Ross Gay, Photo: Natasha Komoda
Conversation with Ross Gay:
You are talking, I am listening or maybe it’s the other way around
with Iva Gueorguieva
Portrait of Ross Gay by Iva Gueorgieva
Ross Gay is a celebrated poet and essayist. He is also a basketball player and gardener, lover of orchards, bees, and pick-up games. On the covers of his numerous books, he is repeatedly identified as “best-selling,” an obscene term in my view, having read all of them. It should say “best-read” or “best-listened-to” because he makes it easy and cozy, especially if you are into things like nature, social justice, art, and plants. Ross cares and tends to his reader (he even offers on multiple occasions in his poems to put a blanket on you and add a bit of honey to your tea). He laughs heartily, in his own words, “like he is dying ”. When Ross does a reading, he often pauses to add “…and what I love is…” with a peculiar rolling softness of the "L."
We are, in his words, “witnessing the unwitnessable,” as our world grows quieter as species and languages disappear, and louder as our bombs get bigger. Ross is relentless in his critique of “our time” and this American ground whose history consists of ongoing wars, genocide, deceit, and slavery. His wit is devastating and his analysis unforgiving of all that is fucked-up and painful. Ross’s poems and essays, his generous interviews and readings, collectively piece together a different, imaginative and emancipatory way of thought and practice, and we lucky ones who are listening can see it develop like watching frost gather on a pane of glass.
Ross is a drawer. He returns to images, memories, drawing––drawing nearer and nearer as he keeps telling stories about his life. He stitches images and words with a line, a charcoal line––soft and sinuous and agile. I feel its tenderness and inevitability. To draw is to mark, to trace, to touch.
I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to visit with Ross and explore the myriad clusters of revelation and grace I have encountered in his work.
Iva Gueorgieva, Los Angeles, CA
Ross Gay, Be Holding, The Book Of Delights, and Bringing the Shovel Down, University of Pittsburgh Press, PA
To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian
Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
the racket in
the lugwork probably
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
lest some poor sod
slip on the
silk of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
like there was a baby
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
Copyright © 2013 by Ross Gay. Originally published in the May-June 2013 issue of American Poetry Review. published in catalog of unabashed gratitude
Friends, mine are ugly feet:
the body’s common wreckage
stuffed into boots. The second toe
on the left foot’s crooked
enough that when a child
asks what’s that? of it,
I can without flinch or fear of doubt lie
that a cow stepped on it
which maybe makes them fear cows
for which I repent
in love as I am with those philosophical beasts
who would never smash my feet
nor sneer at them
the way my mother does:
“We always bought you good shoes, honey,”
she says, “You can’t blame us
for those things,” and for this
and other reasons
I have never indulged in the pleasure
of flip-flops shy or ashamed
digging my toes like ten tiny ostriches into the sand
at the beach with friends
who I’m not sure love me,
though I don’t think Tina loved me—
she liked me, I think—but said
to me, as we sat on lawn chairs
beside a pool where I lifeguarded and was meticulous
at obscuring from view with a book or towel
my screwy friends,
You have pretty feet,
in that gaudy, cement-mixer, Levittown accent
that sends all the lemurs scaling my ribcage to see
and she actually had pretty feet
and so I took this as a kindness incomparable and probably
felt a little bit in love with her for that afternoon
with that weird white streak in her hair
and her machinegun chatter and her gum snapping
and so slid my feet from beneath my Powerman and Iron Fist comic book
into the sun for which they acted like plants opening their tiny mouths
to the food hurtling to them through the solar system,
and like plants you could watch them almost smile,
almost say thank you, you could watch them
turn colors, and be, almost, emboldened,
none of which Tina saw
because she was probably digging in her purse
or talking about that hottie in The Real World
or yelling at some friend’s little sister to put her ass in her trunks
or pouring the crumbs of her Fritos into her open mouth
but do you really think I’m talking to you about my feet?
Of course she’s dead: Tina was her name, of leukemia: so I heard—
why else would I try sadly to make music of her unremarkable kindness?
I am trying, I think, to forgive myself
for something I don’t know what.
But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says
I am trying to do this
or I am trying to do that.
Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick. But sometimes
it’s a way by which the poet says
I wish I could tell you,
truly, of the little factory
in my head: the smokestacks
chuffing, the dandelions
and purslane and willows of sweet clover
prying through the blacktop.
I wish I could tell you
how inside is the steady mumble and clank of machines.
