Home Book Award Award-winning poet and essayist Ross Gay celebrates the unexpected possibilities of joy

Award-winning poet and essayist Ross Gay celebrates the unexpected possibilities of joy

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Poet and author Ross Gay will appear at Brookline Booksmith on Friday and the Boston Book Festival on Saturday as part of his multi-city tour in support of his new book of essays, “Inciting Joy.”NATACHA KOMODA

Ross Gay wants to throw a party for your grief. It’s going to be a loud affair, with dancing, fabulous covers of all your favorite songs, tons of food, a backyard full of people – some you know, some you don’t – and all their sorrows too. Everyone will bring a dish, and somehow, even if your house is a mess, everyone will feel a little lighter, because of this shared carrying and caring.

In Gay’s new collection of essays, “Inciting Joy,” due out Tuesday, the writer explores the intersections between grief and loss as well as the opportunities for joy. Considered “prompts”, these essays are arguments embedded in stories that stretch like rubber bands around the themes of laughter, basketball, skateboarding, gardening, time, death, music , gratitude and dance. It is impossible to read them without feeling a shift in your awareness of joy and its unexpected possibilities.

The Poet Laureate will perform at Brookline Booksmith on Friday and as part of the Boston Book Festival on Saturday. Ahead of the release of “Inciting Joy,” Gay sat down with the Globe to discuss the transgressive and complex nature of joy and his new found love for the essay form.

Award-winning poet and essayist Ross Gay’s latest book of essays, “Inciting Joy,” arrives October 25.Provided

Q Since publishing your last book of essays, “The Book of Delights”, in 2019, how have you found pleasure, especially during the pandemic?

A. I gardened, followed people, wrote, tried to take care of my relationships. Talking to my mom on Zoom. [Laughs] My dear mother, she didn’t know how to make him look at her face instead of her forehead.

Q In “Inciting Joy”, you consider joy rather than pleasure. How would you describe the relationship between pleasure and joy?

A. Things like time are a component of pleasure: you have time to walk, to smell the flowers, to have a conversation. If you’re working 60 hours a week in miserable conditions, which so many people are, there’s not much time for those other things that give our lives meaning. Joy is a more serious emotion that is actually born out of our sorrows, born out of our sorrows. When we come together in our sorrows, or help each other carry our sorrows, that is where joy emerges. Joy does not exist without pain. He does not exist without sorrow.

Q The essays in this collection are full of stories. They are also directives. (“Share your bucket!”, which is about skateboarding, is the fifth prompt; losing your phone is the seventh.) What made you decide to organize the book by prompts? It’s almost as if joy is transgressive or illegal.

A. [Laughs] Exactly. I think of one of my skate heroes, Mark Gonzales, running from the law while skating in front of a bank or something. When I say we incite, I wonder about the way we care for each other, the way we love each other remarkably, and how those ways are a profound rejection of this manufactured belief that we would fail to take care of each other if it weren’t for [institutions] who brutalize us.

Q You are not present on social networks, and I heard that you are rather low-tech. What is the connection between denial and the pursuit of joy?

A. The book of refusal could be another title for this book. Fifteen years ago when [phones] there was [social] codes. You haven’t really talked on the phone out loud and in public. Now, all of these things make us less caring about those we love. And if we’re not open to what’s in front of our eyes, if we’re not aware of who’s there, that’s a real recipe for disappointment.

Q How does your version of joy differ from, say, Marie Kondo’s version that only keeps objects that “spark joy”? Can an object bring you joy?

A. I have this papaya sitting in front of me that I’m going to eat, from a tree my partner and I grew. It is sometimes called the Indiana banana; it tastes like a mixture of banana and pineapple. Just talking to you about it, I feel a lot of joy! And I have other things, like my father’s slippers, and scarves from people who are no longer there, and I’m glad I have them. They make me feel connected, and I’m happy to have them.

Q One of the many pleasures of this collection are the long, long footnotes. Why did you decide to include them?

A. I’m so glad you asked! They are a formal element for me, and they appeared in the writing process. It’s a way to digress like you would in a conversation, and a really interesting way to slip mini-essays into these low-key meditations. I’ve always loved the footnotes to “The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. It’s like the writer comes out from behind the story and tells you things you need to know to understand the book.

Q You are well known for your poetry. What do you think essays communicate that poetry cannot or cannot?

A. There’s something about a relationship with an audience, so with essays you’re in conversation with people you might not otherwise be because of writing poetry. I’m really interested in the essay form because there’s not really a way to do it, so it’s more open-ended than poetry. Trying really just means an attempt, or an effort; it could really be anything. And, in my writing, I like to do what I can’t do.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rachel Becker is a poet, writer and teacher of English and creative writing at Newton South High School. She can be reached at [email protected].