Westminster Poets

Visiting Poet Series

Exactly two decades ago, the English Department decided to enhance its already robust contemporary poetry curriculum by creating the Westminster Poetry Series. Every year, the department invites a major poet to visit Westminster for two or three days, usually in the spring. The entire school studies books of poems by the visiting poets, guaranteeing an especially knowledgeable audience, something all of the visiting poets have appreciated. A generous grant from former trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 funds the series. 

When the department asked visiting writer Scott Russell Sanders to recommend some writers who, he thought, would be great for the school’s visiting writers programs, he immediately mentioned his friend and colleague at Indiana University, Ross Gay. A little research quickly convinced the department that Gay would be perfect as the 20th Westminster Poet. After some tricky negotiations about dates, Gay agreed to come to campus in early March of 2020. He will give a reading for the entire school on the morning of Monday, March 2, and he will visit classes throughout the day on both Monday and Tuesday to speak with students and teachers about his life and work.  

Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry: “Against Which” (2006); “Bringing the Shovel Down” (2011); and “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His collection of short essays, “The Book of Delights,” was released in 2019.

Of “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Scott Russell Sanders says, “In this bright book of life, Ross Gay lopes through the whole alphabet of emotions, from anger to zest. Merely considering the letter ‘R,’ for example, these poems are by turns racy, rollicking, reflective, rambunctious, raunchy and rhapsodic. Praise and lamentation rub shoulders, along with elegy and elation, and every page is dazzling.” And Gay’s friend, collaborator and former Westminster Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil states, “Ross Gay offers up a muscled poetry of a thousand surprises, giving us a powerful collection that fireworks even the bleakest nights with ardency and grace. Few contemporary poets risk singing such a singular compassion for the wounded world with this kind of inimitable musicality, intelligence and intoxicating joy.”

All four forms will study the poems in “Catalog” before Gay comes to campus in March. Teachers will augment poems from that book with selections from Gay’s earlier books of poetry. In addition, the department heads selected Gay’s “Book of Delights” as an all-school summer reading book, so teachers and students alike will have read that book before Gay’s visit. The review of “The Book of Delights” in The New Yorker says, "The title is a giveaway, but these charming, digressive ‘essayettes,’ in the manner of Montaigne, surprise and challenge more than a reader might expect. Gay, an award-winning poet, knows the value of formal constraint: his experiences of ‘delight,’ recorded daily for a year, vary widely but yield revealing patterns through insights about everything from nature and the body to race and masculinity. The fruits of this experiment—for which gardens and gardening provide a frequent, apt metaphor—attest to an imagination cultivated in hostile conditions. Gay’s optimism is as easy as it is improbable, his ‘heart cooing like a pigeon nestled on a windowsill where the spikes rusted off.’” Another writer, Luis Alberto Urrea, says simply, “Ross Gay is a writer perfectly suited to find delight. His eye is so brilliant, it seems to glow from within. When I need hope, I turn to his words. And this collection will remind you how beautiful it is to be alive.”
Below are a few of Gay’s poems to whet your appetite and some links to relevant websites.

List of 2 items.


       for Keith and Jen
    Friends I am here to modestly report
    seeing in an orchard
    in my town
    a goldfinch kissing
    a sunflower
    again and again
    dangling upside down
    by its tiny claws
    steadying itself by snapping open
    like an old-timey fan
    its wings
    again and again,
    until, swooning, it tumbled off
    and swooped back to the very same perch,
    where the sunflower curled its giant
    swirling of seeds
    around the bird and leaned back
    to admire the soft wind
    nudging the bird's plumage,
    and friends I could see
    the points on the flower's stately crown
    soften and curl inward
    as it almost indiscernibly lifted
    the food of its body
    to the bird's nuzzling mouth
    whose fervor
    I could hear from
    oh 20 or 30 feet away
    and see from the tiny hulls
    that sailed from their
    good racket,
    which good racket, I have to say
    was making me blush,
    and rock up on my tippy-toes,
    and just barely purse my lips
    with what I realize now
    was being, simply, glad,
    which such love,
    if we let it,
    makes us feel.

