Jan-Henry Gray, assistant professor of English and director of Adelphi’s MFA in Creative Writing program, sat in on Professor Emerita Judy Baumel’s Forms of Poetry graduate course in Spring 2021 as a way to revisit and rediscover poetic forms. It was during this “refresher” course that he wrote the earliest draft of “Ghazal of Oranges,” which was selected for the American Academy of Poetry’s Poem-a-Day series on Poets.org in October 2022.
“Each week, we learned about and wrote in a different form, from sonnets and ballads to sapphic verse and more,” said Gray. “I began writing ‘Ghazal of Oranges’ when we learned about poetic forms focused on repetition. I had never written a ghazal before, though I’ve admired many contemporary versions by modern poets.”
He said that in writing a ghazal, the first decision is choosing the word that repeats. In this case, he chose “orange” because both the fruit and color are abundant with connotations.
“Over many revisions, I tried to let the repetition of oranges lead the poem, allowing it to stray in its own direction. In the end, the poem feels like a conjuring, an incantation or spell—something with its own energy,” Gray said.
Ghazals gained prominence in the 13th and 14th centuries, thanks to the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz. The poet Agha Shahid Ali, who introduced ghazals in their classical form to Americans, compared each ghazal couplet to “a stone from a necklace,” which should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.”
“I wanted to make each couplet as vibrant and sensory as possible—whether they draw upon real or imagined memories, the central repeated image of the orange anchors the poem,” Gray said. “This allowed me to take leaps between each image to create a rich collage-like effect.”
Extending the reach of this poem, “Ghazal of Oranges” is featured in Poets.org’s “Teach This Poem” series, created for K–12 educators and featuring one poem a week along with interdisciplinary primary sources and activities designed to help bring poetry into the classroom. Gray recently connected with a high school student from Arkansas who was studying the poem. She wrote and asked him if the final couplet—where mist rises in the air as an orange is peeled—was a specific memory from growing up in the Philippines. Her question highlights the vivid and tangible feelings Gray intended to evoke in this poem.
“The image of the mist rising in the sunny air is one that is very real to me and that I think most readers can see, smell and feel,” he said. “I wanted to end the poem with a sensory image that was palpable. When I think of seeing the mist of citrus oil from a peeled orange, I am transported back to when I first saw it as a child—to that sensory experience that is now indelible and permanently imprinted onto my mind.”
About the Poet
Jan-Henry Gray read and wrote poetry from an early age, but it wasn’t until later in life that he believed he could become a published poet. He first explored a passion for food, working as a professional chef in San Francisco, California, for 12 years. But that earlier love of poetry returned when he began taking classes during the day while working in kitchens at night.
“One English class led to another, and when I took my first creative writing class I found my writing voice,” Gray said. “I realized I had so much to say on the page and decided to make writing my focus.”
He went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Columbia College Chicago in 2016. His first poetry collection, Documents, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in 2019. The collection is rooted in his experience as a queer, and at the time undocumented, person from the Philippines, and explores reclaiming the language of citizenship documents to forge his own story. He is now working on his second book.
Since Spring 2020, Gray has been on the faculty of Adelphi University’s Department of English, primarily teaching poetry but also creative writing and literature courses. He has also taught courses open to students outside the Department of English that reflect his experience, expertise and interests, such as Food and Writing, Against “American English,” and Stories of Migration.
“I teach because I love making space to explore ideas—and the classroom provides a unique intellectual and creative environment to do just that,” he said.
As director of Adelphi’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Gray looks forward to the program’s transition to a low-residency format, which is designed for students seeking the support and rigor of a traditional MFA with more flexibility. Through a combination of online, in-person and one-to-one instruction at Adelphi’s Manhattan Center, students will immerse themselves in multi-genre graduate coursework to study and write fiction, nonfiction, poetry and other emerging genres.
On New Year’s Eve, my father overfills the baskets with oranges,
mangoes, grapes, grapefruits, other citrus too, but mostly oranges.
The morning of the first, he opens every window to let the new year in.
In Chinatown, red bags sag with mustard greens and mandarin oranges.
A farmer in a fallow season kneels to know the dirt. More silt than soil,
he wipes his brow and mumbles to his dog: time to give up this crop of oranges.
The woman knows she let herself say too much to someone undeserving.
She lays her penance on her sister’s doorstep: a case of expensive oranges.
At the Whitney, I take a photo of a poem in a book behind the glass.
Above it, a painting: smears of blue, Frank O’Hara, his messy oranges.
The handsome server speaks with his hands: Tonight is grilled octopus
with braised fennel and olives, topped with peppercress, cara caras, and blood oranges.
No one at the table looks up, ashamed by the prices on the chic menus.
The busser fills my water and I inhale him: his faraway scent of oranges.
Seventh grade, Southern California: we monitored the daily smog alerts.
Red: stay inside. White: play outside. I forget what warning orange is.
Clutch was serious about art and said our final projects could be
whatever . . . performative . . . like, just show up with a wheelbarrow full of oranges.
Jan, in all of those first six years, why is all you can remember this:
the mist rising in the sunny air as you watched her peeling oranges.