[0:16.1] Lawson: Welcome students, faculty, members of staff and alumni and families who are joining us tonight for the 2020 Demott Lecture. Well, I wish we could be gathering in person tonight, I'm really grateful that we have this virtual space that we get to convene in. And the chance to welcome you all tonight to a cherished tradition. It's usually reserved only for faculty and new students. But due to the space constraints, that's usually because of the space constraints at Johnson Chapel. But now that we're virtual, we have the opportunity to invite a much bigger family and so welcome to all of you.
[0:51.2] Lawson: So, for you students, I hope your first week of classes is going well and the semester is off to a great start whether you're studying on campus or remotely. I would imagine that many of you haven't met me yet. I am Professor Shayla Lawson. I'm an assistant professor in the English department and specifically dedicated to creative writing. I am one of the creative writing teachers that we have here. And I am so happy to welcome Ross Gay, who was my mentor in graduate school, to our college tonight.
[0:51.2] Lawson: Tonight's event and the associated summer reading that I'm sure all of you completed in its entirety, if it was assigned to you, is named in honor of our longtime, of our longtime professor in the English department of the College named Benjamin Demott. He was a prolific writer, scholar, cultural critic, and he taught at Amherst for nearly 40 years. From 1951 until his retirement in 1990. Erudite and versatile, Ben Demott was the opposite of a stuffy academic. His friend and former colleague at Amherst Ronald Tiersky, the Joseph B. Eastman was our professor of political science Emeritus, recalled Demott's equal passion for teaching Shakespeare and Springsteen, describing him as someone who lit intellectual fires under students eager to burn. This lecture series, now in its 15th year is dedicated to exposing incoming students to the importance of making connections between the classroom and the world just as Professor Demott did. The son of a carpenter and a faith healer, Ben Demott worked as a clerk and a journalist before serving in the US infantry during World War II. He attended college on the GI Bill before earning a Ph.D. at Harvard and joining the faculty at Amherst College, where he brought the insights and the empathy he gained from his range of experiences with him into the classroom. Empathy and an appreciation for a wide range of human experience are two hallmarks of the Demott reading series. And for those of you who have had the opportunity to read Ross Gay's Book of Delights, it's a thread that also carries through, Doctor Gays work luminous and extraordinary. A collection of short essays, that is just, you know, for lack of a better word delightful. It's just full of all of the beauty and mercy that we can find in this world.
[3:13.5] Lawson: So it is our honor, to be able to welcome Ross virtually back to Amherst. Last fall, he was on campus reading for the Tenderness Project, which is an ongoing archive of radical empathy that he and I curate. And that is now hosted by Essence London online. And we, let's see, where are we now in our introduction? Yes. We talked about the Tenderness Project. Yeah, so Ross and I started the Tenderness Project and I believe it was 2000 and was it 2016? Was that the year we started?
[3:52.8] Gay: 2017.
[3:52.8] Lawson: Alright, 2017. We started the Tenderness Project together in 2017. An award-winning poet, writer, teacher, gardener and a professor of English at Indiana University, Ross, in addition to writing the Book of Delights has authored four collections of poetry, Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which is the winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and his current collection Be Holding, a book-length poem that will be released by the University of Pittsburgh Press this September. He is the co-author with Aimee Nezhukumatathil of the chapbook Lace and Pyrite, Letters from Two Gardens and co-author with Rosechard Wehrenberg of the chapbook River. He is the founding editor with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal of the online sports magazine, Some Call it Ballin'. And editor of the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. He's also a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. And today we are delighted to welcome Ross Gay to our virtual campus. So please join me in warmly welcoming Ross Gay.
[5:22.9] Gay: Thank you so much. It's really good to be here with you all. You can hear me okay? You can hear me? Yeah, you can hear me.
- Yeah.Gay: Okay good. I am, first of all, I'm really excited to be here, to be delivering this Demott lecture. I feel really lucky and grateful and... To be in the group of folks who you've brought and also be offering these words and thoughts. Participate in the you know, the legacy of Benjamin Demott, and his work and thinking. So, I thought that you know, given as you all are reading the Book of Delights together, and probably you've all read them. If you haven't read it yet you have time. I thought it might be of some use to offer you a little bit of a lyric biography of the writing of that book. Something that might give you some of the feeling of how the book came to be and what the book has come to show me. So I'm gonna read to you this thing.
