What Ross Gay Reads Now & Next ‹ Literary Center

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In some ways I’m late to the party that is Ross Gay and his work, in other ways I’m ahead. I first heard Gay read his poetry at the Conference on Ecopoetics at UC Berkeley in 2013. At one point, I approached poet and activist Brenda Hillman, one of the board members conference advisory, and I mentioned how historic the gathering was. “This Is feel historic,” she said.

The highlight, for me, was just as epic reading which took place over two nights. This is where I heard Gay read his remarkable poem holder from the unreleased award-winning film Catalog of Steadfast Gratitude. “Who the hell was that? I thought when he finished his breathless list that ran back through a multitude of flora, fauna, landscapes, textures, images, sensations. His last collection of poems, Holdshowed me that he was an artist who had absolutely no interest in resting on well-deserved laurels.

Gay continues to push himself towards new concerns and their forms (in this case, Dr. J’s gravity-defying basket, the black bodies moving through the air). This book is one of the most thought-provoking and compelling collections of poetry I have read in a long time. It felt like an ecstatic religious experience to me. I am not exaggerating.

His 2019 collection of what he called “essayettes”, The book of delights, put Gay on the map outside of the niche literary world. By that, I mean he talked about it on This American Lifeit was a New York Times Bestseller. I read it during the height of the pandemic and then decided that everyone needed the following from the feds: $50,000, a hammock (with trees and room), The book of delights.

In it, Gay deftly pursues descriptions of what evokes pleasure in him: walking through an airport with a plant; riding a bike in front of a street where a good friend lived. What drew me to the book, however, was that it wasn’t flat delights – there was always darkness around the edges (the friend was murdered, the clapback to Thomas Jefferson is about slavery). How these emotions are intertwined is central to Gay’s work.

In his new book which was just released this month, Encourage joy, Gay writes, “It’s a childish fantasy (by which we adults seem as deceived as many children) to imagine a discrete emotion from any other.” It is clear that he continues to dig into these emotions (gratitude, pleasure, joy), which we could associate with a kind of simple positive gloss, to better understand what they mean for and for us – and can do .

Gay has generously annotated his own stack to read, which you can read below.

Vandana Shiva, The violence of the green revolution
One of those most indispensable thinkers on land, power, colonialism, etc. And how we could prevent them from doing so.

Simone Blanc, Or, to be the other woman
Simone White is one of my favorite writers and thinkers, and this came in the mail a few weeks ago, at which point I tore the packet apart and sat down and read it, boom. I couldn’t put it down (even if it made me want to go write). Captivating and beautiful. And now I’m going to read it five more times.

Anna Moschovakis, Participation
I heard Moschovakis read this a week or two ago during a zoom read hosted by Claire Donato and was bowled over and immediately (pre-)ordered the book. But I was at a book conference today and I went to the Coffee House table and it was there, and they were kind enough to give me this advanced reader copy. I guess I’m greedy, but I can’t wait.

Ama Codjoe, bluest nude
I’ve read it a few times, but you know how it is with poems, maybe four readings is a first reading if you like that, which, fuck, I do. I love it. Sensual, heartbroken, bewildered, hungry, amazed. So much music and dreams.

Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary
I overheard a conversation between Gerald Horne and Chris Hedges about Paul Robeson, which I realized I didn’t really know about the story. Although I know the basics: he was a political activist, he was a communist, he was blacklisted, they kicked him out, they kicked him out. That’s what they do if you threaten power, if you expose power, it seems. In fact, they are assassinating Julian Assange right now.

Lester Sloan and Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Archives subtitling
The photographs of photographer Lester Sloan are accompanied by a conversation between him and his daughter, the writer Aisha Sabatini Sloan (author of numerous books, recently the brilliantBorealis). It’s about those photos, which are important photos, but it’s also about the conversations that take place around them, a father and his child thinking together. It is so good.

Samantha Hunt, The unwritten book
I’m at a hundred pages, and it’s such a weird and brilliant book. So far, Hunt is doing some sort of close/digressive/lyrical reading or interaction with a manuscript of her late father that she found. Like, her father’s book is actually in the book, and she’s making all these long notes or speculative observations and so on. Rarely have I been so captivated by a book as by this one. It’s fascinating. It moves like hell. So pretty.

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