Ross Gay’s Be Holding, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2020, is a stunning book-length poem that focuses on a famous move by basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving to illuminate the forces that propel Black flight amid the legacies of terror and death. In the spring of 2021, the book won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, with the judges hailing it as “a wondrous, profound exploration of how much captured moments in time can mean.”
Soon thereafter, historian and sports scholar Frank Guridy and poet and performance scholar Deborah Paredez spoke with Gay about poetry, basketball, and how to cultivate practices of beholding in a culture that often conditions us to look at Black suffering. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Frank Guridy (FG): Can you begin by talking about the forces that came together to make your book happen? Why focus on Julius “Dr. J” Erving? And why, in particular, focus on one of his very famous moves, the gravity-defying reverse layup he made during game four of the 1980 NBA Championship Series?
Ross Gay (RG): There are a lot of people who are geniuses in that realm, but Dr. J is special to me because I grew up right outside of Philadelphia when his team was the Philadelphia 76ers. He played back in the day when you could afford a ticket. I was born in 1974. Dr. J came to the 76ers in ’76, and then we moved to the Philadelphia area in 1979.
I saw Dr. J’s move in 1980. The way that it sits in my memory is that I’m sitting at my dad’s legs; he is in the chair and I’m leaning against him. Whether or not that is exactly true, that is how it sits in my memory.
There is something about Doc, something so incomprehensibly beautiful about this move. I had a long life of playing basketball and being serious about it in certain ways. So, for me, when I go back and watch any game that Dr. J played in, I see that he will do maybe four things that are impossible. And I think, “How did you do that? How did you decide to do that in the air?” Again and again and again.
And then there is the other question: How it is that I found myself studying this particular moment of Black flight? I needed to be studying the flight, that’s what it is.
The actual occasion of the poem is that I found myself watching Dr J. And I, for sure, found myself watching footage of him at the same time that some other Black person was being murdered by the state. And, just as the poem expresses it, I noticed myself watching again and again and again.
I haven’t said it like that before. But I think I was finding myself in the midst of something.
FG: A lot of folks are writing about Black death these days, for obvious reasons. To me, what is so important about your book is how it speaks to not just Black death but Black life. In your acknowledgements, you mentioned the influence of Christina Sharpe, Aracelis Girmay, Saidiya Hartman, among many others. What is your book saying about Black death and Black life?
RG: One of the things the poem is trying to wonder about and understand is Black life. Death is a feature of life, but, nevertheless, my interest is in Black life. What I’m trying to do and trying to study and trying to imagine and trying to witness are the ways our lives have been witnessed forth.
In fact, Dr. J—as a figure of someone who is flying and doing miraculous things—is certainly no more interesting, actually, than my great-grandmother Biggie. She fled from Port Gibson, Mississippi, in 1913, got to Youngstown, Ohio, and then had this amazing garden and took care of all of these people and was the center of this community. I would not be here without her.
We have to witness everything. This poem wonders—in the midst of brutality and without negating or diminishing the fact of that brutality—how we study what we have been shown?
Deborah Paredez (DP): You are pointing toward what I think is the ars poetica of this book, which you repeat throughout the poem in your refrain:
What am I
what am I
Throughout, you are beholding the ways we are conditioned to consume Black death and trying to implicate your own, and our, complicity in this. We see this when you ask:
I wonder if, no,
I wonder how
I, too, am a docent
in the museum of black pain …
if I might be building a home
of our pain,
throwing myself overboard
for the insurance
what’s my study
what’s my practice
I was moved to tears again and again as I witnessed you beholding Black life in response to and in the midst of this conditioning; with the ways you encouraged us to behold your looking and your struggles with beholding; with your constant questioning of the ways we are seduced into, as Saidiya Hartman warns us against, using the dead in the service or our romances—or in the service of our own livelihoods or subject formation. In this way, your practice of beholding acts as such an urgent and necessary intervention in this moment.
RG: One of the fascinating things that Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives is doing is showing us how to see our lives.1 How to see our lives in the midst of the terror. And that makes me feel so indebted to her work and thinking.
DP: What I appreciate about your work, as with Hartman’s, is how you both endeavor to behold Black life in the midst of so much terror. The first line of your book—“You might have noticed there’s nowhere to go”—immediately foregrounds this effort and enlists the reader, the you, in this work.
Can you talk a bit about why and how you started the book in this way, as well as your choice to use the second person as a point of view throughout the poem?
RG: I’m going to riff a little bit in my answer. This book used to be called “Flight.” It was called “Flight” until I read In the Wake by Christina Sharpe.2 Now, it’s true that the title change was also informed by Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons and by a lot of other kinds of conversations, too.3 But reading Sharpe made me ask, “What is flight when there is nowhere to go?” And when I say, “There’s nowhere to go,” what I’m saying is, “We’re not escaping the turmoil or tumult of history. We are not going to escape this.”
So, what is flight in the midst of it? What is flight despite it? And, also, what is flight that does not erase it? That does not want to erase it? That wants to hold it as a debt, or hold it as a way of acknowledging that we’re not getting out of this? No matter how good you can fly.
