Ross Gay emphasizes holding onto joy at Evanston Public Library webinar


Photo courtesy of Evanston Public Library

Poet Ross Gay. “Inciting Joy” is Gay’s second essay collection and follows the same themes as his debut collection, “The Book of Delights.”

Beatrice Villaflor, Reporter

After three years of pandemic life, some find it difficult to find joy through a computer screen.

But essayist and poet Ross Gay aimed to do just that as he spoke at an Evanston Public Library webinar organized by Illinois Libraries Present on Wednesday.

The theme for the evening was Gay’s latest book of essays, “Inciting Joy.” It follows “The Book of Delights,” which was Gay’s first essay collection as well as a New York Times bestseller. 

I’m writing this book in a way with the question of, ‘How are we going to live through the crises we find ourselves in?’” Gay said.

When introducing the event, ILP programming committee member Cari Poweziak praised Gay and the event moderator, performance poet Dan “Sully” Sullivan. 

“They both share a passion for poetry and for the spoken word,” Poweziak said.

After Sullivan asked Gay how his approach to writing has changed over his time as a professor  at Indiana University Bloomington, Gay said he no longer asks his students to submit poetry for critique in workshops, which is common in writing programs. 

He likened the process of writing to cultivating relationships.

“So much of school is about fixing,” he said. “I am not interested in fixing a poem, and I am not interested in fixing a person, either.” 

Gay said he would rather observe, explore or wonder about his and his students’ work. 

He added that he hopes his students learn to write about what they love through discovery as opposed to imposing requirements on their poetry. 

“The practice of writing is just part of the practice of living,” Sullivan said in response.

Gay said he found it ironic to speak at a webinar as an advocate for connection, explaining that the post-pandemic, contemporary mode of life now encourages separation from one another.

Gay added that he will continue to laud the places where people can still connect with one another in person, including public spaces like libraries. 

“There are a million ways that (contemporary life is) trying to convince us that it is a bad idea for us to be close,” he said. “Efficiency so often is achieved at the sacrifice of care or at least, potential care.”  

When posing questions to Gay, Sullivan said pre-submitted audience questions were mostly concerned with the “how” of joy: how to live in spite of sorrow. 

At first, Gay said he didn’t know what the “how” of joy was. Instead, he listed the small experiences that brought him happiness: his community orchard, skateboarding, pickup basketball and school. 

“Joy is always the result of recognizing or practicing belonging to something larger than yourself. I think that might be a kind of ‘how,’” Gay said. “Not an action, but a kind of submission — not an achievement or an acquisition.” 

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