OPINION: Visiting writer invoked joy, intimacy

Poet Ross Gay was able to connect digitally, maintain emotional atmosphere



Ross Gay was able to capture the emotional intimacy of his poetry even in a Zoom room.


On Oct. 15, the WSU Visiting Writers’ Series invited poet Ross Gay to stream a live reading of his work, including an excerpt from his new 100+ page poem, “Be Holding” and several selections from his essay collection, “The Book of Delights.”

I, like a lot of attendees, was a bit leery of how a virtual workshop through YouTube Live could create a space of intimacy through a one-way screen.

Joke’s on me. As a matter of fact, the atmosphere was so comfortable and Ross’s demeanor so casual I didn’t even notice when the reading began. One minute Ross was making pleasant conversation about the letterpress we could see in his room. Next, he was making pleasant conversation about basketball legend Dr. J, and for some reason, he had a book open.

This visit from Ross Gay, along with the lessons on intimacy in the face of distance and gratitude in the face of the mundane, could not have come at a more relevant moment. Everyone in the country right now doing their best to keep the social distance is struggling to ground themselves in the domestic and, well, live with themselves.

In Ross’s selection from “Be Holding,” he describes the singularity of actions performed while suspended in midair, and in apt suspension takes the instance of a basketball play to examine it from every hypothetical angle.

It hit me hard as a metaphor for the reality of the pandemic, especially just pre-election: a suspended reality, where no outcome can possibly be known. However, Ross’s writing doesn’t invoke feelings of uncertainty or fear. Instead, it invokes a sort of homegrown humanism, and the practical wisdom of introspection.

DJ Lee, English regents professor and co-director of the Visiting Writers Series, said “The Book of Delights” was a good example of this.

“Human beings have this negativity bias,” Lee said. “We’re always amplifying the negative and downplaying the positive. We’re wired to do that for some reason.”

Yet “The Book of Delights” is a book in which Ross wrote one essay for every day of the year detailing something ordinary in which he found delight — receiving high fives from strangers, for instance, or taking a tiny tomato plant onto a plane. It reads almost like a very friendly almanac, with the same underlying flavor of naturalism.

“It’s such a revolutionary thing,” Lee said, “because we also notice the beautiful and the joyous, too. But to amplify that as a practice … it’s not like [Ross] strays away from difficult topics or topics that are darker. But he always ends up finding that kernel of sunshine in the middle.”

In the essays Ross shared, the “kernel” is important. Often the essays center around moments of self-conflict or encounters with others that begin with conflict or some form of discomfort or uncertainty. They resolve into an appreciation of the moment that twists the perspective.

“He said something about the struggles would give rise to the joy — that ultimately those struggles are important because they give rise to those moments of joy and give them more power,” Lee said. “I think that’s a statement that’s particularly true in this era of Black Lives Matter and for an ethnicity that has suffered so much. But it’s also universal, it’s part of the human experience, and it resonates on those different levels.”

This was one of the things that made the event so engaging. The live chat stayed active, asking questions and making comments on everything because of how real and accessible the essay topics were. Ross wasn’t afraid at all to show how moments of beauty often sprout among weeds — anxiety, discrimination or anger.

Cameron McGill, English professor and co-director of the Visiting Writers Series, elaborated on this unique duality.

“I think his work has the two different sides of the same coin,” McGill said. “There is joy but there is also sorrow, and necessarily they are both there … The text, I think, is asking us to consider them both in light of each other. You know, it’s like the world is extremely complex and wonderful and terrified. It can never be desimplified to one take on an experience.”

McGill said a transference of joy occurred when Ross spoke about his life, and that he too felt a remarkable personal connection to the text. The reading obviously resonated with him as much as it did with Lee and me.

“His joy is infectious,” he said. “He’s just a beautiful human being.”

English professor Lauren Westerfield said Ross’s reading not only created a sense of intimacy during the event but during the time he visited her creative writing class.

“I had … a lot of my creative writing students attending, and afterwards I had so many fanboy and fangirl and fanperson emails from them,” she said. “I got to see him be an incredibly generous Q&A responder with my students. I found him so generous, and I think that means a lot to students and teachers alike.”

Generous, from my own experience at the event, may be the keyword to understanding why Ross’s poetry and prose were able to craft a sense of personal presence in a workshop happening on a laptop. I’m willing to bet after so many months of COVID-19 precautions, this ain’t anyone’s first rodeo translating human interaction to video.

It can be an arduous process of giving and taking, knowing when and how to speak. One of the best ways I can describe Ross’s reading was that he gave to us from himself without question or impatience.

“I think it was very intimate, and I think that intimacy is something we’re all craving in our socially distanced lives,” Westerfield said. “Especially right now — trying to connect, trying to engage in activism, trying to … stay positive about anything. We need the Ross Gays of the world, and we need them in our ears and in our YouTube channels as much as possible.”