In my last two books, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and Be Holding, I’ve been acutely interested in addressing the reader. But I might be more particularly interested in it in the midst of what feels like a really difficult thing. So that, at times, the you is a caretaking gesture. Sometimes it is like a little bit of humor, as a way to say, “Come on, come on, we’re gonna go in.”
Also, I’m interested in these moments where the poem asks, “Yo, remember Shawn Kemp?” That is one of my favorite moments in the poem, because a lot of people reading poems aren’t going to remember Shawn Kemp.
FG: That’s it! I love the way your poem uses the you in a way that cues the reader, requiring them to have a certain knowledge without putting them off. Sure, there are folks who know the synergy between basketball and poetry. But I suspect there are a lot of poetry readers who may not know the intricacies of basketball terms like “Silk” or “English” or “off the glass,” and your book acknowledges the readers, the yous, who can understand how all of this is seamlessly brought together. And, not to be too simplistic, these yous will often be certain Black readers. This is not a book about Black life and death that privileges the white literary audience.
DP: Yes, what I love is the way the you in your book privileges certain readers who don’t often get privileged. And I love the way the you is capacious enough to also include or be directed at the you who needs to be implicated in our practices of looking—which is all of us. The you shifts from (1) let’s implicate this photographer; (2) let’s implicate me; to (3) let’s implicate us.
So, we can’t stay comfortable in our distance, can’t just be thinking, “Oh yeah, that photographer equals bad. Oh yeah, look at the poet doing his own implication. OK, yeah, cool.” Pretty soon, the poem makes us aware, “Oh, shit—it’s coming for me too!” But in this caretaking way. Which makes us think, “Of course it will, right?” Because none of us have been able to escape from that.
It’s precisely the way you use you with such tenderness that means that, by the time we get there, we can fully accept and behold: “Yes, he is right, man, he is right. I’m in this, I’m in on this.”
All of this brings me to my next question. Can you discuss the poem’s relationship to documentary photography? And, specifically, the ways documentary photography has literally framed our ways of looking at Black life and death?
RG: In the last 10 years, I have been more acutely aware of documentary photography and—specifically through the smartphone—of the ubiquity of the camera. I’m wondering what that does. But I’m really curious … no, the word is actually skeptical; I’m profoundly skeptical of the ways photographs are instrumentalized to impose fucked up shit.
DP: Fucked up shit, exactly.
RG: In contrast, look at Carrie Mae Weems’s photographs: her family reunion photographs are so beautiful to me because they are noninstrumental photographs. They aren’t for anything except for beholding. They are regarding with love and care. Every time I see some of her photographs, I swell, and I get so cared for, partly because I know that in the looking there is a regard. It is this other thing. I can’t speak to the history of documentary photography in any succinct way, except to say that I am profoundly skeptical of how people look and how people look at me.
DP: Yes, and, throughout your book, you are showing us how the poet is training himself. And that, in turn, is teaching us how to look; or rather, how to behold, with this poet’s sense of regard. Such a regard requires a proximity, not the distance that documentary photography typically practices and encourages.
For example, Be Holding contains a description of looking closely at the boy in the Works Progress Administration photograph that features on the book’s cover:
our bodies now
a kind of shield
our looking now
a kind of shield
between the boy
and the looking
and the looking
I too find myself doing
how do we be
holding the child
so broken are we
by the breaking
and the looking
how do we be
holding each other
so broken are we by
the breaking and the looking
so ill am I
how do we
cut it out,
the eyes from our heads
In that moment, you are proclaiming an elegy for the ways we’ve been conditioned to look. And yet, you are also practicing, in this moment, the beholding of Black life amidst the horror.
You’re doing it and then we’re beholding with the poet. It is flight, it is Black flight. Oh, my God, it is right here, right?
RG: Yes, this takes me back to your earlier question about the opening line, “There’s nowhere to go.” The poem starts out with saying, basically, “Look, we can’t get out of this. We can’t get out of having been formed by brutal modes of looking. You can’t get out of that.” It is so interesting because when you were talking, I was thinking that, in the passage you read, in that moment, I am in deep conversation with Aracelis Girmay’s poems. I’m studying her studying, her own looking at her baby or at her family in the poems in her book The Black Maria. The looking I practice there is impossible without the guidance of Aracelis’s work, which is itself the practice.
And all this reminds me that you don’t do it by yourself. That mode of looking is not like any individual feat; it is a feat of joining.
DP: Yes, that is also what the book does in relation to Dr. J. On one level, it is about the individual feat, this singular person in flight. But it also shows how housed within this singular, individual act is also the we. So many wes, so many histories, so much flight and falling.
FG: You are regarding the subjects here with love. You are enacting the thing you see Weems doing in her photographs.
RG: Yes. A deep wondering. And a deep care. And, also, like Saidiya Hartman, a speculation that is aware when it is being romantic, is aware and trying to trouble it, is also really trying to ask: “How do we look at each other? How do we imagine our lives? How do we imagine ourselves alive?”
