Ross Gay: In Praise of the Poetry Reading

"Books are lovely. I love books."

February 13, 2019  By Ross Gay

It might be a kind of self-aggrandizement to say so, but I love poetry readings. I love going to them. I think I probably love them, most often, more than I love poetry books. I’m pretty sure this is true.

The reason is simple: because during a poetry reading you are watching someone communicate with their body, which is as it communicates in the process of fading away. It will, perhaps one day soon, be dead, I mean. It sounds necrophilic, I know, but it’s not exactly. Because the fact of the dying, which, too, you and I will do, and which books will not, reminds us that the performing body, the reading body, the living body, the body fiddling with the reading lamp on the podium or playing with the hem of her dress or keeping beat on the microphone like Whitney Houston used to, looking into the corners of the room, the occasional sparkling line of spit between his lips, the armpit of their T-shirt damp, pointing to the giraffe in their poem, all of it, is lustrous.

Books are lovely. I love books. And libraries are among my favorite places on Earth, especially the tiny hand-built take-one-leave-ones like book birdhouses popping up in the last five or ten years. That’s a delight. And the libraries in small towns that only open two and a half days a week, and odd hours at that, where the knotty pine boards creak and the book-stuffed shelves of the old house wobble as you pass through. Where you have to duck walking beneath the sagging doorframe into the sci-fi, gardening, erotica, and children’s lit room.

As I write this it’s occurring to me that the books I most adore are the ones that archive the people who have handled them—dogears, or old receipts used as bookmarks (always a lovely digression). Underlines and exclamation points, and this in an old library book! The tender vandalisms by which, sometimes, we express our love. Or a fingerprint, made of some kind of oil, maybe from peanut butter,  which it would be if it was mine. Or a tea stain, and a note to oneself only oneself could decipher.

But books do not, the way the poet today did, cough and excuse herself and sip some water and comment on the pollen, sending you into a lilac-inspired daydream, wiping your own nose on your sleeve. Books do  not look searchingly while communicating their contents at the twelve or thirteen people gathered on couches in what must’ve been one of the most passive-aggressively lit rooms in America. Books do not, mid-poem, reach the forefinger and thumb into one’s mouth to gently fish out an eyelash. There are multiplicities within a human body reading poems that a poem on a page will never reproduce. In other words, books don’t die. And preferring them to people won’t prevent our doing so.

(Apr. 17)


book of delights ross gay cover

From The Book of DelightsUsed with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2019 by Ross Gay.

Ross Gay
Ross Gay
Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University and is the author of the poetry collections Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (with Aimee Nezhukumatathil), River (with Rose Wehrenberg), Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and the essay collection The Book of Delights. His latest book is Be Holding.

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