about to dunk on, he’s looking at what Doc’s looking at. We’ve traveled in time and we’ve gone back to Rucker Park which is a famous basketball court in Harlem. Dr. J is about to dunk on this big guy and this big guy is meditating on what Dr. J is looking at. The guy’s just surprised, he’s like, “Wait, he’s not looking at the rim. What’s he looking at?” He’s looking far away. 

[Ross Gay reads an excerpt from his latest book of poetry, Be Holding]

DN: We’ve been listening to Ross Gay read from his latest book of poetry, Be Holding. People can already see that Dr. J carries us many places to Rucker Park, to Coney Island, to slave ships, to you on your computer, and back to the NBA Finals, and to Rucker Park again but I guess I want to tie this question of joy further into the world in terms of both race and species. Perhaps my favorite conversation that you had around the book is on the VS podcast with Danez and Franny. There, you talk about the notion of entanglement which is something you got from the book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins which is a great book. In that conversation you say that whiteness is a set of practices that pretends the possibility of disentanglement, that disavows entanglement, that engages in the dream of freedom, of being free of precarity free of death. Somehow, I associate this with the more facile views of joy and flight, this description of whiteness, this pretending of disentanglement. But I was hoping you could tell us about what you mean more about entanglement and also, how your inspiration for entanglement is a fungal inspiration.

RG: [laughs] Yeah, that’s great. Can you say the part about this facile understanding of joy? Can you just say that part again?

DN: Yeah, when I think of joy as being something buoyant and transcendent maybe, out of body, your tethering joy to the body, to the precarity of the body and the collectivity of sharing that precarity is a prerequisite for joy. 

RG: Yeah, that’s right. One of my favorite metaphors when I talk about joy is a mycelial metaphor. It’s like the story or the fact that in healthy forests, there’s constant communication happening in the soil. It’s a shuttling of nutrients that is trying to make this system work or this system live. Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World does a lot of this in thinking about ruins, capitalism, and stuff. But I consider it a childish notion of joy, I’m just saying it’s not joy, I’m saying it’s something else and something that I’m not aspiring too actually, it does probably like the feeling of being a really free discreet individual, not beholden. That is a kind of joy or happiness. I like the word buoyant, you can lift above everything as opposed to what we know biologically, etc. is the case, that doesn’t happen, [laughs] it just doesn’t happen nor is that my aspiration. If it is my aspiration, despite my best intentions, I don’t want it to be. My practice is toward entanglement, toward recognizing.

DN: Is it toward a decomposition of the self? Like when I think of the way these mushrooms are the result of death but they’re also the processors of death 

RG: Yeah. One of the things that’s so great about a garden is that you’re studying a kind of mutuality. A healthy garden has a lot of the life that comes from decomposition and it seems like hanging around that alerts us to decomposition but it also alerts us to what emerges, what happens in a garden, what happens from decomposition which is food and flowers, then which is related to all these critters, like gazillion critters that are making this happen.

DN: The author of The Mushroom at the End of the World talks about the importance of multi-species storytelling which you also do too, like with these basketball players as trees, these basketball players touching trees, all the birds in the poem and the water in the poem, the Earth of the poem. 

RG: Yeah, that part that I read, part of the fun thing about writing a really long poem, today, this is really kind of long to me and reading it periodically is that you catch things newly and I was like, “Oh, one of the things, that moment there when Doc is flying and everything, everything is looking at what Doc’s looking at.” There’s some way that there’s a kind of, not to say that there’s an argument but it happens in the poem which is the thing that I was catching today is that the people and the tree become one creature, they have one creature with all their hearts and their many hands. [laughs] It was what happened because they were trying to see what Doc was saying.

DN: That’s great.

RG: That’s interesting. I just caught it differently this time.

