Writers and gardeners Ross Gay and Tess Taylor on what gardens and poetry can bring – including reminders to breathe and nourish body and soul.
AILSA CHANG, HOSTS:
OK. Let’s slow down for a moment.
ROSS GAY: I’m Ross Gay.
TESS TAYLOR: I’m Tess Taylor. Ross is a poet and he studies joy.
GAY: (Laughter) Tess is a poet, and she studies a lot of things, but poets are one of them.
CHANG: Tess dabbles in gardening while editing an anthology of gardening poetry. It seemed like a great excuse to talk to Ross about how poetry and gardens are a perfect match.
TAYLOR: How’s your garden?
GAY: It’s going really well, you know. It’s kind of an amazing part of the summer because I live in Indiana, and around, it’s really starting to take off. Pretty soon we’ll be harvesting garlic in about two or three weeks. But then there are all these other types of fruit bushes. Out here we have these things called blackberries. They are also called June berries. And it’s this incredibly delicious fruit that’s everywhere. It’s kind of planted everywhere. So it’s time to nibble on it. There is a fruit called Goumi that I love that is on the rise. And I’m actually away from my house at this moment and I’m a little bit excited to be coming back.
Taylor: Yes. I’ve just been to New York for a week. And I came back and our plum tree that was a little bit heavy was actually really heavy and it fell. And I realized that one of the cool things about gardens is they make you want to call people and say, hey, we have too many plums. could you come please
GAY: That’s it. That’s it. That’s it. That’s – to me, one of the lessons of gardening is like the lesson of abundance.
GAY: If you have a garden, it’s like work. And there will always be a moment when you have too much. And so it kind of reminds you, oh yeah, what do we do?
TAYLOR: You have too much, and actually it becomes a gift for people to take your stuff.
TAYLOR: And there’s this joke in the Midwest that people leave zucchini on other people’s porches in the middle of the night. They just say you have to take my zucchini now.
GAY: That’s it. That’s it.
TAYLOR: And it’s funny, yeah, true, because we live in this world, I think, where we think a lot about scarcity. And there is a lot of fear. And yet we also, you know, especially those of us who are gardeners, have those moments like this overwhelming excess that actually kind of brings us into community, you know?
GAY: Oh yeah, totally.
TAYLOR: As you know, I’ve just edited this anthology of new garden poetry that’s coming out next year. And I’m really excited about it. But – so I had a chance to think a little bit about how gardening and poetry go together. And I was just wondering if you’ve given some thought to it, like why gardens and poetry are such good friends?
GAY: Yes. I probably have like a – it’s like thinking for hours.
GAY: But one of the things that I think kinda ties homes and gardens together is that the seed of whatever — an arugula plant or a cabbage plant or something — is so tiny you wouldn’t notice it was on yours Counter. you would brush it off You wouldn’t even notice. But in that seed, in a very real way, not only is there enough arugula, you know, you could have an arugula plant that would then turn into whatever. Maybe it would yield 500 seeds. Each of those 500 seeds can produce plants, which could then produce every 500 more seeds. So it’s so fast that it’s kind of – there’s all this other stuff in this tiny little thing. It’s one of those places where metaphors occur. It becomes this. This is all the time. It’s always the case that gardens are a kind of metaphor for us, as beautiful as possible. That’s one way. And you? What do you think?
TAYLOR: Well, I also think gardens are a place that we can roam – they’re not exactly nature. They are something we have cultivated. But they are something that we have cultivated so that we can see nature, so we can touch it, so we can be close to it. And I feel like poetry is this place where we shape language so we can feel our life and we shape it and we clip it. It’s a place where we contract and condense the language so we can see and feel our lives more clearly.
GAY: That’s right. One of the things I do is I smell something and it reminds me of someone who isn’t here anymore or something that has changed. And that is an essential experience that happens in a garden that connects us through time and space. And it also reminds us that we have bodies that are only here for a certain amount of time. So gardens are also places where we have something to do – in addition to mourning a number of things, we also realize that these bodies are only here for as long as they are here.
TAYLOR: It’s funny, too, because poetry reminds us that we live in breath, which also reminds us that we live in bodies. Poems are about the breath. Poetry is about sharing breaths, sharing little beautiful musical bars of breath.
GAY: That’s exactly right. For example, poems are made of breath. So poems are inherently corporeal. And when we read them to others, they become part of other people’s bodies. Or when we read other people’s lives as they constructed a poem, we breathe them in.
TAYLOR: And I was wondering, do you have a poem you’d like to read us for the summer, a garden poem?
GAY: I have a poem for you. So I’m going to read a selection of my poem. It’s called “funeral”.
(reads) I took the jar that has become my father’s house. And lonely for him and hoping to coax him out of my mother as well as me, I watered some of them in the planting holes. And he dove, glad of the strong air, saddled a gentle puff of air into my nose and mouth, and giggled as I coughed. But mostly he disappeared in the little yawns in the earth in which I place the trees, spreading their roots wide, throwing my old man’s gray dust evenly over the whole, and then replacing the clumps of dense Indiana earth to the roots and my father was buried, poured everything in with one hand while with the other he held the tree straight like the flag of the nation of simple joy of which my father is a naturalized citizen.
TAYLOR: Oh, thanks. That’s so great. I love how you write about sadness and joy. And it got me thinking about this poem that’s in my collection that I’m working on right now, and it has a lot of food in it. I’ve found that during those tough years, just being around to cook it has comforted me with food. So this one is called Poem For Heartbreak.
(Read) On a sad morning, I soak the beans, wash the kale dirt, smooth the purple veins in the kale. Here in the pool glitters earth, dirt, the slow grandchild of river and mountain. There are horrors to deal with today. But first, I chop onions and garlic. I make a meal for the trip. We’ll hold ourselves up the coming day, this potato is still a gift from the earth. I caress its silence, its subterranean musk. Its cold soothes my hands. I keep hearing my knife raised. It opens and opens against the wooden board.
GAY: Beautiful. Nice.
CHANG: Poets and gardeners Ross Gay and Tess Taylor. His next book is a collection of essays entitled Inciting Joy. Her latest book is Rift Zone.
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