Thursday, September 17, 2015

one of my favorite poets gets long-listed, and crying during poetry readings

The week-long announcements of the National Book Award long lists was created for book nerds like me. (And yes, I realize 90 percent of my readers just stopped paying attention with that opening sentence.) Each morning, I've eagerly scrolled my feedly feed for a blog entry to show me a new list of stand outs. Monday was young adult literature, which I don’t really follow. But Tuesday was poetry, which promised some new-to-me writers to check out. And at the very top of the list beamed one of my favorite (if one of the only ones I read) poetry books this year. I might have fist pumped while yelling the author’s name. I was at home when this happened, just so you know.

You see, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you, to tell everyone really, about this writer. Meet Ross Gay. I first encountered his writing through an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy. It was waiting unassumedly in a magazine I’d subscribed to, and in an evening of disciplined reading I opened the magazine and didn’t expect much. Then, I started reading and was startled and also drawn in by his tone, which seemed to communicate an incredible amount of grace — for the police who profile him as a criminal for the color of his skin, for his country that has allowed this behavior to remain the norm, for himself and the wild range of emotions he felt in response. And then the ending. The ending is what got me because he starts talking about his early attempts at bee farming, which at first seems an odd way to reflect on the intense personal experiences he shares. But then you catch onto the emotions he’s describing in his encounter with these bees is so closely reflective of how he responds to the world around him. I can’t do it justice, you just have to read him.

The emotional power and fresh use of imagery in including that scene should have told me this guy was a poet at heart. And he is. But I didn’t really get into his poetry until just a few months ago. The writer’s name had tucked itself into the back of my mind because I kept that wonderful essay as an example of the kind of writing I’d like to emulate. Then, at a writer’s conference, his name jumped out to me when I skimmed the program for seminars to attend. He was doing a reading from his new book. I earmarked the page and put it on my schedule.

The reading included five poets. The first read her over-serious poetry in an over-serious tone that nearly lulled me to sleep. But Ross sat at the end of the table, his long legs splayed before him, his grown out hair tucked into two small buns like martian, his impossibly wide grin spreading the length of his deep jaw. His graciousness was written all over him. I listened as the other four poets read. And then Ross stood up and the energy of the room changed. He smiled and bounced slightly. He set his timer for his 15 minute time slot, and explained he would read one poem from his book, the title poem: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. And off he went.

This wasn’t a reading, it was a performance, a full embodiment of the feeling he meant to convey, which was a joyful thanksgiving for things that most consider quite simple, but in which he recognizes a deeper gift. It was for the words he spoke, and also how intimately and fully he felt them, that I started to cry right there in the brightly lit convention center room. I was a bit embarrassed at first. I feel deeply, but usually not publicly. Maybe it was the lack of sleep and overconsumption of sugar, I reasoned. But then I realized that this is what poetry is: an invitation to live fully and be thankful for all you receive.

I wish you could have been there with me, but second best is watching a different reading of the same poem for yourself. Go here. Minute 23 is the good stuff. (Well, it's all good stuff, but you know what I mean.)

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