DN: Yeah, it also made me think of Forrest Gander. He’s been doing a collaborative book with a lichen scientist. Lichen, if I have it correctly, they’re not actually an organism, they’re a composite creature made of a fungus and an algae. But they’ve been collaborating so long, these two creatures, that they can’t live apart but what they’re also finding is that it’s possible that some of these lichen species don’t actually age, that perhaps, they’ve become immortal through this collaborative entanglement. [laughter] One of the things that makes me think that the lichen model is interesting is that maybe, it’s just a really obvious example of something that’s actually true for everybody because I was thinking of Merlin Sheldrake, his book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, he says this in that, “The authors of a seminal paper on the symbiotic view of life take a clear stance on this point. ‘There have never been individuals,’ they declare. ‘We are all lichens.’” [laughter] I just think that’s great, which also makes me think of the lichen gesture, and the fact that you have 10 pages of acknowledgements, you do have 10 pages of acknowledgements at the end but you also have another page at the beginning of where you’re bound in gratitude. You really have 11 pages of this book that feel beyond the ways you expose the way you’re entangled within the poem itself. I don’t know if you could speak to that gesture of yours, the space that you create for Baraka, Sontag, Allen Iverson, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, and so on. 

RG: Again, I think it’s part of the older I get, the more joyous understanding of not only being influenced but being made by other people. This creature, which I can kind of identify as a creature, isn’t me. [laughs] I was with my mother over the holidays and we were together for two weeks. It was the longest we had been together since my dad died. At some point, I was realizing she remembers things that I don’t remember and I remember things that she doesn’t remember. It just occurred to me in a certain kind of special way like, “Oh, my memories are in you, you have a bunch of my memories.” Which is to say it’s one of the million ways that we’re like, “My mind is actually in my mother.” [laughs] It was just such a beautiful moment too because my mother’s getting older, she’s just about 80 years old and you think about that, you’re like, “Oh yeah, if you forget a thing or I just never remembered a thing.” [laughs] It’s such a beautiful thing.  Anyway, the idea of the gratitudes or the acknowledgements of the way of saying, “Thanks,” it’s not only that, it’s like, “This isn’t here but for you.” Like a book, particularly a section of a book that’s really influential and I say it in the gratitudes is that section on debt from The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, there is this line and they say, “We owe each other everything.” To me, it seems like one of the practices of the beholden which is like, “Thank you, Christina Sharpe.” One of the practices of the beholden is to be like what does it mean to owe each other everything? I think if we owe each other everything, maybe, part of that is the suggestion that we owe each other everything because we’ve given each other everything. Everything that I am is given to me. It’s not hard to consider that but it’s really hard in a certain kind of system of thought that imagines that’s not the case.

DN: I’m glad we’re fully in this second meaning of behold, so behold as witness, being beholden, being indebted to. In my conversation with Natalie Diaz, she would often use the word is something extractive or is it reciprocal. Are the stories being told being taken out of the community, and told to others, not for the benefit of the people in the community? Similarly with resources, are we perpetuating systems of domination and exploitation or are we harvesting something truly based on the need? All of the questions of entanglement and extraction feel connected to this second notion that you mentioned with the Fred Moten notion of debt but beholden also to the Earth and just to other people, like we couldn’t even breathe one breath without plants. I was thinking about that when I was thinking about this conversation like, “What parts of my day, in relationship to the Earth, aren’t extractive on a species level versus relational and giving back?” It feels 99 to 1, I don’t know, I don’t want to overstate the power of poetry or the power of looking in this regard versus tangible, ecological, remediation, reciprocity, and actually placing humans back within a system where everything’s not on our terms but I think about how you say “the more you look at something, the more it grows,” I wonder if looking better and looking longer is the beginning of it all? Then not looking away when we see something during that type of looking that we might not want to see because I think we’re partially not looking because of what we might see. If beholding is what will get us beholden again, I mean I wonder about spiritual technologies that we used to use, like in its best form, the Sabbath where you’re not supposed to do anything that moves you forward in the world, you don’t exchange money, you don’t get in a car, you spend time with people you love, you attend to the moment with no sense of the future. It’s supposed to be this recreation of the Garden of Eden once a week but also, along with that, in the Bible, you were supposed to let the land rest every seven years, I don’t know if this is even a question but I guess I wanted to hear more about the beholdeness and debt that we have as  humans.

