A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

Poet Ross Gay

WITS Voices: Writing is Climate. Writing is Real. Writing is Change.

By Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence 

I’ve become semi-obsessed with checking the weather channel website several times a week for the last 3 months. It’s like Facebook without friends. I want it to tell me spring is here to stay, the sun exists, and temperatures will rise steadily to a glowing, saturated peak. But do I? We live in a world “stranger than fiction.” April 22nd was Earth Day. How does this relate to teaching? At their deepest root, writing and climate change are stripped down and unapologetic. They show and they tell.

The tentacles of everything are tied to my writing, and thus my teaching. That is the practice anyhow, the gesture. That is what I see in writers like Ross Gay, Alice Notley, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. For instance, it’s my default to make jokes, talk about cats in class, and accidentally trip over a lamp cord during the final reading.

The weather channel parades about as if it were a Blockbuster. It’s like an angry anthill. It’s one of those things that we humans supposedly make small talk over, but then again, this is so context specific. Yet, like breathing, it, or it’s older cousin “climate,” will be the poem that haunts, that already haunts, our dreams, food, and work. “Climate” seems to be a strongly-worded word for the character traits of weather.

I want to teach students to trust poetry and themselves, and to be real—to inquire. To reinvent. This spring one student wrote a poem asking “Why poetry?” My first WITS lesson was on writing our obsessions, and de-stigmatizing the word “obsession,” while also opening up a discussion on the spectrums of obsession—from addiction to joy.

Several of my lessons unintentionally used mentor texts that contained climate-resilient and climate-resistant beings, such as the poems “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop and “To The Fig Tree On 9th And Christian” by Ross Gay. If you’re going to experience this latter poem, consider listening and watching at this link here, or find it at the end of this post.

For me, Gay best embodies the sort of obsessive joy I was attempting to pass on to these young writers. It is a kind of gratitude for what’s falling away even as I write this. To be in his presence under the fall of his poems is to be changed. His fig tree becomes a poetry gathering, all these people grasping and grabbing for a sweet fiber to take into their body. Flesh of the word, the fig tree, an anthropomorphized immigrant, is the exception. No. Never. The exception is the rule. Meaning, by way of a few frog-jumps into climactic metaphor, everything is everything. The earth is the ultimate editor. This planet has perspective.

I trust a poem and a fig tree over a CEO’s press release or a Facebook post:

To The Fig Tree On 9th And Christian
By: Ross Gay

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the silk
of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me

so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
wasps sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.

Cody Pherigo Writer Photo 2016-17_resized.jpegCody Pherigo is a queer writer from Kalamazoo, MI. His studies at Bent Writing Institute and Goddard College convinced him that poets are politicians in the most humane sense of the word. Cody has self-published 2 chapbooks, and is a 2016 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize finalist. In 2016, he was awarded a 4Culture Artists Grant for a project on trans resilience. 


Posted in 2016/17 SeasonStudent WritingWriters in the Schools