[6:37.2] Gay: I love to tell the story of the book's origin this way, which is mostly true. I'm staying for six weeks at an artist residency called Civitella Ranieri. Which was built a castle in a small town called Umbertide in Umbria. More writers and musicians and visual artists from around the world. And we would gather together, where I think the wine came from next town over. The food was good and free. The rooms were beautiful, the company, the conversation, etcetera beautiful. One day maybe a day that some of the other residents were taking a trip to the beach or something, I went into town with a little cafe just off the square. I had two espressos, excellent espressos. And sat in the courtyard working on a poem, a poem I only just finished matter of fact. The poem, what I had been writing was among other things, a container or better yet a witness of my sorrow. Sorrow I am certain I was born with. And it was a meditation on the ways and the whys we witness and to whom. In that way, I guess it was a meditation on witness.
[7:54.8] Gay: I should confess, it's only now that I'm realizing that the poem I was working on, in fact, the two things I was working on while I was there were profound (indistinct). I could remember the poem being so heartbroken, in fact, so trapped in its own heartbreak, needed at that moment I trust to be that a character in the poem, whose name I should tell you is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps the best NBA player of all time, outside of and inside of the poem, at one point walked out of my poem and stood over my shoulder, looking down at what I had written, tapping on the page and smearing the ink a little bit with the sweat that was still rolling from his body during the 1980 NBA Finals during which Dr. J would make what is the finest basketball move in the history of the NBA. And Kareem told me to be careful. He tapped his finger on the page and said gently. Slow down and think about that, or something like that. After which I put the poem in a closet for many months.
[9:09.7] Gay: I completely forgot about this until now. And so I've tucked my poem into my backpack and put my empty demitasse on the counter and started walking back to the castle, where lunch would be served and those beautiful lunch boxes that have a prettier name than lunch boxes. A lunch which I would sometimes eat with company, but most often alone, by myself, not alone. Maybe in the garden where the butterfly bush was stunned and swaying with flittering critters. And walking home, I passed the low quiet tree, which I had once pilfered fruit from and I passed some wild plum trees and I passed I think wild fennel growing in the dirt and gravel on the side of the road. I cut through the neighborhood where there was, where the little shop was where we got pizza and nectarines. I took the cindery little road heading in the direction of the castle, from which you could get to the little path cutting through a few fields.
[10:10.8] Gay: On one side of which was sunflowers for days. Football fields of sunflowers all of them taller than me. And on the other side of the path was the sweet smell of moon alfalfa or something like that. It was a very pretty Italian field. I remember so many tiny bees perusing the wildflowers at the walking path's edge that I can almost hear a little singing. I can almost feel the polony vibrato at my thousand itty bitty kin. They were kissing my ankles. And I thought, Oh, this is really delightful. That is the word that I said to myself though I don't know that it's a word I often used before then. I should write a little essay about this delightful experience, I thought, this delightful feeling. And then I think almost immediately one of those bees, one of the tinier bees, the one I was studying luxuriating at the sunflowers pollen, dragging through it, cavorting, canoodling, gold-assed and luminous, flew into my ear, which was startling and it tickled and the bee said to me in a convincing voice, do it for a year and call it the Book of Delights. I thought, oh, okay, that sounds good little gold-assed bee. My birthday was coming up, I could start then. Do it for a year, birthday to birthday. It's a nice little project, I can see what comes up. I gave myself as you know, a very simple structure. Write daily, write for a half-hour, right by hand.
[12:34.7] Gay: As I said in the introduction, I can think of it, I could think of it as a practice. Delight as practice, the practice of delight. A small biographical note and aside to you and me, I am realizing that this non-human flying creature telling me what to write is a theme. I'm not sure what that's about. I should tell you, I had some doubts. First of all, I am not exactly a daily writer. I've tried to be, about 10 years ago, which was me imitating some idea of what a writer is. It may have seemed more grueling when I was writing every day, a program of sorts probably writing about miserable shit, too. I would wake up at five or 5:30 in the morning. I forget what time of year it was. But God it was cold. I guess I thought that was being a serious writer. Anyhow, there's that. (indistinct) I don't necessarily write every day. Sometimes I do if I'm on a run, caught wandering through a wonderful lostness that writing is to me. It is probably the case that I've fiddled around with stuff mostly. And I read and think. It is the case that I do this stuff that I now consider writing, fiddling around, read, ride my bike, get a coffee, have a conversation, garden, take a nap, drop a book off for the neighbor, pick up some apple sauce from a neighbor, procrastinate about something make dinner. But I do not, I had not usually sat down every day to write.
[14:14.3] Gay: Anyhow, like I said, I had some doubts. Doubts that were confirmed when I skipped the third day. Oh, well, I thought, another good idea down the drain. And then, go figure, I wrote another and another. Then I was back on it. And while the anxiety or the doubt about being able to write these things was in part about the actual putting pen to paper, getting my ass in the chair., it was also this other question, which some of you, if you've read the book, or if you understand the premise are probably asking yourself, would I find something delightful every day? Would I be able to find myself delighted daily? The good news is that yes, once I understood and locked into the project, the practice of attending to what delighted me, I was sort of overwhelmed by the abundance, the flowering of what delighted me. Especially if I had sort of an awful day, I could find myself writing delight after delight. Most of which for the record were not good essays.
