Terrance Hayes’ most recent poetry collection is Lighthead (Penguin 2010), winner of the 2010 National Book Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Hurston-Wright award. A review of Lighthead in the New York Times stated: “Hayes’s fourth book puts invincibly restless wordplay at the service of strong emotions.” Hayes’ other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a profile on the PBS Newshour with Jim Leher, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. His first book, Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999) won both a Whiting Writers Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His second book, Hip Logic (Penguin 2002), was a National Poetry Series selection, and a finalist for both the Los Angeles Time Book Award and the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Wind In a Box (Penguin 2006), a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award finalist, was named one of the best books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly, whose reviewer wrote: “in his hip, funny, yet no less high-stakes third collection, Hayes solidifies his reputation as one of the best poets – African American or otherwise – now writing.”
Hayes’ poems have appeared in seven editions of the Best American Poetry anthology (“New Jersey Poem” in 2013, “The Rose Has Teeth” in 2012, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 2011, “I Just Want to Look” in 2010, “A House is Not A Home” in 2009, “Talk” in 2006, and “Variations on Two Black Cinema Treasures” in 2005) and two editions of the Pushcart Best of the Small Presses anthology poetry (“Model Prison Model” in 2010 and “Tour Daufuskie” in 2004). He has read his poetry and lectured in venues that include Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Princeton University, Yale University, The Boys Club of New York, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. He has visited high schools and also conducted poetry workshops at prisons across America. He is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities National Student Poets Program and a contributing editor for jubilat magazine.
Hayes was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1971, and educated at Coker College where he studied painting and English and was an Academic All-American on the men’s basketball team. After receiving his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997, he taught in southern Japan, Columbus, Ohio, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Hayes returned to Pittsburgh in 2001 and taught for twelve years at Carnegie Mellon University. He joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh as a full professor of English in the fall of 2013. How To Be Drawn, his new collection of poems, is forthcoming from Penguin in 2015.
FIFTEEN QUESTIONS, FIFTEEN RESPONSES
How did you come to poetry? Has it been something you always felt passionate about?
From grade school to college I was a visual artist. Almost no one knew I wrote poems, not even my parents, until after the first book was published. Poetry is something I remain both passionate and bewildered by. It never gets easy. So I think of being a poet as an ongoing process. I’m a poet only when writing poems. The rest of the time, even as I think obsessively about poetry, I’m other things: teacher, parent, citizen. All to say I am still/always becoming a poet.
Variation in tone seems to be an important focus of your work. Do you feel that you have found your voice as a poet? Do you believe it is possible for a single poet to have a “voice”?
I don’t think one finds a voice. It’s always there. You just have to learn how to hear it and use it. I think of voice as it relates to singing. For example singing in falsetto is not really “false.” It’s stretching. I like stretching/changing the sound of my voice because I know my voice is always there.
A lot of the poems in Lighthead are about the South—negative things about the South. At readings down here, have you gotten any negative reaction from white students who don’t get it?
No, not really. Sorry for the pun, but I’m not really like a black-and-white person. I’m kind of a gray-area, between-area person, and I think an astute reader can see that. It’s never a simple indictment with anyone. … As a Southerner, I have a kind of complicated relationship to the South, and I try to be true to that. …That’s how metaphor works. It’s not this or that, it’s always both. This thing is like that thing. There’s always a multiplicity in the term. My personality would be like that too, I like to think about where the edges of two different things touch.
Yeah, there are definitely streaks of anger in certain poems. But in many of those same poems, there’s humor.
Sure, that’s right. That’s what I want to achieve. I said this in a workshop the other day … a student brought in a poem that was abstract and general, and so I just said to him, “You know, I go to the poem to see what the poet is thinking, not to see just a beautiful piece of art. I want to see the way that artist is really thinking about the world.” And the student was like, “Well, I didn’t want to use an ‘I.’” And I said, “Well it’s not really about that. Perspective is not always about saying ‘I, I, I.’ But it is about understanding the way someone else—the person behind the work—is looking at the world.” And that is what I sort of want to achieve in my own work. … You just have more room that way. There are less ideas about what’s a great poem and what’s a bad poem if you’re really thinking about perspective, the perspective of the poet.
What influence do you feel Pop Culture has had on your poetry?
I’m interested in investigating pop culture, all of its virtues and vices. Interested in the nuances of pop culture, but I’d say I’m very suspicious/critical of main stream/status quo American dream clichés. The difference being, “pop culture” is still Culture. It still offers all kinds of insights about our collective and individual narratives. (Mr T and Shaft can reveal something about human identity even (I hope) to those who don’t know each character.) But I’m not so interested in writing poems that “everyone” gets; poems that have mainstream or “universal” ambitions. For me, a universal poem, a poem for everyone is the same as a poem for no one.
What place do you think autobiography has in poetry?
I guess I try not to think too much about such things. People have told me place figures prominently in my work. And bodies are often there. I try not to repeat myself, though I think I agree with who ever said: “Every writer writes about the same subject again and again.” Giving in to the notion that we can’t shake our obsessions can be very liberating. In a backwards way, I think I’ve answered your question about autobiography. Every poem is autobiographical to some extent. What is Art if not an expression of the self and the image, imagination, of the self? In painting you might think of Van Gogh’s landscapes or the flowers of Georgia O’Keefe. In each case the subject reveals something about the artist’s identity even if symbolically. So I don’t think too much about the place autobiography has in poetry either. It will be there despite me.
