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Poets have been called “guardians of truth.” They prod the consciousness of our society, moving us toward the transcendent but also toward commitment to the issues and people that matter in our lives. Taste this experience in the poems of Ross Gay ’96, who teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington, and in the MFA in poetry program at Drew University.

Ross Gay '96 reads from Against Which at Lafayette in October 2006.

Ross Gay ’96 reads from his book Against Which at Lafayette in October 2006.

In his new book, Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Gay establishes a dialogue with readers and listeners and employs a directness that is at once blunt and yet presses toward revelation.

“He’s at his best when he comes right out with it,” writes Jeff Gordinier in the July 17, 2011 “Poetry Chronicle,” of the New York Times.

In a 2008 interview with news staff at Indiana University, Gay commented, “what always enters the poems, and makes them happen, is the world, and the things in it. And the real, breathing beings in it.” Today, he takes that further, to encompass another, intangible element.

“There is always the possibility of magic, of discovery that is larger, much larger, than that which we control,” he says. “It might be the way the form you’ve chosen pushes you into a word choice or use of syntax that you never, on your own, would’ve come to, and that word choice or syntax opening up a world that would not–could not–have existed otherwise. And although I just described it, it’s magic. It’s indescribable and intangible.

“There are also moments where these kinds of things happen and it has to do with play, fiddling around with sounds, things just rolling out, and bouncing, occasionally, against each other, again, in completely magical ways,” he continues. “In this way I have learned things about myself, and about living, and about loving, about our condition, that in 70 years of stumbling around with my brain on my shoulders I never would have.”


Somewhere there’s a road.
Some of us are going to find it.
You can come if you want.

–from “Love, Here’s the Deal” in Bringing the Shovel Down


Gay’s voice has evolved since the publication of his first book, Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006).

“I’ve become more committed to writing poems that come out of a question rather than an answer, out of an unknowing rather than a knowing. I think, probably, in the first book I was still often believing that the poet has a special wisdom or something–a dumb romanticish notion.” He adds that with his new book he realized that “first, I know nothing, and second, the best, maybe, we can do is to investigate that unknowing, or allow that unknowing to compel us forward–no, compel us deeper. So I think the poems, maybe, are a bit more mysterious, feel a bit more like questions than answers.”

Gay, an English and honors art graduate, was the George Wharton Pepper Prize winner and a defensive end on Lafayette’s 1994 Patriot League championship team. He received a master’s in fine art from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in American literature from Temple University.

To Gay, poetry is a craft and a spiritual practice, but it is more.

The craft comes in thinking about form, diction, and “fiddling with syntax and line,” and “it’s a close cousin to prayer, no doubt–but it’s also play and wandering and silence…I write my poems, surely, but if I write with openness and seriousness, and a commitment to mystery and the unknown, then they ‘write me’ as well. I try for that. In fact that’s the reason I write poems.”

Gay has taught at Lafayette College and Montclair State University in New Jersey. He currently teaches creative writing and an occasional literature course at Indiana. He has gotten interested in throwing kettlebells and now teaches the sport to others. He also serves on the board of a community orchard in Bloomington.

Gay’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Columbia: A Journal of Poetry and Art, Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, and Atlanta Review, and in anthologies including From the Fishouse. He is a Cave Canem Workshop Fellow and a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Tuition Scholar. He also received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and gives readings in various venues across the country.

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