We Are Each Other: An Interview on the Tenderness Project

A Conversation with Ross Gay & Shayla Lawson

by Essence London

The Tenderness Project is full of writing, music, images with different textures, different rhythms, from different kinds of people, all in the name of tenderness. It feels something like an altar. Though a lot of folks in creative communities have one of Ross Gay’s collections on their shelves or have heard Shayla Lawson belt out Frank Ocean songs between her poems, not many are aware of the collaborative curatorial work they’re doing online. The near-obscurity of The Tenderness Project has created an intimacy amongst the contributors that we hope to invite you into here. There’s room. More than enough, because “we are each other.”


Essence London: First, tell us what The Tenderness Project is. How long has it been around? What’s its origin story? How’d this Ross Gay/Shayla Lawson collab come about?


Ross Gay: The Tenderness Project is a curated space of tendernesses—we ask contributors to make and share something that relates to the questions “What is tenderness?” or “What does it take to make it in America today?”—make it, maybe, meaning something like make it through. Make it with. After the presidential election in 2016, and the inauguration, I (Ross) was acutely aware of the need to be studying tenderness, as antidote and balm. To be exalting and featuring tenderness, which can sometimes feel hard to come by, though it’s a common feature of our lives. Shayla was my student a little while back, and I was always impressed and moved and really curious about her thinking and making, which is brilliant. So I was thinking it’d be fun to do something with her, some kind of collaboration, and when I saw her at an AWP conference I said, “Yo! Let’s do a thing!”


Shayla Lawson: So we did a thing. As a person of color, I was drawn to working with Ross as a mentor because I didn’t see many models of what it meant to be writing from that space and be soft—tender—taken care of. I feel like there was a lot of dialogue in the poetic community around the time of the 2016 presidential campaign in which poets (a cavalcade of soft people) didn’t feel particularly taken care of. Ross and I both agreed if we could provide people a space where they could go and retrieve a small piece of that part of themselves whenever they deemed it necessary, then we could do poets, and the community at-large, a tender service.


EL: December 2018 in Bloomington, Indiana, I co-hosted an event called Discourse on Tenderness with artist and writer, A Bowden. The day of, I was in a study room at the local library fretting over a map I’d made for the event when I found tendernesses.com. I see Ross pretty regularly and had no idea this existed! It was a perfectly timed find, but I wonder how word gets out about The Tenderness Project. Do people just stumble across it like I did?


SL: We’re definitely trying to spread the word that Tenderness is out there, but the work has been largely word of mouth. Directing people toward the regularly updated website is our primary goal, but we also are live on social media: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We hope the popularity of those platforms encourages people to share posts, submit, and enjoy. If you are reading this: www.tendernesses.com. Please feel free to join us by doing all of the above.


EL: I opened the Discourse on Tenderness event with my map and lyrical essay, A closed with their lyrical essay and PowerPoint, and, in the center, attendees were invited to answer the question: Where were you when you first experienced tenderness? Where were each of you when you first experienced tenderness and could identify it as such?


RG: I have millions of tendernesses, and it’s funny, I think there is some real pleasure and nourishment in learning to recognize a tenderness as a tenderness. Which is also to say, learning gratitude—because we know tenderness is not the only way. Someone chooses to be tender, and that choosing can be hard-ass work, so when it happens, goddamn, I am grateful. Anyway, I’m going straight to my folks, who were not always tender because they, like me, are people. But there was abundant tenderness, most of which I did not recognize as such. Like taking care of me or trying to. And because their tenderness was so abundant—feeding me, carrying me to bed when I fell asleep on the couch, mending me when I was broken—I couldn’t really come close to identifying their tenderness as what they were, which would’ve been so good for all of us! (I was not an easy child, I’m told. And I remember.) Which is all to say, I cannot say when I first recognized experiencing tenderness, though I can point to the recent tendernesses, which are myriad. Some of which have come from myself, and that’s something to learn and identify too, I think. To be tender to yourself.