RG: I think that thing that you said, first of all, that question in terms of how much of my life isn’t extractive, I think that’s such a good question. [laughs] Just to have it with us, there are all these sort of affirmatives that if we don’t imagine ourselves as the Earth, we’re probably not long for the Earth which is to say fundamentally, fundamentally, fundamentally beholden to the Earth, not beholden to the Earth as a discrete thing, as a discrete entity but beholden to the Earth as beholden to ourselves as Earth. One of the innovations was like we can boil down everything that a “crop needs” in a mechanical view and be like, “Well, it just needs potassium or nitrogen, just give it this nutrient.” Actually, there’s something interesting about the decay of plant matter, there’s something interesting about the decay of manure, and there’s something interesting about actual materials, the Earth, say, evolving with the Earth. [laughs] There’s something very interesting and not to be overlooked by that but of course, there’s a certain kind of f*cked up scientific notion that you can just plug in these things and it feels to me in some way connected to this completely upside down relationship with things. What can we take? How can we boil it down? The essence of the blueberry. [laughs]

DN: There’s a debate on herbalism around whether you should standardize something to its “active ingredient” as if something has an active ingredient. The point of it is the balance of whatever the plant has produced in its own way may have something in it that we don’t yet know about but is of some purpose, a buffering purpose, a synergistic purpose, but this idea that maybe, we aren’t able to identify everything in the system. But when you talk about boiling down, that makes me think of something you said, this might be a stretch as a metaphor but you talked about your revision process in one podcast and you said you didn’t pare down but that you cracked open in your revision process. I took that further, I don’t think you said this but I’m thinking of like, you’re looking it’s generative so that when you crack something open, things are spilling out. You’re looking at Dr. J but the world comes out of looking at Dr. J or [inaudible 1:23:39] now looks at the sheep grazing and four books come out of that process. Is that what you mean, is that versus the boiling down to the essential ingredient that the revision is a more of a maximalist revision?

RG: That’s a neat question because I hadn’t thought of it like that but maybe, it’s something that’s interesting to me about looking at something. I’m interested in the digression, period. I’m interested when people talk digressively. I’m interested in performance that’s digressive or storytelling that’s digressive. But I wonder if there’s a way that the idea of revising something that breaks open in a way to pay attention to the many ways that things are connected, I mean partly, I think I entered the digression because I’m like, “I love the long joke.” [laughter] People hate long jokes. I’m like, “Man if you got a joke that lasts four days, I’m still with you.” [laughter] Because I’m like, “How? Oh yeah, it’s all connected.” [laughter] I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the digression or the cracking open as a revisionary strategy is maybe having some kind of relationship to this interest in, belief in, or a desire to practice a kind of entanglement but when you pose it as a question, it definitely makes a sense that I’m interested in seeing how many ways can we connect this to other things which is also just called metaphor, I guess.

DN: Yeah, but I feel like if we called it a fungal revisionary process, you’re not distilling or boiling down, like you said, which would mean that you knew what to distill down to but the way the fungus is decomposing something but then leaving the material that’s off to the side so the digressive elements, they’re still there, they’re not removed, they’re spilling off of whatever’s being looked at but are still part of the work.

RG: Yeah, like the artifacts of our exploration or the artifacts of our wandering around, wandering, wandering, as being also the place of poetry or something, the place where poems also happen. But yeah, that mycelial notion, I like that. [laughter]

DN: I want to move to a third connotation of Be Holding. We’ve done to behold and to be beholden. There’s a third that I feel like has been discussed less in your conversations that I’ve encountered. But before we do, I wanted to have you read another section if you don’t mind and we can set up that third meaning.

[Ross Gay reads from his latest book of poetry, Be Holding]

DN: You’ve been listening to Ross Gay read from Be Holding. I had many options from all of the acknowledgments that you gave and the ways in which you were bound in gratitude of ways I could do research, which is such a great way to see the subterranean threads that make Be Holding that move beyond your own self and body. I chose to read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake and read it a while ago. It had such a huge influence on my conversation with Natalie Diaz but it had just a huge influence on me. It feels like a touchstone book. There have been moments in the 10 years of doing the podcast that echo forward for years and years where I feel like I’m at the very beginning of an understanding, so I have these encounters with different people and I seek out certain people to have encounters with, in order to go on a journey around whatever a different guest has presented. I feel that moment with Christina Sharpe’s book for me, that it’s going to be something I’m actively engaged with for a really long time. I want to thank Christina obviously but I want to thank you for bringing me to Christina. But you’ve mentioned how this book helped you figure out how to finish the poem, so before I talk to you, then ask about this third connotation of behold, talk to us about how your reading of In the Wake helped bring your book to an aesthetic resolution of sorts.