But mostly I wish I could tell you of the footsteps I hear,
more than I can ever count,
all of whose gaits I can discern by listening, closely.
Which promptly disappear
after being lodged again,
here, where we started, in the factory
where loss makes all things
Copyright © 2015 by Ross Gay. Originally published in catalog of unabashed gratitude
Iva Gueorguieva: I read Be Holding, (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020) in the fall of 2020. The poem sailed past the basketball court and Dr. J’s astonishing flight, and into the open air, the images stacking despite their incongruous origins, some based on memory, others based on photographs, imaginary, recollected or retold. What you are interrogating is an ethics of seeing. I realized that each vector I followed was a line of sight. Some you condemn, while others you accept. It’s the banal cruelty of unloving-looking that you condemn. You propose other kinds of looking that require a shift in attention.
How do you practice attention? In my “English as a second language” brain I always hear “A-tension,” so the word always tugs at me and upon me.
Ross Gay: I love this question for a bunch of reasons, not least of which is that it makes me aware that I’m not totally sure how. I mean, I spend time looking at stuff, or listening to stuff, or feeling stuff, or smelling stuff (I love smelling stuff), but there seems to be something different between the act of noticing and the practice of noticing. I guess I can make a few attempts: one is that there are a number of things I do in my life—garden, play basketball, teach, write, cook, am in relationships (that one should be first, I know), etc.—in which I have probably developed—am developing—methods, etc. of noticing, of attention. And I like your ESL hearing it, too ("A-tension"), because I think in some way a practice of attention means to be unlulled, means to be perpetually surprised, means to be witness to the tension, the tensions, the intentions, (riff-ongoing-etc.) of stuff inside and outside of oneself. And maybe there’s a kind of tension, which is simply called "attention," when we ask ourselves, what am I looking at, or hearing or feeling or etc.?
Ideas, ideas, ideas! I mean I am just back home after a few weeks away, and lord the hummingbirds are back in town. And yesterday I was sitting on the porch and noticed that sometimes I don’t know the difference, I mean I don’t know if I could tell the difference, between a hummingbird that is sitting on the clothesline, and a hummingbird that is hovering near the clothesline. It is really something. This little critter was nearby, and I was trying to see if I could see the heart beating (if I understand correctly, hummingbirds are all heart), which I couldn’t, but I did notice newly how still they hover, and how much they love to lap at the flowers of scarlet runner beans, and who could blame them. Also, they seem to love tithonia, bee balm, and those things out front that are maybe called "cosmos," very feathery and pretty and tall, like herons or something.
You must have your own ways, your own practices, at attention, or "at tensions," or however we might say it? How does your painting, or your painting as it has become performance (is that the right way to say it?), require or elicit practices of attention? I suspect we’re going to have overlap here, and, also, lest we lose it, I want us to come back to practice.
Alma Thomas, Study for Resurrection, 1966, acrylic on paper, 24" x 24", courtesy Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC
IG: I love the phrase you use, “how still they hover.” Your description of the hummingbirds makes me think that attention is the ability to hold forth in ambiguity. The not knowing where the hummingbird is in space is a kind of gentleness.
You ask me about attention in my painting practice––so I can offer a short list: 1. Destroying what I think I have done (just) well enough (painting over paintings); 2. Relaxing my eyes out of focus; 3. Forgetting; 4. Feeling my rage; 5. Falling in love with someone else’s work and practice––for example, your writing for a bit, Milford Graves’s percussion for a while, and always with Thornton Dial’s drawings. Basically, I practice hard at undoing what I know how to do or sweeping out of my brain all my ideas. I used to feel shame about my practice of misplacing, misrecognizing, and misunderstanding. I catch myself misquoting you whenever I say that I have a river stuck in my throat (the correct a line from your poem “Bringing the Shovel Down,” is “. . . for a river burns inside my mouth”).
You wrote “Study for Resurrection,” a poem dedicated to the painter Alma Thomas, (in Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful, The Columbus Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2021). In the catalogue the caption reads, “Study for Resurrection, c. 1966, acrylic and graphite on cut and stapled paper.” There is a piece missing from the bottom edge, yet the image is explosive and emanates vital energy and light despite the tentative integrity of the support.
The poem starts with a gorgeous list of all the stuff she has put in our eyes, then you talk about what she perceives in the light of the trees:
out the window
the light through the holly tree
the seams in
the seams of
she called it
Study for Resurrection
she called it
Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto
she called it
Cherry Blossom Symphony
those are the right words
mine is a sycamore,
no, please let me correct that,
I am the sycamore’s
Please walk me through the process of writing “Study for Resurrection.” What do you mean when you say in the poem, “I am the sycamore’s?"
