March 27, 2023

Exploring the Transformative Power of Writing and Vulnerability with Ross Gay

In this episode, we delve into the world of poetry and writing with the acclaimed poet and author Ross Gay... See show notes at:

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In this episode, we delve into the world of poetry and writing with the acclaimed poet and author Ross Gay. Ross has written four books of poetry, including the award-winning Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, as well as a bestselling collection of essays, The Book of Delights. His new book, Inciting Joy, explores the power of writing and vulnerability in shaping our lives. 

Join us as we discuss Ross's personal journey in discovering the transformative power of writing, from his experience teaching in the heartland to his exploration of collective trauma in his latest work. We also explore the art of vulnerability and how it can help us channel our thoughts and emotions through writing. Whether you're an aspiring writer or simply interested in the power of language, this episode is a must-listen for anyone looking to cultivate joy and empowerment through writing.

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Michael:Hey, Ross Gay, how are you, my friend? Thank you so much for spending some time with the Unbroken Nation and being a part of the podcast today.How are you?

Ross:I'm good. I'm good. It's good to be with you.

Michael:Yeah, same. So, Ross, I came across you when I was participating in the Collective Trauma Summit, which was a really beautiful event built around helping people step into what's next in their life. I have so many different questions and so many things I want to ask you today as we hang out, but what comes to mind immediately is how did you find yourself there?

Ross:At that Collective Trauma Summit?


Ross:You know, a friend reached out and how it goes so often, it was a friend of a dearfriend, who I hadn't seen actually in yearsreached out and it sounded like a goodproject and interesting sort of gathering of questions and voices. And so that's actually how I got there, it was, you know, a friend saying, Hey, you wanna do this?

Michael:Yeah, it's impactful. You know, I think about the power of words andyou being a poet andme being a writer and how in those moments of taking these things that live within us, whether they be our observations or our understanding of the word, and placing them on paper and something about that creates catharsis.Right. I was reading one of your poems, which I feel like is excessively beautifulcalled Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, andyou wrote, and thank you for not taking my pal when the engine of his mind dragged him to swig, fistfuls of Xanax in a bottle or two of booze. Andthat sat with me in such a deep, intense way as one having my own battles withattempts at suicide and seeing that in my family and my friends and community andrecognizing thing that we have within ashuman beings innately in writing, can be such a powerful tool, not only for assessing and understanding a situation, but for healing. What was that like for you to write something so potent and so powerful and intimate and then to share it?

Ross:Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I'm doingI'm sort of in the middle of this writing. I'm in the middle of a writing project where I feel deep in the middle of this questionis that, you know, for me, often the process of writing is such a process of discovering, it's such a process of reencountering or encountering a new stuff that I thought that I had sort of understood. So, you know, I'm writing right now about, I'm writing this bookwith a friend about basketballbut it's not about basketball, it's about sort of expectation and it's about disappointment and it's about care and it's about all of these things that sort of circle and family. AndI'm sort of telling these stories or reencountering these storiessort of things that I feel like I'm familiar with in my life and there's a way that I'm going to the page and I wonder what I'm gonna find out today, you know? So, partly what those points to is that my relationship to writing is, it's very much, it's not a kind of experience of my experience of writing, it's not an experience of expressing what I know and it's an experience of finding out what I did not know, you know?So, the metaphor that I use often is like listening when I'm writing and when I'm writing well, I think I'm listening to something that I don't know how to listen for. You know? So that's the sort of, that's the thing.

Michael:Yeah, that's really beautiful. And I think that's so much of thejourney of everything that we do in life is, like, my motto in life is shut up and listen to the universe, right? Because so often if you find that place where you're willing to sit, youmake discovery. ButI wanna take a step back real quick, so you grew up on the East coast? And now you find yourself inmy stomping grounds a bit there in central Indiana now teaching at Bloomington and IU, what's your journey, man? Howdo you go from here West Coast to finding yourself in the heartland?