RG: I think there were so many things that were happening. One of these books that I was reading, I started this poem a while ago and I got to a point where I was like, “Man, I wonder if this is going to happen? I wonder if Dr. J is going to make this shot.” [laughter] I remember, I had been reading a few books that were really in my ear and I’ve been reading Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, the Saidiya Hartman book but I’ve been reading this book very closely. I can say, there are certain things that got introduced. I can’t remember, my friend said, “Oh, this is a kind of wake, wake work.” I can’t remember if I identified this Be Holding as a kind of wake work when I read this idea of wake work. I can’t remember exactly how that happened but it wasn’t long after that I realized, “Oh, what I’m trying to do is something that she’s trying to show us how to do. Maybe this is an example of that something.” Another thing, what feels to me like the book’s arrival is this idea of when the words be holding turn into the word beholden. The three things is like Be Holding becomes beholden, that the way that just saying beholden, the word beholding or beholden, you could say it sounds the same and the word practice, actually Iverson theorized in a practice, it’s like hearing those things in my head together, boom. What I feel like is actually the turn of the book and the moment where this poem is wondering about how do we be beholden? Christina Sharpe asked that question.

DN: This is where I wanted to bring up what I thought was the third meaning of behold. So your book, Be Holding, then the epigraph from Christina Sharpe “To be held. To behold,” could be said to have several very different readings given that the hold in Christina Sharpe’s book is the hold of a slave ship. Sharpe says, “To be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” To be in the wake, to occupy that grammar, the infinitive might provide another way of theorizing from what Frank Wilderson refers to as staying in the hold of the ship. So when Sharpe says, “Black people in diaspora are held and held in,” and when you quote or say, “To be held. To behold,” to be held and held in are also to be captive and captured at the same time as to be nurtured and comforted and there’s this quote from the book from Glissant where he says, “This boat is a womb, a womb abyss. It generates the clamor of your protests, it also produces all-coming unanimity. Although you are alone in this suffering, you share in the unknown with others whom you have yet to know. This boat is your womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. This boat: pregnant with as many dead as living under sentence of death.” When I was talking with Natalie Diaz, I brought up a recent talk I attended of Claudia Rankine’s. Claudia Rankine mentioned that while black people have not attained the status of being fully human in America, that we, as black people still needed to pretend that we had that status to vote, to increase black representation in congress, to participate in civil society as if. Natalie really pushed back, rejecting the aspiration toward the human on those terms, questioning the notion of citizen in this context, in a way that felt kindred maybe to Saidiya Hartman calling emancipation the non-event of emancipation and rejecting the term freedom that it granted, as itself being predicated on a sort of anti-blackness. All of these, when I’m thinking about you and I’m thinking about joy connected to death, and flight connected to entanglement, and my own questions about afro-pessimism and black optimism, which I’ve been reading more and more about, I just wanted to know how you position yourself to the womb abyss in this regard?

RG: Yeah, the Be Holding also to me, that’s one of the things that I hear, and there are a couple moments in the poem where I’m wrestling a little bit with the idea of, I mean I’m aware of Christina Sharpe and other people’s, is that Glissant passage from, is that quoted in the way?

DN: I think so. I’m not 100% sure but I think so.

RG: It’s amazing.

DN: It is amazing.

RG: Yeah, I’m engaging with that idea but I think this might be as a kind of wake work that I’m trying to do is trying to reimagine the hold in a way, to be held, to behold, to be a hold, what does it mean? Toward the end of the poem when I say, “A practice that spites the hold, that spites the overboard.” I mean all this, exactly everything he just said. [laughs] At the end of this movement, my father flew some from the overboard and likewise showed us how to fly some from the overboard by reaching toward what you love which is not citizenship we’re talking about but a practice despite the hold, a practice that spites the hold, spites the overboard. In a certain way, I think Christina Sharpe’s wake work is something that does spite the hold. It’s something that happens in the wake of despite. I think maybe, one of the imaginings is that there is this one hold which is like the horrible genesis of the conditions of our lives among others and there’s another holding that is constantly being made. Maybe, part of the practice that I’m imagining—and when I say imagining, I’m joining with other imagineers obviously—is this other hold actually, this other hold which is another vessel, which is another generative possibility, which is actually right now, this is the moment, we’re in another one. 

