In February 2020, poet and essayist Ross Gay came to Sewanee to deliver a lecture on the work of Nikky Finney, the recipient of the 2020 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Ross’s lecture, “Be Camera, Black-Eyed Aperture” (published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Review) beholds the poetics of Finney’s unflinching witness, which he terms her “black-eyed looking.” That is “not looking away” from the “brutalities of white supremacist patriarchy” while “not granting brutality the status of essential truth.” That is, she also loves her people, “wraps her arms around her people while at the same time making it feel as though we all are her people.”
In this context, assistant editor and podcast producer Hellen Wainaina sat down with Gay to talk about his own work: his books of poetry 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; and his collection of essays, The Book of Delights.
The two discuss the concentric circles of joy, gratitude, and love that Gay’s work draws through his tender excavation of what is painful and difficult. What often brings Gay to the page, pencil in hand, are questions: “The objective of the asking is to change my relationship in some way to the thing that I’m asking about,” Gay says. “The reason I write is to think very rigorously about things I do not understand. I want to come closer to them, and usually that’s me. I’m usually the first thing I don’t understand.” In the practice of writing, of crafting newfound clarity from what befuddles, Gay sees the occasion to bring to the light what is shameful, painful, or difficult. And by slow turns—learning from teachers like Nikky Finney and Toi Derricotte, as well as other artists and musicians alike—Gay has discovered “joy as the rightful subject of our literary concerns or inquiry.”
“In terms of the ground of our imaginative lives,” Gay says, “I think I am trying to work out where the engine of what we make is actually love. The engine of what we make is not despair or not what we reject or what we’re fighting against, but the engine—or the motivation or the heart of what we make—is actually love.”
The Sewanee Review Podcast is recorded in the Ralston Listening Room at the University of the South. It is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by ProPodcast Solutions with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Ross Gay’s books are available for purchase from Bookshop.org.