October 14, 2016

Basking in the Presence of Ross Gay: My Tiny Window into His Whirlwind Week-in-Residence

I recently ran into Dr. Tammi Schneider, Dean of Claremont Graduate University’s School of Arts & Humanities, during a reception for this year’s Kingsley Tufts recipient. Grinning from ear to ear, she gushed in her gregarious and booming voice: “Aren’t we just so lucky? We get to bask in his glow.”

Basking in Ross Gay’s presence is what I spent a large bulk of my time doing during his weeklong residency in Claremont. Throughout his stay, his continual commitment to diverse populations matched the wide range of his various activities. This devotion to the connectivity between self and various communities was reflected by his unchanging excitement when hobnobbing with university elites and Tufts Awards associates over drinks and hors d’oeuvres at CGU’s elegant President’s house or engaging with undergraduate and graduate students during informal yet earnest discussions about poetry held in more modest campus classrooms. He brought the same unshakeable passion to his poetic performances when sharing his work with a local poetry group at Claremont’s Public Library as he exhibited during his reading at the university’s swanky new space in The REEF, a creative habitat in downtown Los Angeles. During his final day in the Inland Empire, the poet held a rough-and-tumble poetry workshop for regional students and community members in the loft of a Pomona art gallery but also attended a more formal poetry reading and art show on CGU’s campus complete with artisanal appetizers and chilled libations. And whether listening to Gay read his work, watching him interact with poetry lovers of myriad ages and interests, or simply observing his humble and welcoming demeanor at a group dinner held in his honor, I was continually impressed by the award-winning poet’s genuine warmth and his inspiring and unwavering attention to life’s treasures. When asked about his time in the Claremont area toward the end of his residency, the poet claimed that he was the one who was blessed at every turn: “I’ve met such amazing people every day.”

I would be hard pressed to pinpoint a favorite moment of the week. It might be having the opportunity to hear Ross Gay read his work aloud once again. It is always a tremendous experience and the two readings I recently attended were no exception. If on the page Gay’s verses are wistful, earthly, pulpy, and blooming, as I have suggested in a previous blog, then when presented in person by the poet himself these works burst into further life. Within his throat, his words truly live. Alternately explosive and hushed, the poet’s joyful recitations and somber ruminations will capture you. These soft and loud vacillations are perhaps most captivating when the poet reads the title poem from his latest collection. At the opening of “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” the first line, “Friends, will you bear with me today,” is delivered as a hushed and conversational welcome (Gay 82). But by the middle of this lengthy poem, Gay’s voice reaches a fever pitch and cadence as he thanks the universe for “the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer / while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend” (89). He takes his listeners on a poetic roller coaster throughout the work before ending with a solemn almost whisper: “Goodbye, I mean to say. / And thank you. Everyday” (93). Ross Gay is a man who doesn’t need a microphone and his listeners are left to wonder if their mesmerized response is a result of the poet’s larger-than-life frame, voice, and personality or if his invitation into his poetic world is just that convincing due to its heartfelt nature. One special treat was hearing some new poems, tiny vignettes describing routine and unusual wonders that Gay calls his “delights,” intriguing extensions of the thankful theme guiding his recent Catalog.

Brock Rustin
Brock Rustin introduces Ross Gay at the Claremont Public Library.

But then again, my favorite moment might have to be when the poet graced me with his big handshake and that soon-to-be patented, infectious Ross Gay smile, beaming in response to my bumbling effort to provide the poet with an adequate introduction before his community poetry reading. His encouragement was an unlooked for kindness, a mostly wordless thank you that seemed to radiated from his center and therefore spoke volumes.

Maybe my favorite part of this past week might be the moment during his poetry workshop when Ross asked participants to name something we had seen within the past 24 hours that was unquestionably beautiful. To get us started, the poet recounted a frequent winged encounter: “Hummingbirds just come to me.” Or it could be when he had us create our own puppets and perform group puppet shows before turning to the task of creating poetry. My puppet turned out to be a bird in a tie nervous about an upcoming job interview, named Clementine due to the tangerine juice smeared on for olfactory effect. Overall, Gay’s approach during the workshop was holistic, raw, and quirky – for him, creative writing instruction is an important experiment without conventional boundaries. In a move to explain the messy method behind his supposed instructional madness, the poet read briefly from playwright Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: “‘Failure loosens the mind, perfection stills the heart’…Okay, now let me get a look at your puppets.”

poetry puppet
Brock’s poetry puppet.

Perhaps my favorite portion of last week could simply be the distinct pleasure I experienced while momentarily acting as his chauffeur. Driving him back to his hotel after the poetry workshop, Gay and I discussed the undeniable power of Nina Simone’s carefully chosen covers and the startling genius of Stevie Wonder’s string of albums in the 1970s.

As the poet gently closed my car door and gave his final wave, I felt, to paraphrase Dean Schneider, just so damn lucky. I sat slumped in my car seat for a moment, thankful for the entire week of poetry events. Due to my involvement with the Tufts Awards I got to bask in Ross Gay’s glow, however briefly.