RG: Your questions are like good, weird essays. So, first, I think I like the river in the throat thing more—I mean the river burning in the mouth works for the poem, but the river stuck in the throat, whoa. You know, I don’t really think of rivers being stuck, they flow, they torrent, they sometimes dry up and are diverted or dammed up, and they carry all this life, etc.–-beautiful. Anyway, I want to answer the question honestly but I can’t quite remember the process of writing that poem, aside from sitting in the garden and looking around. There’s a little screened in porch out back I think I was sitting in and looking at the images, thinking, listening for something, etc. But there was this detail about her life, where she was ill and couldn’t really move, and from her seat or couch–-I think, maybe she was lying down––let’s say it was a chaise lounge, she looked into the tree and luckily saw that it was a painting. I mean, I don’t know if it was lucky for her, it would have been for me. It was definitely lucky for us, because goddamn those paintings, lord.
That said, I think that moment for Thomas, as it was recounted, catching the light coming through the holly tree, being moved by the light flickering through the leaves, moved as she was by it, was a kind of unmaking. To be moved like that, whether you call in inspiration or listening or receiving or work or practice, it is, I think anyway, something like being unmade. When you were talking about painting over paintings, forgetting, destroying, studying, etc., it seems that part of attention (putting stuff in your eyes, etc.), the ESL kind, too, is the willingness or preparedness or longing or practice at/of being unmade in the seeing, unmade in the beholding. Oh, there it is, and the danger maybe, too. To behold, to truly behold, and I think the word "regard" works here, too, means to be unmade by the beholding, the regard. The word beholding itself suggests a kind of looking or attention that makes you be carrying something, that makes you more (and therefore less) than yourself; and regard suggests, maybe, a kind of care in the looking. (Shout out always to Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake on these questions.)
Oh wait, the final of your eleven questions: I think by "I am the sycamore’s," I was probably trying to trouble our conventional relationship to the earth, which is that it is ours, and suggest that it’s truer, by which it’s absolutely true, that I belong to the earth. Catching myself in that lack of regard, that lack of beholding, sweetly I hope, to be like, actually, probably this. I kind of love watching poems, essays, paintings, and their makers, change in the process of the work. The work as evidence of that change, I mean. Yours are so beautiful for that, so generous, they give us some hint at least of how the marks arrived, or how they went away.
Thornton Dial, Garden of Eden, 2015, fabric, spray paint, and enamel on canvas over wood, 66 1/8 x 66 1/8 x 2 3/4 inches
on view in the exhibition Thornton Dial: Handwriting on the Wall at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, CA Photo: Evan Walsh
IG: The painter Thornton Dial for me is like a tree. In his words: "A piece of art is like the movement of the clouds or the sun in the sky, constantly moving, always changing . . . The movement of the world always makes changes in things . . . My art is the evidence of my freedom. When I start any piece of art, I can pick up anything I want to pick up," Souls Grown Deep - Interviews with Thornton Dial by William Arnett in 1995 and 1996.
Like Dial, you “pick up” many things in your new book, The Book of (More) Delights, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2023. You burrow deeper and deeper, turning and churning the mound, the dump that is “our times.” I used to thoughtlessly repeat this quote from John Cage, recalled by Philip Guston: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio––the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas––all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.” I used to think this was profound and true. Now, I think it’s false. I know you don’t leave. You are there and what you are looking at and what you are talking about is there.
We have been talking about attention but in this new book, you are also practicing discernment. Can you discuss what that is?
RG: First of all, funny, I’ve been reading this book by Ross Feld about Philip Guston, or his relationship with Philip Guston, and I’m kind of loving it, cruising through it, it’s got a sweet form, more or less a letter from Guston, followed by a chapter, that kind of thing (have you read it?), and in the letter right before the chapter where Guston dies (head down on his chest while eating his dessert, pie, not bad, ooh! spoiler alert!), he’s seeming a little bit manic, been painting all night and such, and he says something comparing a painting to the pyramids, not exactly, but he is being grandiose, and it made me think two things at least: first, we really spend a lot of time making the thing we do into an important thing, or a grandiose thing. It’s just something some of us do, and it’s kind of charming and heartbreaking. And the other thing I was thinking—and this because somewhere in there he uses the word “fixed,” meaning a kind of completeness—was that, whoa, it must be difficult to make paintings (or maybe anything) if you regard them as, or aspire for them to be, finished, or maybe fixed is the right word. I think I maybe am with Thornton Dial in this way––that “the movement of the world always makes changes in things,” and that that is maybe not only a thing to acknowledge but to join, or try to, anyway.
