When I was young, I had a deep desire to prove I could be a great writer. At award celebrations in middle school, cool poets read these heartbreaking poems brimming with bruises, cigarettes and swearing. If my experience is at all normal, budding poets can feel pressure to be deep or somber, which can often translate to sadness or angst. I easily fell prey to romanticizing sadness in my early writing. I felt that, in order to win a contest or get published, my work had to be intense, moody, and sad.
Today, one writer in particular helps me juggle heartbreak and happiness in my writing: Ross Gay. He’s published five books and is also an avid gardener. When you visit the “about” section on Ross Gay’s website, several sentences come right up at the top, reading: Ross Gay is interested in joy. Ross Gay wants to understand joy. Ross Gay is curious about joy. Ross Gay studies joy.
Ross Gay knows there should be a place for grief and sadness in poetry. In one interview, Gay lays it out: “If I agreed I was happy all the time, I would be full of shit, because I’m not.” In many ways, it is productive for writers to grapple with grief in their work. Poetry wouldn’t be a human experience if it didn’t translate pain or create a space for collective mourning. People get sick, our friends die. We fall in love, we break up. Systems oppress us. But not every poem must reside in a place of helplessness.
How do we deal with this as writers? How do we deal with our personal struggles when it seems the whole world is falling apart?
Like Ross Gay has helped me discover, self care is an integral practice to have the capacity to tackle the world. We’ve come face to face with this realization from living through global pandemic. Yes, we know all about face masks and cups of tea, but how can we practice self care *in* our writing?
The thing is poetry can hold space for it all, which I didn’t discover until later in my writing journey. Mourning, love, tenderness, rage, helplessness, levity––it’s all part of life, and thus part of poetry. Ross Gay agrees that he started writing poetry to lament, rather than to praise. Now, though, he sees the ways that praising and lamenting are part of the same process of life: “The process of writing my second book reminded me– or taught me– that I love praising, too, and that they’re very intertwined, obviously.”
He says that if we acknowledge life’s sorrows, we must acknowledge life’s joys. I used to think happiness was seen as frivolous or naive in poetry, but joy and comfort are no less important than sadness in writing. Gay says “Joy is this very complex, full, rigorous emotion.” Joy is just as deep as grief— just as crucial to our lives and just as crucial to poetry.
Ross Gay embodies the profound ways joy and gratitude impact our lives in his poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a 285-line poem giving thanks to everything from “the tiny bee’s shadow” to “the ancestor who loved you before she knew you.” He gets specific. He picks out little delights of his life and spins a shining web. Towards the end of the poem, he even expresses his gratitude for the reader, connecting with each person that lays eyes on his poem:
I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward, the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems slipping into your eye.
One of my favorite things about this poem and Ross Gay is that he doesn’t shy away from the weird or even gross parts about being human. In fact, he’s grateful for it. You can experience more of his full embracing of life in his other work, such as The Book of Delights, where he challenged himself to handwrite an essay each day of the year.
I believe gratitude to be a self-care practice, and I believe Ross Gay is a perfect place to begin the exploration of self-care in poetry. My challenge to all writers, especially those grappling with heavy content or a difficult period in life, is to create your own catalogue of unabashed gratitude. So, today: take a breath. Write your gratitude down. Start a doc, open the notes app. Use your poet self to encounter the world’s joy. What are the early-bloomed peach trees, paisley panties, and hyacinth bells in your own life.
Meet the blogger:
EMMA HARRINGTON is a current senior at Hamline University and second year editor in chief of the Fulcrum Journal. Her poems have been published in Fulcrum, Emry’s Online Journal, and december magazine. Outside of school, she loves to sing in choir, tend to her plants, and go on hikes.