Poet Ross Gay incites joy by dining with sorrow : It's Been a Minute Looking for joy? Then it might be worth exploring your sorrow, complications and mess. In his latest collection of essays, Inciting Joy, poet Ross Gay reconsiders the breadth of joy, arguing that it can be found – and even strengthened – in life's hardest moments, when we must rely on one another. This week, host Brittany Luse sits down with Gay to discuss the complexity of joy, the beauty of grace and creating meaning in life.

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Ross Gay on inciting joy while dining with sorrow

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Hey, everyone. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. My guest today is well-known for taking delight in the little things.

ROSS GAY: I've been kind of in the sun a little bit and I've been running into people. I have to tell you, like, the sort of incidental bumping into people is a really fortifying experience to me.

LUSE: That's Ross Gay. He's a poet and the author of "The Book Of Delights" and, more recently, "Inciting Joy." According to Ross, we should all take joy a lot more seriously because joy is the ember and the fire behind social movements and survival. And his definition of joy isn't something that you experience alone. His joy comes from connection and our interlocking lives or, as he puts it, entanglement. Today on the show, Ross Gay and I talk about the intricacies of joy and finding delight in the mess after a quick break.


LUSE: Ross Gay, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

GAY: Thank you. Good to be with you.

LUSE: Well, we're so happy to have you. You know, something I've been wondering a lot about is how you would define delight versus joy, or joy versus delight. Like, how would you define each of those feelings and how are they different?

GAY: I've been thinking about that. 'Cause I say the words and I figure it's like, I ought to be able to say what they mean.


GAY: I've been thinking a little bit that delight maybe is more occasional, like when the bird lands on your shoulder.

LUSE: Right.

GAY: If you like birds landing on your shoulder, then you might feel like, whoa, delight, you know? Whereas joy, it seems to me, is something that is always there. Joy is the kind of emanation from a kind of practicing of the entanglement. Our belonging to one another is always there. Our reliance upon one another is always there. Sometimes I think of it as, like - the metaphor I like is, like, mycelium running through the soil in a healthy forest. Like, it's always there.

LUSE: Right.

GAY: Joy, I think, often, in the practices of entanglement, often comes because we're devastated. And sorrow is part of it.

LUSE: I'm glad you brought up sorrow because sorrow features throughout this book. In the first essay, you suggest that instead of thinking of joy and sorrow as isolated occurrences, that perhaps joy needs sorrow to exist. Tell me more about that.

GAY: And I feel like that idea kind of came from Zadie Smith's beautiful essay "Joy," a short essay where she talks about joy being connected to the intolerable. And I think that that's true. Like, among the ways that we're, I think, most connected to one another is the fact that we all die. Not only do we die - which is a pretty big one - but everything we love will die. Everyone and everything we love will die. And so that's a site of care. Joy is the evidence of our reaching across to one another in the midst of, or as a way even of caring for one another's sorrows. And it seems to me the case that without sorrow, it's something else. And it's also the case that there's kind of no without sorrow.

LUSE: Yeah. It's not possible. Well, you mention in the book, basically, if you're living without sorrow, you're not connected to another person or you're a sociopath.

GAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

LUSE: There's - you don't have anything, there's not one thing in this world that you love or care for or feel attached to. And that's not really a possible state...

GAY: That's right.

LUSE: ...For most people.

GAY: Yeah. Overwhelmingly. Yeah. So in a way, like, one of my questions, I think, is, like, if we acknowledge that heartbreak, like, what does it mean? How do we be? I don't have answers for that, by the way. I'm asking you.

LUSE: No, I mean, poets are meant to pose the question.

GAY: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

LUSE: Something you do in the essay that I love is that you basically ask the reader to imagine their sorrow personified. And you and your sorrow plan basically a potluck. And you invite everybody that you've ever met, even people that you don't like, as you put it in the essay...

