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Poet Ross Gay on his new book and finding joy in sorrow

<i>Natasha Komoda/Algonquin Books</i><br/>Poet Ross Gay explores these questions -- What incites joy? And what does joy incite? -- in his new book
Natasha Komoda/Algonquin Books
Poet Ross Gay explores these questions -- What incites joy? And what does joy incite? -- in his new book

Leah Asmelash, CNN

In the last two years, it seems like everyone has been searching for joy.

From the success of shows like Apple TV+’s uber-positive “Ted Lasso” to dance albums like Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” to books like Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders” — the call to look beyond sorrow is ubiquitous.

Poet Ross Gay explores these questions — What incites joy? And what does joy incite? — in his new book, “Inciting Joy,” an essay collection released Tuesday.

Written over the course of the pandemic, Gay ponders joy, defining it less as the absence of sorrow and rather as our response to it. Joy, he argues, has everything to do with our suffering and our sorrow; in fact, it emerges from it.

Just look at the way the gardeners share their extra vegetables, Gay notes. Or the way, in the absence of skate parks, skateboarders impart the best places in the city to shred. Or in pick-up basketball — the way the game nurtures care; if there’s a fight, you work it out.

And these are just a few of endless examples, Gay tells CNN. These methods of holding each other, of caring for each other, of inciting joy, are everywhere.

“We can talk about a garden, we can talk about skateboarding, we can talk about the dance floor,” he says. “And by looking at how they function, not always but sometimes, we can be like, ‘Oh, that’s a practice that sort of facilitates this thing called joy.’ Built into this game are all of these things that are actually about, not only about, but are ways that we are helping one another carry our sorrows.”

CNN spoke with Gay prior to his new book’s release. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is your third book on gratitude and joyfulness. How was your thinking about this project different from the past?

It’s funny because I don’t know that I would’ve said at the time that I was writing about gratitude or joy or anything like that with “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” And I don’t even know that I was. But I would say that the subject of that book and “The Book of Delights” clearly is joy among the subjects, but I don’t know that I was thinking of them as efforts toward this same thing.

The question is more explicitly stated in this book (“Inciting Joy”). The question being: What incites joy? Or, what are the structures and the practices by which joy is made more available to us? And then, when it becomes more available to us, what might that incite? And so in a way I’m just looking very closely at skateboarding, and I’m looking very closely at pick-up basketball, and I’m looking very closely at teaching, with a little more depth than I was maybe able to in the previous books. But also maybe with a more pointed question.

Something that struck me about this book in relation to your other work was the overt anti-capitalist theme. Was there anything specific that made you want to write about this now?

Ultimately, it’s a book about noticing what you love, articulating what you love, and sharing what you love. And in a certain kind of way this book wonders how do we do that. How do we do that structurally; how do we do that in our practices?

Partly, just as I’m growing up as a person, becoming more and more aware of the ways that there are systems designed, institutions designed, structures designed, to basically enforce destitution, all kinds of destitution. Maybe an overlapping term for that, sort of imprecise, might be something like capitalism. There’s probably other good terms too. It just made me want to be explicitly questioning of that, and pointing to alternatives — how lucky we are that we don’t have to invent alternatives, we can just go to the pick-up basketball court and study. Or we can watch what the skateboarders are doing. Or we can talk to the gardeners.

One of the things this book is doing is being curious about how we care for one another and carry each other’s sorrows, which is one of the definitions that I offer for joy, the light that emanates from us when we help each other carry our sorrows.

This idea of carrying each other’s sorrows is something I started to think more of in Covid-19. What role, if any, did these last few so-called unprecedented years play in your conception of joy and the way you were thinking about this?

I’ve just been more acutely attuned to the ways that we tend to one another, way more blown away with how beautiful and loving we are. Because the book was written at that time, and in a certain kind of way that’s what the book is emerging from, it’s being written out of a kind of ruins. I think of a work by Anna Tsing, called “The Mushroom at the End of the World,” and so when I talk about the ruin I’m referencing her book.

She gives an idea of talking about the ruin at the end of late stage capitalism and that we’re in a kind of ruins right now, and the ruin looks like different things to different people. But I think that book is trying to wonder about, in addition to how do we carry each other’s sorrows, how do we tend to one another and how do we live amidst or through this ruins?

This is your second book of prose, but it’s your first of full-length essays (“Book of Delights” featured mini essays). What do you think has spurred that stylistic shift in your work?

I’m interested in trying to write things that I don’t know how to write, and for the most part if I’m writing about things I know how to write, I’m not that interested. Because I’m trying to figure out what I think in my writing. So usually having different forms can sometimes facilitate other kinds of thinking, surprising kinds of thinking.

There’s an exercise I’ll do with my students. We’ll all grab a big piece of paper, like 20 by 11 inches, and you’ve got to write and fill up the page. And you have like a half hour. And then you have another piece of paper that’s like a notepad from a hotel or something, and you’ve got to fill that up in half an hour. We think differently, in terms of space, when we have that. There was not a space constraint. It wasn’t like, it’s going to be in couplets. It was like “Go ahead, check it out. See what happens.”

Your father and his death is a huge part of this book, but obviously finding incitements of joy in grief is not an easy thing. How were you able to come to that?

That’s a beautiful question, because I was in the midst of caring for my father, and I was sort of falling apart. And as I write about in the book, I was incapable, or terrified of encountering my own grief, terrified of encountering my mother’s grief, just all that. And it was upon reflection, upon thinking about that time and thinking about me and my parents’ relationship, thinking about the kinds of closeness that on account of the profound sorrow that we were in the midst of, were able to happen.

I would not have been cooking for my dad, I would not have been sitting around with him watching stupid TV, I wouldn’t have been able to watch his body actually change in these ways which were devastating, but they were also part of the process of he and I taking care of our relationship and getting very close. Very close.

Joy does not exist without sorrow. No one gets out of sorrow. No one gets out of heartbreak. Periodically people will say things, and this is part of the impetus for the book. Over the years people will be like “Joy is not a serious emotion, joy is not worthy of our serious consideration like suffering is.” And we ought to consider suffering.

But the fact of the matter is, if you got parents, they’re gonna die. Probably they hope that they die before you. And probably it will devastate you. But if you’re as lucky as I am, maybe you’ll get to take care of your parents in dying in a way that felt okay. Devastating, and ultimately really joyful.

Throughout the book you argue not just that there is always room for love, care community, etc — but also that misery breeds misery. What would you say to those who might argue, say, that’s the way of the world, you just have to suck it up and deal?

I want to say something to those people, because I can be those people. Partly what I want to say is you’re studying the wrong sh*t, because in our face all the time is evidence to the contrary, in our face all the time is evidence that people are actually sharing with each other, people are taking each other in. They’re sharing food — you got a garden, you share your extra, you know? There is one lunatic who does not share the zucchini, that’s the one lunatic. (Laughs) That’s the exception.

I think there’s a powerful incentive, frankly a kind of financial incentive, to make us believe that mostly it is horrible. Because if we didn’t believe that, like what happens if we think “Oh yeah mostly people are cool, mostly people want to look out for one another, mostly people want to share if they have extra.” Things start to crumble, certain things start to crumble. If I have tools and you need to borrow my tools, we’re going to buy less tools. If I have a car and you can borrow my car, if I have a room, and on and on and on. In a very practical way, the notion that we all are made happier by being isolated from one another and not sharing our lives, it’s a kind of nightmare American fantasy that I think is really perpetuated. And I feel like the alternative is in front of us all the time. And in fact it’s probably how we survive; it’s mostly how we survive.

But you can also be that person?

Oh yeah, I can get tricked. I get tricked.

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