Robert Hayden wanted to be seen as a poet first rather than being seen as an African-American poet. Do you consider yourself to be an African-American poet, a poet, or neither?
Interesting question. Is a man a male poet first or just a poet? I ask because I am as interested in male identity as I am in African-American cultural identity. But just as being a poet is always state of change/becoming, for me the adjectives that describe me as a poet are also always changing. Based on my work, few would describe me as a “Southern poet” but I was born in the South. I’d like to write more about the subject not because it will narrow the “kind” of poet I am (Black, male, cultural etc), but because it will broaden it.
In your view, why is poetry important? Why is or should poetry be important to African-Americans?
Poetry resists generalities. Maybe we can call it an art of paradox, of clarity married to mystery, of thinking married to feeling. Hence, I can’t say why it should be important to African Americans in general, but I can say it “can be” important to an individual– and for different reasons for each individual. For me, Poetry is a way of discovering what I believe/feel about the world around me. Though even that answer is slippery since what I believe/feel changes. I think poetry has a lot to do with intimacy and we all benefit from “talking with” more than being “talked to” as say television talks to us.
What is your opinion on poetry read aloud? Do you consider the sound of the poem in your voice when you are writing? What do you feel is lost in poetry read aloud? Is there anything gained?
Poetry is an oral art form, its the music of the mind and tongue, so sound and delivery have to be given some consideration. However as I suggested above, there are poems that are better read than heard. The use of line breaks and stanzas, I think suggest something about the visual dimensions of poetry. That is, if it was purely oral, we could just write paragraphs. Perhaps they’re separate considerations: how a poem looks versus how it sounds. These sorts of tensions don’t trouble me. Resolving them becomes part of the work of writing poems.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
Oh, those sorts of qualifiers sort of blur. I just try to write something everyday. I try simply to be surprised and challenged. But sometimes it’s a line or two. The hard thing is trying to progress/grow/move without looking back at products… If I said I never get writers block and I always have writers block, both things would be true. Mostly my mind is on the last thing I wrote and the next thing I’m writing.
An important part of writing poetry, evidently, is revision…is it important for you? And what is your revision process?
Poems often are not written only re-written. Similarly, poems are not read only re-read. It’s in the subsequent visit to a poem (as a reader or writer) that one begins to see what there. Think of those songs or records you disliked in a first listen, but the after sitting with them a while, changed your mind.In my own process, revision keeps me positive. It means no matter how awful lines I write tonight might be, they can always be improved tomorrow—or worsened and then improved the day after that…
Some people think that poets should be political, pressing for change. Does that resonate with you?
Yeah, that does, but I also think that change or advocacy is not really the territory of poets or artists. Contributing to progress, to social change is very important for poets, which is to say apathy is never a useful perspective. But I also feel entering a poem with a bullhorn and soapbox is equally useless. The poet should never be the person with the saber saying, “Everybody let’s go this way.” I think you participate in change with other people. I’m not sure what that means for poetry. Poems are written in solitude, they work toward the language of intimacy, singularity. Can a poem make people charge into the streets and change everything? I don’t know if that has ever happened here, or if anyone should want that to happen. Contributing to the flow out to the street I think is as much as we can hope for.
I find a distinction between what I will call academic poets and poets of the street. Here you are in academia—how do you…?
I think an academic poem is just a poem that requires additional knowledge. Consider the difference between “Frederick Douglas” by Robert Hayden and “Those Winter Sundays “by Robert Hayden. The “Frederick Douglas” poem is about a historical figure, it has all sorts of allusions and references—it’s an academic poem in my mind because it assumes a bit of knowledge about things outside the poem. But “Those Winter Sundays” to me is not an academic poem. It’s a poem about a child and his parent—you need not bring any additional information to the poem to grasp it. Of course this definition makes any poet who references pop culture a kind of academic poet. Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka. They would be academic poets for the student with no knowledge of the Beats or the Black Arts Movement—of the Fifties or Sixties. With that definition I have less hang-ups about what it means to write an academic poem—the academic attitude is something else— but it’s the poems I’m talking specifically about. I would not consider Robert Frost an academic poet, for example, but he’s loved by academics— an academic attitude—which insists the poem needs a critic as its translator or custodian—that kind of attitude sours poetry.
What do you generally write about now?
Still music, culture, maybe identity still would be right up in the mix—Identity as a subject remains of interest to me. It’s what we are. I don’t consider it a small or simple thing to pursue. Bad poems about Identity are bad poems to begin with. I like to think my poems move between highly lyrical and highly narrative modes. In some ways writing a poem which is not about explicit experience gives me the courage to write about explicit experience. Recurring images, refrains—that’s okay, but I don’t want to be redundant. The work that I’m writing now sort of hits on a range of subjects, a range of forms, and I prefer that. I’m not sure it’s possible to write beyond one’s own experience, but I don’t mind trying. I don’t mind fooling myself.
Lastly, I have a question that is not related to poetry and is actually quite silly, but may be used as a quirky fact/knowledge about you in our presentation: (feel free to answer none or all of these three)
What was the last dream you had? (Not goal dream but sleep dream)
I rarely remember my dreams, but I often wake up singing or humming something.
What is your favorite food? WE really want to know this one!
Easy: Almost any concoction of apple pie.
If you could be any tree, what would you be and why?
I’m trying to think of something clever here? I like the word magnolia. I like the smell of pinewood. I like the flowers of dogwoods. I’d be an apple tree.