DN: I wonder if she quotes Dionne Brand at one point where she says, “There are atomic openings in my chest to hold the wounded.” I wonder if that’s the other hold, like those atomic openings.

RG: Yeah. That’s so beautiful. There’s that line that shows up in this poem Be Holding like, “The reaching that makes falling flight.” which is a little bit of an echo of one of Fred Moten’s poems where I think he says, “We make falling look like dancing.” But the reaching that makes a falling flight, it’s the reaching or the holding or the attempt to hold which doesn’t negate the fact of the hold but in some way, it’s also destroying the hold also or it’s reimagined in another thing. There’s this other moment in the poem that I wonder sort of things about this, actually, that’s what this poem gets to with the help of Sharpe, with the help of Iverson, and the help of all this, is that we’re talking about destroying the world for the world. I think in some way, there is a world that is many things among them the wreckage say the wreckage. Then there’s this other kind of dreaming which is we’re talking about destroying the world for the world, which a friend of mine, J. Kameron Carter, some conversations with him made me think, we’re talking about destroying the world for the Earth actually, like there’s the world then there’s the Earth. We’re talking about destroying the world for the Earth.

DN: Can you talk about how a line from Baraka influences the way that you’ve laid out the poem on the page?

RG: Before I forget this, [laughs] I just want to say the famous line of W. H. Auden saying, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” For years and years, I’ve thought it’s like a Sabbath thing, like it’s not that it doesn’t do anything, it’s that a poem interrupts time as we imagine it and a poem interrupts productivity as we imagine it. It stops time, which is a little bit tussling with my idea of the poem as a basketball game. I understand that. But many things are true. [laughter] But I just wanted to throw that back to be like, “Yeah.” Baraka is the first poet that I read and is really a foundational poet to me, and he says, “At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones.” He also says some place else, “The preparation for pain is minimal, for joy, a lifetime.”

DN: But the railroad of bones at the bottom of the Atlantic is echoed in your book structure.

RG: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that are sort of like the poem is couplets in the middle of the page sort of center justified. To me, at least two things that I think of right away, I think of the railroad as a form but I also think of the ladder, that it looks like a ladder. When the folks are bounding the [inaudible 1:46:40] are bounding up from the water. In a certain kind of way, I’m imagining this thing, those two formal elements happening at once, both things meant at once.

DN: Just as your notion of flight is entangled, your description of Dr. J uses just as much imagery of swimming and water as it does of soaring in air. One of the things the book explores, and I wonder if it’s under the influence of Christina Sharpe, is the impossibility of his situation and the impossibility of what he does with this impossibility. The book opens with the lines, “You might have noticed there’s nowhere to go,” and it ends with the line, “We breathe.” The mystery is this impossible journey, but Dr. J who begins in this situation with nowhere to go in this entangled in the arms of several opponents including one of the greatest defenders of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar which makes it even more impossible, and he violates the Cardinal Rule of basketball which is, “Never leave your feet if you don’t know where you’re going to go first.” Nevertheless, he leaves his feet into the impossible, he flies into the impossible, then in the air with nowhere to go, does the impossible. It made me think again of Natalie Diaz in a recent essay she wrote for PEN America. They were asking writers to comment on the upcoming election and on voting. Her essay is called A Practice of Momentum. I wanted to just read a couple snippets to see what it sparks in you, so here’s the first one, “A basketball court, like the Mojave word for garden, is not so much a location as it is what is done there, more importantly, how it is done. I was taught anything worth doing is worth doing intentionally, worth making a practice of, and a practice is a tending of the self in relation to everything that surrounds you. A place is a practice, and that court was my place. I played on it almost every day and night, learning by doing, a tradition of energy and momentum, a way to live a life.” Then later she says, “I learned the importance of impossibility through the momentum of the game, a pathway to endure my country and its occupation with me, of me, and against me. Basketball is one of my imaginations, of what might happen three moves ahead or beyond, if what could happen does happen, if what could happen does not. If I can shake my shadow left, go between my legs right, spin back, and reverse flick the ball into the bucket before the sun has time to slap its shadow on the metal backboard, then what is the world, what is a country, what is a self?” Lastly, “We are the ancestors of what is yet impossible of America.” 

