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The Joy of Delight in Poetry and Prose

August 19, 2023

NOTE: A version of this story appears in our 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books guide, produced by South Dakota Magazine.

Ross Gay writes about joy. Maybe he didn’t intend to, but his poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude set him down that path.

“After that came out, people wanted to talk with me about joy,” Gay says. “It didn’t occur to me that the book was going to be considered a joyful book or a book about joy. The response to my work made me think, ‘This is an interesting thing to further consider.’ I also just started to get more interested in the ways that we care for one another. Maybe because there was so much language out there about how we don’t care for one another.”

He began to write daily essays about things that brought him joy: a kid giving him a high five, a friend’s unfettered use of air quotes or a creative nickname. That collection, The Book of Delights, was published in 2019. His follow-up, The Book of (More) Delights, is due this September.

It seems a simple exercise, but one made difficult by the environment that Gay sees surrounding us. “It’s obvious to me that there’s a cynical impulse in all kinds of media and industry that makes us want to be terrified and nervous,” says Gay, who grew up outside of Philadelphia and teaches at Indiana University. “There is plenty to be nervous about, but if we are inclined to notice the ways that we are capable of — and do in fact — care for one another, that’s an assault on a certain kind of consumerist life. What if you actually felt like you could talk to your neighbor about something that was difficult instead of calling the cops, or if you felt like you could share stuff as opposed to buying a bunch more stuff? Maybe we can trust each other. Maybe we should think about how much evidence there is of our trustworthiness and our beloved-ness and our care-takingness.”

His poetry and prose allow him to approach the concept in different and intriguing ways. He says his writing always begins with a question. “When I’m writing poems, there’s something about the question that is a little further away. It’s a little more challenging to even articulate the question. And when I’m writing essays, I can usually formulate that question. It’s going to change over the course of writing the essay, but usually it’s a little bit closer.”

So does the act of writing about joy actually bring him joy? “Thinking about what delights me and this question of joy, absolutely,” he says. “If you spend half an hour every day writing about what makes you miserable, you’ll have more misery in your life. And the opposite is true, as well. Delight is the sweet evidence of our connection. Ultimately delight is one of the ways we practice witnessing or paying attention to connection. The more we can study connection, the less alone we are and the more inclined we feel to help each other out.”

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