Interview with Terrance Hayes
Telephone Interview by Ann van Buren, September 15, 2017
Publication date: September 21, 2017
In this interview, poet Terrance Hayes discusses form, identity, and his engagement with audience and readers. He talks about his current projects and how they connect, both to him personally, as well as to the larger poetry cosmos and the political climate today. As you read the interview, you may notice an emphasis on the way Hayes uses poetry to ask questions and explore the world and his feelings, and a distinct pleasure in the way poetry provides an element of surprise to both the reader and the writer. Hayes is the author of several award-winning books of poetry, including Lighthead, Wind in a Box, Hip Logic, and Muscular Music. Hayes is currently on faculty at University of Pittsburgh, but on leave to serve as Distinguished Writer in Residence for the New York University Graduate Creative Writing Program. He is also the current poetry editor for The New York Times.
This conversation was conducted via telephone, with Katonah Poetry Series’ new interviewer, poet, critic and teacher, Ann van Buren. Terrance Hayes will be reading for the Katonah Poetry Series at the Katonah Village Library, on Sunday, September 24, at 4PM.
Ann van Buren: What would you like an audience to know before coming to hear you read?
Terrance Hayes: My general approach to questions about audience is that whatever comes out I hope I can illuminate it. Whether one person shows up or many, I just hope they have a great time. I try to share my best work and don’t have super ambitions. I just try to write and hope people are engaged.
AvB: Well, I’m pretty sure that you engage people…I was hoping to give the Katonah Poetry Series audience a little bit of background.
TH: I can tell you what I’ve been working on. There was a poem in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. It’s one of many poems that all have the same title. They’re called “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin.” I started writing them in November, a day or two after the election. I’ve probably written two or three hundred of them, and today I’m sending my editor about seventy. What the audience will see is that they’re engaging, they are political comments, but they also talk about what it’s like to just live in this climate. Sometimes they’re poems about popular culture; sometimes they’re very personal, autobiographical poems, and sometimes they’re very much about the political climate. They’re all the same title, and if there’s a Q&A I’m sure that people will be curious to talk about that. You know, George Forman named all his kids George. It’s kind of like that. They bear some relationship but each poem is trying to define its own notion of the American Sonnet, and its own notion of being an assassin. Sometimes it’s about race; sometimes it’s about political power. I use Trump as a verb. I never say President Trump, Donald Trump. And finally, yeah, they’re each trying to be their own entity. It’s sort of a joke, I guess, but it’s also a way to dispense with the label of what is this poem about. It’s like meeting someone else named George and trying to engage, because that’s all I really know about him. So that’s what I’ve been up to, since the election. Today I sent about seventy poems to my editor
AvB: Well that’s exciting! Getting them out the door. I’m wondering though, if you can tell me more about American Sonnets. I know that you were close to the poet Wanda Coleman, who, sadly, passed away recently.
TH: Word. My sonnets are dedicated to her.
AvB: She wrote a book called American Sonnets. What makes them American?
TH: Well that’s the thing. Each poem is its definition. They’re as diverse as the American. I guess that’s interesting stuff for interviews. Just like each person, five Americans, six Americans named George, if you include George Forman—if you meet one and say what is the definition of George, that person will tell you one thing, this is who I am, and the next George will tell you another. Maybe this is a metaphor for what I’m doing with this, and what I’m working on today.
AvB: It’s pretty cool that you’re talking about this, about how diverse every person is.
TH: I believe that. I’d say that, even in terms of the adjective American sonnet— we know of course, the Shakespearian sonnet—also called the English sonnet. There’s the Petrarchan sonnet. But what is an American sonnet? This is a country of diversity, the melting pot. I’m thinking about what it means to be an American and I just don’t want to be narrow in that way. I don’t know what’s going to happen a month from now, but we can look back to what I’ve been writing before this moment. I’m actually trying to figure out what to do, if I should just keep writing or something to try to get an answer to these questions, which is to say I’ve gotta do something with these sonnets. I’ve written so many of them. I don’t think I’ve solved what an American sonnet is, or what it means for us or what it means for our country, right now, in this place we’re living in. My notion of what poets do is not that we are answerers, we’re askers, we’re explorers. I don’t think we’ll get the poet out to answer the big life questions. We just think about them and have a better capacity, or a different capacity, than other artists or other people who articulate them. I don’t think that these poems will answer the big questions for people, but they put them out there.
