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Kingsley Tufts winner is unabashedly thankful for CGU poetry prize

Ross Gay, whose third book of poetry is called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, has one more item to add to the list of things for which he is thankful. Earlier this month, he was awarded the coveted Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

The honor is tendered each year by Claremont Graduate University to a poet who has done great work and is expected to do much more. “It just feels really lucky,” Mr. Gay, 41, said of the win. “It feels lucky to have people seeing and reading the work.”

The prize carries more than prestige. It comes with a $100,000 purse, making it the world’s largest monetary prize for a single book of poetry.

At the April 7 ceremony held in Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre, award chair Lori Anne Ferrell shared a line from an Inside Philanthropy article about the Kingsley Tufts Award. “Sometimes, when the stars infrequently and magically align, it actually pays to be a poet,” she quoted.

Mr. Gay, whose day job is teaching in Indian University’s MFA program, called the financial remuneration “an incredible gift.” Asked what he plans to do with the prize money, his answer is practical and, given the current political debate, timely. “I have student loans.”

Educational debt didn’t make Mr. Gay’s litany of all things that are good in a world where life is fleeting and love is imperfect. What he has written about in his book, published by the University of Pittsburg Press, are those moments and memories that are imbued with purpose and beauty.

In one poem, he recalls how, as a child, he and his father would companionably devour a bucket of KFC chicken wings, “silently cleaning the bones while the laugh track of some rerun ebbed and flowed.”

In another, he describes the time he and a group of older men won a pickup basketball game against a bunch of “snot-nosed kids.” He relates the moment of triumph, when a 61-year-old guy made a basket to win the game. The aging athlete “ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods/and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar/grinning across his chest.”

In other poems, Mr. Gay praises the joy of sharing figs with fellow city-dwellers when they come upon a fruit-laden tree, sleeping in his clothes and buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt, drinking water from his hands and spending a lazy day outdoors. In some cases, his communion with nature is two parts pleasure and two parts pain, as when he poured his father’s ashes into a hole and planted a tree there. 

Mr. Gay says focusing on gratefulness for the sake of his book has been “useful.” He recently attended a spoken word reading full of poets as green as they were eager to express themselves. He was struck by the pessimism of the work.

“I felt like I would like to hear more gratitude, more joy. Not a childish thing but a kind of complicated joy,” he said.

The complicated joy of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has drawn numerous fans beyond the panel that pored through dozens of poetry books to select the Kingsley Tufts winner.

Karen Kovacik, Indiana’s poet laureate for the years 2012-2014, called it “a big-hearted, planet-loving book of poems.” One of the ways Mr. Gay shows his love for the planet is gardening. He grows things at home and at Bloomington Community Orchard, a “free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project” he helped found.

In the titular poem, he describes how he and fellow volunteers “dreamed” the orchard into being, then celebrated a year later with a party “at which trees were sunk into the well-fed earth,/one of which, a liberty apple, after being watered in/was tamped by a baby barefoot/with a bow hanging in her hair/biting her lip in her joyous work.”

Tending the soil has many rewards. Immediate gratification is not one of them.

“Looking at stuff that’s growing slowly, my relationship to time changes. My relationship to productivity changes,” he said. “Gardening makes stuff, but it makes stuff weirdly.”

Catalog includes poems that are weirdly longer than the poems in his last two collections, “Against Which” (2006) and “Bringing the Shovel Down” (2011). “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”—a name he came up with while in a field in Vermont, swinging kettle bells—runs a Whitman-esque 17 pages.

In a fast-paced world “where ideas and feelings are so quickly tossed around,” Mr. Gay said it was gratifying to take his ideas further and deeper. “What it means is you have the opportunity and the discipline to slow down,” he said.

The poet is on the young side when it comes to winning the Kingsley Tufts Award. It’s a feat Mr. Gay, who has won fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the Guggenheim Foundation, has achieved through a lot of elbow grease.

Along with teaching, he is a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call It Ballin’ and serves as editor of the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. In 2014 he published two collaborative chapbooks, River with Rechard Wehrenberg, Jr. and Lace & Pyrite with Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Mr. Gay took the time to read several poems from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude at the awards ceremony. He then read some of his newer work at a dinner that followed at CGU’s President’s House. An unexpected rain fell on the tent that provided an outdoor dining room, making the writer’s image-rich words even more atmospheric.

Another poet, Danez Smith, was also feted, having won a Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The annual honor, and the accompanying $10,000, went to Mr. Smith for his book of poetry [insert] boy. It’s an award presented each year to a writer whose inaugural poetry collection shows a poet of considerable promise.

Having won some breathing room when it comes to paying off his college loans, Mr. Gay will return to Indiana where he will continue tending to the Bloomington Orchard as well as his own land. “I feel silly calling it my garden,” he said.

It is work that will help him as he delves into his current project, a nonfiction book about African-American farming and, more specifically, about Mr. Gay’s relationship to the land.

When he spoke to the COURIER the day after the awards ceremony, the poet was polite, friendly and honest. But he couldn’t bring himself to waste time explaining the obvious. When asked why poetry matters, he had these words.

“It matters so plainly, I’m not even going to answer that question.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com