[15:27.1] Gay: But it was the practice of attending to what delighted me, which is to say, in some sense, the practice of attending to what I love, for the possibility of being in the midst of something I love or might love. It made me more capable of recognizing being in the presence of what I love or might love. Which made me more capable of recognizing being in the presence of what I love or might love. Which made me more capable of recognizing the presence of what I love. You get it. I was finding myself because of this course of study, because of this practice, finding myself off almost constantly in the presence of what I love but didn't know I did. For instance, I never knew how much I love the way some people's, sometimes mine included, mouth move when they write. It is the most delicate thing I can think of. It is one of the 10 most delicate, precious, beautiful things I can think of. Or the way some people's mouths move when they read. Sometimes me included especially poetry, or handwriting, period. Scraps of paper with handwriting on them. I have pinned to my wall a piece of paper bag with the word Truly, which was a beloved aunt's name, scrawled on it, or goldfinches, period. All the things about goldfinches and cardinals, of course, and handwritten letters, oh, typed with a typewriter, letters too. All the ways we (indistinct) with each other. There needs to be an encyclopedia, a collective of you could put it together, called the Encyclopedia of All the Ways We Kindly Touch Each Other. It could be the companion to the Encyclopedia of all the Ways We Kindly Call to Talk to Each Other. And it could be the companion to the Encyclopedia of all the Ways We Kindly Give to Each Other. It could be a box set big and beautiful. It could be free. Yeah, let's make it free. That's a good thing to do with your time in Amherst, it seems to me. Or the swirling sunflowers, whatever that fractally thing that's going on is called in the way the bees, all different kinds of big bees and small, some bees not even bees, pollinate each of those tiny flowers which turn it into a seed. And they're papery petals as eyelids, and their petals papery as eyelid. In the setting sunlight through those petals, oh, let me tell you, I love it when kids, by which I mean people your age and maybe 10 years older, call me dear. Sometimes, often it's a barista. What do you want today, dear? They might say or how's your day going, dear, or oatmeal cortado today, dear? Only said not through down with love. The mustard plant in our yard growing (indistinct). The dog snoring. Every single thing I know about the dandelion delights me. Gold flower and the luminous orb of seed it becomes. The leaves Lyons tea and their bitter delectabilies. How (indistinct) strong that they so readily plant themselves and don't get cabbage worm. The roots plunging deep into the soil in retrieving the nutrients we need and didn't even know we needed. How like a palm a dandelion is, it's occurred to me.
[19:28.2] Gay: Anyhow, this delight radar or delight alert, you might call it, got turned on quickly. My eyes got bigger for delight, maybe you could say, or softer. Oh, the cicadas rattling in the stand of black walnuts. I love that. The smile and wave of the mail carrier, I love that. The neighbor asking to borrow the wheelbarrow, the neighbor, the asking, the borrowing, the sharing, the bright red-orange bird with an ashy gray black head that has visited me, visited me twice today, looking my way, tilting their head, listening to my thoughts, asking, how are you doing? I love that. Who knew?
[20:27.3] Gay: Along the way of writing these essays, I realized something that feels kind of crucial. First, I noticed how often what delighted me was an interaction. Sometimes that I witnessed, sometimes that I was in the middle of. A kid giving me a high five because she thought I was doing my homework. I think she felt pride or proud of me. Or people on the plane losing their shit with glee at this baby running up and down the aisle. Or people being nice to me because I was carrying a tomato plant. People carrying a bag of groceries together, one handle apiece. Helping someone with the heavy bag, a baby carriage up the stairs to the subway. The smiles we sometimes give each other. Giving someone we don't know a ride, a jacket, a room, the profound and abundant tenderness we are constantly in the midst of. Time in the cab I had no cash and had lost my credit card and the dude said, as I tried to explain and figure out how to pay him something, don't worry about it, you ride for free today. Writing this book, I was often staggered and stunned with the light at the constant tiny acts of care and sharing I'm saying. So no active care or sharing is ever tiny. It is always, always world making.