GAY: Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: ...Over for this potluck, and you invite them and their sorrows together. And everyone and their sorrows sort of get together. And I thought that was just such a brilliant way of illustrating how sorrow hangs about you - right? - when you're experiencing it. It feels like that Peter Pan shadow that's just kind of, like, attached to you by the feet. It feels like somebody hanging around that you don't really want there.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: But also, like, in inviting other people to share their sorrows with you, it's like - that's literally, like, the essence of communion. Like, at first I was like, oh, I have my - basically have my depression over, and we're going to eat salad with my friends.

GAY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LUSE: But obviously, as I continued forward, I mean, is that not what happens when you get together with a friend for dinner, is you talk about what's troubling you. They talk about what's troubling them. And you feel lighter. But it's funny, though, because when you start - when - I find that when I'm experiencing sorrow or sadness in that way or pain, my instinct, which I think is many people's instinct, is to not reach out, to not invite other people in, to even try to avoid the sorrow or avoid the sadness to begin with.

GAY: Yeah, I agree. I think there's some element of, like, shame to it.

LUSE: Yeah.

GAY: Some of us sort of feel ashamed to be heartbroken or to be devastated or to be sad or whatever. It's not devastating to be irate. People don't feel shame about that.

LUSE: And those are definitely emotions.

GAY: Yeah, and those are emotions, you know, legitimate emotions. But we feel ashamed to be heartbroken. And I wonder if part of that shame is actually because it is the evidence of need. And so when you get together with your people who are your beloveds, that might be a place where we actually are like, OK, like, let's put this on the table a little bit, you know? Because I can't carry it by myself.

LUSE: This feels related to a passage I found later in the book. To quote you, "Most Puritans, I think this is right, are not that interested in joy. The pure and the joy, I think this is right, are not bedfellows."

GAY: (Laughter) Well, you know, with that, it's almost, like, fundamental to the idea. Like, to be entangled with one another, to be mixed up with one another means that if you tell me about your devastation, it becomes, to some extent, not mine, but it comes into me. Just as you tell me about your glee, it comes into me. We have sort of actively crossed the imagined threshold between us. We are, in fact, porous and permeable and all of that stuff. And I think this idea, like, of kind of a discourse of purity - it's not only that joy and purity are not bedfellows. I feel like purity, the dream of purity, is, like, a wreckage upon the Earth.


LUSE: Oh, gosh. I mean, you just said a lot right there. But I agree.

GAY: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's bad news. And I'm saying it as someone who's kind of, like, got - kind of got, like, a puritanical bent, you know?

LUSE: In what way?

GAY: Well, you know, like, for instance, I grew up as an athlete.

LUSE: Oh, yeah.

GAY: I am - it is such - I'm, like, 48 years old. And it is such a thing that I'm learning, for instance, to say to myself, no. You're hurting now. Rest. It's such a thing. And it's because there is this sort of puritanical notion of, like, the good or the appropriate or the right. I said I was going to do the good or the appropriate or the right, even in something as superficial as, you know, doing all my kettlebell swings or something.

LUSE: No, but, like, the follow-through and, like, the discipline is - like, that's the ideal.

GAY: Yeah. And it's like, oh. You didn't do everything? What's wrong with you? And what's wrong with you? And what's wrong with you? And what's wrong with you? You know, I don't want to walk around the world being like, what's wrong with any of us? I kind of want to just, like, be curious. Purity is profoundly incurious. Purity knows everything - knows what's right, knows what's wrong, knows how it ought to be, knows who you are before you say it. You might say a little bit, and then it knows who you are.


LUSE: I mean, it categorizes, too. It's, like...

GAY: It's...

LUSE: ...You're...

GAY: Deeply.

LUSE: You're good or bad. You're right or wrong. You're in this pile. You're in...

GAY: Totally.

LUSE: ...That pile.

GAY: Totally.

LUSE: And there's not a lot of room for the messiness that entanglement really...

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Requires of people.

GAY: Exactly.

LUSE: So, you know, if joy requires mess and entanglement, which is always an adventure, let's say...

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...How do we cultivate joy in our lives while acknowledging the mess that it lives inside?

GAY: I do wonder if one of the first things is acknowledging that we ourselves are complicated.

LUSE: You got my eyebrows raised over here.


GAY: Your eyebrows went out of the screen.