Ross:Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's basically there was a good job and I applied for it. And you know, the way of like being the way of like being a college teacher for the most part is that you kind of follow a job, a lot of people obviously like that. But so, there was just like a good, you know, what seemed like a good job and I applied for it and never in a million years thought actually that I'd be in Indiana, which is and Indian though, you know, I have my folks are both from the Midwest, so it wasn't like, you know, the Midwest is notunfamiliar to me.My father's from Youngstown, Ohio, and my mother's from Minnesota, kind of northern Minnesota. But I'd been through Indiana, but I hadn't been to Indiana, and it was sort of a long shot.I had no sense that this would actually happen and now I live in Bloomington and I've lived here for like 13 years.And you know, I'vehad some of course, like most important relationships of my life, I've been involved, there's this community orchard here in Bloomington. I don't know if you know about it, but there's this community orchard and it's just kind of like it's just this long going, it's been a 10-year anniversary just happened in October and it's been this long sort of study in how to sort of be a neighbor, you know, we grow fruit trees, we have these classes about how todo variousaspects of orcharding, but it's really this long-term study of like how to cultivate and how to practice being a database. And I think of like, you know, had I not come to Bloomington, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be in this deep study of that question, how to be in community and how to be a neighbor.I would not have had that question sort of sharpened in my mind, even as a question to have, you know?Or maybe I wouldn't have.

Michael:Yeah, absolutely. Andto take it back a little bit further, so now being a writer, being a poet, andstepping into that, you know, I look at words as power and I constantly am reminding myself andeven the people who listen to this podcast, that our lives are so defined by the ways in which we choose to define them.Right? The power that we give to words is the same power that we receive from them. Whatkind of role has writing played in your life?

Ross:It's a big role. You know, as a kid, I wasn't a reader as a kid, you know, I read Power Man and Iron Fist comic books when I was a little kidand read 'em all, you know. So, I had a little bit of that kind of life, but I wasn't like a kid who is so, you know, like some kids are readers and you kind of, when they're little, they're like, they know they're gonna be writers and all that stuff, but I was into sports, I played football and basketball, I skateboarded those were my interests really. And I wasn't interested in school, except I'm writing a lot about this, except as a place to kind of run from, you know, I like to go there and then like with my buddies, like, leaves in a certain kind of way. But when I started to get, I went to college, I played football in college and I was having a hard time in school for various reasons, andI feel like I had a teacher actually who introduced me to a poet named Amira Baraka, and I suddenly was sort of among the feelings I was having with a kind of profound alienation, you know, that had to do with money and had to do with race, and had to do with all these things.But I encountered a poet whoI could see was articulating and holding some of the questions, you know, he was holding some of the questions that I did not even know how to sort of raise the consciousness except assomething I was irate about or something I was just likeinfuriated about.But he reading a poem like,an agony is now is like one of the poems of his, that kind of changed my life. It started making me think, oh, this is an amazing thing to do, to be able to sort of hold a question for someone so that they can hold it themselves in a new way or something like that, offer a question, shed light on a question I don't even know. And then I started writing in a very serious way, you know.So, for me, one of the ways that I do my thinking is by writing. I think through things, through my writing, but it's also one of the ways that I think that I sort of, it's one of the ways that I actually sort of settle down into a kind of mystery into what I do not know, and probably what I will never know too, you know, but it's one of the places where I sort of, you know, I'm talking about like listening to what, I dunno how to listen, I feel like it might be a way of like entering into the profound mysteries and sort of trying to settle in there a little bit andsee what I can hear, or something like that, you know? And some of that is about myself of course, or maybe it's mostly, it's like, how do I relate to that?

Michael: Yeah, that's powerful. And I think finding relationso much about being present, right? AndI think about the mindset that I carry through this idea of Think Unbroken and stepping into this power of recognizing that society often labels people who are misfits as broken, right?  How dare you play football and want to write? Right. Very much my experience in going through that. How dare you be a person of color and want to write very much my experience. You're broken, you don't apply to this system. And I found that through that, you know, expressing myself as a person of color in a world that would rather keep me silent, really helped me step in my power.Have you experienced anything like that in your journey of, and not even necessarily aswhether it be a person of color, whether it be as a man, as an athlete, as a poet, but as you discover who you are, what power has writing given you?