    Friends, will you bear with me today,
    for I have awakened
    from a dream in which a robin
    made with its shabby wings a kind of veil
    behind which it shimmied and stomped something from the south
    of Spain, its breast aflare,
    looking me dead in the eye
    from the branch that grew into my window,
    coochie-cooing my chin,
    the bird shuffling its little talons left, then right,
    while the leaves bristled
    against the plaster wall, two of them drifting
    onto my blanket while the bird
    opened and closed its wings like a matador
    giving up on murder,
    jutting its beak, turning a circle,
    and flashing, again,
    the ruddy bombast of its breast 
    by which I knew upon waking
    it was telling me
    in no uncertain terms
    to bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones,
    the whole rusty brass band of gratitude
    not quite dormant in my belly—
    it said so in a human voice,
    “Bellow forth”—
    and who among us could ignore such odd
    and precise counsel?
    Hear ye! hear ye! I am here
    to holler that I have hauled tons—by which I don’t mean lots,
    I mean tons — of cowshit
    and stood ankle deep in swales of maggots
    swirling the spent beer grains
    the brewery man was good enough to dump off
    holding his nose, for they smell very bad,
    but make the compost writhe giddy and lick its lips,
    twirling dung with my pitchfork
    again and again
    with hundreds and hundreds of other people,
    we dreamt an orchard this way,
    furrowing our brows,
    and hauling our wheelbarrows,
    and sweating through our shirts,
    and two years later there was a party
    at which trees were sunk into the well-fed earth,
    one of which, a liberty apple, after being watered in
    was tamped by a baby barefoot
    with a bow hanging in her hair
    biting her lip in her joyous work
    and friends this is the realest place I know,
    it makes me squirm like a worm I am so grateful,
    you could ride your bike there
    or roller skate or catch the bus
    there is a fence and a gate twisted by hand,
    there is a fig tree taller than you in Indiana,
    it will make you gasp.
    It might make you want to stay alive even, thank you;
    and thank you
    for not taking my pal when the engine
    of his mind dragged him
    to swig fistfuls of Xanax and a bottle or two of booze,
    and thank you for taking my father
    a few years after his own father went down thank you
    mercy, mercy, thank you
    for not smoking meth with your mother
    oh thank you thank you
    for leaving and for coming back,
    and thank you for what inside my friends’
    love bursts like a throng of roadside goldenrod
    gleaming into the world,
    likely hauling a shovel with her
    like one named Aralee ought,
    with hands big as a horse’s,
    and who, like one named Aralee ought,
    will laugh time to time til the juice
    runs from her nose; oh
    thank you
    for the way a small thing’s wail makes
    the milk or what once was milk
    in us gather into horses
    huckle-buckling across a field;
    and thank you, friends, when last spring
    the hyacinth bells rang
    and the crocuses flaunted
    their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
    the beehive which when I entered
    were snugged two or three dead
    fist-sized clutches of bees between the frames,
    almost clinging to one another,
    this one’s tiny head pushed
    into another’s tiny wing,
    one’s forelegs resting on another’s face,
    the translucent paper of their wings fluttering
    beneath my breath and when
    a few dropped to the frames beneath:
    honey; and after falling down to cry,
    everything’s glacial shine.
    And thank you, too. And thanks
    for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
    Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
    a pillow, dear one,
    for I can feel this is going to be long.
    I can’t stop
    my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
    you, for staying here with me,
    for moving your lips just so as I speak.
    Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.
    And thank you the tiny bee’s shadow
    perusing these words as I write them.
    And the way my love talks quietly
    when in the hive,
    so quietly, in fact, you cannot hear her
    but only notice barely her lips moving
    in conversation. Thank you what does not scare her
    in me, but makes her reach my way. Thank you the love
    she is which hurts sometimes. And the time
    she misremembered elephants
    in one of my poems which, oh, here
    they come, garlanded with morning glory and wisteria
    blooms, trombones all the way down to the river.
    Thank you the quiet
    in which the river bends around the elephant’s
    solemn trunk, polishing stones, floating
    on its gentle back
    the flock of geese flying overhead.
    And to the quick and gentle flocking
    of men to the old lady falling down
    on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
    with the softest parts of their hands
    her cane and purple hat,
    gathering for her the contents of her purse
    and touching her shoulder and elbow;
    thank you the cockeyed court
    on which in a half-court 3 vs. 3 we oldheads
    made of some runny-nosed kids
    a shambles, and the 61-year-old
    after flipping a reverse lay-up off a back door cut
    from my no-look pass to seal the game
    ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
    and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
    grinning across his chest; thank you
    the glad accordion’s wheeze
    in the chest; thank you the bagpipes.
    Thank you to the woman barefoot in a gaudy dress
    for stopping her car in the middle of the road
