Rigorous Play and Necessary Joy

An Interview with Poet and Teacher Ross Gay

Ross Gay is the author of three 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. His collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released by Algonquin Books in 2019. 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. Ross teaches at Indiana University.  

Matthew Burgess spoke with Ross Gay over the phone on two occasions in September 2019.

Matthew: I read in an interview that you have stepped away from the workshop model and shifted towards the writing classroom as a lab or ‘experiment zone.’

Ross: Yes, absolutely. At some point it occurred to me that I usually didn’t come out of the workshop feeling inspired. I might read some amazing poems, but I’m usually not coming out of there  ‘with my heart made bigger.’ And that’s because the spirit of the class is in a kind of corrective mode and it shrinks everyone’s imagination. I’ve seen it a million times. I see people coming into class and they’re just bringing stuff that’s safe. Writing that is not out of control, not beyond their imagination. So, at some point, it became really clear. I was like, “I’m done, I’m never doing that again.”

Matthew: What does the alternative look like? What have you experimented with that’s worked well?

Ross: This idea of the lab is the kind of thing I’m trying to imagine or join other people in imagining. And the question is, how can we make this space as generative as it needs to be? ‘Non-evaluative’ is not quite the word, but I’m looking for a different relationship to evaluation. ‘I wish you would just do this, I wish you would just do that’—let’s leave that behind.

I want to create a non-coercive space, a space that isn’t trying to wrangle us into doing things that we think ought to be done. A class that doesn’t concern itself with grades. The idea is that if we’re here, let’s all be here in the effort to make beautiful things in collaboration. So in that way it’s kind of lab-y: we’re collaboratively and collectively making the space. I’m not dominating the space; I’m not dictating exactly what it’s supposed to be.

Matthew: I’m curious about what actually happens in the classroom that fosters these ideals? What does this kind of space look like in practice?

Ross: In a graduate workshop, for example, we’ll do some readings together, then we’ll all do the same prompts to the extent that they are useful to us. We might all write together—a lot of these are collaborative exercises—and then we’ll go around the room and every single person will share and we will just listen. We’ll make observations—not “I wish you would just do this,” but maybe ‘that thing you did reminded me of this thing’ or ‘that thing you did made me start weeping’ or ‘that thing you did makes me want to go to the orchard.’ We are making the classroom a place of actual observation and enjoyment as opposed to a place of evaluation and judgment.

So the whole class is about sharing and listening. And we bring food. My classroom space is right next to the vegan bakery, so we can stop in and get coffee and get a little vegan doughnut. It’s heavenly.

We have to figure out different ways to use our imagination and to honor it and not to be simply about a kind of product.

Matthew: It sounds like the classroom as ‘lab’ involves exercises in writing and listening, reading around and reading aloud.

Ross: Also, activities. We will do quick writing, in-class writing. We will do drawings. We might spend a half hour just making quick drawings of flowers. I think it’s important—for me, for other people, maybe for graduate students especially—to get us all out of this need to be masterful.

I do this really fun little exercise where I have everyone draw animals with our non-dominant hand and they have to be thirty-second sketches. It’s like, draw an elephant, you have thirty seconds; and then draw a platypus. People call out animals and you draw a ton of them and then you give your drawing to the person to the right and they make captions for all of the animals. You make a little collaborative picture book and it’s so fun and so silly and they are incredibly beautiful. Across the board, they are incredibly beautiful. But also—no one can really draw that well. So we get to be bad at shit right off the bat and that’s so good.

Matthew: I’ve heard you talk about the ‘mistake’ as a generator of potential beauty.

Ross: Exactly.

Matthew: I also invite my students to draw—all ages from college to second graders. It can lower inhibitions and generate a spirit of play and possibility. It can take older students back to what it was like to just be a kid and doodle. But as a teacher and as someone who is interested in the art of teaching, I often feel challenged to articulate what we are doing in more formal terms, why these exercises are pedagogically important and useful. Some people look at this and they have a hard time taking it seriously. It just looks like play time to them. Do you ever find that you need to explain why you are drawing in class with graduate students?

Ross: At this point I mostly do not.  Although some students, especially if they’re interested in pedagogy, might ask: what do you think about that or why? I don’t feel like I have to defend myself anymore, although I’m constantly defending myself in my head. Because I always feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Matthew: Right, or having too much fun.

Ross: Yes. And to me play is rigorous. That’s the idea. There are so many things in the class that from the outside would look like they have nothing to do with creative writing, but to me what we’re studying is collaboration and the imagination. That’s the bottom line and I’m more and more adamant about this. The ice is melting everywhere and I’m supposed to employ the method of teaching that is part of the same system that has gotten us here? I can’t do it anymore. We have to figure out different ways to be together. We have to figure out different ways to use our imagination and to honor it and not to be simply about a kind of product.