Ross:You know, I mean there's all kinds of ways that, you know, likesort of carrying on some of the previous ways that I was sort of answering, you know, there's ways thatwhen I'm writing something, I'm writing with a question, I'm writing and you know,I write about things that I do not know or do not understand, and the writing is a kind of way to engage in some way with what I do not understand.So, there's a way that mywriting life, my engagement with writing is a way of sort of coming to understand myself and other things more deeply.But there's this other thing I think, and that catalog of Unabashed gratitude book I feel like isbeginning to sort of get to that. And I have this book called The Book of the Delights, where every day for a year more orless I wrote a short essay about something that delighted me. You know, it's a full book, it's not just delightful because it's written by a person. And one of the things that I sort of am finding more and more is thatI mean, a couple things. I mean, the first thing is that like in writing this book of the delight, you know, I'mwritingevery single day almost. I don't do everything every single day like a job. But one of the things that I find is I'm like, I eventually found out that, oh, my question is joy.  Joy is my real fundamental question, you know, like delight is interesting and it's kind of like a segment or some kind of participant in joy, but joy is my real question. And joy to me is like this profound and like sort of grave emotion actually. And partly it's grave because joy to me is like, itskind something registers as joy or you enter into joy when you're also deeply aware of the fact that we're going to die that we're in the process of dying. And there's some kind of like holding of that understanding with each other, it requires witness, you know, profound witness that, andI'm saying the word with like with but I hear it, it’s sounding a little bit like witnesswhich is interesting to me at this moment. But there's a kind of holding each other's, whatever you call that, you know, fleetingness passing this tendernesswhich issoft, and it isvulnerable. And it's also, to me, it is this kind of reaching, it's a kind of routine that to me, constitute the reason to be alive, you know what I mean?And so, and this is stuff that I'm sort of think, you know, I'm learning this in therapy and I'm learning this in conversation, but I'm also learning it and studying it in my writing. So, that in a way, if I were to talk about a kind of power that I'm sort of learning about in my writing, it's in a way, and power is a word that, you know, I would never say it, but it's an interesting word. What I feel like I'm learning is how fundamentally, fundamentally entangled I am with you, with everything. How fundamentally entangled we are? How we are not without each other, you know? And that to me is a kind of, you know, there's all these words for it, one of the words is gratitude to know that we do not exist, we do not exist, you know, without the tree out this, like, without thebiome, without what we do not even recognize is there, we do not exist. And to sort of like inhabit thissense of sort of perpetual, oh, I'm in a kind of beautiful debt constantly or I am beholden constantly. I am not without all of this, which is to say, and that the word for that, you know, one of the words for that is gratitude. One of words for that is to me, joy, you know?

Michael:Yeah. That'sso beautiful. I'm actually enamored by you saying that because I resonate in such a deep way, because I look at the world as interconnected and the fact that it is so much a part of our community through human connection that brings us together andmy experience as being thiskid who was very much lost. Right? Very much on the wrong side of the track, just seeking something would find myself completely displaced by writing and deep within books and I would be the kid who would elect to take the library class in high school.So that in the library, I didn't have to exist within the frames of the scope of humanity. But the irony in that finding the joy in book reading, being my connection to humans, right? And thinking about this thing as, wow, okay, these words resonate because as writers, now as a writer, and looking at this and thinking about one, the power of a challenge, the fact that you wrote every day, or almost seemingly every day, to create something for no other reason than the fact that to create, it brought you something that felt good or powerful, or whatever that word might be that you would use, it's enthralling to me. What I'm curious about, and if you don't mind if I can push you a little bit, ‘cuz I think that people would appreciate it, is how do you even step into that level of vulnerability with yourself to sit down and take the things that are on your mind and put them into a place where they exist?Not necessarily forever, i.e.on the internet, but just out of you and onto the world?

Ross: I mean, in one way it's like, there are things probably that I don't, you know,that I keep private, of course. In another way it's like, I guess as a writerpart of mysort of, one of the ways that I sort of exist in the world is to like, I'm gonna share my questions, you know, I'm gonna share my questions. I think your question is like, how do you get to that point of that vulnerability, if I hear you right?

Michael:Yeah. Within yourself.