FG: Just as you’re drawing from writers like Hartman, Sharpe, and Girmay, so, too, you are drawing from another Black Philadelphia basketball legend, Allen Iverson. At his famous 2002 press conference, Iverson chided the press for questioning him about his practice habits. He refused to go along with the standard question-and-answer ritual with sportswriters by memorably lashing out, in disgust: “We talking about practice?”
In the poem, you recall your father swimming with you and your brother at the beach. Within the long history of slavery and terror in the water, you write:
like that he’d be holding us,
and in this way
flew some from the overboard,
and likewise showed us
how to fly some from the overboard,
by reaching toward
what you love,
which is not a citizenship
we talking about,
but a practice
despite the hold,
a practice that spites the hold,
spites the overboard,
we in here talking
about the reaching
that makes falling flight,
do you see
what I’m saying,
we in here talking
At this point, when I read “we in here talking,” I knew you were referring to Iverson’s press conference, and I read in wonder and delight how you turned it into a meditation on Black survival from slavery to the present.
How did you arrive at Iverson?
RG: There is actually a story to that. I had been working on this poem in versions for a long time. I was in this little coffee shop. It was getting late, and it wasn’t coming together. And then I started riffing a little bit. I was trying to describe the physical movement of Dr. J—that reaching so far—and then I’m connecting it to my father crawling, and then I’m connecting it to him swimming. And then I was remembering the way he would swim under water and reach toward us to keep us from falling off his back and us hanging onto him, all this reaching. Really, I was in that coffee shop and it all just flew into my head. It wasn’t as if I thought, “Oh, I know I need to reference something.”
I’ve been really interested in Allen Iverson. He was a beautiful player. And also, in that moment of refusal, he is basically saying, “You don’t know what practice is. You don’t know what practice is.”
And the language he used let me understand that, in fact, practice is the way we reach toward each other. And it will not always be right. And we will need to show each other how to do it.
I’m psyched that these turns—from Dr. J to the photographs to my dad to the overboard—don’t happen without Aracelis’s work. And that moment where the practice comes in, it doesn’t happen without Christina Sharpe’s work. Here is Christina Sharpe, and here is Allen Iverson, and here is my dad, and here’s Aracelis.
A Black Counternarrative
DP: Right, and in this way, the poem is holding all of them. This is a practice they taught you and that you, in turn, practice here. And this, again, goes back to Black life.
All this insistence on relation leads me to my next question, about syntax. Often when discussing your work with a student or with fellow poets, I will say that we can learn so much about Ross Gay’s poetics by looking at his boundless syntax, which is all about relation. It unwinds and keeps unwinding, keeps gathering us and so much more in. In this book-length poem, for instance, the first period doesn’t even appear until page 39—which I experienced as exactly right on time.
RG: After I published the book I thought, “Oh, I want to go back and completely unsentence the book.” I was sitting in on this class with this beautiful thinker and writer, J. Kameron Carter. He was talking a lot about grammar, and, by the time I came out of that class, I thought, “I’ve got to take that period out.” But then later, I thought that what I needed was to make what comes after the period start with a lowercase or a dash, so that it doesn’t imagine itself as an exceptional moment, but it is instead just a moment that extends.
And then there are also all these ways, you can probably tell, that I’m trying to use the line to breathe with; I’m trying to imitate thinking. How can the syntax itself imitate thinking? And, if the thinking is a struggle, the syntax itself probably needs to reflect a grasping.
What is interesting to me is the way the syntax will allow for things to turn into other things. And that is what I think of when you said the syntax was about relation.
DP: Your reference to the line and the breath also makes me want to talk about the fact that the poem is structured into couplets. Which, to me, are also about a sense of relation. We see things turning into other things sometimes within the couplet or sometimes in the leaps between the couplets. How did you land on couplets as the final form?
RG: There are at least two reasons. One is that I do like the idea of the poem looking like a wake. But, long before that, I was—I am—really deeply informed by Amiri Baraka’s work. In one of his poems, how does he put it? “At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones.” That line has been in the ear of this poem from the beginning, that railroad as a form.
Another reason I like that form is that, to me, that moment where Dr. J is looking into space, part of his looking gets him to the Ebo ascending into the sky. And I imagine that there is a ladder in this poem too.
I like couplets. There is something about the couplet—and you alluded to it. The couplet itself can hold more than a line; it can hold the contradictions. You can gather a point, or you can make a point and then undercut it. There is also—and I don’t quite understand it yet—something about couplets that means I feel like, if I’m going to go for a long time, I might want a couplet. And that might have something to do with the breath or with narrative, but I’m not quite sure. Someone might say that couplets imply two, too. That whole thing.
DP: Yes, that it holds the we in it.
RG: Yes, it holds the we.
This article was commissioned by Frank Andre Guridy.
- Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (W. W. Norton, 2019). ↩
- Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016). ↩
- Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Autonomedia/Minor Compositions, 2013). ↩