Ross Gay: In Praise of (Foot- End- Etc.) Notes


Katherine McKittrick’s book Dear Science and Other Stories came in the mail today, along with Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence and Geoff Dyer’s See/Saw. I immediately started flipping through the McKittrick because I had heard from someone I work with that it was a weird book, I saw a weird talk of hers on YouTube confirming that it might be a weird book, and I love few things as much as I love a weird book. Also, my impression was that it was going to be a book by an academic that does not adhere to standards of academic writing, among which sometimes seems to be a commitment to profound, unbearable, and untenable boringness, which I think is the (often unwitting) result of the (often untroubled) belief in (and aspiration to) objectivity, a colonial, or at least dominator, and really childish crock of shit if there ever was one.

I once was among a group of fellows in residence for a year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a place that is part of Harvard, and though some people were impressed by the libraries and stuff, and whose pictures were on the walls, and names, I knew we were on a different planet when they told us we didn’t have to put stamps on our outgoing mail when we sent it through the institute—the language was, more or less, they have people for that. A nonprofit planet with the endowment of a country, where most everything was free for us but the people in town have to pay to use the gym and the library. But that’s not this story (though that is the story). While there, the writer Michael Pollan gave a little talk about writing for the fellows, many of whom were professors, wrote books, and adjudicated the writing of other impressionable people. When Pollan suggested that writing from a question instead of a thesis makes for more compelling writing and thinking, for reader and writer alike, eyeballs fell from heads. Elbow patches from corduroy jackets. Because the thesis (and the proof) are how writing is taught, which means it is how thinking is taught, and that leads to really bad, or boring at least, thinking. Another thing we go to school to learn. Whoops! Sidetracked!

To my delight I found that McKittrick’s book is thoroughly footnoted, not only in a standard bibliographical way, though some of that, but in a digressive, contrapuntal, sub-argumentative way. By which I mean, quick glance here, it appears as though some of these footnotes are miniature essays, essayettes, which I’m sure complicate, deepen, twist up, who knows, the text. Occasionally these footnotes are a whole page or more. It might be the poet in me, by which I mean the writer obsessed with form in me, who is so interested in and enamored of the oddball overlong footnote, the footnote that calls into question the very idea of the ancillary, just as Jenny Boully’s book The Body, made entirely of footnotes, does. I’m pretty sure the first time I realized I loved footnotes was Junot Dìaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, where the author pokes his head through the curtains of the novel to give crucial lessons on the history of the Dominican Republic, etc. I was finishing a PhD, which some people call a PhDuh, and was relieved—thrilled really—to see someone making playful use of what is usually a toneless, utilitarian, citational requirement of the form (bad writing). I have lately been writing long footnotes myself—way too long, believe me—in an effort, I realized as they were accruing, to do that thing we do in conversation, which is interrupt ourselves, or interject—oh yeah hold up you need to know this, too—such that, in the best conversations, the ones I love, visiting is the word, you sometimes go as deep as you do far. Another poetic preoccupation, perhaps. Another definition of the lyric, perhaps. That’s my two cents anyway.[1]

Cousin to my love for full-bodied, full-throated footnotes is my love of endnotes, the ones that serve the standard citational purpose, but I’m always looking, again, for the endnotes that refuse to end, which makes citation a kind of song, all these notes that want to keep the song going. Endnotes like how Luther Vandross ends (or doesn’t) his version of “Superstar” or “A House Is Not a Home.” How Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes” ends about four times, or maybe five. I imagine it’s already happened, but given my own inclination to sometimes spend more time on the endnotes than on the body of the text—which maybe we should call the midnote?—I long for a book made of only endnotes. Which, if I was reading it, truth be told, after a page or two I’d go looking for some other notes, maybe the acknowledgments, which I just might love the most, and I have to admit it is often where I turn first when reading a book, which, it’s true, when I was a young whippersnapper in the writing world, especially the petite and profoundly entangled poetry world, was because I probably wanted to know who the writer knew, by which I was likely doing some kind of petty recon: Was the pub the result of connections? Did the teacher get them the hookup? Etc. (Hint: yes. Even when no, yes.)[2]

Acknowledgments, like the best writing, might not be perfectly relatable, as the kids say.

But these days, freed for the time being from that particular need to position myself—to know who knows who knows who knows who knows; i.e., and strange, people might now sweat who knows me—I find myself reading the acknowledgments as a way to know how they know who they know (ooh, delight: how and who are anagrammatical pals). Some writers seem to fancy themselves solo travelers, some have a tight-knit crew they feel indebted to (close readers, family, friends, this or that fellowship or granting institution), and some go on and on and on and on.

Anyhow, I mention it because this is another example of me flipping to the endnotes.

Little (literary) theory here: some of these ad nauseum acknowledgers, among whom I count myself, have spent a lot of time reading liner notes to records, but particularly hip-hop records, or cassettes and CDs in my case, which were exorbitant and vernacular in their gratitude. They were like maps of entanglement, or webs, some of which was legible to a visitor— Posdnuos thanking, for instance, Q-Tip or Monie Love or whoever—some of which was not, for I don’t know his cousin’s nickname, or the name of the dude who lent him the recording studio that weekend, or some other nearly secret thing. (The poet Willie Perdomo, by the way, is the John Coltrane of acknowledgments. “Acknowledgement” as mycelial love note.) But someone does. That’s to say, acknowledgments, like the best writing, might not be perfectly relatable, as the kids say. Or better yet, decipherable. They might be a little bit like reading Greek, unless you’re Greek, that is, or you have a Greek granny or lover, or maybe if you’re Puerto Rican but you grew up in Astoria, or you grew up in Levittown but love Clash of the Titans, by which I really mean unless you understand being grateful for what has made your song possible, which I recommend we go on and on (and on and on) trying to be.

(Oct. 16)

[1]For another example of compelling footnotes, check out Samuel Delaney’s book Of Solids and Surds, where he includes often quite funny, and always insightful, dialogue between his editor and himself about the proposed edits to the book.

[2]When I receive my copy of the Poetry Project Newsletter, as good a literary publication as I know (and free!), I find myself spending most of my time on the feature called “Remembrances,” where, you probably guessed it, people write about the recently deceased. It is
so interesting to me, and moving, to listen to people talk about their recently departed. Probably a little extra interesting, too, since some of these now dead people’s poems I have read, a lot of the poets I love have died (or are dying), and I, too, will one day be a dead poet. Anyhow, I mention it because this is another example of me flipping to the endnotes.


From The Book of (More) DelightsUsed with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2023 by Ross Gay.

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