Matthew: I agree completely. Though I sometimes feel compelled to make the argument in a way that will get more poets in the schools or convince educators to take imaginative writing more seriously—as something that should be central to our development as writers and human beings.

Ross: Yes, absolutely.

Ross Gay

Matthew: I’ve also been thinking about this labor of ‘studying joy’ that you discuss in The Book of Delights. Do you have to explain this to students—to frame joy as something that fuels the hard work of making the world more habitable for people, plants, and animals rather than something that is distracting us from that work?

Ross: I think the grad students who want to work with me at this point are mostly with me. I don’t think I have to do a lot of explaining or convincing that joy is rigorous and necessary and is part of the work.

Currently I’m teaching an introductory creative writing class: a very large student lecture and I have 7 TA’s and it’s going to be wonderful because we have so many students where we can really do this work in a different way. A lot of these people are probably aspiring business majors, but a few might be artists or poets. And I feel like part of this class is to demonstrate to them or to get them to inhabit the ways that rigorous care and rigorous attention and belief and wonder and attending to wonder are not only legitimate, but really fun and really life-giving.

I’m excited to teach this class because I’ve always taught it in a way that I have kind of hated. I would just give them little exercises and then punish students when they didn’t follow the rules exactly as a way of getting them a grade. And this time I’m like, that’s not what we’re doing. I told them the first day of class, let’s consider this a laboratory of care and wonder; that’s what we’re going to consider this.

Matthew: It’s not that we’re holding hands and drawing animals while the ice is melting, but that our orientation towards the world when we’re attuned to it, when we can see it and when we appreciate its beauty—makes us more inclined to do the kinds of collective work that might pull as back from the brink. It’s not just about playing while the world is burning.

Ross: Exactly. Our ability to attend to what we love, to name what we love, to honor what we love is also our ability to preserve what we love. There are many things that probably do that, but one of the things that we know does it, as well as anything, is poetry. Poetry is the intense and devoted study of everything—of plants, of each other—in a way that is not utilitarian, but is actually about the heart. It is among the things that I think gives us our best chance. That close looking, that wonder, that devotion, that care, and that love. Studying love is also one of our chances.

To look at something closely and with wonder and then you know, oh my god, this is another thing to love. Just like this classmate is another. We are to love each other.

Matthew: I think so many people feel bombarded by the bad news and it can drain our energy. And if we’re depleted, we can’t do the quality of work that’s going to be restorative and reparative.

Ross: That’s why I think it’s so important that we have community that can help us when we are depleted, because it makes every bit of sense to be depleted. So, when I’m feeling broken and can’t quite do it, for you to be able to help me out and vice versa. And that too is really what I’m wondering about in these classes—imagination, wonder, love, and that capacity, that honest study of how do we be here with and for each other. For the most part, the traditional workshop is not about that. It’s about something else.

Matthew: It’s often about competition rather than cooperation. Or seeking the affirmation of the teacher instead of being able to really hear and see each other. It seems like so much of what this comes down to is community building—the various kinds of community building to which you’re devoted. And the classroom is one of those places.

Ross: Yes.

Matthew: In your essay “Understory” in The Book of Delights, you write: “Today I am admiring the redbud, this most subtle and radiant of trees, which, like many of the most beautiful things, requires some training to see…” Do you have any strategies or approaches or exercises that invite students to see in this way? How do we teach students to observe, to exercise those powers of observation?

Ross: One thing that I will happily do with a class is to sit down under a tree and observe the tree. We spend a lot of time doing this and to me that is the most serious work you could be doing. Some people might ask, Okay what are you doing? But it’s so obvious that this is the most important work.

I might do a simile drill, or a metaphor drill, to practice ways of imagining what the red bud might look like. The red bud is like a ‘this,’ it’s like a ‘that.’ I was listening to Marie Howe on the radio or somewhere and she was talking about description without metaphor—to really describe what you’re seeing without using metaphor. I think both practices are really powerful.

Matthew: I’ve noticed that the body figures so much in your writing and poetry. Do you think there’s a connection between our ability to be in our bodies and to be able to see and observe in these ways?

Ross: I realize that so often in my work, I’m always thinking fairly explicitly about the body. The thing about the body is that it’s always changing. When I lead exercises like drawing with your non-dominant hand, or opera exercises where we to sing, these are explicitly to help us see how our bodies are not these trained perfect things, and to help us be present in our bodies as we attempt to create beauty.

Matthew: Today we were reading your poem “Armpit” in class, and one of my students lit up. She was saying that the poem was showing her the movement of the imagination—tracking the movement of the mind making associations. How might we teach our students to be that wild or spontaneous, to follow where the poem leads and to not censor themselves along the way?

