Ross Gay Answers the Orion Questionnaire

Photo by Natasha Komoda

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.


Orion contributing editor Ross Gay is a poet, essayist, professor, and devoted gardener. If you’ve read any of his books you know his strong feelings about basketball, tree worship, wild foraging, and kombucha, but if you’ve ever wondered what he thinks about Luke Cage, fried potatoes, or scary movies, read on.

 

You found a penny. Do you pick it up?

Not usually.

 

What is your most treasured comfort meal?

Too many to name, but usually (not always) it’ll involve potatoes, of some fried variety.

 

What is a species you feel is frequently misunderstood? 

I figure I misunderstand most species. I think I understand some if not most of the time.  Also, I just read that there are 200 species of persimmons, is that true?  I don’t understand anything!

 

Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

Probably a forest garden.

 

My favorite tree in the world is… 

This is a ridiculous question, and you know it is, because there’s that mulberry tree, and that fig tree, and that pear tree, and that pawpaw grove, and that persimmon tree, and that cherry tree, and that chokecherry tree, and that unlikely apple tree in the parking lot, and the serviceberry trees on campus (or bushes, whatever) I love, along with all those other trees, and many others I have not mentioned, and I have not yet met, and never will probably, the ghosts of chestnut trees, and the living ones, and hickories and black walnuts (there’s one right over there!), but let me say this sycamore tree right up the street in the cemetery, 100 yards away or so, it’s huge and mottled and like sycamores is slow putting its leaves on and when it does it makes an entirely different climate in its vicinity, on hot days anyway, which, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but yo!  Also, swifts reside sometimes in the big hole like a wound or an eye or a mouth about thirty feet up or so. I learned this because I saw a human friend looking up into that eye one early summer dusk evening, waiting for the swifts to come out.

 

Nature would be better without _____.

Hang on now, what’s not nature?

 

What is something you’re looking forward to?

Folding the pile of clothes on the couch, my workout in about an hour, which will include some weights and some basketball, and maybe a cup of coffee after, or a tea, maybe writing a few sentences, a good meal with some stuff out of the garden, maybe planting some beans, oh, ordering some seeds for the fall garden (which I’m looking forward to), the rest of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace which is playing right now, that cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” the next chapters of this book Guston in Time, learning how to do a backflip, peeling away the layers of meaningless shit from my life.

 

Do you like scary movies?

I like skateboarding movies.

 

Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

Sometimes I can sing like Al Green. You know, not really, but not bad.

 

If you could, regardless of the local climate, reach out of your kitchen window and pluck a fruit from a tree, bush, or plant, what would it be?

We have these pawpaw trees growing that in a month or two, if we’re lucky, we will be able to open our kitchen window and pluck, so that.

 

If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

My mom, because she would take the lead, and she makes the actual best pancakes in the world.  She puts blueberries or, oh, peaches in them too.  She mostly ruined me for pancakes.

 

Would you rather be lost in space or lost at sea?

Sea.

 

What are some of your favorite words?

I think it would be fun to be the person who gets to name varieties of fruit, tonguesweety and mouthaglee etc.

 

Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

You know that Tina Turner song?

 

Who is a character from literature or film with whom you intensely identify?

There was a bull, or maybe he was a longhorn (I’m kind of a city kid, I know), who was a shot-putter in that movie, Animalympics. Also, both Renee Fromage and Kit Mambo from the same movie. Also, probably Jerry, in Tom and Jerry. And Dot from Dot and the Kangaroo.  Also, Luke Cage, aka Power Man, deeply.

 

It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

Six in the morning, an eight-ounce cup of coffee. Six in the evening, there’s this local pineapple kombucha around here I really love.

 

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I like both.  And I love naps.

 

Are you optimistic about the future?

I’m curious about the future.

 

What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Today on a walk with a buddy it was a butterfly bush and mimosa tree.

 

Where did you grow up?

In the beautiful suburbs just north of Philadelphia.

 

Are you the same person you were as a child?

We’re cousins.

 

What song or album reminds you of high school?

Because you said high school, and not the music you listened to in high school, by which I mean to distance myself from the forthcoming, it’s likely the Billy Joel thing about bottles of red and white, or Steve Miller Band. Maybe it’s mostly Steve Miller Band. The Steve Miller Band, sorry.

 

What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager? 

I played football and basketball, so during seasons I was playing games. We also took long getting lost drives as I recall.

 

You are in a situation where you simply must sing karaoke. What’s your song?

“Let’s Stay Together” maybe (see above). I could also go Michael McDonald.

 

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

A place where I could garden, walk to a decent spot for coffee and food and some groceries, where there are trees, very good friends within easy walking distance, a bookstore and/or library walkable or bikeable at least, where there are beautiful places for gathering, plazas or parks that work (see Christopher Alexander et al), some basketball courts, a place where not everything is oriented around cars, i.e. pedestrian friendly, lots of trees, lots of forageable stuff (mulberries, serviceberries, black raspberries, etc.), probably a significant waterway nearby, a place where I’d know and have occasion to hang out with some of the people who grow my food, a culture of gardening actually, and a potluck culture, and good movies nearby, etc.

 

You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

A thing that could communicate to someone with a boat where I am and come get me please when you get a chance; a water filter desalination thingy; a very big bag of delicious food (the bag, naturally, flips inside out into a very comfortable abode weirdly with skylights and a couch good for laying down and reading inside of it); and Montaigne’s Collected Essays.

 

What would you like to be most remembered for? 

I think I’m kind of suspicious of the part of me that wants to most be remembered for. I am glad to have planted trees though.

 

What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

The forest would be very nice.

 

If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

I’d come back as a Stevie Wonder song.

 

Want to read more about Ross’s thoughts on Michael McDonald, mulberries, and gnomes? Order a copy of the brand spanking new The Book of (More) Delights today!

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Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against WhichBringing 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. In addition to his poetry, Ross has released three collections of essays—the New York Times bestseller The Book of Delights, Inciting Joy, and his newest collection, The Book of (More) Delights. He is an Orion contributing editor.