Ross Gay’s eloquence as a poet is matched by his fluency as an essayist, and over the last half dozen years his focus on the human condition has resulted in a number of justly praised books, including Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, The Book of Delights and Be Holding. The newest addition to that rich bookshelf, Inciting Joy: Essays, investigates an emotion that seems too broad to define easily, but is as necessary to our well-being as water and air.
As I write this preface, I’ve just read about the most recent shooting deaths in the U.S., ongoing wars and oppressions abroad, the many people with housing, health, and food insecurity, as well as those in my life who are experiencing their own hardships. Locally and globally, we are surrounded by grief and loss. It may be difficult to access joy or gratitude, to recognize it in our lives. Yet equally, this is an era when it is our social imperative—it is necessary to our survival, you and I—to do so.
In many of these essays, Gay illustrates strengthening community as a sustainable method to access joy, and co-exist with grief. Whether it’s gardening, sports, educational pursuits, or any number of small (and large) gestures, Gay offers an incitement of examples for re-connecting with others and the self. What makes this collection especially meaningful is how he helps refocus our glance, away from screens and superficialities, toward recognizing and increasing the joy in our lives, and, in so doing, the joy in others’ as well. When you can’t feel gladness within yourself, it’s up to me to share with you my own. And when I need it, I hope you’ll do the same.
Philosophy aside, the implications for our common good aside, the essays are delightful to read, even when they explore deeply painful experiences. Gay’s vulnerable, funny and heart-shattering conversations with us—and they feel like dialogue, that “you and I”—are intimate and powerful. There is always darkness encroaching in our lives, most of which we have no control over. That’s the price of being gloriously, imperfectly, briefly human. But as Gay reminds us in this collection, the antidote to our sorrows is a muscle we can strengthen, sway and wield, a way to restore our spirits, and our communities, and perhaps, the world. Joyous.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ross, I probably shouldn’t start off an interview by quoting another writer, but in reading this compelling collection, I was thinking of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, in which he writes:
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.‘
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
This collection recognizes that inseparability, and embraces these siblings of emotion intimately, clear-eyed and expansively. Would you talk a bit about the genesis of these essays, in the context of your other work?
You know, as I try to get it clear or clear-ish how this book came to be, or came to start being, I do think it’s useful to know that I’m curious about how we will survive, for lack of a better term, the collapse, which makes it sound like one thing, one event, which it’s most certainly not. The collapse is ongoing. Differently for different people, creatures, ecosystems, at different times. Anyway, I want to know how we are going to care for one another through the collapses, and one of the ways I think about that is by thinking about, again, these practices we have for figuring out how to look out for one another. Practices by which we make sure everyone has enough. Which, quiet as it’s kept, we will mostly do if left up to our own devices. Anyway, this is often in some way what I’m wondering about, and Inciting Joy is maybe a more explicit and sustained meditation.
Oh, too! Probably it’s useful to know that partly this book comes from hearing too many people either say themselves or report to me that they’ve been told, kinda chided is the impression, that joy isn’t the worthy subject of our most rigorous study (no one has put it like that; that’s how I hear it). So this book is also an address, or a refusal, to that pervasive error of thought. To that pervasive laziness of thought.
The title, much like each essay’s primary theme, is both straightforward and has a layered depth of meaning. The more I read, the more I thought about the first word of the title; how incitement is such a revolutionary word, and certainly implies—demands—action, and an ongoing one at that. At the end of the book, you quote Toi Derricotte (who is always so brilliant): “joy is an act of resistance” coupling that with one of my favorite acts: gratitude. And yet, all of this also demands that we embrace loss; that we meet it head on, rather than burying it deeply in the ground.