    and the tractor trailer behind her, and the van behind it,
    whisking a turtle off the road.
    Thank you god of gaudy.
    Thank you paisley panties.
    Thank you the organ up my dress.
    Thank you the sheer dress you wore kneeling in my dream
    at the creek’s edge and the light
    swimming through it. The koi kissing
    halos into the glassy air.
    The room in my mind with the blinds drawn
    where we nearly injure each other
    crawling into the shawl of the other’s body.
    Thank you for saying it plain:
    fuck each other dumb.
    And you, again, you, for the true kindness
    it has been for you to remain awake
    with me like this, nodding time to time
    and making that noise which I take to mean
    yes, or, I understand, or, please go on
    but not too long, or, why are you spitting
    so much, or, easy Tiger
    hands to yourself. I am excitable.
    I am sorry. I am grateful.
    I just want us to be friends now, forever.
    Take this bowl of blackberries from the garden.
    The sun has made them warm.
    I picked them just for you. I promise
    I will try to stay on my side of the couch.
    And thank you the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer
    while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend;
    the photo in which his arm slung
    around the sign to “the trail of silences”; thank you
    the way before he died he held
    his hands open to us; for coming back
    in a waft of incense or in the shape of a boy
    in another city looking
    from between his mother’s legs,
    or disappearing into the stacks after brushing by;
    for moseying back in dreams where,
    seeing us lost and scared
    he put his hand on our shoulders
    and pointed us to the temple across town;
    and thank you to the man all night long
    hosing a mist on his early-bloomed
    peach tree so that the hard frost
    not waste the crop, the ice
    in his beard and the ghosts
    lifting from him when the warming sun
    told him sleep now; thank you
    the ancestor who loved you
    before she knew you
    by smuggling seeds into her braid for the long
    journey, who loved you
    before he knew you by putting
    a walnut tree in the ground, who loved you
    before she knew you by not slaughtering
    the land; thank you
    who did not bulldoze the ancient grove
    of dates and olives,
    who sailed his keys into the ocean
    and walked softly home; who did not fire, who did not
    plunge the head into the toilet, who said stop,
    don’t do that; who lifted some broken
    someone up; who volunteered
    the way a plant birthed of the reseeding plant
    is called a volunteer, like the plum tree
    that marched beside the raised bed
    in my garden, like the arugula that marched
    itself between the blueberries,
    nary a bayonet, nary an army, nary a nation,
    which usage of the word volunteer
    familiar to gardeners the wide world
    made my pal shout “Oh!” and dance
    and plunge his knuckles
    into the lush soil before gobbling two strawberries
    and digging a song from his guitar
    made of wood from a tree someone planted, thank you;
    thank you zinnia, and gooseberry, rudbeckia
    and pawpaw, Ashmead’s kernel, cockscomb
    and scarlet runner, feverfew and lemonbalm;
    thank you knitbone and sweetgrass and sunchoke
    and false indigo whose petals stammered apart
    by bumblebees good lord please give me a minute...
    and moonglow and catkin and crookneck
    and painted tongue and seedpod and johnny jump-up;
    thank you what in us rackets glad
    what gladrackets us;
    and thank you, too, this knuckleheaded heart, this pelican heart,
    this gap-toothed heart flinging open its gaudy maw
    to the sky, oh clumsy, oh bumblefucked,
    oh giddy, oh dumbstruck,
    oh rickshaw, oh goat twisting
    its head at me from my peach tree’s highest branch,
    balanced impossibly gobbling the last fruit,
    its tongue working like an engine,
    a lone sweet drop tumbling by some miracle
    into my mouth like the smell of someone I’ve loved;
    heart like an elephant screaming
    at the bones of its dead;
    heart like the lady on the bus
    dressed head to toe in gold, the sun
    shivering her shiny boots, singing
    Erykah Badu to herself
    leaning her head against the window;
    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,
    thank you, thank you,
    stumbling into the garden where
    the Juneberry’s flowers had burst open
    like the bells of French horns, the lily
    my mother and I planted oozed into the air,
    the bazillion ants labored in their earthen workshops
    below, the collard greens waved in the wind
    like the sails of ships, and the wasps
    swam in the mint bloom’s viscous swill;
    and you, again you, for hanging tight, dear friend.
    I know I can be long-winded sometimes.
    I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude
    over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward,
    the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems
    slipping into your eye. Soon it will be over,
    which is precisely what the child in my dream said,
    holding my hand, pointing at the roiling sea and the sky
    hurtling our way like so many buffalo,
    who said it’s much worse than we think,
    and sooner; to whom I said
    no duh child in my dreams, what do you think
    this singing and shuddering is,
    what this screaming and reaching and dancing
    and crying is, other than loving
    what every second goes away?
    Goodbye, I mean to say.
    And thank you. Every day.
Here are a few links to relevant websites: (this is Ross Gay’s homepage and it is loaded with poems and essays to read)

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