And it makes me wonder if discernment is to some extent noticing those changes—yeah, I wonder if it’s that. You know, it seems to me one of our great struggles as people (I should just speak for myself) is that once I think I know something, am familiar with something, have seen something, I think it’s done . . . and that something might be something I’m trying to describe in a poem, or draw, but it might also be a relationship I’m in, with a person or a plant or myself. There seems some deep need or desire to fix that binds up our ability to discern or see or notice or whatever—maybe it’s the desire to imagine ourselves as fixed that gums up the process, I don’t know. But I do have a hunch that there is a great deal of knowing—actually, and here maybe is some of the rub, a great deal of un-knowing, that comes from unfixing what we know or see, etc. When we unknow the sycamore tree or the peonies or the hummingbird in the bee balm or our understanding of our mothers or whatever, we become unknown to ourselves, which seems to me a reasonable thing to be doing again and again, and which sounds bigger maybe than it is, because I think it just means trying to be curious, trying to ask questions. I think there’s obviously an ethical thing to this, but just as important is that I think it might be happier-making. To be aware that the changes are more than we could ever in a zillion years keep track of . . . I mean, in this little garden I’m looking at, with the pawpaws and tithonia and cosmos and hibiscus and catalpa tree that got into the crack in the sidewalk and the bees and hummingbirds and . . . you know what I mean. I do wonder what happens when we wonder around like that. I wonder it for our lives or souls or hearts or whatever (mostly), but I also wonder it about what we make, poems and essays and paintings and drawings and dances, etc.
IG: I haven’t read the Guston book you mention but have been reflecting on him and De Kooning and the thick oil paint. The paint is so heavy it feels like too much fixing. I remember feeling suffocated in the vast installation of De Kooning’s retrospective at MOMA in 2012 until I got to the last room. There I stood before his last paintings in awe. His mind was wrecked by Alzheimer’s at that point, but he continued to paint with his body. His body remembered, his hand carried on the thinking and the feeling and marking of the surface free of fixing.
I heard you say once that “you are making an argument with your body,” a statement that struck me to my core, and I scribbled it on the wall of my studio. In “Cocobaby” from The Book of Delights, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019, you describe the tender process of oiling your body with coco. You are standing naked in the bathroom, and you notice your testicles dangling between your thighs. You recall a poem about an abusive father and his daughter witnessing him in that very same position, his testicles dangling, and she sees them as his udders, the soft feminine side she is not allowed to know or see. How does being embodied open us to being with or in or of? Does the haptic allow a happier-making?
RG: Hmm, I wonder what I meant by that. I wonder if I meant our bodies as they change through this form and then out of this form (ha, yesterday was my birthday, maybe I’m in a mind of this)—by which I mean we are born, we live, we croak, and the zillion things before and after which is us, too, makes an argument––an argument about precarity or softness or tenderness or need. I mean, maybe not only, but our bodies seem to make those arguments, or pleas, pretty convincingly all the time (like every time we take a breath, like every time we take a drink or eat some food, etc.), and to bring back that poem I reference that you referenced—it’s in a book called The Undertaker’s Daughter by Toi Derricotte, who is one of my very most important writers—and she’s recalling one time seeing her father, who could be violent, shaving with his leg up on the toilet. She sees his testicles, and in the poem wonders if that was the soft part of himself, he was hiding. It feels like hiding the soft part of ourselves is kind of it, the doom song, and all the apparatuses we build and maintain and polish and make additions to, etc., to keep that soft part hidden . . . sometimes I think that’s the end of our time here on earth. Though I know I am susceptible to the grandiose and apocalyptic utterance. But still, I kinda think it’s true.
