Poet Ross Gay, a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is working on a collection inspired by farming and gardening while he tends to his own plot from afar. "I'm texting my roommate back in Indiana to put the garlic in or to manage the straw delivery." Gay, an English professor at Indiana University, has been named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for his "Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude."
BOOKS: Do you have gardening books?
GAY: Tons. I love them. I love the ones with pictures. I also love ones like "The One Straw Revolution" by Masanobu Fukuoka. It's a kind of gardening, farming in a spiritual way. I've been rereading Michael Pollan's book "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education." I love all those funny little stories about the nuts and bolts of gardening.
BOOKS: What else are you reading?
GAY: I'm rereading Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby." Ah, it's amazing. I love her work period. She reaches places with these associative hops that are completely unpredictable. It's about her mother developing dementia, but it's about art, about writing. I first read it when it came out a couple of years ago. I know I had that book then because I have a draft of one of my poems in the book with arrows all around it. I write in my books. I kind of wreck of them.
BOOKS: Do you read a lot of nonfiction?
GAY: I love nonfiction. I feel like mostly these days that is what I read. Right now I'm writing about gardening, farming, and the land so I've read "In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World" by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. I just started Margo Jefferson's memoir "Negroland." I've been waiting for Wendy S. Walters's "Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal."
BOOKS: Have you always read a lot?
GAY: No. I started reading seriously after I was in college. I read comic books. I read every Power Man and Iron Fist that ever came out. I had a teacher introduce me to poetry and that kind of woke me up. He must have seen that I was checked out, was headed for a solid C minus, and when he was assigning presentations he chose Amiri Baraka for me, which is an instance of a teacher, boom, changing a kid's life.
BOOKS: Which poets are you reading currently?
GAY: I have been going back through Claudia Rankine's "Citizen." Kate Mayfield's "The Undertaker's Daughter" is a book I love and dig into regularly. Robin Coste Lewis's "Voyage of the Sable Venus" is kind of astonishing.
BOOKS: Do you read poetry differently than prose?
GAY: Yeah, for instance there's a book by Fred Moten that I have been reading, " The Little Edges." I'm reading that book so slowly. I'll read one poem five, six, or seven times. I am prepared to have a different kind of relationship with a poem. It's very different than how I read tend to read nonfiction.
BOOKS: Do you read about sports?
GAY: I dip in and out. I recently read a little thing John Updike wrote about Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." It was a beautiful little piece. I read Steve Almond's "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto." Two years ago I was deep into reading about football, and then I got distracted.
BOOKS: What was the last book that knocked you out?
GAY: Maggie Nelson's memoir "The Argonauts" really struck me.
BOOKS: Is there a book that you recommend a lot?
GAY: "Beloved" by Toni Morrison. I think I read it first in college and have read it every few years since. The language itself is remarkable. I don't know that I've read a book that explains America so well.
BOOKS: Do books ever make you laugh or cry?
GAY: Oh yeah. "Beloved" is a book that makes me cry. Percival Everett makes me laugh. I was sitting in a diner in Philly reading his "American Desert" and was laughing out loud so hard someone asked me what I was reading because I was obviously having a good time.