GAY: We love to be persecutorial. The fact of the matter is, it's like, hang on now. I'm, like, a complicated person, you know?

LUSE: Right.

GAY: I suspect you are, too.

LUSE: Yeah.


GAY: And in fact, your complicated-ness (ph) might be a reason that I'm inclined to love you more because I know that you're not only one thing, because I know that you're actually changing like a creature, like we do.

LUSE: What you're describing sounds to me like grace.

GAY: That's it. My brother's a high school principal, and he's such a beautiful dude because he seems to have this, like, thing that I think it'd be hard to have probably with one's own kids but also kids that you're looking after in some way - the thing of, like, these are people changing. These are just people emerging, you know. And I don't mean, like, getting better. I don't mean, like, on the way to the top of something. I just mean creatures, you know? And one day, a creature is kind of like this. And then the next day, a creature is kind of like that. What a pleasure it is, like, when we get to sort of feel grace to just be walking around, moving around, thinking around with grace.

LUSE: After the break, finding joy in the midst of an apocalypse, whether it's fictional or real.


LUSE: You said that you began this project in joy and also, you know, kind of in delight as well around the time that you were taking note of the huge upward transfers of wealth that we've seen in society recently.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: And you were maybe worrying about the collapse of society, as a lot of us do. How did you land on joy as a counter to that?

GAY: I feel like I follow other people in this, like Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who have a book called "The Undercommons." And I feel like I'm a student of, like, Saidiya Hartman, who has a book called "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments."

LUSE: I got it somewhere up here, yeah.

GAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, people who have sort of just spent a good deal of time sort of teaching us to look at the evidence of how we survive and really articulating what - in the midst of profound brutality, what are the ways in which we are sort of already practicing and teaching each other how to, like, make it through this?

LUSE: It kind of seems like what you're getting at is the idea that, like, there's joy to be found in how people manage to survive and get to the next thing, the next day, the next year, the next era...

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...In the past.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: And that that is kind of how you arrived at this idea of joy being the natural thing to examine right now.

GAY: Yeah, and particularly that that is just what happens, that if there is a kind of hierarchical structure that we live in, their job is to steal.

LUSE: When you say they, who do you mean they?

GAY: The government, for instance. There's a nearly trillion-dollar defense budget. It seems like that could be used for other things. It's being stolen from our survival. I mean, they're stealing that money from people who need houses, from people who need clean water, from people who need medicine, etc., etc., etc., etc. I was just visiting with my Aunt Butter recently who lives in Youngstown, Ohio. And she's, like, 96 years old, and she shows up in the book a little bit. And her folks came up from, you know, Port Gibson, Miss. And she's sort of adamant about - like, when I get there, she immediately starts going through her phone book and giving me, like, phone numbers. She's like, you got to connect with these people. Because that's one of the ways that we survive, is by knowing each other and staying connected to each other and reaching out to each other. That is an incitement to joy.

LUSE: Thinking about incitements to joy and the collapse of society living right alongside each other, I feel like there are some extremely popular television shows right now that have been about apocalypse. "Station 11" is one of them - more recently "The Last Of Us" on HBO. And these shows have these moments of finding gratitude for the world before collapse. Like, they look back and think, oh, it's so amazing that people flew in airplanes. Because they've reached a point now where this mushroom fungus is just killing everybody and turning them into, basically, zombies. They're not flying planes these days...

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...In the series. So they look back and they have this gratitude for, oh, wow. Like, there was some cool stuff that was happening before society completely bottomed out.

GAY: Yeah. Yeah.

LUSE: I feel like you are not nostalgic for a better past, but living in the present to find joy in the tough times we're in now. And it reminded me of a passage you wrote where you say the way things become more lustrous, dearer, when we know they or we are disappearing. Say more about that.

GAY: You're absolutely right. There's not a drop of nostalgia to this. What I'm trying to do is attend to models of surviving because most of us, at some point, come from people for whom the world was ending. Most of us come from collapse.

LUSE: Right. Right.