AvB: Do you have some poems that attempt to write in the persona of someone who is sympathetic to Trump?
TH: No, I mean, again, he is just sort of the air that I breathe while writing these poems. I’ll tell you a side story. I don’t know if I’ll read this poem; but the poem where I’m most explicitly talking to him I call him Trumpet, Mr. Trumpet, in the volta, the part of the sonnet where there is a turning. Again this poem is one of many, and I’m thinking about what his relationship to sexuality and gender is. So, it begins by speaking to a trumpet and it talks about a woman. About half way through, I realize that this is also about myself. I’m just saying that how we treat each other and how we treat human beings sometimes is rooted in our relationships with our lovers, families and children, and all of a sudden it becomes this conversation with my own, my own mother. It’s also about the way that I negotiate power, think about power, think about other people. So again, here’s the thing. I read that poem in Seattle and later some people were talking about not understanding it or about how it was provocative. So some of the poems can be provocative but I’m trying to deal with, across the board, how does one give in this time? How does one manage this time? So I guess that would be one where I’m trying to be sympathetic with him because I’m not pointing the finger. I began talking about the notion of how does a man know what it is to love. Sonnets go into this idea. They have a turn. They can’t start in one position and end with the same position. That’s the most interesting thing about the sonnet. So if I start out sympathetic to whoever, Trump, or anyone else. There has to be a turn.
AvB: So you like to get people to think.
TH: Sure. That’s what poets do. Contemplate the context. Contemplate it and and complicate it. A bunch of “C” words there!
AvB: I like how you pun with words, and make us consider both sides. One minute I’m thinking you’re saying one thing and then I can read it in another way.
TH: What you’re saying is sure, but I’m also realizing in these poems that I’m receiving more complicated responses than usual, and it’s partly because of the titles, and it’s partly because of the terms. So there was a poem in the New Yorker, and it can’t be summed up, but the poem starts out essentially saying that black poets would like to say that it all began with Langston Hughes—but it’s really not that, it really began with all of the winos, depressed poets, maniacs, high energy weirdoes. Then it turns to talk about Sylvia Plath, saying she was a drama queen, she was thin-skinned, jittery. It asks if you can call someone a visionary if they don’t recognize their own vision. So it’s that, and then there’s a turn to talk about Orpheus and the mixed messages when he really tried to express, to Euridice— and she’s not named in this poem— what happened, and he wasn’t able to do it. So he sends her this drawing with an eye with an “x” through it. She thinks he’s saying “I never want to see you again.” He’s saying “I’m blind without you.” So the poem is done. There’s three sections there, the first part that asks What is a hero, the next part about what poet is Sylvia Plath, and the third part about trying to say what you mean. So some people complained to me and said you shouldn’t be bothering Sylvia Plath, to which I said I recuse Sylvia Plath. I’m partly a fan of hers because of her complications, because of her life, because of her intensities. The poem did question her self-confidence, but that is not a deal breaker when it comes to the model she is for me in terms of writing poems. I think that the reaction to this poem is really a complicated way of trying to get a yay or nay, trying to get a “yes, I love Sylvia Plath” or “yes, I love America—or don’t.” Those kinds of misreads are new for me, and I’m okay with it. I don’t set the poems up before I read them. And it’s a little bit potentially scary for me to go out there. But I think it’s right, what I’m trying to do for this particular series of poems. OK… that was a lot.
AvB: It’s good to hear you talking about Sylvia Plath. I listened to your interview with Rachel Zucker. It seems like you’re drawn to touching a nerve.
TH: Well, there are a lot of ways to transfer information. Poetry doesn’t have to be the exclusive way to receive those things. When I write a poem, I am trying to do something, for myself, that I can’t get anywhere else. I can’t get it in the news, the newspapers or in novels. I’m not conscious of trying to be provocative, I’m just trying to make the language do something more than it does in our ordinary lives and in other capacities. So sometimes it’s provocative, but what I’m really going for is surprise, for myself and subsequently for my readers. I know that I’m trying not to say anything I know before I start writing the poem. Those are the poems that most interest me. The most interesting thing about the entire project about the sonnets is the idea that at some point they did have to turn from a thought to another kind of thought.