I know, or think I know, haptic means more than just touch, but I don’t know what that more than is, actually. But let’s just say it means touch (I just looked it up). You asked if the haptic (touch) allows for happier-making. Fuck yeah, it does. I mean duh, not only. But if touch also means something like an awareness of being in contact . . . I’m struggling to articulate what I mean. I think I mean something like this––I think there is a kind of malaise or depression afoot, maybe it’s always been around (different malaises and depressions at different times, I know), but it feels to me a little more saturated or something, which is at least somewhat the result of, among other things, how untouched our lives have become, and are being driven to be. By which I mean yes, of course, all of this technology, which seems mostly to make our neighbors invisible to us. You know, in a thousand ways. There is something profoundly sad in the fact that I am as inclined to ask a computer how to take cuttings from a gooseberry bush as I am to ask a human being. There is something profound in the fact that we are more inclined to ask a device (made of all these parts, all this . . .) for directions than to ask someone on the street. That so many of us don’t have a relationship with the rain, or the sun at different times of the year. Our food, our soil. That (this I was thinking as I was walking into my office on campus) seeing these masons building this very beautiful limestone wall—so many of us know how to make nothing with our hands if we have them, and this is actually perceived as a kind of achievement or something. Evidence of having climbed some kind of ladder out of . . . the earth, maybe. A little distance between oneself and one’s need, or the addressing of one’s need outsourced, or off-shored, maybe that’s how to say it. It’s a kind of bleakness for sure, and another word is "alienation," and another word is "disconnection." There we are. Touch implies connection, and connection is rich. Not only happier-making, but meaning-making, I’m pretty sure. The practice of connection.
Thornton Dial, Lock Out, Tag Out, 2014, corrugated tin, scrap metal, wire fencing, spray paint, and enamel on canvas over wood,
66 x 59 x 3 1/2 inches on view in the exhibition Thornton Dial :Handwriting on the Wall at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, CA
Photo: Evan Walsh
IG: Your words are devastating and damning. I am inclined to be silent . . . and yet, I am also thinking about how I insist on talking to strangers and asking the new neighbors for a single egg, hoping to become indebted to them. It matters what we do. In Bulgarian the word for “nature” is “priroda” which means “with kin.”
Ross, I haven’t seen you for a couple of decades, but I listen to you read while I paint. Your words are heavy, but your voice is infused with laughter and air. Listening is touching.
RG: How many mismatched gestures there are, it’s occurring to me. And maybe the main mismatching of gestures, which you might say constitutes a ground, a shitty, or more accurate, bullshitty ground, is that we aren’t “with kin.” I mean, I love that the word for “nature” in Bulgarian means “with kin,” because it eliminates that division between “us” over here and “nature” over there––between us over here, and you over there. And it might even shine a little light on that thing you mentioned about getting indebted to one another—borrowing a single egg (that’s the best), or whatever it is we do to ask for help. I love asking for directions even though I am really bad at listening to them, and I think it’s because I like practicing asking for help, and like practicing remembering I’m with kin, which I need to practice. But, yeah, the actual ground, the natural, is the with-kin-ness, or connection, fundamentally, and it feels like a useful and long-lived and actually very fun noticing and articulating those connections. Even when it is devastating and heartbreaking, also noticing how we do our damnedest to obliterate those connections, those fundamental needs, that debt. How we do our best to pretend we are not in debt to one another, that we are made possible by a zillion (this is a word I overuse, I know) generosities. Not only generosities, I know, but mostly, pretty sure.
I am a lucky person who lives with a garden, and especially who lives with a garden with some mint, mountain mint in particular I’m thinking of at this moment, and at this time of year, especially in the full sun, it is teeming with pollinators: honey bees, mini-bees, teeny-bees, maybe some bumblebees, a few kinds of wasps (one of them is metallic black and iridescent, kind of gleaming in the light), and a zillion other things I can’t see. How fun it is to hang out for a while watching all that soaring and interaction and collaboration and, though I don’t often think of it this way while I’m watching it, need. I think my feeling is like, goddamn, something is happening here, or goddamn, this looks like fun. Actually, hang on. I’m gonna go over and look at the mint real quick . . . ok, first, there are also these little shiny green fly-looking critters zooming around down there, and then (this I noticed because I put my face right up to the flowers, so was seeing stuff I don’t always) a bunch of other zooming, and the feeling, this time anyway, was something like I know nothing. And that I know nothing was probably really more, something like I will never as long as I live get anywhere near understanding all this interaction, all this with-kin-ness, but, to say it again (and again), it feels like a really interesting thing to study––to bow down to, to be made sometimes silent (though sometimes too guffawing and hollering and bursting into song) in the gathering of.
IG: What is the “ground” in poetry? You date every essay. Perhaps the time, and the context, socio-economic or more mundane, is the (back)ground from which the poem emerges. Yet, every essay is a record of how, when you take up a subject, a new ground forms. You tend to the stuff, pick it up, and let us look differently, and it is a different ground from the one we feel we know. You arrive at something concrete with each delight, a different figure/ground that is not doomed.
