Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books: The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue, whose recently published books include Chromosomory by Layli Long Soldier, Amigos by Matthew Dickman, Ad Hoc by Chris Mattingly, and Dolly by Kimberly Thomas and Simone White. Ross Gay received his M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his Ph.D. in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department.
FOR SOME SLIGHT I CAN’T QUITE RECALL
Was with the pudgy hands of a 13-year-old
that I took the marble of his head
just barely balanced on his reedy neck
and with the brute tutelage
of years fighting the neighbor kids
and too the lightning of my father’s
stiff palm I leaned the boy’s head
full force into the rattly pane of glass
on the school bus and did so with the eagle of justice
screaming in my ear as he always does
for the irate and stupid I made the window sing
and bend and the skinny boy too
whose eyes grew to lakes lit by mortar fire
bleating with his glasses crooked
I’m not an animal walking in place
on the green vinyl seat looking far away
and me watching him and probably almost smiling
at the song and dance I made of the weak
and skinny boy who towering above me
became even smaller and bizarre and birdlike
pinned and beating his wings frantically
against the tines of his cage and me probably
almost smiling as is the way of the stupid
and cruel watching the weak and small
and innocent not getting away.
When was the poem composed? How did it start?
I think it was composed about five years ago. It started just from a recollection of a bus ride from childhood, just remembering an incident, or some incidents. That was sort of the start.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
If I remember correctly, I hammered on this poem for about six months, trying to get the sounds right, the telling right, and the story right. I know the poem was quite a bit longer, I was sort of invested in getting that speaker out of being so stupid, so cruel. But after several drafts, that went away.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in tuning in—inspiration always makes me think of something else, the muses or something. I guess I occasionally get that kind of thing, but more often I feel like I’m tuning in, listening real good, real hard, real clearly. Like I’m actually hearing what it is that I need to explore, and how to go about it. That said, this was a poem that probably had something like ten false starts (I can see them in my memory, and the titles were so weird and bad), then a fairly messy first draft, some of which remains, some of which is long gone.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I know I was consciously trying to make the poem go quickly, feel sort of out of control, and the language I think makes that happen—a kind of accumulative language, lots of “and”s pushing the poem ahead, and an absence of punctuation, or those kinds of breaths or pauses. And the poem is one sentence, which also, sometimes, can help with that push forward.
How long after you finished this poem did it appear in print?
I think it was about two years later, maybe a little less.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
There’s no set rule on this, though I think I often like a poem to sit for a good while, to lose its luster for me—or at least to have time for that to happen. I also like to read a poem out loud to an audience, if I can, before sending it off. Also, I find, there are poems I’m not all interested in sending off to magazines—I kind of prefer them being shared with a reader in the context of the book.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem takes as its subject an interaction between two people that probably happened in 1988. But that’s not its subject at all. Its subject is violence and the ways that individual and childhood violence can be so similar to a state violence—not in scope, necessarily, but in its genesis and justification or rationale. That is a fact, I believe. The metaphor of the poem is a fact.
Is this a narrative poem?
I think so. And a lyric one.
At the center of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry ethical or just?
I don’t know the answer to that question. But I like the question. I think, if I were to really go far down the road on that one, I’d come up saying that, yes, all good poetry (in my little world) is just. Or ethical. Which does not at all mean the opposite—that all ethical and just poetry is good. Nope. But poetry that is unethical, that is unjust (I wonder what kind of poem that would be? A poem that’s careless and flippant about something I care about? A poem that asserts an attitude that feels dangerous? A poem that suggests I ought to kill my neighbor?), is, I hope, going to be poetry that is not good to me—poetry that I don’t care for. I like poems to offer me moments, brief or extended, of transformation—I like to be changed by a poem. I like to know the world, and be in the world, anew. I like to think that a poem that might move me this way would not be unjust or unethical.
Do you remember what you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I think I was reading Aracelis Girmay and Steve Scafidi at that moment—if I wrote this while I was living in a soggy basement in Pittsburgh, which I think I did. I was also reading Gerald Stern’s book Everything is Burning, I recall. Maybe his pace is in there, the “and and and.”
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don’t think I do. I have specific people who I’m in conversation with (in the poems), and some of those people are my close readers—they might be some of that. But as far as an ideal reader, I don’t exactly know what that would mean. I could imagine a really generous reader, or a really enthusiastic reader, or a reader who understands everything you’ve written as though she wrote it herself (which, in the sofa of one’s imagination, she did). But, no, I don’t think of that as ideal. I think of that as nice. I don’t know what ideal is. Though nice could be ideal just fine.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes, I have a few good friends who offer really valuable feedback on drafts when I ask them. That’s a joy.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m the best one to ask.
What is American about this poem?
It’s violent, it’s fast, it’s the story of something awful. It also glitters, and there’s a bird in it and a cage. It’s also about children, who are not yet formed—in other words, it’s not quite over.
Was this poem finished or abandoned.