[21:35.3] Gay: I'm saying we are constantly giving things to each other, caring for each other in small and meaningful ways. When I noticed this, it delights me. When I noticed this giving and caring and sweetness while writing this book. Let me give you a hand. Here take this. It's on me. No, you're good. Oh, have mine. Got it? It delighted me. And noticing this common exchange felt a little bit like I was learning better how to share or be sweet or trust or need. It felt a little bit like practice. Look, I need the practice. I laughed really hard when my dear therapist told me Well, it seems like you fundamentally don't trust people. And the more I noticed the caring, the tenderness, we've gone over this, the more there was and the more I noticed it, the more I believed it. It felt a little bit like a practice. This understanding, this knowing, this believing that our inclination, sometimes despite our broken little lied to selves, despite the brutal machinery, the murderous structures that rely on our believing otherwise is to help each other, to care for each other, to hold each other, to share more with, more with. I also realized in this course of study, which is ongoing, how often my inclination, when flabbergasted by some beautiful something is to reach toward my neighbor to say, yo, yo, do you see this? Standing outside the library, eating serviceberries to any passers-by within, in the least to any passers-by with the least interest. I say, yo, you have to taste this. Or as I write in the book birds at the Detroit airport, in any airport, really. Look, if you're near me in an airport, if that's every a thing again, and a bird flies by, heads up, I'm going to elbow you with delight. The little cluster of people who, when I was walking by quietly, got my attention and pointed to the bald eagle in the sycamore tree, the cemetery. Or when Maxwell's cover of the Kate Bush song, This Woman's Work was playing from the window of a Nissan Sentra at a stoplight at the corner of (indistinct) in Philly and the driver caught me raising my hand to my heart, the first little flourish of his falsetto, weak-kneed and light-dappled just outside the bookstore on the corner and seeing me swooning like that actually stayed put for me as the light changed until the car behind him laid hard on the horn. This was Philly. Pulling slowly away, he turned up the song even louder for me, and raised ton me his softest hand. Probably it is your inclination too, at least sometimes. I also love by the way that the delight of solitude, solitary delight. At flowering bush you do not know the name of but whose scent actually grabs you by the lapels to it, into which he disappeared until finally, finally, you reached out to the stranger passing by, who was in a hurry by the way, at first (indistinct), when you said, hey, you have to smell this. This is the finest scent on this planet. But soon they fell into this swoon of this common beautiful thing. Whose day you made because you did so. A stranger who ceased being a stranger once you did something. Walking away from the gads of black raspberries in the alley, telling the first person you pass they need to go nibble too. Of the most beautiful zinnias that ever grew in your garden, you tell your seed-saving buddy, they better come get some. Passing a hiker who's heading where you were headed and you notice yourself putting your hand like a butterfly (indistinct) forearm (indistinct) owe the walk. But when you noticed your neighbor, probably named Ross Gay, who was hopeless for this stupid fucking trigonometry test. And you slid your elbow so they could more easily see. Or when you were the teacher, and you noticed this sharing, and you thought to yourself, witnessing these kids now become your teachers. Yes, yes, sharing, sharing is a skill we need to be working on. And 1000 monarch butterflies suddenly appeared in your chest, flickering the light. And so many people gathered inside you witnessing their light through the wings, all those tiny illuminated maps shivering all around them, telling them, telling us where we might go, where together, together we might go.
[26:40.7] Gay: And, you know, joy. Somewhere along the line and the writing of these essays, it occurred to me that my deep and abiding question, which I arrived at by thinking about delight, was joy. Is joy. At some point, I realized in this writing that the question of my writing life, of my life, period, is joy. That's an important part, maybe the most important part of my relationship to the Book of Delights. Writing it made me realize, oh, what I'm really talking about is joy. I'm not talking about as sometimes people misunderstand joy meaning happiness, or joy meaning glee. Joy meaning anything, God forbid you can achieve by buying something or cleaning something or organizing something by winning something, by getting into a college. God damn, I hope you get this but if you don't if you haven't yet, the joy I am talking about is explicitly anti-capitalist. The joy makes us question hoarding and scarcity and property and ownership. This joy has nothing to do with achievement or accomplishment. Nothing to do with getting something, nothing to do either with getting away from something. But getting with something well, maybe this joy has to do with that. There are times that people sometimes imagine my books usually if they haven't read them closely, are simply happy books. Gratitude, delight, joy, happy, happy, happy. They're missing the point. In the event that the Book of Delights feels to you like simply a happy book, I invite you to read it again. I invite you to witness a significant part of the practice of writing the book, which was to attend to delight, to practice attending to what I love, despite being in the midst, constantly, of what does not love me. In the midst of what is undelightful.
[28:54.1]Gay: Look, I wrote this book from Southern Indiana between August 2016 and August 2017. I was sad as I am, at least a little bit every single day. The Book of Delights thinks about, explicitly, racism, moral patriarchy, capitalism, environmental degradation, the death of loved ones my own impending mortality. In fact, I invite you to find an essay in this book, or find five or maybe a few of the 102 essays, in which some genuine sorrow, something awful, is not listening in. It's not part of the fabric of the contemplation. As I said, as I realized when we started talking tonight, this book came to me, it flew into my ear in the body of a tiny gold-assed bee, you remember, as I was working on some of the most difficult, painful writing, which is to say thinking, which is to say feeling, I've ever done.