SL: I first experienced tenderness in my mother. It radiates off of her like a scent. She is the kind of person whom both young men and old ladies approach in the grocery store to ask whether or not they are buying the right kind of kale for a salad. I wish I could write to you her smile—. She spends her time knitting quirky little hats for newborns to donate to hospitals and conducting Bible studies over cups of tea. She wears large warm shawls and keeps the house filled with fuzzy blankets. In spite of every way in which my mother has been disadvantaged as a black American woman, she has preserved tenderness as a right. It is Ross who first attached for me the idea that this is radical. I keep in my office a rumpled monoprint by him that reads RADICAL TENDERNESS in bright yellow. We dark-skinned women have been workers and wranglers. No one ever expects us to be vulnerable. Because of my mother, I treat tenderness as my activism, a radical act.


EL: On The Tenderness Project website, tender is defined as “to care, to be sensitive, to tend, to exchange.” I’m interested in how people intuitively understand what the word hardness means when we encounter it, or even happiness, but tenderness is more elusive and we feel compelled to explain what we mean when we say it. What thoughts do y’all have on this?


RG: I love that word, I think, because of its elusiveness. Because you have to feel your way around it, and tenderness is nothing if not feeling. But it’s also a verb—to be a tender, to be one who tends. I know you can tend many things, but I go right to a garden, and so to cultivating and feeding and also spending time with the dying we do. Tenderness seems to be acutely aware of the dying we do.


SL: Hardness is heavy in the mouth. Tenderness is not as weighted or fully formed. I love that on the site people are deciding what tenderness means. Two of my favorite Tendernesses: a choral arrangement by Ainsley Wagoner in which she sings over video of half-peeled oranges and her lovingly disheveled house, and a postcard by Taylor Cass Talbott her now-husband wrote to her in elementary school that her mother kept. I mean, these things don’t have a shape. They are the kind of pieces I can only hold on to in my heart.


EL: Honestly, I haven’t really thought about tenderness being an exchange as the definition pushes me to. Tender as a noun, yes, in the economic sense, but—for that very reason—with the word exchange come questions of worth and equity, justice and exploitation. What’s the revelation in describing tenderness as an exchange?


RG: Yeah, what’s the revelation! If tenderness is some kind of expression of equal necessity, that is, that you and I are equally necessary here, which maybe is another way of saying something like interdependence—reaching down to pick up someone’s glasses for them, or holding someone’s baby, or offering your water or home, or covering someone’s hand with yours—we need each other. We are each other. Maybe tenderness remembers the exchange is happening always. Which makes all tenderness both outward and inward—when I am tender to you, I am tender to me. I think that fucks with capitalism maybe.


SL: Amen.


EL: Letterpress prints are incorporated into the design of your website. You can see the texture of the paper and pressure imperfections with the ink. Touch and closeness, in their varying degrees, seem vital. What kind of feeling were y’all aiming for?


RG: Ha . . . Essence, you know me well enough that you will not be surprised that I found that paper in the Indiana University printshop, in the recycle bin, thought it was pretty, and printed the word tenderness on it. I was playing around with free stuff.


EL: So there’s a page that says “JOIN US.” This is obviously not an exclusive collaboration or gathering. Talk about the process that comes after someone sends a note saying, “I want to participate.”


SL: Once you hit the “JOIN US” button, the website sends us an email. We will contact you with guidelines for submission and notes on our different platforms. When hitting the “JOIN US” button, you can submit to us your “tenderness” outright or wait for a response. We are not in the business of turning people away. We want to share your stories. Our only real guideline for submission is that it be something we can share via a website (although we have linked to YouTube, embedded audio, and done all nature of things to make that right) and that your “tenderness” reflects the ethos of the first two questions Ross and I asked ourselves: What is tenderness? // How do you make it in America?


EL: How does it feel to sift through all the tender moments people send along? Is it like Yes! I’m not alone! or Another? Oh no, I’m desensitizing!—something different?


RG: I do not desensitize to tenderness. And I suspect I will not. So, yeah, It’s like yes!!! We are together in this yearning and noticing.


SL: Yeah. It’s edifying. I never get to the point where I’m like: another tenderness *sigh.* Each time, I’m awed by who people are and what they are willing to share.