GAY: You know? So, like, there are people who have been there. And those people - say, people who had to flee - when they tell you, hey, keep up with your cousins, it's not just 'cause it's cute. It's because you might have to flee.

LUSE: Right.

GAY: Or it might just mean you might need help. Yeah. Actually, yeah. Just not - not to make it dramatic. You might need help. And that help might be, like, directions. It might mean a meal. It might mean a place to stay. It might mean a loan. It might mean, like, a good song, like a playlist. Hey, I need a playlist, cousin (laughter). All legitimate and serious needs, you know? But also that thing of, like, it all becomes more lustrous and more luminous when we know that we, too, are disappearing. When we witness that, when we attend to that, that you and I both are disappearing, we are more inclined to be like, hey, well, let's share.

LUSE: You've made mention that, like, this is necessary work. This is important work. But, you know, not everybody feels that way about joy. The first chapter of your book also mentions receiving commentary or feedback that joy's not a serious subject.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: Why do we need to take joy more seriously?

GAY: Attending to joy or witnessing joy or falling into joy or entering joy or however we think about it, practicing joy, practicing our entanglements actually means practicing, you know, what you might call meaning, which I think is a worthwhile question. You know, like, what's meaning in life? Meaning is sort of met by giving and receiving care. I'm pretty sure that's true. I'm pretty sure that's true. And I feel like, in my own experience, like, I feel like I have a meaningful life when I'm collaborating with people in many ways. But among them - like, a really important one - is collaborating toward a kind of collective care or something. And it might just be that the care is the way that we're gathering. Like, a potluck is an instance of care. And even if someone's brownies are terrible, it doesn't matter. And even if, like, someone doesn't have brownies and then, oh, I forgot. You know, I don't have brownies. But they came. Like, it's all the evidence that we need each other that feels really important to attend to.

LUSE: You know, it made me think of something else that you mention in the book, that once at a reading of yours, a white woman asked you, how can a Black man write about flowers at a time like this? Which, you know, it's a question that one can get from time to time - or rather, it's a vein of question that one can get from time to time, just as a Black person expressing themselves and having thoughts and ideas out in public.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: But, you know, you had a response to her, which was that - eloquently, like, shut up and grow up, like...

GAY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: But within that response, you remark that, you know, she's talking about times like this - at a time like this, rather. You remark that there have always been times like this. And I inferred that you meant that, like, of course I need to be writing about flowers. Of course that's necessary. And also, it's not your business to tell me what I think is important.

GAY: Yeah. Yeah.

LUSE: But, yeah, that struck me, the idea that there's - we're always living in a time like this, and thus this is what I must do.

GAY: Totally. Totally. Yeah. Yeah. Like, the first thing is, like, you don't actually get to police what I think or do or say or write. Part of what I think is being said inside of that is that what you love isn't important. What you're fighting against, what you hate, what you want not to be here, that's important. Those are the legitimate subjects of our deepest inquiry. But to me, I'm like, OK, yeah. Like, we got to figure out how to deal with that. But I'm going to wager that a bigger question is what, in fact, I love. Gathering around what I love might, in fact, be the sort of - the process by which we imagine the lives that we want.

LUSE: I have one last question.

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: How does joy feel in your body?

GAY: (Laughter).

LUSE: I think we all understand delight, you know?

GAY: Yeah.

LUSE: But how does joy feel in your body?

GAY: I think sort of expansive, you know? I think I feel it in my chest often. And I think sometimes it makes me feel like I want to cry, actually. It makes me feel often like - I've been loved by people who don't even know me. There have been people, like, caring for me, looking out for me who - they couldn't even have imagined me.


LUSE: Ross Gay, thank you so much for joining us today. This was so fantastic. It was really wonderful to talk with you about this book.

GAY: Same to you. I love your questions. It was really lovely. I appreciate it.

LUSE: Thank you. Thank you.

That was poet Ross Gay. His books "Inciting Joy" and "The Book Of Delights" are available right now. This episode was produced by Liam McBain and Alexis Williams. It was edited by Jessica Placzek. Engineering support came from...


LUSE: I'm Brittany Luse, and we'll be back Friday with another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

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