Ross Gay: A Way with Words

Photo courtesy of Ross Gay.

In 2015, IU Bloomington Associate Professor Ross Gay’s latest book of poetry, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Though he didn’t win that prize, a few months later Gay received word that he’d won one of the most prestigious accolades a poet can receive: the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

Kingsley Tufts nominees are typically mid-career poets. As the winner, Gay received a $100,000 prize that’s meant to make it easier for him to continue pursuing excellence in poetry. For Gay — a low-key fellow who lives in Bloomington and has a wide variety of passions, including gardening and basketball — that meant paying down student-loan debt.

Gay says he was “very excited” to win the award, adding: “It’s nice to imagine that more people might be reading the work, and I might be able to pay off my student loans.”

A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Gay lived in Philadelphia during his 20s and early 30s, prior to his arrival in Bloomington. He says he loves teaching at IU and living in Bloomington and doesn’t foresee any major changes in his future, despite his rising profile in the world of poetry and literature.

“There’s a lot of work that I’m excited to do, a lot of different books that I’m in the midst of writing — poetry and nonfiction and other kinds of in-between stuff, collaborations. I feel energized and supported.”

Gay says his time at IU has, at least indirectly, affected the way he writes poetry.

He’s come to value and honor the openness and curiosity of the creative process, he says, and he tries to instill that into his students by making his classes exciting and fairly unpredictable.

“I try to imagine a classroom as a setting where our being together and being deeply collaborative can happen,” he says. “As I’m theorizing or imagining that space, it will definitely impact how I write and what I want to write about.”

The article above appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude was featured in the magazine’s Summer 2018 issue; below is one of its poems. 

Becoming a Horse

It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know
the sorrow of horses. The sorrow
of a brook creasing a field. The maggot
turning in its corpse. Made me
forsake my thumbs for the sheen of unshod hooves.
And in this way drop my torches.
And in this way drop my knives.
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
And my face grow long.
And these words cast off, at last,
for the slow honest tongue of horses.

Written By
Brian Hartz
Brian Hartz, MA’01, is a journalist and tennis coach based in St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition to writing for the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, he covers business news for the St. Pete Catalyst.