Ross:I don't know. You know, I'm inclined to be like in community, I have people who I love hold my work and whose work I hold. And so, people who can kind of like see what I'm trying to do and be like, this is worthwhile, you know, these questions, this action or whatever thisthis thing is good‘cause I actually that matters to me. People I love and trust being like, yeah, that's good.You know, there is this other thing too, which is like when I'm writing, I'm curious to see in the world the things that I'm writing, you know, so I'm sort of like, I'mwriting in part, let's see if this touches on your question. I'm writing in partbecauseI want to read, I want to read the thing that I'm writing, you know, like I wanna read it.I want it to be available for me to read, you know, in some way. Like, not that I'm gonna read the thing that I write, but more that I'msort of, I think in some way I'm saying there's some kind of need there, you know, so the vulnerability in some wayor whatever it is, the sort of like thewillingness to sort of expose one's questions, which is a kind of like, you know, if you think like as a person, so often the thing that we're supposed to sort ofperform as a kind of mastery and a kind of like sureness or whatever, and like self-contained, all of which I'm just like, man, that's f**king b**sh*t. So, you know, it's an interesting question to be like, well, yeah, so if you're going to sort of offer your questions to a kind of public or to a kind of community,that is a kind of opening or a kind of sharing one's even just sharing one's questions can be kind ofoffering also one's frailty or something that feels really valuable to me. But it also, as I'm kind of tying it back to my other thing, it also feels valuable to me to read it, you know what I mean? So, the making of it feels valuable and also, in the making of it, there's also this kind of reading of it. So it feels like, in a way, I'm kind of being like, it's not just for readers at all,it's primarily, it's first for me, like I'm doing it for me.

Michael:I resonate that like entirely because I think about that too, andI've challenged myself in the similar way as you wereI have probably written something every day for not probably, I have written something every day for probably two and a half years at this point. Right. Because it's for me, like that's what I always try to convey to people like, if you take time to be present with yourself, what you put on paper can be really beautiful.Now, it could be as cathartic, it could be angering, it could be any of the emotions that exist within the realm of being a human being. I would love Ross if we could transition a little bit here and you share some of your writing for you but for me also. 

Ross:Yeah, for sure. I think I'll read one of the delights, at least one of these delights and maybe, and a poem, or maybe a couple, but this is one. So, in this book of delights, I have these two long essays. Oh, well, one long essay and this is kind of an echo or a coda to that essay. And the essay is called “Joy is Such a Human Madness The Depth Between Us

‘Healthy forest, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground and be wrong in our imagining given as the bulk of the tree, the roots are reaching through the earth below.There exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplus by which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogenand a nearby tree has extra. So, the high tree so close to the hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world, the fungal ambulances ferry it over constantly. This tree to that, that one, to this and that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff, a delight, the phrase fungal dust, meaning a healthy forest soil swirling with the living the dead man are miles and miles of hi feet handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people. Yes, it did evolve the people into mushrooms because in trying to articulate what perhaps joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things, the trees and the mushrooms have shown me there. Joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the dust between us, we will find it teaming. It will look like all the books ever read. It will look like all the nerves in a body.We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union one that once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flour and food might be joy.’

Michael:That's so beautiful. And in that, and not to translate it because the words are powerful, I just hear community and togetherness and oneness and support and doing that thing for each other that we may in fact need for ourselves.

Ross:Yeah, exactly. I'm just so interested in the ways that we actually practiceour indebtedness to one another…

Michael: And there's survival in that.

Ross:That's it. This is called Sorrow is not my name, and it's after Gwendolyn Brooks, beautiful poet. No matter the pull toward brink. No matter the fluoride beat, sleep awaits. There is a time for everything. Look, just this morning a vulture nodded his red grizzled head at me and I looked at him admiring the sickle of his beak. Then the wind kicked up and after arranging that good suit of feathers, he up and took off just like that. And tab boot there are on this planet alone, something like 2 million naturally occurring sweet things, some with names so gorgeous as to kick the steel from my knees. Agave, persimmon, stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks at the market, think of that. The long night, the skeleton in the mirror. The man behind me on the bus taking notes. Yeah. Look, my niece is running through a field calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel, and at the end of my block is a basketball court. I remember my color's green. I'm spring.