AvB: So that’s your challenge. Is that the way that you write even when you are not writing sonnets? I’ve always been amazed by people who sit down to write a novel or a poem and they know the whole plot before they begin. It’s very different from automatic writing, for example.
TH: It is an investigation. In fact, here’s the thing about all the titles. It’s so great to not have to think about that. The title is a gesture to categorize it, reduce it, and frame it. In the sonnets I can carry an idea and know that I have to turn that idea. Again, I don’t know what this is going to mean for my readers. I’d just say you’ve got to re-read them and think about the poems.
AvB: Yes, and then each time you read them, they change a little, depending upon who the “you” is when you’re reading.
TH: Right. Right. So, every poem for me, each one I’m writing, is something new for me. So I don’t go to any poem with an expectation. I just hope that what I write will help me get to the next task. I never presume that I know what I’m doing, and I like that, that’s where the surprise, the challenge and the uncertainty comes in.
AvB: So, I asked you what you would like an audience to know before you read. Can you tell me what you would like an audience to do after you read?
TH: The same thing they do after they listen to a decent record. I do care more about readers than audience. Readers have a more intimate relationship. They have opportunities to go through it again. They don’t need me to be there when they’re opening the gift as opposed to the audience that sits while I’m there wrapping the gift. Audiences…I don’t want them to be baffled or turned off by poetry. Sure, I want them to be challenged. I even want them to be entertained. But it’s like a date. I can’t really contemplate anything in advance. I can’t really make an assessment of an audience, as opposed to seeing one person sitting with a poem. We write for readers and other writers, future readers and future writers. This is the stuff that we’re making.
AvB: I’m interested in the poem “Carpenter Ant.” Reading it a few times, I liked the way the sounds of the words and the puns move us through the meaning of the poem. When you say that “nothing is buried” does this mean that old ghosts come back or that there is salvation? Can we interpret this poem as a profession of faith or despair?
TH: Well, this is interesting because, again, if I could explain then I wouldn’t write the poem. My answer is yes, it’s all of that. I wrote that poem partly to see if I could make one long sentence. These are craft questions. There is also an idea that I want to put through, which is not an answer to the question. That’s why I keep asking the question, “Why Does God Keep Blessing Me?” That line comes from a song by BJ The Chicago Kid (see notes on How to Be Drawn http://terrancehayes.com/notes-drawn/). I just heard him say it, and I wanted to make a sentence out of it. Why does God keep blessing me? Is he supposed to bless you? So I have an aunt who died and whatever I wrote is what happened. I was thinking about faith, in a Christian church. It’s not purely making the case for that, it’s just making the case that that was the situation and what’s being pursued is true—where do you put these memories, this grief, and can you put it anywhere, can you really bury it? So again, I can talk around the poem, about the poem and how it feels, how to write a poem. I can talk about how to be American, how to be black. I think about my past and about my future but none of those things have clear cut answers. If they did, I wouldn’t have a poem. I wouldn’t write a poem if I knew how I felt about these things.
AvB: It’s comforting to read poems that consider these questions, that bring them into the conversation.
TH: I don’t know if this is in the question, but I don’t think of myself as a person who believes in organized religion. I wouldn’t wear a Baptist tee shirt or a Christian tee shirt, but all those things are useful, as useful as some dimensions of Buddhism. I think that the reason people seek religion is compelling— too compelling to even abide by one creed. My poem reflects that, and it’s true that they are part of a Judeo-Christian tradition, and so those metaphors work better than other metaphors. Even in that poem, when it turns to India, there is a blending of traditions. I didn’t know that in the beginning of the poem, but I did a little research and in the end all beliefs, all traditions are interesting and potentially useful when thinking about what it means to be living.
AvB: Yes. And that blending of tradition is, in some ways, the ideal of what it means to be human, and what it means to be American. That’s very Whitmanian of you.