[30:03.7] Gay: And then sometimes people will ask, Well, you know, is joy even serious? I cannot tell you how many times I've given readings and a student will say, far along usually in the question and answer, something along the lines of, I've been told all my life that art made of what I love, what delights me, what brings me to joy, is not serious. I've always been told that joy is not rigorous. Ooh, that can make me mad. It can make me hot that a young writer, a young person might start off they're dreaming and making life being told not to think about what they love. Can you imagine? My response to that young writer is that we need to recognize, we must recognize that what we love deserves, what you love requires your most rigorous inquiry. If anyone ever tells you that you should not study what you love, or write about or contemplate or dream about what you love. please don't listen to them. Let that be a little bit of advice, and I kind of hate giving advice. Or at least I like saying, "I kind of hate giving advice". Which makes me think maybe I'm always giving advice.
[31:23.2] Gay: Anyway, what you love, why you love, why we love, tell me a more important line of inquiry. I'm talking now about the world we are making. The rigorous study of why we love, how we care, and how we might make, how we might more and better. Tell me something more rigorous. Tell me something more rigorous.
[31:51.0] Gay: And finally, sometimes people think or wonder if to speak of joy in the midst of such profound sorrow in the midst of such profound and ongoing brutality, is irresponsible or childish or worth it. Turning away from or pretending otherwise. Believe me, I sometimes wonder it myself. And then I remember or I'm reminded, the awfulness does not foreclose the fact of joy, nothing does. And when joy invites you in, you'll know your heart is broken. You'll know your heart is broken and breaking into the hearts of everyone you'll ever know. And from that breaking, I think we might begin again.
[32:48.1] Gay: I'm gonna read you just this little essay real quick. Okay, so I'm just gonna read you this little essay. For about, eight more minutes. It's called joy is such a human madness.
[33:34.2] Gay: Joy is such a human madness. So writes Zadie Smith, towards the end of a beautiful essay called "Joy". She gets there by explaining that she has an almost constitutional proclivity towards being pleased. She's a delight to cook for, she suggests, because your pancakes will be the best she's ever eaten! And she has what I consider the wonderful quality doubly, triply wonderful in this almost prosecutorial vein and Hollywood-obsessed or whatever's the new Hollywood culture of ours of finding interesting faces beautiful. I love that. Something crooked or baggy. A squirrelly tooth or two. Hairs where hairs, according to the magazines or movies, ought not be. Let me take a moment to honor and delight in and hover above the birthmark of my father's left temple, which he kindly bestowed upon my left hip, in a lighter shade, and which makes in conjunction with the long scar zipping my upper thigh beneath it, an upside-down exclamation point. But I have veered, as I am wont to do, from Smith's meditation on joy, which veering also delights me. But that's not, here, the point. The point is that she differentiates between pleasure and joy, and for that I thank her. Pleasure, for me, this morning, a perfect cake donut at the vegan bakery down the hill, which I rode to on my bike, the early fall briskness breaking me into a few tears in my bombing. Delight, the word bombing wrested from military discourse to mean going fast down a hill on a bike or skateboard, especially to the vegan bakery, is great, but it is not, by itself, a joy. And given as I'm writing a book of delights, and I am ultimately interested in joy, I am curious about the relationship between pleasure and delight. Pleasure as Smith offers it, and delight. I will pause here to offer a false etymology. De-light suggests both "of light" and "without light." And both of them concurrently is what I'm talking about. What I think I'm talking about. Being of and with at once or joy. Smith writes about being on her way to visit Auschwitz while her husband was holding her feet. We were heading toward that which makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile. That was joy. It has little to do with pleasure, though holding one's love's feet is a pleasure. And having one's feet held by one's love is a pleasure. It has to do with this other thing Smith describes perfectly, if a bit riddly, the intolerable makes life worthwhile. How is that so? There is ridiculous, and then there's ridiculous. I prefer the latter, I think. Sitting behind a family tending to their two kids, digging through their carry-on for medicine for the little one, who wears a kind of foam hockey helmet and was wailing. I think it was Kenzaburo Oe who said somewhere, wrote somewhere, that he wouldn't know what it was to be a person without his son, who has a profound cognitive disability. I have no children of my own, but I love a lot of kids and love a lot of people with kids, who, it seems to me, are in a constant communion with terror, and that terror exists immediately beside, let's here call it delight, different from pleasure, connected to joy, Zadie Smith's joy, somehow. Terror and delight sitting next to each other, their feet dangling off the side of a bridge very high up. Is this metaphorical bridge in the body of the parent? And if so, what are the provinces it connects? Or is it connecting the towns of terror and delight, which might make the dangling legs very high up belong to the mayors of terror and delight, both of whom look, I'm afraid to say, exactly like your child. When Rachel fell to her death, an accident, a slip, doing precisely what you or I did one thousand times as kids, fucking around, balancing on some log, some edge, trying to get a better look, a little closer, a little faster, a little higher. The bridge exists on second thought perhaps, in the bodies of all those to whom the fallen child is beloved. And in the bodies of all those to whom any possible falling child would be annihilation, which, sorry to say, is all of us. And the slipping child hand from a rung, foot from a rung, what metaphor the ladder? How she seems to pierce us, drive a hole through us. A hole through which what?