Yes, that’s how it seems to me, that we need practices, or we need to notice the practices we have, that help us be present with our sorrow. I’m not saying that help us drown in our sorrow—I’m saying be present with it, acknowledge it, befriend it even, lest we do some wretched or devastating shit trying to pretend it’s not there, or trying to hide it. And to do it in a mutual way—which, again, might be in some of our practices: dancing, gardening, mourning—but it might also be how we live, how we attend to one another, with the awareness that, yup, like me, your heart is broken. Probably not in exactly the same way, but probably, no, definitely, it’s broken. And it will go on being broken in various ways. It does not make us special, it seems to me. It makes us like each other. It un-others us from each other in fact. What happens if we live like that? My sense is that we’re more inclined to care for one another, we’re more inclined to love one another, which, yes, might be a kind of resistance to institutions who have little care for us, but it might also end up being a kind of offense to them. When we care for each other, and consequently are less reliant on the institutions or systems that, a lot of them anyway, do not care for us, we make those systems less necessary. We might be replacing those systems with something like love.
I felt a strong sense of mental marginalia, a conversation with these essays, which is part of the intimacy of the collection. Structurally, I’d love to talk about your use of footnotes which often serve as your own engagement with these themes, some of which radiate all over the page. Did you always see these as footnotes? And might you talk about this “democratization” of structure? There’s something playful and pointed about footnotes—those smaller text, understated, often lesser asides—overcoming the “proper” text.
First of all, when I first read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, with all those brilliant footnotes, I was completely hooked. I knew one day I’d be writing weird footnotes that might do like Diaz’s, where the author peeks out from the novel to add a thing here and there, to point this and that out, or to deepen the conversation. Or maybe I really mean extending the conversation. Or I really really mean making an essay as close to a conversation as possible. You know, there’s a thing called an essay, or a thing called a book, and we sometimes forget that there is a person behind it who is struggling not to be like “Wait, I gotta tell you this too! Wait, there’s more! I think you’ll want to know this!”
Which is to say, I am interested in formal devices by which we might reach across the table to whom we’re speaking, across or out of the page I guess, to kind of shove my reader in the forearm or pat them on the hand and say, our conversation reminds me there’s also this other thing. And that other thing sometimes is the thing.
You quote many memorable writers, athletes, and the greats in your own life; one of them is Gwendolyn Brooks, and I thought of her too in reading this book, especially the end of her poem “Paul Robeson”:
“Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”
Community—whether it’s the commitment to a community garden, or that pick-up game at a local basketball court—is woven throughout this collection, and your life. Certainly, the power of volunteerism—of mutual aid—is critical for the communities in which we live, as well as providing joy and healing in our lives. As much as the internet opens the world to us, you seem to fall firmly into the camp that considers it is a lesser form of connection (or at least a kind of junk food that provides little nutrition).
To talk about the socials, as I hear people call it, you know, I’m happy for people to do whatever they want to do. I suspect, though—I think I don’t suspect, I think I know—it’s a pretty predatory form, a form that preys on our frailest qualities, among which is the desire to be liked or approved of. Thumbsupped etc. What people are saying about us, etc. I dig it one hundred percent as how business is done now, how people pay bills and such, and I feel lucky to have dodged that bullet, and probably I have in part because there are other people doing it on my behalf. (There is, someone pointed out to me, a fake twitter account in my name, or with my name, however it works, and they showed it to me and it’s so stupid and sappy. It’s the corniest thing you ever saw, I love it. I kind of want to get on Twitter just so I can take over the fake Twitter account in my name. Make it even stupider.)
Anyway, well, I use the internet every day. I email and watch Ja Morant highlights. Also, I am sitting on an alienation device right now, trying hard to connect with you and your readers (So much contradiction! It’s called being a person!). Though I am fairly convinced that, although it has its uses, it’s never going to be as important, I mean meaningful maybe, as a conversation with the human being next to me in line at the market, or the crows eating the roadkill, or the seeds you could put into the ground which, if the rain and light and wind and critters and all the gratitude that constitutes the soil permit, might make something you can eat. That is, there’s phony-ass life, and there’s life. I prefer the latter.