TH: Yeah. I like Whitman, and I like Dickinson too. I’d hang out with either of them. They’re the mother and father of poetry. Everything in American poetry pretty much grows out of those two traditions. Even Eliot grows out of Whitman.
AvB: How does Eliot grow out of Whitman?
TH: Cultural interest, interesting people, interest in the democratic. Eliot is more academic, and he has particular ways to view America, but his work is a cultural project. I think of Emily Dickinson as quiet and smart. For her poems, you don’t need the whole ride down a city street. You just need to let your imagination go. I brought up Eliot because he is representative of Modernism. But yeah, I really like Whitman and Dickinson.
AvB: If Dickinson and Whitman are the parents of American poetry, who are the brothers and sisters, today?
TH: For me? Well you know, in real life, I’m a bastard. I don’t say that in any kind of pejorative way. I think that it’s great to be a bastard. That means that everybody is potentially related to me. I read that way. If you look at the stuff that I’ve been doing in the Times, I do the Sunday poetry column in the New York Times, you’ll see that my taste is that way. I literally try to live that way, which is to say that I know that I come from somewhere, but I can’t write anybody off. I do try to be generous with everyone. It would be harder for me to come up with the cohorts that I’m not related to, or don’t feel a bond. I’m a poet.
AvB: I really like that you’re using the word bastard freely. I think you’re doing something for people who are born into that circumstance, sort of like what Sharon Olds had done for people who faced another kind of family circumstance. Adrienne Rich talked about breaking the silences, and I think it’s important to address this.
TH: I don’t know if you know, but I’m in my forties and I spent most of my 20’s trying to figure out who I really was. I did, I did finally figure it out, but it doesn’t mean that some of those questions aren’t still there, and rather than think of it as something shameful, you can think of it as something that’s larger than that. Instead of saying “I don’t know who could be my brother,” you can say, “Anybody can be my brother.” That’s not something I thought about at 18, or even when I was 33, but certainly at 45 I believe it, and I would say that my work is evidence. I’ve always wanted to move between circles. There is a natural empathy, but I had to learn it, through the poems.
AvB: I would like to talk a little bit about process. You mention how you move through the poems and learn something about yourself by the end of a poem. In looking at How to Be Drawn, I see that you’ve used a bunch of different forms. There is one where you used the chapter titles from a book; there are list poems; there are poems that are formatted into charts. What prompts you to get started in these ways?
TH: I think that poets can do anything. With a novel, we all know about plot and character and yes, there’s experimental and people can recognize that, but I think that there are rules. I don’t think of poetry that way. There were these guys who were putting an anthology together and wanted to include a poem that I did in Lighthead, and it was great.* It was sold in London, so I got to travel to London, to Chicago. But the poem, when I wrote it, was just a poem. So when they came to me about the anthology, I didn’t want to be involved, because that was behind me. I just don’t look back at poems like that. But then they did it anyway. So, I did the introduction, which explained that I wrote my poem when I was trying to get my son to memorize the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “The Golden Shovel.” Later, when I was writing, because I had it in my head that day, it went into the work, and that’s where the poem comes from. So that’s something about my process; it’s not high ambition, it’s just me trying to write every day.
I do write every day. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Whether what I write is good or bad is another conversation. But I do believe that a lot of what I’m doing and the results that you see are just me trying to write every day.
AvB: I suspected that. In this case, you gave yourself a little writing prompt.
TH: Sometimes I just go right at it, it depends, you know what I mean? I have no set strategy. For many years, and I’m on record saying it, I had an office full of books that I would just read when I write. But I’ve been in New York this past year, and I have a small number of books. I couldn’t bring all my books here. I buy books, but my fundamental approach has changed. Everything in these more recent sonnets is not what I expected to do. I’ve always been interested in form. One writer might say, “If I have to live away from my books for a year, then I’m not going to write.” I thought, “Oh, that might be interesting, let’s see what happens.” Yeah. This is what happened.
AvB: Well, it’s pretty good stuff that’s happening. I’d like to back up a little bit. You’re in New York now, at NYU, yes?