[33:34.2] Gay: Here's the ridiculous part. Is it possible that people come to us, I do not here aspire exactly to a metaphysical argument, and certainly not one about fate or god, but rather just a simple, spiritual question, and then go away from us? I don't even want to write it. Rather this, and what comes through the hole? There is a scene in Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty where Jep, the one-hit-wonder novelist and socialite in what we might call late middle age visits the exhibit of an artist who has taken or had taken a photo of himself every day of his life since he was about four or five. It's thousands of pictures of this, oh, forty-five-year-old guy, all hanging like a quilt on the walls in the courtyard of some beautiful Roman building. As Jep looks over the photographs, his arms behind his back, he's overwhelmed. We see him seeing time passing in some utterly unequivocal way. The boy's mussed hair, the skinny teen, the newly facial-haired young man, the what, weariness, as his true adulthood comes on. It devastates me, and only partly because of the lamenty song, "The Beatitudes," played by the Kronos Quartet, filling out the scene as Jep's chin starts to quake. It's devastating because we know that Jep is seeing his own life, what remains of it, pass. Lost love, dead friends, the whole bit. He is seeing what I was going to write was the fundamental truth of his life, but that is a fundamental truth of our lives, which simply that we die. Or, everything dies. Or, loss. Or, as Philip Levine put it in his beautiful poem. Truth is, this is what I've always gathered from the title, but the poem's kind of otherwise concerned. Animals Are Passing from Our Lives. Nothing expresses it better than that. And sometimes maybe mostly, we are the animals. I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization. In that clear way, not that oh yeah way my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now. It's a feeling I've had outside of dreams as well. An acute understanding, looking at a beloved's back as the blankets gather at her waist and the light comes in through the gauzy shades, lying across her shoulder. Watching my mother sleep in her chair, her mouth part open, the skin above her eyes exactly like mine. Looking at the line of mourners. Tugging the last redfish pepper from the plant. It's a terrible feeling, but not bad-terrible in the way Rilke means when he tells us at the beginning of the Duino Elegies that "All angels are terrible". Terrible in the old German way. If you think I know what that actually means. I have a bridge to sell you. Or maybe more accurately in the romantic sense, or in the Burkean sublime sense, which speaks to obliteration and annihilation. All angels remind us that annihilation is part of the program. And those terrible angels, the angel of annihilation, is a beautiful thing, is the maker too of joy, and is partly what Zadie Smith's talking about when she talks about being in joy. That it's not a feeling or an accomplishment. It's an entering and a joining with the terrible. The old German kind, joy is.
[43:31.2] Gay: Among the most beautiful things I've ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classroom to be. She said, "What if we joined our wildernesses together?" Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might be somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join. And what if the wilderness, perhaps the densest wilder in there, thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers, have I made the metaphor clear? Is our sorrow? Or, to use Smith's term, the "intolerable." It astonishes me sometimes--no, often--how every person I get to know, everyone, always regardless of everything, by which I mean everything, lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is, and if we join them, you're wild to mine, what's that? For joining two is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows? I'm saying. I'm saying. What if that is joy? Thank you.
[46:04.8] Lawson: Thank you so much, Ross. That is so wonderful to have you with us. So this is usually that lovely time where we would see everybody scurrying up to the microphone so that they could ask questions. But since things are a little bit different today, I encourage everyone who's listening to scurry to your computers and ask your questions. Let's get them in so that we can, you know, take advantage of the fact that we have Ross with us. I'll go on and get us started with a couple of questions. Ross, I'm really curious for the sake of the Amherst College students, what would be advice that you would give to undergraduate students who are interested in becoming writers?
[46:47.9] Gay: You know, I think like the first advice would be you know, read like crazy, just read, read, read. That's the first thing I would be thinking and read widely and ask your friends what they're reading and ask your teachers what they're reading and borrow books, when the bookstore opens, go to the bookstore, the library. Yeah, I mean, that's kind of the first thing. And then you know, then there's like, all these other things and it's some of the stuff that I think about you know, like... Are there ways that I mean, one of the things I feel a writer, practice that a writer can do, young writer or not, is to just sort of like become more acutely aware of observing generally, sort of understanding how and when and how and what you can observe, you know? I'm lucky I get to hang around in the garden a lot. And I feel like a lot of my sort of skills as a writer have been tuned up a little bit because I'm constantly sort of watching. I'm watching what's happening in the garden. But I feel like if there's a way to sort of be constantly watching and listening, observing changes and observing being sort of just, those useful, period, but like any writer, or writer, that's good.
