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Here's what makes poetry and gardens a perfect pair, according to 2 poet-gardeners


OK. Let's slow down for a moment.

ROSS GAY: I'm Ross Gay.

TESS TAYLOR: I'm Tess Taylor. Ross is a poet, and he studies joy.

GAY: (Laughter) Tess is a poet, and she studies many things, but poets is among them.

CHANG: Tess has gardening on the mind as she edits an anthology of garden poems. It seemed like a terrific excuse to talk with Ross about how poetry and gardens are a perfect pair.

TAYLOR: How is your garden doing?

GAY: It's doing real good, you know. It's kind of an amazing part of the summer because, you know, Indiana is where I live, and stuff right around now, it starts to like really start taking off. Pretty soon we'll be harvesting garlic in like, you know, two or three weeks. But then there's all these other kind of fruiting bushes. Out here, we have these things called service berries. They're also called June berries. And it's this incredibly delicious fruit that is everywhere. It's kind of planted all over the place. So it's like the time to nibble that. There's a fruit called goumi that I love that is coming on right now. And I'm actually away from my house at this moment, and I'm a little bit excited to get back.

TAYLOR: Yeah. I was just away in New York for a week. And I came back, and our plum tree that was a little bit heavy was actually totally heavy and dropping. And I realized that one of the things that's so cool about gardens is they just make you want to call people over to be like, hey, we got too many plums. Could you come, please?

GAY: That's it. That's so it. That's it. That's - to me, like, one of the lessons of the garden is it's like the lesson of abundance.


GAY: If you have a garden, it's kind of like work. And there's always going to be a moment where you have too much. And so it kind of reminds you of like, oh, yeah, what do we do?

TAYLOR: You have too much, and in fact, it becomes a gift for people to take your stuff.

GAY: Yes.

TAYLOR: And there's that joke in the Midwest that people leave zucchini on other people's porches in the middle of night. They're just like, you have to take my zucchini now.

GAY: That's it. That's it.

TAYLOR: And it's funny, yeah, true, because we live in this world, I think, where we think about scarcity a lot. And there's a lot of fear. And yet, we do also, you know, especially those of us that are gardeners, have these moments of kind of like this overwhelming too muchness that actually kind of bring us into community, you know?

GAY: Oh, yeah, totally.

TAYLOR: So I just finished, as you know, editing this anthology of new gardening poems that's going to come out next year. And I'm really excited about it. But - so I had this chance to think a little bit about how gardening and poems go together. And I just wondered if you had some thoughts about that, like why are gardens and poems such good friends?

GAY: Yeah. I have probably like a - this is like hours of thinking.

TAYLOR: (Laughter).

GAY: But one of the things that I absolutely feel makes homes and gardens kind of tied up with one another is that the seed of whatever - an arugula plant or a collard plant or something - is so tiny, you wouldn't notice it if it was on your counter. You would brush it off. You wouldn't even notice it. But inside of that seed, in a very real way, is not only like enough arugula for, you know, you could have an arugula plant, that would then turn into whatever. Maybe it would make 500 seeds. Each of those 500 seeds can make plants that could then all make 500 more seeds. So it's so quick that there's a kind of - inside of this tiny thing is all of this other stuff. It's one of the places where metaphors happen. This turns into that. This is that all the time. It's always the case that gardens are sort of doing metaphor for us as beautifully as possible. That's one way. How about you? What do you think?

TAYLOR: Well, I also think that gardens are a place where we can - they're not exactly nature. They're sort of something we've cultivated. But they're something that we've cultivated so that we can see nature, so that we can touch it, so that we can be close to it. And I feel like poems are this place where we sculpt language so that we can feel our lives and we shape it and we prune it. It's a place where we tighten and make language dense so that we can see and feel our lives more clearly.

GAY: That's right. One of the things that I do is I'll smell something, and it'll remind me of someone who's no longer here or something that's changed. And that is a essential experience that happens in a garden that connects us through time and space. And it also reminds us that we have bodies which are only here for a certain amount of time. So gardens are places too where we get to sort of - in addition to, for instance, grieving any number of things, we get to be aware too that these bodies are only here for however long they're here.

TAYLOR: It's funny, too, because poems remind us that we live in breath, which also reminds us that we live in bodies. Poems are about breath. Poems are about sharing breaths, sharing little beautiful musical measures of breath.

GAY: That's exactly right. Like, poems are made of breath. So poems are bodily in themselves. And when we read them to other people, they become part of other people's bodies. Or when we read other people's lives, the way they've constructed a poem, we're breathing them.

TAYLOR: And that makes me wonder, do you have a poem that you want to read us for the summer, a garden poem?

GAY: I have a poem for you. So I'm going to read a selection of my poem. It's called "Burial."

(Reading) I took the jar, which has become my father's house. And lonely for him, and hoping to coax him back from my mother as much as me, I poured some of them into the planting holes. And he dove in, glad for the robust air, saddling a slight gust into my nose and mouth, chuckling as I coughed. But mostly, he disappeared into the minor yawns in the earth into which I place the trees, splaying wide their roots, cast in the grey dust of my old man evenly throughout the whole, replacing then the clods of dense Indiana soil until the roots and my father were buried, watering it all in with one hand while holding the tree with the other straight as the flag to the nation of simple joy of which my father is now a naturalized citizen.

TAYLOR: Oh, thank you. That's so great. I love how you write about sorrow and joy together. And it made me think of this poem that's in my collection I'm working on now, which has a lot of food in it. I've noticed that food steadied me during these hard years, just being near it, cooking it. So this one is called "Poem For Heartbreak."

(Reading) On a morning of sorrow, I soak the beans, wash the kale's particulate dirt, smooth down purple veins in the collard. Here in the basin is glittering earth, dirt, the slow grandchild of river and mountain. There are horrors to take in today. But first, I chop onions and garlic. I am making a meal for the journey. We will hold ourselves up this coming day, this potato still a gift of the earth. I fondle its silence, its underground musk. Its cold steadies my hands. Again and again, I hear my knife heave. It opens and opens against the wood board.

GAY: Beautiful. Beautiful.

CHANG: Poets and gardeners Ross Gay and Tess Taylor. His next book is a collection of essays called "Inciting Joy." Her most recent book is "Rift Zone." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.