The Warming Lines of Ross Gay

Someone sent me a copy of “A Small Needful Fact”, its top right corner torn just a little into the words. It was the first poem of Ross Gay’s I had ever read, and since, I’ve been hooked by this poet-community orchardist. One year, I memorized and performed his “Ode to the Puritan in Me” for one of our poetry classes. It’s a poem whose words seem to tumble from themselves, coming from some unsourceable place, and trilling outwards until no reader can deny an impossible beauty in the world. Gay somehow manages to take the smallest, most personal moments of our existence, and string them out further, and further, making the reader gasp and feel the sky somewhere above them, the rich dirt somewhere beneath them.

As a nature lover, there was something instinctually grabbing about Gay’s poetry. He often draws from his experiences as a community orchardist in Indiana in his most recent book, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. As the title suggests, the natural world becomes a leaping-off point for entirely down-to-earth spiritual revelations in the form of deep gratitude. Gay works with trees and dirt and fruit to speak beyond the categories of natural and human.  “A Small Needful Fact” is a response to Eric Garner, but instead of the brutality of his death, we get this delicate image of Garner’s hands, working for the “Parks and Rec. / Horticulture Department…put gently into the earth / some plants”. The image of these plants and all they serve is developed to a heartbreaking realization through the course of the poem of the fact of a life that was lost. It’s a political poem that sees, undeniably, human kind with a compassion more akin to a monk than a poet.

On a level of craft, Gay tends to linger on form that enforces the overwhelming revelation so often present in his work. In A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, he tends towards long poems, covering several pages, but with clipped line breaks. Most notably, “Ode to the Fig Tree on Ninth and Christian”, one of the more recognized poems from the collection, with lines of about three words apiece. From the opening moment of the poem: Tumbling through the / city in my / mind”, the short lines are serving a clear purpose. This is truly a tumbling piece, a man slipping from city to tree to sweet figs to all the people standing around him, and onward to much larger ideas. The line breaks keep the reader digging, rushing along to see what comes next, and so we are kept in tempo with the speaker.

Reading this piece on the verge of my own true poetry education, I began to realize the purpose poetry serves in a world that has prose to tell stories and communicate characters. A poem cannot be really read without becoming part of its collective experience. The form often forces us to do so in an immediate sense. The associative leaps, a few moments later, really take the brain spinning into another experience, accepting the limitations and lens of this new world by becoming it. Inspired by Gay, I began to take risks with form: at first with the obvious line clipping, and then by gently weaning my narrative frame of thought towards something more honest to the human thought, allow myself to take some leaps when writing.

Ross Gay teaches me, every time I read his lines, of a larger and deeper unity in the world than we can normally imagine. He also teaches me, as a writer, to expand my definition of what will connect with a reader, and become more honest on the page: whether that honesty is through form or subject.

Ana Shaw, Senior Editors-in-Cheif

The Hidden Patterns of Writing

anaThe first poem I ever wrote still hangs on my grandmother’s wall. I found it there a few weekends ago, while staying in her guestroom. “Tiger Eye Sun” is the title, printed in a special font on computer paper. I wrote it in a public library workshop when I was six. I remember the adults clapping when I finished reading it out loud. I loved twisting the images of rocks, and playing with personification, to describe something to simple and routine as the sun. I was able to take something I thought was familiar, and show it in a different way. This made me want to be a writer.

The poem is, of course, full of the things expected of six year old writers. It doesn’t have images, so much as mentions, and the intent, if I ever had one, is quite clouded. But that doesn’t matter. If writing this piece made me want to stick with the craft, then it means something, in all its kindergarten glory.

Writing stayed my favorite subject in school, including many short stories, poems, and a few “novels” comprised of about thirty pages each. Still, I had no way of knowing if what I tried was any good–as good as an elementary school writer can be–until the seventh grade. That Christmas, I entered and won a Christmas story competition for the local newspaper. My piece was printed that holiday for the city to read. I was elated, and decided to keep on writing.