TH: I’m writer in residence. I took a leave of absence from Pittsburgh and came as a distinguished writer for one year, but then I started this project and extended it. Anne Carson is also here… I don’t know where the future will go, but my concern is to be a poet, I guess. I think that being a poet makes me a better person, a better father, teacher. I live for poetry, like poets, I love poems.
AvB: You have also made a lot of references to visual art, and you’re a painter. Are you painting as well as writing poetry? I don’t know how you’d find time!
TH: Well yes, I take classes. I did this while I was in Pittsburgh, too. I draw, so this is the thing. In New York I take these figure drawing classes on Saturdays and sometimes on Wednesday night. I try to get in there as much as I can, which is often. I brought my digital piano and painting material, but I paint when I have an extended period of time. Over the past year I haven’t done that nearly as much as I did when I was in Pittsburgh. I think that when I get a little more space I’ll be back to painting, but basically what I’ve done since I’ve been here is figure drawing.
AvB: I wonder if you can talk about how people receive poems. Sometimes people dislike a poem not only because of the poem itself, but because of what it says. We are living in times when people are saying all kinds of things that are offensive to others. Do you think we should silence that, or is it an opportunity to start the conversation?
TH: I think that there is an opportunity to distinguish between not understanding something as opposed to not liking it. I think that in visual art, it’s easier for people to appreciate something without understanding it. I’m thinking of Jackson Pollack and the whole abstract expressionist movement. There’s a movement that says what you’re doing is a little bit abstract, what I’m doing is a little bit abstract, but the success of the movement is that it says, you know, it wasn’t! If you follow me, there are a lot of movements that don’t get taught in high school art classes. I would say that as paintings go, Mark Rothko is pretty well known, even for people who don’t follow painting. That is to say, here’s a person—or if you want to include Jackson Pollack—two people, who made a career expressing themselves in the abstract, in non-representation. So, if you can convince people that it’s possible to view it and get something, and to make a living doing it, I think we’re better off for it. Instead I find myself making art and saying okay, maybe you think you don’t get it, but you do feel something. That feeling is what you should be trusting. So if you don’t get it and you don’t like it, or if you don’t get it but you’re intrigued—for me as a maker, I’m fine with either of those categories. I just hope that there’s one person who will trust what they’re feeling and hearing and maybe that’s what I’m saying. The poet, I think will understand it. Poets read more poetry. It’s like they watch more games, so they’re likely to catch more, in the game. They know what the crowd is doing, they know what the center is doing—the man-to-man. But not everybody knows that, even though we’re all watching the same game. For me, the thing that I’m putting into play—I have some readers in mind, I don’t really care what any of them think— but I know they’re all hearing different things and that they have different perspectives. But I do expect poets to understand what I’m doing.
AvB: There are all kinds of audiences.
TH: I’m thinking about human beings, which is different. I’m thinking about readers, not professional readers, which is different. I’m thinking about humans. I’m thinking about future. And I care very deeply that people do show up with an interest. I just don’t despair if people don’t show up, and I’ve become a teacher for people who don’t understand it. So there are many categories, and many ways. If you don’t come, that’s fine. If you come and you hate it, that’s fine too— you came, and you’re curious. I just don’t have a category where I’m not really thinking about the audience. Even though the poems I’m writing are not looking at them, the poems know that they’re there. Do you follow what I’m saying? I need to have that freedom in the making—but I’m still not the kind of person who says that I don’t care if nobody reads it, or that it’s too abstract. I want to be able to do what I want to do and also to engage anybody who shows up, no matter what their tastes are, no matter what their experiences are. I just try to engage them in some manner, and then to get them to be comfortable with what they feel. Not to have engagement is the way we lose the battle.
AvB: Well, thank you for this interview. I’m looking forward to your reading. We’ll see who is brave enough to say what they feel.
TH: Thank you. Yeah! To me, that energy, that conversation—I love that.
*Hayes’ poem, “The Golden Shovel,” which incorporates the text of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” was the inspiration behind The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks.” In that anthology, Hayes is credited with inventing a new form, in which the words of a previously written poem appear, in order, as the last word of each line of an original work.