Poet Ross Gay is a Force of Nature on New Album

Acclaimed poet Ross Gay made an album to help Bloomington-based label Jagjaguwar celebrate its 25th anniversary, but he wasn’t sure at first what sounds would accompany his words.

After Gay recorded spoken-word versions of five poems from his award-winning career, the Indiana University professor turned his work over to five different musicians.

The resulting album, “Dilate Your Heart,” was released April 9. Bon Iver founder Justin Vernon created a 15-minute soundscape to pair with Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” Harpist Mary Lattimore added an echo to Gay’s voice for “Burial,” a tribute to his late father. Experimental guitarist Sam Gendel
fractured Gay’s voice into something resembling an electronic beacon on “Sorrow is Not My Name.”

Gay uses the word “amazing” to describe the poetry-meets-music project.

“The whole thing is just more and different than what I ever would have ever imagined,” he says.

Jagjaguwar’s executives didn’t have to look far to enlist Gay, who has a studio near the Downtown Bloomington office of Secretly Group – parent company to Jagjaguwar and sibling labels Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans and Numero Group. Which makes for an impressive cluster of achievement in
the college town.

Vernon’s work with Bon Iver has brought the most attention to Jagjaguwar, thanks to two Grammy wins and a pair of albums (2011’s “Bon Iver” and 2016’s “22, A Million”) that reached No. 2 on Billboard magazine’s Top 200 albums chart.

On the day of “Dilate Your Heart’s” release, Gay was awarded a PEN America Literary Award and its $75,000 prize for a book-length poetic tribute to basketball icon Julius Erving titled “Be Holding.” His career accolades include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the Guggenheim
Fellowship for Creative Arts.

In addition to sports, gardening is a signature topic in Gay’s writing. He’s a founding board member of the nonprofit Bloomington Community Orchard.

References to Liberty apples, fig trees, crocuses, gooseberries and shoveling manure with a pitchfork appear in “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” title poem of a book published in 2015. Gay says the book’s title arrived before the poem.

“I can remember right where I was: I was swinging kettlebells in a field with a friend,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to need to write a poem called “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” ‘ “How did he know the poem, which stretches to a quarter of an hour on “Dilate Your Heart,” was complete?

“There were compositional things I realized. I couldn’t let it go on forever,” he says. “I wonder if once my father showed up in the poem if maybe he was saying, ‘OK, come on, come on.’ But I’m not really positive about that.”

Defined by its sense of appreciation, “Catalog” reserves a musical reference for Gay’s father:

“And thank you the way my father one time came back in a dream
by plucking the two cables beneath my chin
like a bass fiddle’s strings
and played me until I woke singing,
no kidding, singing, smiling.”

Presently working on a book based on his relationship with the land, Gay says he didn’t marvel at nature’s ability to flourish undeterred during 2020 – a year in which humanity struggled with the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice.

One of the upcoming book’s goals, Gay says, is “to try to diminish our sense of the separation, actually, between ourselves and nature. … “Nature is not not us. What’s happening to everything is happening to everything.”

The Ohio native who grew up in Philadelphia underscores his connection to nature in the closing line of “Dilate Your Heart’s” final track: “I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.” The poem featured here, 2011’s “Sorrow is Not My Name,” is Gay’s homage to iconic Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

Her poem “To the Young Who Want to Die” concludes, “Remember, green’s your color. You are spring.” Gay says he was introduced to Brooks’ “To the Young Who Want to Die” during an “extended and profound period of crisis.”

“That poem is never away from me,” he says. “It feels like a real gift to be able to, in a way, show what that poem has shown me.”

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