Michael:Hmm. It's beautiful, its observation, right? It's like being in the world.It's powerful. Rosshow does it feel for you? Like even reading something that you've created for yourself?What comes from that?

Ross:Yeah. You know, it does feel like, gratitude is a feeling. Gratitude is a feeling because if the work is of abuse to people, I just feel like that feels, I feel grateful to it and I feel grateful to being like part of a kind of stream ofthings. You know, a beautiful thing the older I get, the more I'm like, I read a poem and I hear all of the people who showed me how to write a poem, all of the people you know. And so, I have all of these people kind of speaking through me and all of these voices that I sort of, and just lucky enough to sort of like wash around with, you know, now you feel really held. And then to sort of when I am lucky enough to sort of know that, I mean, when I'm moved by the work, but when I'm also witness to someone else or learned that someone else has then moved by the work. I feel like gratitude's theword.

Michael:Yeah. That's beautiful. And it all started with you making a decision to do something that you thought would bring value to your life first. Right. And that's really powerful, that's really beautiful.

Ross:And I wanna say too, it also started with people helping me, people helping me to do that.

Michael:Yeah, I love that. And I mean, I think about my journey and where I am as a coach and a mentor and an author and someone who had straight Fs in high school and straight Fs in writing across the board and how to be like, wow, I've done these things, it was with the help of other people andthat is something profound that I leverage every single day of my life. Ross, I'm gonna ask you one more question before we get outta here and that is what does it mean to you to think unbroken?

Ross:Yeah. I don't know. You know, I feel like, there's ways of the kind of poeticness, I have a kind of poetic engagement with that. I feel like how it makes me ask all these questions like; how do we think with brokenness? How does our thinking together unbroken? How does our together unbreak us? And that's some things we can go on.

Michael:Yeah, that's beautiful. You know, there's a lot of beauty in that. Ross, my friend, where can everybody find you?

Ross:I have a website, I think it's, if you wanna find a book, you could Google it. Bookshop your independent bookstore, that's the place, that's the plane.

Michael:I love it. Ross, if you would like to leave us with a poem that would be amazing to Unbroken Nation, thank you so much for being here. Please like, subscribe, follow, and share with a friend, and we're gonna exit a little bit differently and let my friend Ross Gay leave the charge.

Ross:Today, my heart is so goddamn fat with grief that I've begun hauling it in a wheelbarrow. No, it's an anvil dragging from my neck as I swim through choppy waters swollen with the putrid corpses of hippos, which means lurking somewhere below is the hungry snout of a crock waiting to spin me into an oblivion worse than this run on simile, which means only to say I'msadand everyone knows what that means. And in my sadness, I'll walk to a cafe and not see light in the trees or finger the bills in my pocket as I pass the boarded houses on the block. No, I will be slogging through the obscure country of my sadness in all its monotone florence. And so, imagine my surprise when my self-absorption gets usurped by the sound of opera streaming from an open window. And the sun peaks ever so slightly from behind his shawl, and this singing is getting closer, so that I can hear the delicately rolled, like a hummingbird fluttering the tongue, which means a language more beautiful than my own. And I don't recognize the song, though I'm jogging toward it and can hear the woman's breathing through the records imperfections and above me two Bluebird dive and dark in a rogue mulberry branch leaning over an abandoned lot, drags itself across my face, staining at purple and looking now like a mad warrior of glee and relief, I run down the street.

And I forgot to mention the 50 or so kids running behind me. Some in diapers, some barefoot, all of them winged and waving their pacifiers and training wheels and nearly trampling me when in a doorway I see a woman in slippers and a floral house dress blowing in the warm breeze, who is maybe seventies painting the doorway and friends it is not too much to say it was heaven sailing from her mouth and all the fish in the sea and giraffe, saunter, and sugar in my tea and the forgotten angles of love and every name of the unborn and dead from this Abu only glancing at me before turning back to her earnest work of breaststroke and lullaby and because we all know the tongues clumsy studying makes of miracles, anecdotes.

Let me stop here and tell you I said thank you.

Ross GayProfile Photo

Ross Gay


Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, was released by Algonquin in October of 2022.

Michael UnbrokenProfile Photo

Michael Unbroken


Michael is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, coach, and advocate for adult survivors of childhood trauma.