RG: Yeah it’s beautiful, so beautiful. I love that idea of visioning what’s going to happen or needs to happen three or four steps ahead. I also love the idea, I remember when I coached for a while, one of the things that we would try the kids to get is that the game, there’s a zillion moments, every single moment is related to the next moment. If something happens, that is you dribble the ball off your foot, [laughs] like allow the next moment to be immediately in response to that if you can. It’s not to give the other person the chance. [laughs] There is again, when we were talking about basketball and poetry like a kind of rapidity of thought, things are going to happen quickly, be prepared. But the other thing that I think is about many things, about basketball, is that so often, the things that happened happen because the impossible has been introduced to us like, “You can’t do this.” Then we’re forced to be like, “All right, let’s see.” Then we do the impossible. That’s one of the things that I think connects back to this Dr. J move, like it’s an impossible thing. It’s like surviving. That’s it. 

DN: I know you have at least two books in the works.

RG: Yeah.

DN: Can you talk about them a little bit for us? I know one of them is basketball related and one of them is about black farmers, I think.

RG: Yeah. I’ll talk about basketball but first, this friend of mine and I have had a long-standing full-court one-on-one game like a workout practice. We’re writing these epistolary essays back and forth about basketball, which I just could write about basketball forever. [laughter] It’s endless. Just this morning, I was writing about when you jump off of one foot, you land on two feet which in the 80s probably would have been considered a walk but there was a moment, I was actually talking about Sheldrake, the other Sheldrake, I think Sheldrake’s dad is named Rupert Sheldrake but he had this idea about things happen all over the world at the same time, sometimes, in this kind of understanding of things, and I was talking about the jump stop, it just happened, like one day that wasn’t the jump stop, then two weeks later, there’s jump stops all over the place. [laughter] But anyway, I was just theorizing, “Oh, when this kid Jerry jump stopped in our area.” But it’s just the funnest thing in the world to meditate on it. [laughter] I’m thinking about that and I’m writing about that with this kid, Noah. I’m also writing this book about my relationship to the land which started out as a book about black farming. There involves me going to some farms, spending time, and asking, just being with people, learning stuff, and doing some interviews. That stays but when I first started thinking about this book was 2010 and over the years, it’s become really a book about my relationship to the land. In a certain kind of way, I almost feel like some of the work in Be Holding is going to be informing. It’s like the first articulations of some of the stuff that I’m going to be getting further in that land book.

DN: Could we go out with a last reading?

RG: Yeah, absolutely.

[Ross Gay reads from his latest book of poetry, Be Holding]

DN: It’s such a joy and pleasure to be with you for this couple of hours, Ross. 

RG: Same here. I feel so lucky, I feel tons of gratitude to get to have a deep, slow, and wandering conversation.

DN: Yeah, me too.

RG: I really appreciate it.

DN: Yeah, me too. We’ve been talking today to Ross Gay about his latest book, Be Holding. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. 


Today’s episode was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Ross Gay’s work at and for the bonus audio archive, Ross talks about Poet Jean Valentine and reads a poem of hers for us. This joins so much bonus audio from Nikki Finney reading and talking about Lorraine Hansberry to Natalie Diaz reading from Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings to Teju Cole reading John Berger, Etel Adnan, and also giving us a glimpse from his forthcoming as of yet published collection Black Paper. You can find out more about the bonus audio and all the other potential benefits of becoming a supporter from rare collectibles from Ursula K. Le Guin or Rikki Ducornet to becoming an early reader at Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year long before they’re available to the general public. All of this among many other things can be found by heading over to Or if you appreciate what you heard today and would prefer to do a one-time donation, you can do so over at Also, don’t forget that listeners of Between The Covers can receive 20% off of books at Northwestern University Press including their new release by Gregory Fraser, Little Armageddon, the promo code POD20. I’d like to thank Algonquin Books and University of Pittsburgh Press for providing copies of Ross’ books. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo, Alyssa Ogie and Spencer Ruchti in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating this outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at