EL: Ross, your piece on the blog “56. The Handwritten Letter” basks in the materiality of snail mail: “the magic of the handwritten letter is that it communicates our bodies across this space. The actual oils of our bodies. Our breath glazing the pages. If we sneezed and such.” Do you experience some inner conflict having the tendernesses online? Is there anything off-screen that incorporates material exchange or face-to-face contact into The Tenderness Project?


RG: Online is one way to communicate, is all. Though you’re right, with that one in particular, what’s exalted is what the online can never do, which is contain the actual remnants of our dear and fleeting bodies. Which is to say, OFF SCREEN IS NEXT!


EL: Shayla, your piece "when she gets weary" with Gabe Tomlin, featuring Otis Redding, begins with a student’s nostalgic doodles in the margins, then shifts into a tender-headed anecdote. The closing sentence is: “I now find myself seeking these tender moments and the truths that they have to offer because, sometimes, pain, truth and love are teeth on the same comb.” Can you say something about seeking out tenderness? Does one—or specifically do you—have to be vigilant so as not to miss a tender moment, or does the body adjust over time and begin to notice those moments as they surface? Does tenderness mature?


SL: The quote you reference is Gabe Tomlin’s (shout out!!) who was a student of mine, who wrote about being “tender-headed,” who was (and is) a being full of tenderness. He was still in high school in 2013 when I vividly remember him telling his fellow summer art camp students before they went on stage to perform: “Remember you are stars wrapped in flesh.” I couldn’t write about tenderness for this project without honoring this moment. I think I see tenderness all the time because I’m really invested in honoring our stories.


EL: Tell us about your new books, any other work you’re doing now that you’d like to share. Shayla, you’ve got a debut essay collection due for release in 2020. What can you say about it? What about you, Ross, with the recent release of The Book of Delights? Any new delights come about since the book release?


RG: Yeah, The Book of Delights, 102 short essays, came out on February 12, so that’s a new and fun thing. I’ve had so many delights since then, for instance, just yesterday, I lost my phone and so had to ask directions a million times and so was bathed in the general sweetness. That’s many delights in one. A kid gave me cinnamon candies after my reading last night. I saw an adult run across the street at a crosswalk the way kids do, although she had no reason to run, she had the walk light. That delights me. Etc. And in the meantime, I’m working on a book about my relationship to the land and still plugging away on this long Dr. J poem. Oh! And maybe a book about falsetto, which is also partly going to be part of an opera project with my friend, the director Brooke O’Harra. And the garden.


SL: MAJOR: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls and Being Dope {AF} is a collection of essays and will be coming out on Harper Perennial in 2020. The title is derived from the idea of moving stories about “minority” women into the mainstream canon. As of March 2019, my last book—I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean—turned one year old. In it, I take the work of the titular singer as a way to archive acts of love.


EL: To close, I’d like to hear what you as black people think about tenderness and blackness. I’ve personally run into more measured distances and more rage than tenderness with the people and places I love the most. I think it has something to do with us trying everything we can to eliminate harm beyond what’s already our day-to-day. I wonder what all radical tenderness has to offer us specifically.


SL: Tenderness is. I think the only way I can answer this is by saying: tenderness Is.

Ross Gay is the author of three books of poetry: Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released by Algonquin Books in 2019. Ross is the also the co-author, with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, of the chapbook Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, in addition to being co-author, with Richard Wehrenberg, Jr., of the chapbook, River. He is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin', in addition to being an editor with the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ross teaches at Indiana University.

Shayla Lawson is the author of three books of poetry—A Speed Education in Human Being, the chapbook PANTONE and I Think I’m Ready to see Frank Ocean—and the forthcoming essay collection MAJOR: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, & Being Dope {AF} (Harper Perennial, 2020). Her work has appeared in print & online at Tin House, GRAMMA, ESPN, Salon, The Offing, Guernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, and MiPOesias. She works on The Tenderness Project. And writes poems with Chet’la Sebree (pronounced Shayla, no relation). Her work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo Artist Colony, The Cini Foundation, and her Havanese, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. She is a member of The Affrilachian Poets.

Essence London recently graduated from the Indiana University MFA program and is working on a hybrid manuscript titled Blissville. She’s edited for Indiana Review and Oxford American, volunteered for The Field Office Agency, and written for the Black Film Center/Archive. She’s also a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow. Find her at www.blissvillian.net.