[48:27.0] Lawson: Awesome. We have kind of a follow-up question to that. There's a student who's asking, would you recommend that they also create their own book of delights as a way to get writing? And if so, do you have any tips?
[48:41.9] Gay: (laughs) Oh, I think you know, if that sounds fun, you know, I mean, really, that's another thing. In a certain kind of way, I feel like, write what you need to write. That's the first thing I wanna say. Write what you need to write. So if you want, if that sounded fun, I'd be like, Yeah, write something like that, you know. And if I were to offer tips, I would be, I would actually offer the same tips offered myself which was to not make it too intimidating, you know? So I just, you know, part of the thing for me is like I had to make it just a half-hour because if you had to write a really beautiful essay every day, I just, I wouldn't do it. I just wouldn't do it. Some of you probably would, it wouldn't be a problem. But for me, that was a that would be a way it was already enough of a sort of thing to do. And okay, I do it every day. At first anyway. That if I knew that I had to make something beautiful. I would, I would probably have had a harder time with it. So you know, for me It's like, how can you just be playing? How can you just be writing and say, setting it up so that you're really playing? It's as much play as it is, as it is what you might call work, you know?
[50:05.5] Lawson: What kind of impact did you hope that the Book of Delights would have on people?
[50:16.4] Gay: There might be all kinds of ways to think about that, like how I, when I first started writing the book, I was just curious, I was just more kind of curious about what it was gonna be like for myself. When it didn't occur to me as a project and practice to do it for a year when that was given to me by that bee. I was sort of like, I knew that there would be some discovery in the process of doing this. I didn't know what it would be, but you know I have enough experience, practicing things that I know, I know what it means to swing a kettlebell most days for a year. And I know what it means to shoot foul shots most days for a year. And I know what it means to meditate most days for a year. So I had some sense that made me think of change. But I wasn't exactly sure. I was sort of so in the first part before I started I was just curious to know what the experience would be. Part of the book was written, I felt like it. You know, after the book was written, it was probably written for a year and change before with the world. And I feel like I was hoping to engage in this conversation. It's a conversation that we're having right now. And a conversation I love to have which is sort of like, what does it mean to really the same thing I was saying in the talk, what does it mean to sort of study what you love, you know, and what are all of the... You know, the many things that I observed in the process of writing that book, the way that I'm moved by the small constant issuances of care in between people, you know, people that are strangers and not. Like how that's so moving to me. Which I did not realize was moving to me before I sort of undertook this, this practice or, you know, any number of things like that. I think I was very curious to share with people. To share with people that engage in a conversation about this thing. This sort of thing, like what does it mean when you, when you attend to, you know, when you attend, to when you study, when you share what you love, you know? Yeah, and that remains really interesting to me, you know, remains interesting to me as a teacher. I teach here at Indiana University. I teach around other places too. And I'm just really interested in that question because I'm dealing with students, often students who are engaging in all kinds of projects, all kinds of paths of critical inquiry. And I'm interested, I'm really interested in that sort of for our souls. What we're studying, I'm interested in that.
[53:27.4] Lawson: Let's see, what would be a good follow up question to that? How about this, your writing has such playfulness. How do you hold off the self-censor and let it go?
[53:41.9] Gay: In the writing has such gratefulness?
[53:45.4] Lawson: Yeah, your writing has such playfulness. So this student is asking how do you, or this person is asking, how do you hold off on the self-censoring and let it go?
[53:56.2] Gay: Yeah, that's a great question. It's hard. And it's one of the things that I think that, for me, the little constraints offered me was the opportunity to sort of like, in a certain kind of way to submit to the playfulness. So, you know, for me at that time writing an essay in 30 minutes was a kind of challenge that required me to, abandon a lot of my ways of controlling my writing. So I was sort of, you know, these were heavily, obviously, heavily revised essays after I wrote them in the first place. But there were connections and playfulness as an aside some parentheticals and all these other leaps that I think the time constraint made possible for me, you know, and so that was a thing. It was like, how can you give yourself, impose upon yourself constraints that will fall in your sort of editorial. You know, things can go away (indistinct). I also am, really, in my teaching and in my writing, I'm very (indistinct) encouraging things that make us not be expert, you know. So one of the first things that I like to do in class when we're together was to, like, you know, do like drawings of a bunch of different kinds of animals, or something non-human animals, with your opposite hand. And then do it with that without picking up your hand, you know, picking up your hand, and then do it, you know, the outline drawing just so we can come to the page where probably we already have some kind of expertise in some kind of way. If we can abandon some of our rigidity, in the midst of what we know how to do, or in conjunction with what we know how to do, it seems like then there's a chance for sort of exploration and thinking you might not otherwise do. So I'm all about figuring out ways to sort of impose playfulness and be the master, the master of my self. You know, stuff like that.
