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IU poet Ross Gay shares his 'waves of inspiration'

Poet Ross Gay joined the Creative Writing faculty at Indiana University's College of Arts and Sciences in 2007. He is the author of the poetry collection Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006), and his poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Harvard Review, Columbia: A Journal of Poetry and Art, and Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, among other publications. In addition to his IU appointment, Gay also teaches in the low-residency program at New England College.

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Gay grew up outside of Philadelphia. He is a Cave Canem fellow and has been a Bread Loaf Tuition Scholar. In addition to holding a doctorate in American Literature from Temple University, he is a basketball coach, an occasional demolition man and a painter.

Ross Gay

Ross Gay

LIVE AT IU: Why did you choose Indiana University?

ROSS GAY: I chose Indiana back in the fall of 2006, when I saw that they had a job for a poet posted. I knew about the program, knew graduates of the program, knew the work of the faculty, and had also seen an Indiana basketball game or two in my life, so figured I'd give it a whirl.

LIU: What has been your experience being on faculty here?

RG: It's a wonderful place to teach. My colleagues are great, interesting people -- in both creative writing and literature. And my colleagues in other departments, whom I've had the pleasure of meeting, are also great. The students, also, are wonderful: The graduate students are amazing, and the undergrads are really a joy. I feel like I'm able to have very sophisticated conversations about writing and literature most days, which is to say I have a pretty good job.

LIU: When did you know you wanted to be a poet? Did you ever waver from that goal -- and can you ever picture yourself doing anything else?

RG: I knew I was going to go off to school to study poetry when I was 21 or so because I liked writing poems, though I'm not sure that I knew I would be a poet. Seemed just as likely at the time that I might go off to be a high school teacher or construction worker. I can picture myself doing other things because I do and always have and always intend to do other things. I can't really imagine writing poems all day. Or reading them all day, for that matter. You know, I like to play basketball. And I like to swing kettlebells. And I like to garden and hike and ride my bike with not a lot of purpose.

LIU: Describe your writing process. Any specific rituals or places on campus you like to write?

RG: These days I wake up early, at 5:30 or so, and put on coffee and sit down and read poems by someone else. Sometimes I get around to writing a few lines of my own, maybe a whole draft of a poem. Sometimes I do some work revising poems. But if I'm sitting down working for, say, four hours or so -- intermingled with eating my oatmeal and looking at the cardinals and blue jays that have started bouncing around in my yard, and thinking about fruit trees -- maybe an hour of that will be dedicated to actually writing.

LIU: What inspires you to write? Do you carry around pen and paper at all times in case inspiration strikes?

RG: I feel like many things inspire me. But I feel like reading most helps me put words on paper. It kind of loosens up that muscle, lets stuff start to come out. Gives me ideas about ways into a poem. I usually have a pen and paper. And, as far as inspiration goes, mostly it's just work, and not the most inspirational business, unsexy as that sounds. Mostly, for me, it's just sitting there in the dark reading someone else's poems. And trying to answer my questions, which is great fun!

LIU: Who are your favorite poets and writers?

RG: I love so many different writers from different eras. But a few -- of, really, zillions, so this is an incomplete list -- would be Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Philip Roth and Junot Diaz on the novel side and, lord, the poets-- too many to even mention. But right now I'm re-reading and re-reading Robert Hayden's poems, which are absolutely beautiful and brilliant. And about to read, for the first time, Shakespeare's The Tempest. And just beginning a book of poems by a young poet named Valzhyna Mort that looks exciting. Factory of Tears, it's called. Just finished Victoria Chang's new book, and about to pick up a new book by Ronaldo V. Wilson called Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man. I think Amiri Baraka's work made me want to write poems too. Especially his beautiful poem, "An Agony. As Now." A really, really beautiful poem.

LIU: How do you assist students with their writing? What advice do you give them?

RG: I just try to see their strengths and their weaknesses, getting them to exploit the former and improve the latter, I guess. I also, and most importantly, try to turn students on to good books: writers who will provide them with models of how to do what, maybe, they're trying to do themselves. No advice. I seek advice.

LIU: What are you working on these days? Does your work tend to come in themes/waves of inspiration -- say, related to the last movie you saw or annual elections?

RG: I'm working on two books, one of which is mostly done, and the other which is in the beginning, exciting stages. I don't get too much of the 'waves of inspiration,' unfortunately. Mostly I just have to try to write the same poem over about 50 times until I get it right, or give up for some years. Though I'm always inspired by current events -- for instance, I'm inspired to write something about the United States' arms industry "growing rapidly as the Bush era ends," which is right out of the New York Times. But, if I know myself, that information is not going to come out in any clear or straightforward way anytime soon. It'll take some time. But what always enters the poems, and makes them happen, is the world, and the things in it. And the real, breathing beings in it.