Introduction for Ross Gay at City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City, Co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, February, February 15, 2019
Ross Gay is the author of three books: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Catalog was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, the Ohioana Book Award, the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and it was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.
Being something of a cynic, I was skeptical when I saw the title of a Book of Delights, though I should not have been following Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, where the short-lined poems propel a kind of nuanced thinking/feeling where gratitude can merge with grief. The bold titles of both books make me think of The Triggering Town, where Richard Hugo warns poets like me, who live in fear of appearing “sentimental,” that “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.”
And to be close to your inner self you must also be close to your physical self. One of the many delights chronicled in The Book of Delights is that of writing by hand, “the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.” The writing itself is an enactment of another of the author’s delights, loitering, or wresting one’s time “from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.” This loitering, this slowing down and focusing in that a writer can only really do in longhand–whether remarking on the bumbling choreography of a hug, or noticing that a “friend’s air quotes are unabashed, two-handed, two-fingered punctuative dances during which, often, he will lean back or put a hip out like he’s setting a Hula-Hoop into motion.” Among my great delights in this book are Gay’s marvelous, spot-on but surprising images: the hyphen is “the handshake of the punctuation world,” the sight of a handwritten ID tag on a bag “truly filled my heart with flamingos, or turned my heart into a flamingo.” Loitering in prose also creates a space for associative leaps (no, not leaps, more like associative meanders), so that delight can very quickly bleed into a fraught or violent or desperate space, from which it cannot ultimately be separated. Like the act of writing by hand, delight itself is inextricably tied to the body, and therefore to mortality. Gay writes,
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how ever person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. … Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.
I’m reminded of our own Toi Derricotte’s assertion that joy is an act of resistance, for, as Gay writes, “one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness. And yet, and still, as Ross Gay writes, “You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight./ Daily as air.” It is my great delight to welcome Ross Gay.