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Poet Ross Gay on Sport and the Act of Looking

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To me, poems are about a number of things but one of them is breath. Poems are made of lines. Lines, to me, are constituted by breaths. So poems are profoundly bodily.

As is sport. Sport is bodily at its root. But there's this other thing about breath and practice. And poems are obviously a site of practice, sport is also a site of practice. A place where you work through things.

To me, too that book [Be Holding], is so much about, like you said first, this kind of reaching, a kind of looking that results in reaching, or kind of looking that is a kind of reaching.

And I do wonder if the ways that– just the fact of studying very closely something beautiful, that as a model or a question, this question, which I am always asking, what happens if we study what we love? Or what happens if we study what we find beautiful?

There is something moving to me about that as a question. And I feel like to witness something with very slow devotion, something that you love with very slow meandering, digressive attention, I don't know, it feels playful, but also a loving and fun kind of thinking.

“Poems are profoundly bodily,” says Ross Gay. We spoke with the poet about embodiment in artistic and athletic practices, the act of looking, and his longform poem Be Holding, which takes its inspiration from “Dr. J” Julius Erving’s famous layup in the 1980 NBA Finals.

The poem now serves as the libretto for a new performance work of the same name, presented by Girard College and created in collaboration with composer Tyshawn Sorey, new music ensemble Yarn/Wire, and director Brooke O’Harra. Be Holding explores themes of Black genius and beauty in the face of racial violence and inequities and considers how imagination and careful looking can bring people closer to one another.

Be Holding at Girard College premieres May 31 through June 3, 2023.

Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry, including Be Holding (winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award) and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award). His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, was released by Algonquin in October of 2022.