The essay on education and teaching is also a necessary incitement. I love that as a professor and mentor, you have an open pedagogy and expansive perspective of what constitutes learning, and what will serve young people well as they navigate their world. On a much broader level, you’re also suggesting that the larger issues we’re facing as a society and civilization will require the ability to collaborate across different perspectives. I especially love your exhortation to stay curious. What are you still interested in learning that you don’t have to be good at?
I don’t know if I even care that much about being good. Or at least I don’t want to. For instance, I am almost always more interested in drawings by people that are not “good.” I often am more interested in people’s writing, including my own, before it has become “good.” (I’m way more interested in weird or what-the-hell-is-that than good.) I want to see choreography by people who don’t have the slightest idea, and singing groups made of people who can’t sing for shit. Speaking of shit, I’d be full of it if I pretended I don’t have a part of me who wishes to be liked and thought well of and admired, but believe me, that is the very least interesting part of myself. I mean, the frail little baby in there who wants those things is interesting, and to be loved and wondered about, but not coddled, not fed, sorry baby. And I would prefer that baby not drive the bus. Babies, cute as they are, ought not drive the bus.
“Oh, My Heart.” I’m so thankful you write about gratitude, kindness and joy, and consider it as serious a contemplation as any other topic covered by poets or essayists, though there’s sometimes a sense that in these times, in these days, we should predominantly be thinking, debating, expressing our (justifiable) anger about the many oppressions that bombard the human race unremittingly. Alongside that—which is clearly important—I think you’re positing embracing joy as a way toward solidarity, more than grief, as a practice of survival.
To be more accurate, I’m embracing joy as the result of grief, but more specifically, as the result of grief carried together. And if we can be cognizant that all of us are grieving, then it makes sense that there might be a lot of joy, particularly if we figure out how to be with and care for each other’s sorrow. Again, Zadie Smith’s short essay “Joy” is so important to this book, and in that essay she uses the phrase “the intolerable.” Without which joy does not exist. I tend to agree with her, and among the intolerables that we all get to endure is that we and everything we love will die. That is something we all have in common, lest we forget. I don’t know, but again it strikes me as the potential for a lot of joy. Like, joy is everywhere in wait.
The footnote about sports, and the institutionalization of “never being good enough,” and subsuming the self in the service of others’ expectations of us, is a devastating indictment of our times and how we buy into a kind of brainwashing that has overrun our society, beyond athletics. Considering form and content, in a meta sense, this digressive footnote almost overtakes the primary thread, and is literally and figuratively the 90% of the iceberg that’s below the surface. I know that this metaphor is because you are that good, but were you thinking about it this way when you organized this particular essay? Going back to the importance of community, are there kinds of communities that aren’t so good? That minimize joy?
I definitely was not thinking of icebergs, although I love the way you described that. And I love the way some of these footnotes in this book take over the essay itself—I mean, I love it. And I love it in part because, kind of like you’re saying, the aside is becoming the thing, as so often is the case. These footnotes are a formal way for that to happen. I’m not real sure how to answer the second part of this question except to say that communities built on hate or fear seem to be not always so good. And those communities are prolific! (I cannot point enough to Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.) But they aren’t the most prolific.
Ross, I think you should write a book of digressions. Related to that: what didn’t make it in the collection? I could have happily read more, or perhaps, I just wanted to have an unending conversation with it and you beyond what is on the page, and the limitations of a 245-page book. Since the completion of the book, is there anything you wished you’d added?
Nothing I wish I’d added, but I have the beginnings of essays on singing, foraging, labor, etc. The labor one starts off when I got a delivery of good clean goat shit from a local goat farm, and as we were unloading the shit—standing in it with pitchforks; his very little kid helping with a tiny shovel—we got to talking, like really talking, and I thought, oh, there are certain kinds of labor I would be curious to think about this way. There’s so many of them really. There’s kind of no end to the ways we tend to one another, the ways we can, and do, be close to one another. But we have to figure out how to recognize it, seems to me. And collaboratively!
Inciting Joy: Essays
By Ross Gay
Published October 25, 2022
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.