[56:12.6] Lawson: Thank you. Let's see. I'm..trying to see. Oh, this is this should be a quick answer question. Would you mind sharing who created the beautiful painting that's behind you? Somebody wants to know the painting that's behind you, who created that?
[56:38.4] Gay: That's my buddy Jared did that.
[56:42.1] Gay: Years ago.
[56:44.4] Lawson: All right, I just wanna try and get in as many questions as possible. Is there a writer that has particularly influenced your career?
[56:56.4] Gay: Oh, there's so many. [laughter] I mean I can just think of writers whose books I just picked up like two days ago where I was just holding in my hand Toi Derricotte, Patrick Rosal. (indistinct) Rilke. Gwendolyn Brooks, Tony Sanchez. Etheridge Knight. Virgil. I love (indistinct) the really important. Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid.
[57:48.7] Lawson: Can go on forever. Let's see. You mentioned anti-capitalist joy. Someone who has the question, how do I achieve this? Especially if my interests are so tied up with capitalism?
[58:04.5] Gay: Yeah, a good question. I think my thinking is that that joy itself... joy itself troubles the logic of capitalism. Because I think joy itself really is one of these, is an experience where the entering or the feeling of joy as I experienced it, reminds us of our fundamental entanglement. Reminds us of, to paraphrase Fred Moten and Stefano Harney and (indistinct) each other everything. And if we're, if joy is in fact, the practice and studying and the experience of owing each other everything, o-r the experience of understanding our sort of fundamental unalienation are un-alienableness from each other, I don't know if that's a word, then the logic of capitalism as I understand them, stop, they stop making sense, it stops making sense to accumulate or to hoard. When we deeply understand that we are not only devoted to each other, but we are mutually constitutive we are each other. And what a disruption. What a disruption to capitalism actually, you know, this feeling of joy, which I think is is in my experience, it's so often. It's usually a feeling of joy (indistinct) it's a feeling that I can have by myself when I realize that I'm also in deep enjoyment with the earth, and other parts of other things that I am expressing, but it's often in groups of people. And you know, if you're enjoined with groups of people, and you very simply like and you share your shit. You know, it's sort of simple. It's sort of simple, you know, what happens if we share our shit? That changes stuff, you know?
[1:00:40.8] Lawson: What happens if we share our shit? Okay, this is gonna be our last question, and it is from Ambika Kamath, who is a 2011 graduate of Amherst College. They are asking how has your practice of noticing delight endured or transformed after you've finished the project?
[1:00:59.0] Gay: Can you say it one more time?
[1:01:00.5] Lawson: Yeah, how has your practice of noticing delight endured or transformed after you've finished this project?
[1:01:07.8] Gay: Yeah, beautiful question. It's you know, in a way, one of the things that I was doing in the process of writing that book was practicing observing. So I feel like my, the sort of observational skills that I was working on are still at play in the things that I'm writing. And though I do want to say when I was writing the talk that I gave and where I started falling back into that kind of reverie. The reverie, the kind of delight writing reverie or something. It's a thing. I love it, I love it. I love that experience, but I feel like what I'm carrying forward from that, you know many things, but maybe the most explicit thing, is what I was saying in the talk, which is that I understand that my question is joy. And so now that when I'm reading about land, my relationship to the land, I understand that I'm writing this book about, I'm writing this book about joy. And I'm wondering how my relationship to land finds its way to joy. The book of poems that I just finished, it's going be out in a month or something, that is a long poem and in a way, it's a long poem sort of trying to figure out how it is we'd be in joy. How it is we'd be together. How it is we'd be holding one another. Those are things that I don't know that, I know for certain that I was not articulating this as a kind of first and foremost inquiry, I can abide in inquiry. Before I wrote this book, and after I wrote this book. You know, it really helped me to sort of clarify and articulate the real questions, you know, and yeah, so that that kind of answers your question. That's a beautiful question, I think, thanks for asking.
[1:01:07.8] Gay: So, thank you, everybody. That is the end of our Demott Lecture for this year. Thank you so much Ross Gay for being here with us. Thank you, all of you, for reading the book and for coming to join us and for asking your questions. I'm sorry, we didn't get a chance to get to all of them. But at this point, I guess we will end by really just saying good night. And I hope that you stay safe wherever you are. Be good to one another.