Now, I write every day, I’m in classes, learning the mechanics of line breaks and character development. Looking back on my old writing makes me cringe. But, like something really horrific on television, I can’t help but look. What’s interesting isn’t so much the ways I’ve failed at communicating a story, it’s the ways I’ve succeeded without realizing it.

Until high school, I didn’t think to make a distinction between summary and scene. They were all parts of a story to me. And still, that Christmas story, has managed to establish a backstory, then lift the character into a scene, then jump back again to transition or give context. I wondered, at first, if there was something intuitive to writing. But now, I don’t think so. If writing could be based purely on intuition, then there would be no need for teaching it. Instead, I was reminded of what my teachers, and the professional writers I’ve seen, have all said: read, read, read. My whole life has been partially consumed by books. My mother and father read to me at night. I checked out audio cassettes of the Harry Potter series and Beverly Clearly. I buzzed through the books at school. I learned how to write the basics of a story because I read.

So, if I could learn so much by reading, why is it that studying creative writing is still so important? Studying creative writing is not a “learning how to write”. A person can write without instruction. My teachers, instead, have showed me why choices are made, and what choices. Just reading only shows you the final product. A poetry class calls to attention everything that was put in, and everything that isn’t said. My teachers could take the words, which I might have appreciated on my own, and turn them into a whole working structure. Since high school, I’ve started to learn how to make choices, what counts. I can look at writing not just through my emotional response, but by the subtle pointers driving that emotion.

My early writings had no choices. I didn’t think when I wrote, I just saw something in my mind and recorded it. Like a kid who sees the prettiness of a flower. Now, I come across an idea, and I see it for the Fibonacci-driven fractal that it is: infinite, up to me to realize what should be shown, and what should influence the reader from the inside.

Ana Shaw, Junior Editor in Chief

Beauty Through Words

afremov23I have always greatly enjoyed implementing effective sensory details into my poems, even though it has proven to be a pretty great challenge for me. I’ve found that if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, or if I get too wrapped up in the intent of the piece, I’ll completely leave out the details needed to actually show the story. Over the years I’ve gotten better about balancing my focus between images and other aspects of the poem, but still find myself with poems that lack the different details that would make it so much more powerful.

        I think that because I’ve had to be more cautious about the attention I pay to detail in my poems, I’ve learned to really appreciate it when I can create a powerful image. I also have a pretty deep admiration for poets who are able to write wonderful images without even paying too much attention to the sensory details they’re using; it’s just second nature to them.

        One poem I read a few years ago, Preludes by T.S. Eliot, has always stood out to me, as it’s compiled of so many beautiful and abstract images that really put the reader in the moment. In the second section, the lines “The morning comes to consciousness, Of faint stale smells of beer, From the sawdust-trampled street, With all its muddy feet that press, To early coffee-stands,” are so brilliant. Eliot obviously pays special attention to the close details of the poem, inviting the reader to smell the thick, smoky air, and walk along the streets as he says they are. You get to go into the homes and lay on the bed, feeling everything the writer describes. The images have a great impact on giving the intent to the reader that they work well for the poem.

        Whenever I find myself having trouble with my writing, I like to read over this poem, if not for inspiration then just to appreciate the writing. Most times, however, reading it gives me encouragement to work on my images and strengthen them, or gives me specific ideas for how to use sensory details for the betterment of my poetry. I’ve definitely noticed that the longer I take on a poem, the better outcome I’m going to come up with, but that pretty much goes for anything. I would like to think that as I’ve recognized this fault of mine I’ve been able to gather experience and allow myself to grow and learn more about sensory details, and how to successfully use them in my writing. Not only have I learned more about powerful sensory choice from reading other poetry, but I’ve also learned about them from classes and workshops, receiving feedback to help further images for the experience of the reader. While I may be learning to make my sensory details and images stronger in my poems, I’m also making the intention of the piece clearer and improving the experience of reading the poem as a whole.  

Makinley Dozier, Co-Web Editor