Poet Ross Gay in his new book, ‘Inciting Joy’


Written by the author Leah Asmelash, CNN

For the past couple of years, it seems that everyone has been looking for happiness.

From Apple TV+’s wildly positive hit shows “Ted Lasso” to dance albums like Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” to books like Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders,” the call to look beyond sadness is ubiquitous.

Poet Ross Gay explores these questions — What causes joy? And what causes joy? — in his new book, “Inciting Joy,” a collection of essays released Tuesday.

Written during the pandemic, Gay reflects on joy, defining it less as sadness and more as our response to it. Joy, he says, has everything to do with our suffering and our sorrow; in fact, it comes from there.

Just look at how gardeners distribute their extra vegetables, Gay notes. Or, in the absence of a skate park, skateboarders provide the best spots in the city to shred. Or in pick-up basketball — the way the game feeds care; if there’s a fight, you solve it.

And these are just a few of the endless examples, Gay told CNN. These methods of holding each other, caring for each other, promoting joy are everywhere.

Most of “Inciting Joy” was written during the pandemic, Gay told CNN. Credit: Algonquin Books

“We can talk in the garden, we can talk about skateboarding, we can talk about the dance floor,” he says. “And looking at how they work, not always but sometimes, we can say, ‘Oh, that’s a practice that makes this thing called joy easier.’ are ways to help.”

He spoke with CNN Gay ahead of the release of his new book. The interview is lengthy and has been edited for clarity.

This is the third book on gratitude and joy. What were your thoughts on this project compared to the past?

It’s funny, because I don’t know that back then I would have said that I was writing about gratitude or joy or anything like that with “The Catalog of No Gratitude.” And I don’t even know that I was. But I would say that the theme of that book and “The Book of Delights” is clearly joy among the themes, but I don’t know that I was thinking of it as an effort to achieve the same thing.

The question is explained more explicitly in this book (“Sparking Joy”). The question is: What drives joy? Or, what are the structures and practices that make joy more accessible to us? And then, when it becomes more accessible to us, what can it do? So, so to speak, I’m looking very closely at skateboarding, and I’m looking very closely at basketball, and I’m looking very closely at teaching, maybe in a little more depth than I was able to. previous books But also perhaps with a more pressing question.

The thing that struck me about this book in relation to your other work was the overtly anti-capitalist theme. Was there something specific that made you want to write about it now?

Ultimately, this is a book about noticing what you love, articulating what you love, and sharing what you love. And somehow this book asks how we do it. How do we do this structurally; How do we do this in our practices?

In part, as I’ve grown as a person, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways in which the systems, the designed institutions, the designed structures, basically enforce deprivation, all kinds of misery. Perhaps an overarching term for this, imprecise, could be something like capitalism. There may be other good conditions as well. He specifically wanted me to challenge that and point to alternatives, how lucky we are that we don’t have to figure out alternatives, we can go to the basketball court and go to school. Or we can see what the skateboarders are doing. Or we can talk to the gardeners.

One of the things this book is doing is to be curious about how we care for each other and bear each other’s sorrows, which is one of the definitions I offer for joy, the light that comes when we help each other bear our sorrows. .

This idea of ​​bearing each other’s sorrows is something I started thinking about more during Covid-19. What role, if any, did these so-called unprecedented recent years play in the conception of joy and the way we think about it?

I’ve become more acutely attuned to the ways we relate to each other, more amazed at how beautiful and loving we are. Because the book was written at that time, and the one who is taking the book out, so to speak, is writing from a kind of waste. A work by Anna Tsing comes to mind called “The Mushroom at the End of the World” and so when I talk about doom I refer to her book.

It gives the idea of ​​talking about the catastrophe at the end of capitalism and that we’re in a kind of catastrophe today, and catastrophe looks like different things to different people. But I think that book is trying to ask, not only how we bear each other’s sorrows, but also how we care for each other and how we live among or through these devastations?

This is your second book of prose, but the first of long essays (“The Book of Delight” featured short essays). What do you think has driven this stylistic change in your work?

I’m interested in trying to write things I don’t know how to write, and if I write about things I know how to write most of the time, I’m not that interested. Because I’m trying to figure out what I’m thinking in writing. So usually having different forms can sometimes facilitate other kinds of thinking, surprising kinds of thinking.

There is an exercise I will do with my students. We will all take a large piece of paper, such as 20 x 11 inches, and you must write and fill out the page. And you only have half an hour. And then you have another piece of paper, like a hotel notebook or something, which you have to fill in half an hour. We think differently, in terms of space, when we have it. There was no space limit. As it was not, it will be in couplets. “Go ahead, check it out. Let’s see what happens.”

Your father and his death are a big part of this book, but of course, finding incentives for joy in grief is not an easy thing. How did you come to that?

It’s a good question, because I was in the middle of taking care of my father, and I was kind of falling apart. And as I write in the book, I couldn’t, or I was afraid to meet my grief, to meet my mother’s grief, just all of that. And it was in reflection, thinking about that time and thinking about the relationship between me and my parents, thinking about the kinds of closeness that could have happened because of the deep grief we were in the middle of.

I wouldn’t be cooking for my dad, I wouldn’t be sitting with him watching stupid TV, I wouldn’t be able to watch his body change in these ways that were truly incredible, but they were part of it. the process of him and me taking care of our relationship and becoming very close. Very close

Joy does not exist without sadness. No one gets out of grief. No one gets out of grief. Every now and then people will say things, and that’s part of the thrust of the book. Over the years people will be like this: “Joy is not a serious emotion, joy is not worthy of our serious consideration as is suffering.” And we should consider suffering.

But the thing is, if you have parents, they’re going to die. They probably hope to die before you do. And it will probably destroy you. But if you’re as lucky as I am, you might get to take care of your parents when they die, however you see fit. Devastating, and ultimately truly joyful.

Throughout the book you say that not only is there room for love, caring community, etc., but that misery begets misery. What would you say to those who might argue, say, that’s the way of the world, you just have to absorb it and deal with it?

I want to say something to those people, because I can be that person. Part of what I’m trying to say is that you’re looking at the wrong shit, because all the time in front of us is evidence to the contrary, all the time in front of us is evidence that people are sharing with each other, people are taking. They’re sharing food: you have a garden, you share your extra, you know? There’s a crazy person who doesn’t share zucchini, that’s crazy. (Laughs) That is the exception.

I think there’s a strong incentive, actually a kind of financial incentive, to make you believe that most of the time it’s terrible. If we didn’t believe that, it’s like, “Oh yeah, mostly people are nice, mostly people want to take care of each other, mostly people want to share if they have something extra.” Things start to break down, some things start to break down. If I have tools and you need to borrow my tools, we will buy less tools. If I have a car and you can borrow my car, if I have a room, etc. In a very practical way, the idea that we’re all happier by being isolated from each other and not sharing our lives is a kind of American nightmare fantasy that I think really perpetuates. And it seems to me that the alternative is always in front of us. And, in truth, this is probably how we survive; it is mainly a way of survival.

But can you be that person too?

Yes, I can be fooled. I am deceived.