Ross: The more I teach, the more I’m reaching to other genres to demonstrate that. When we’re teaching poetry, we’re often showing people how things work, but we’re not often showing how things work in ways that almost don’t work… I’m remembering this story about a kid who was at a dance performance or something and said something along the lines of, “I didn’t like it, but it was beautiful.” This is a way of experiencing or making things that is surprising. I think that’s fascinating. And that’s why it’s really interesting when writers really study painters and really study performance artists and really study textile artists and really study theater or kind of blend these things together.

Matthew: Can you think of any strategies for giving students the permission to approach the process of writing with more openness and spontaneity?

Ross: You could make little drills that would occasion that kind of thing. You can kind of mechanically generate it, give someone the experience of, ‘Oh, I have to include a dance step in there, a third of the way through my poem, and then I have to have a reversal, and then I have to have a drawing, and then the conclusion has to be lyrics from a song that was popular when my mother was a kid.’ Maybe when you offer the chance to do it mechanically; that’s a way that someone can kind of crack open and be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Oh, I can glue a piece of felt to my poem and that can be a line of the poem?’ That kind of thing. I love imagining exercises and then I always encourage people to deviate from them. But I also like exercises that encourage all of us to break the conventions of poem making so that we can slide into this other metaphorical space of possibilities.

Matthew: In an interview about Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, you said part of what the book is trying to do is to dramatize the desire for intimacy between a writer and a reader. You said, “And I also feel grateful that anyone ever gives a shit.” It struck me that maybe that’s a feeling that we’re trying to create for our students. To see the classroom as a space where young writers get to have the experience of other people giving a shit, which brings us back to the classroom as a community. Is this orientation towards the reader something you teach? Or maybe it comes across in your selection of poems?

Ross Gay:  That’s a great question. I think there probably are poems that I regularly share that have that kind of spirit and engagement. When I’m in classes with people I’m very invested in the exchange between a writer and a reader in the performative aspect of the poem and the way that the poem is. How it sort of anticipates a dialogue with a reader.

Matthew: In Catalog you demonstrate so many different ways that a poem can behave and be wild while simultaneously reaching for the reader, bringing the reader along. There is this tremendous warmth and humanity in the poems.

Ross: Maybe that is a kind of acknowledgement of my indebtedness. This poem doesn’t happen without you. That’s a vital position. It’s really a way that the poem is saying, “I need you. I need you.”

Matthew: I wonder if that could be one effect of pivoting away from the more traditional critique in the workshop model to a “creative laboratory” where listening happens. If we’re practicing active listening, it might lead to poems that are less about performing their authority and more about reaching out or addressing readers.

Ross: When you’re asking the reader something, you’re also saying, I might be getting this wrong. Poems often perform a kind of authority or rightness, and there might be something interesting about being like, “Dear reader, I’m sorry, I go on and on.” Or, “this might not work.”

Matthew: I want to ask you about the epigraph by Audre Lorde in your book, Bringing the Shovel Down. “Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?” What do you consider ‘the real food’?

Ross: I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking at that moment—that book came out in 2011—though I was for sure trying to imagine stories or ways of being that were not the brutal sort of inherited stories that we so often hear so much of our lives. But now I would say that the nourishment of the real food is probably this thing that I’m studying now. The word that I’m lately using is joy. Joy not being ‘happiness,’ but joy being the way that we manage and create and study, how we be together and take care of one another, how we carry our sorrows together, and how we carry each other’s sorrows. How we carry each other.  And in this way remember that we are each other.

Matthew Burgess is an Associate Professor at Brooklyn College. He is the author of eight children's books, most recently The Red Tin Box (Chronicle) and Sylvester’s Letter (ELB). Matthew has edited an anthology of visual art and writing titled Dream Closet: Meditations on Childhood Space (Secretary Press), as well as a collection of essays titled Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry(T&W). More books are forthcoming, including: As Edward Imagined: A Story of Edward Gorey (Knopf, 2024), Words With Wings & Magic Things (Tundra, 2025), and Fireworks (Harper Collins, 2024). A poet-in-residence in New York City public schools since 2001, Matthew serves as a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine.

One response to “Rigorous Play and Necessary Joy”

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    Always enjoy hearing about other WITS teachers’ processes. Because we can’t often take young poets outdoors on a field trip, I often bring a basket of (nature) artifacts to the classroom, or assign “imagination homework”. Yesterday’s task: find a leaf and bring it to class. Students used leaves as a jumping off place for close attention and inquiry before writing poems. (Grade 4.) Grownups also like collecting artifacts and imagination homework! I love your mission to inspire joy: joy in process, in language and life. Nice reminder about the power of doodle-designs, the meditation of moving pencil on paper in all ways that imagination leads…without judgement. Thank you. (Karen – California Poets in the Schools)