Welcome back to Lyric Essentials, where we invite writers to read the work of their favorite poets. This month, Juliana Roth joins us to discuss the work of Ross Gay, contemporary poetry, literary citizenship, and how Gay’s poetry feels like a doorway to better understanding the surrounding world and ourselves. As always, we hope you enjoy reading as much as we did.
Ryleigh Wann: When was the first time you read Ross Gay’s work? Why did it stand out to you then?
Juliana Roth: I had a funny way into Ross Gay’s work, which is just to show my ignorance of contemporary poetry. I didn’t know much about living poets until my final year of college. I was working at this small lending library at my school called the Hopwood Room where once a week the MFA students would gather at this big round table across from my desk and a visiting writer would come sit with them and talk for an hour about their process and books. There was a little nook behind my desk where I would work during the sessions and listen in. I was having a really bad day, I forget why, so I was in my nook. Then all of a sudden I started to hear someone reading a poem, and the words really caught my ear, and then the conversation that followed lifted me right out of my mood. I came out from my nook and learned the poet was Ross Gay.
RW: Why did you choose to read these poems specifically?
JR: In “Becoming the Horse,” I love how I’m taken in to approach “the beast,” whether that is a literal nonhuman animal or any part of us (or our world, which is us) that is difficult to touch, at first tiny as a grass blade, then a fly, then a total transformation occurs. I feel the piece also opens up the possibility that we might change our behavior should we know ourselves or our animals more intimately (nose to nose, heart to heart). It’s a love poem, I think. A gesture towards radical honesty, which the poem seems to suggest might set us free from fear. If we are fully honest and see with true clarity, what is left to fear?
I think this carries into “Ending the Estrangement” where that proximity to what is feared is actually knowing the pain of your mother. The gesture at the end of the poem of singing along with that pain just feels liberating. And like we’re being guided in confronting death. Also a love poem, I think.
And then “Wedding Poem,” definitely a love poem, I think it’s safe to say. For me, the poem captures that sweet embarrassment and shyness that often appears in the face of true love. I imagine that bashfulness happens at any age, and the piece celebrates how simple it is to just let love in—once you do, despite how long it takes to get there.
RW: How has Gay’s writing inspired your own?
JR: The generosity on display in his work is an important model for literary citizenship and maintaining personhood in a public profession. The acknowledgment he makes in Be Holding where he basically says all the poets that came before and all the books he reads, even friends and family, they are his work and in essence the collection belongs to them—that’s pretty significant. I think modeling that resistance to becoming capital and hyper individualism a creative market puts on you is what I hope to do as well. I also think the process he used for The Book of Delights freed me to write my newsletter because I give myself specific constraints not to overedit (there are even typos!), write without knowing in advance what my goal is for the letter, and also as I do the podcast I haven’t spent any money at all on production, so it is very handmade. I don’t think I have a radio voice or personality either—I’m just bringing on people who I admire and who are thinking about the world in interesting ways to chat and we just record our conversation.
RW: What have you been up to lately (life, work, anything!)? Got any news to share?
JR: Right now I’m in professor mode just getting us through midterms at the moment, but I did find out a few weeks ago that I was selected as an Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction, which has been a whirlwind. Last week we got to meet the outgoing fellows and I spent just a few minutes so far with my cohort, but I’m so excited for the community and space to write. I can’t wait to see what work I create while I’m there. I also have a new short film premiering in a festival at Cinema Village on October 26th if there are any local readers who love old movie theaters. As far as life outside of my career goes, I’m just spending as much time as I can with my family right now, including my sweet dog Ziggy. Oh—I started learning to skateboard with a friend this past spring so we practice as much as we can. And I’ve been very into trying different varieties of pesto—hugely exciting, but my favorite so far has been a beetroot cashew. So good!
Juliana Roth is a 2022-23 Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction and was selected as a VIDA Fellow with the Sundress Academy for the Arts. Her writing appears in The Breakwater Review, The Offing, Irish Pages, and Entropy as well as being produced as independent films that she directs. Her web series, The University, was nominated by the International Academy of Web Television for Best Drama Writing and screened at survivor justice nonprofits across the country. Currently, she teaches writing at NYU and writes the newsletter Drawing Animals (subscribe here: www.julianaroth.com/drawinganimals) featuring essays, interviews, doodles, and podcast episodes celebrating our interconnection with nonhuman animal life.
Ross Gay is an advocate for joy, love, and the pleasures of life. He 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. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller.
Inciting Joy is his most recently published collection of essays.
Ryleigh Wann earned her MFA from UNC Wilmington where she taught poetry and served as the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in The McNeese Review, Longleaf Review, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. Ryleigh currently lives in Brooklyn. Learn more or read her work at ryleighwann.com