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Interview with Ross Gay, 2017 Blue Light Books Prize Judge

We are proud to have Indiana University Director of Creative Writing and long-time supporter of Indiana Review Ross Gay judge the 2017 IR/IU Press Blue Light Books Prize. While preparing your poetry manuscripts, read his interview where he discusses when he knows a poem is finished, writing as conversation, love, and what he might be looking for in the winning poetry collection.


Ross Gay is the author of three books: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashedrossgay1 Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is currently a nominee for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Catalog was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, the Ohioana Book Award, the Balcones Poetry Prize, and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award.


1. What are some of your favorite poetry collections and why?

I have too many favorite poetry collections to respond to that question in any kind of useful way, except to tell you that I have like a zillion of them.

2. When you’re working on a poem or essay, how do you know when it’s finished? What makes you feel that your work as a single unit or as a collection is ready for the world?

I probably get a feeling, get a new knowing, something that was not there before I started the poem—let’s talk about a poem here—and that knowing, and the way it exists inside or as a poem (the poem as artifact of the new knowing, maybe a momentary new knowing but still!), is the first clue. In other words: I’ve been changed. At that point the poem has done the most important thing it can do for me. It has moved me. Then the beautiful and strange part of seeing if this artifact of my own movement might also move other people…I do that with other people, friends who read poems and are kind enough to tell me if they are any good (finished, almost finished, worth finishing). You know? Friends help me write my poems.

3. Sometimes we think of writing as a solitary process, but we write to communicate. Do you find yourself writing with a particular reader or audience in mind?

I sometimes do I guess—I sometimes am writing to my friends, explicitly. And I’m almost always in intentional and kinda overt conversation with other writers—arguing and playing with them. So it moves around some. But, as I said above, the first audience is me. The poem has to work on me first.

4. If you had to give one piece of advice for writers at any level, what would it be?

Let love, what you love, be your engine.

5. In a poetry collection, what catches your eye? What might you be looking for when reading for the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize?

I love things I can’t figure out. Things that don’t quite hold together in the ways I’ve come to think about things holding together. Things that baffle me and that try to do things they do not know how to do. All that stuff.


The 2017 Blue Light Books Prize is open from December 1 to February 15. See our submissions page for full guidelines.