During World War II Henry Michaux abandoned poetry for the plastic arts in search of concreteness––“I’m through with poetry! It’s the poor relative of the arts. Voiceless, echoless, words do nothing but allude. Artists who work with their hands are much more fortunate. The object they create has a visible, palpable body. It’s an echo, something concrete that once detached from you, gives you a reply. The poem is mute, it sends nothing back to you,” Brassai: Conversations with Picasso, The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
You practice language more like touching. Do you think in your case the poem can be so concrete as to be able to reply?
Some months ago, in a gallery in LA, I saw a group of Thornton Dial’s last paintings. I was stunned. They are mute. The surfaces are rough and the colors ashen lavenders, grays, browns and whites. Evidence of erasures of all sorts permeate the surfaces––bulldozed, sun bleached, eviscerated, scraped . . . back to the earth––more like preparing the ground or letting all return to the ground––all matters of dust.
RG: A few things: First, I understand that desire to abandon poetry, or to abandon what might feel abstract, or "unconcrete" for any number of reasons—I was just the other day walking to my office on campus and watched some masons working on a limestone wall, cutting the stone and arranging it and mortaring it in, and it was one of the hot days here, upper nineties and very humid like it gets, and one of the guys seemed a bit older––I bet in his sixties, his shirt soaked, making this beautiful wall that will be part of a bridge over a creek on campus. I was thinking how nice to make something you can see or touch or lean against. You can watch decay. And thinking it maybe a little extra, being on a college campus where, though actual things are done, a lot of, well, how to put it––a lot of not things, too. We have what I’ve heard called a very good business school where I teach, and though I am very dumb this way, I’m pretty sure the objective of that realm is to markets wherein nothing is worth money. I mean, where you can buy nothing, invest in nothing, lots of nothing, for money. The invention of that, the invention and monetization of nothing. Like I said, I know nothing, but I do know there is a thing called an NFT. And I do know a lot of us do not know what to do with a seed, or how to hammer a nail, or how to build or make anything, and that feels like a sorrow that I could imagine making a painting, putting paint on a canvas, could do something to ameliorate. At least you can touch it.
That said, I, too, wonder if the poem, or these essays, etc., might have a kind of physicality to them, if they intentionally allude to the body that made them, and the bodies that might hear them (which, too, is a kind of making). I personally like, and am moved by, that feeling—it’s not the only readerly feeling, and I’m sure as hell not being proscriptive, I hope not anyway. Reading something that feels as though it knows I am there, as though it needs me in some way, maybe that’s what I mean . . . maybe as though it needs me, or the idea of me, and the idea of me being moved or something. It needs the idea, the possibility, of me, or you, being touched. It needs touch, and it needs feeling, not affect, but feeling.
And maybe that is the ground—the possibility of feeling, or the awareness of feeling, or one’s capacity, or our capacity, to be touched. Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s that we are all dying––that’s a ground. Or changing into something else, however you look at it. Or maybe language is the ground, or maybe meaning. I sometimes lately have been thinking, sort of astonished, maybe, at how fundamentally conservative the arts, or the artists, can feel these days (that bestseller thing maybe has to do with it, or markets, student debt, the price of housing, tweeting, a million other things, etc.?), and it makes me wonder, yeah, if the ground of our work might not be what we make stuff “about,” but how we make stuff—not what it means, but how it means. I don’t know. But I do know I’m grateful to you for saying it’s not doomed. Returning to dust though it is.
Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. In addition to his poetry, Ross has released three collections of essays—The Book of Delights (2019) a New York Times best-seller; Inciting Joy (2022), and his newest collection, The Book of (More) Delights, released in September of 2023. https://www.rossgay.net/
Ross Gay photo: Natasha Komoda
Iva Gueorguieva has an upcoming solo show at Night Gallery in 2024 and is the creator of the "Intersection" a series of multi-disciplinary and multi-media installations and live performances in collaboration with dancers and musicians. Recent solo and group exhibitions include: Benton Museum of Art, Claremont, CA; UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles; LACMA, Los Angeles, CA; Bradwolff Projects, Amsterdam, NL; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA; ACME, Los Angeles, CA; Pomona Museum of Art, Claremont, CA. Select public museum collections include: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA. She lives and works in Los Angeles. www.ivagueorguieva.com