Can the heat of a world on fire ignite seeds of joy?
Ross Gay’s new essay collection explores the revolutionary tactics of delight.
Poet Ross Gay writes about things we believe are not serious enough to save us. Inciting Joy was inspired by a series of conversations in response to his practice of writing daily about what delights him—the product of which was his bestseller The Book of Delights. “I didn’t know you could write about joy,” said a crying woman in her late 60s in Gay’s book signing line. “I have always been told that you can’t write about joy because it’s not serious,” marveled an undergraduate at a reading. “When all this is going on,” chided a fellow professor, indicating all the troubles of the world, “why would you write about joy?”
Because joy is the seed germinating within all things, unlocked by the heat and pressure of our world on fire. That’s one of the many metaphors Gay uses as he meditates on how we overlook joy by trying to make it into something it is not—pure and unadulterated, commodified as serenity or pleasure, or disconnected from real life, real bodies, and real emotions. “What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak,” he asks in the first chapter, “is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks?”
Gay calls each essay an “incitement,” conjuring the revolutionary tactics joy engages as it emerges in the midst of our entanglement with suffering, sorrow, and systems of oppression. Joy uncovers a human resiliency that stems from the interdependence and connection of living things. It is when we escape the mastering mentality of what Gay calls the brutal economy that joy inspires us and we incite more joy in others. Gay is a former college athlete, a coach, a poet, a teacher, and a person who understands how much his relationships shape him—especially his parents’ interracial union and his own. He draws on the ways that pickup basketball, community gardens, reading poetry aloud, listening to great artists cover songs of other greats, laughing, crying, just hanging out, and caring for the dying loose the shackles of capitalism’s productivity and White supremacy’s puritanical mindset to “rejoyn” us to gracious and life-giving ways of being.