About Terrance Hayes

by Robert N. Casper

To begin with, Terrance Hayes is a compulsive storyteller, and prone to enthusiasm. He says, “What’s going on?” to start a conversation, “Sure, sure” in agreement, and “Later” for good-bye. He is always doing something artistic, be it sketching—he carries a tin with paper and pens, and drawings by him and his son, wherever he goes—or painting or playing the piano or listening to music (he is always listening to music). Hayes is the person most likely to take on an outlandish line of argument at a party, as well as the friend you want to introduce all your family and other friends to. He wears two watches, the second a gift from his daughter, and he is always early. He is dedicated and responsible too, and warm and generous and thoughtful, and funny—he is the kind of person who names his dog Fetch, who says of parenthood that you cannot hide your flaws from your children, so why try? He knows how difficult it is to speak of the truth and cannot stop himself from doing so. And he is one of America’s most talented and daring young poets.

The circumstances by which Hayes came to be a poet are as unusual as they are fortuitous; for one, he could have ended up with a number of different lives. Born and raised in South Carolina, he went to school at Coker College on a basketball scholarship to study visual art, and was an Academic All-American. He also privately wrote poems, and during his senior year showed his work to an English professor who suggested he apply to Creative Writing mfa programs. Hayes ended up at the University of Pittsburgh, and while he was ambivalent about the experience, it was there he studied with Toi Derricotte, cofounder of Cave Canem—the hugely successful organization dedicated to mentoring African American poets.

Hayes became an assistant at Cave Canem by the time it ran the first of its famed retreats (he now serves on its Board of Directors). One of the fellows was his future wife, Yona Harvey, and shortly after meeting they married and departed for a year in Japan, where she taught in an exchange program. When they returned to the States, they moved to Columbus, Ohio, then to New Orleans, where Hayes taught at Xavier University. A few years later, he returned to Pittsburgh for a job at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is now Professor of Creative Writing. Hayes occasionally takes on stints working with graduate students—he has served on the faculty at Warren Wilson’s low-residency program and was a recent visiting professor at the University of Alabama. However, he is firmly rooted at the university and in the Steel City—in a recent PBS NewsHour profile, he aptly read his poem “Pittsburgh” at a neighborhood bus stop—where he and Harvey are raising their two children, Ua (age 10) and Aaron (age 8).

Though he is not yet forty, Hayes has already written four poetry collections: Muscular Music (1999), published by Tia Chucha Press, and Hip Logic (2002), Wind in a Box (2006), and Lighthead (2010), published in the Penguin Poets series by Penguin Press. His first collection earned him the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a Whiting Writers Award, and his second was a National Poetry Series selection. He has also received two Pushcart Prizes, appeared in four Best American Poetry anthologies, and received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The lead poem of a debut collection often serves as an introduction to a poet’s concerns, and “At Pegasus” from Muscular Music introduces Hayes as a man who dares to make connections where it seems there is only difference. Written with elegant economy, the poem places the speaker on the outside, from the inside: as a straight man in a gay club, looking on at “men grinding / in the strobe & black lights.” Hayes takes this passive condition and infuses it with a dynamic of empathy, through the story of a boyhood friend he once carried, injured, on his back. “At Pegasus” ends by acknowledging the complexities of desire, as well as identity itself:

How could I not find them
beautiful, the way they dive & spill
into each other,

the way the dance floor
takes them,
wet and holy in its mouth.

Hayes’ poems often contend with masculinity, as well as race; however, instead of taking a single position, he addresses both from multiple angles, and to myriad effects. One example: Wind in a Box, his third volume, opens with a section that deals with racism through humorous and heartbreaking recollections (as in “Talk,” which tells of a childhood friend who asks the speaker to talk “like a nigger”—and the speaker’s decision to pretend he didn’t hear his friend’s request), then turns to a series of epistolary poems that take Michael Jackson as their subject and addressee, and operate in the realm of imagination.

Hayes is as various as he is virtuosic, and he has constructed an oeuvre out of what he calls his “schizophrenic aesthetic.” For instance, he shows his mastery of satire in poems such as “I Want to Be Fat” (with lines like “Love me skinny girls, / as you love jenny craig and vegetables” and “I want to be the champion of excess, / The great American mouth with perfect snapping teeth”) and “Squawk,” arguably the bleakest vision of Sesame Street’s Big Bird ever created. His poems invoke other cultural figures high and low, through address, persona poems, and—in the case of predecessors from Frederico Garcia Lorca to Wanda Coleman—imitations. Consider his “Blue” poems, from Wind in a Box—“The Blue Baraka” uses litany, a device Hayes favors for its generative qualities, to propel a voice as rich as it is critical: “We go waaaay back, America. / Like mutts in the bed of a pickup. / Like righteous indignations. / Like riotous ignitions.”

While many of his poems highlight his impulse for narrative, Hayes has a penchant for formal invention as a way to showcase his lyrical skills. This is especially true of his serial work—each of Hayes’ books has employed the series format,to give him room to range. “A Gram of &S,” from Hip Logic, is a series based on daily word games from newspapers, and its procedural method results in taut poems with lines like, “Well, ain’t your mouth a pretty little pace—/ maker.” His new collection, Lighthead, uses another found procedure: a Japanese presentation format for architects called Pecha Kucha, which involves twenty-second presentations on a series of twenty images. After participating in a “Pecha Kucha Night” in Pittsburgh, Hayes wrote a series of poems in twenty subtitled, four to five line sections, which evoke the shifting focus of Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking At a Blackbird,” but in service of a larger story.

The final Pecha Kucha of the book, “Arbor for Butch,” is arguably the most moving—it also adheres most closely to the form’s visual requirement, with subtitles of works by the artist Martin Puryear. A rumination of the narrator’s experience “with my newborn son and the man blood says is my father,” the poem is thematically linked to “The Same City” from Hip Logic, but its form allows Hayes a deeper exploration of the tensions, possibilities, and layers—historical, descriptive, and rhetorical—within a difficult situation. The realizations Hayes achieves take on the mysteries of meaning at their most elemental, as in: “Sometimes the body is a guitar, a hole in wood, wires / trembling to sleep. To identify what you are, to be loved by what / you identify, I thought, This is how the blood sings into the self. / I thought what was hollow in me would be shaped into music.”

In a larger sense, Lighthead illustrates how Hayes has matured as a poet. If previous books foreground his ability to move between narrative and lyric styles, between worldly and imaginary modes, between an authorial, analytic self and the various voices of play, his fourth collection employs all of the above to create a more unified sense of reckoning. He counterbalances confessional poems, such as “The Avocado” (a teasing account of ’60s activism and generational bragging rights) with persona poems by/about mythic figures: the— heads (Lighthead himself, as well as Anchor Head, Fish Head, Tankhead, Bullethead, Ghazal-Head, and Airhead), minor deities and/or hustlers whose appearances structure the book, as well as characters whose stories are tied to a (real or imagined) history of African American struggle. All are tragicomic and prone to proclamation—the narrator of “All the Way Live” provides a useful example:

“Do all dudes have one big testicle and one tiny one?”
Hieronymous asked, hiking up his poodle skirt as we staggered
Down Main Street in our getup of wigs and pink bonnets
The night we sprayed NEGROPHOBIA all over the statue of Robert
E. Lee guarding the county courthouse, a symbol of the bondage
We had spent all of our All-the-Way Lives trying to subvert.

More than simply pointing out the poet’s range, this assemblage shows how many stories—from the grand to the intimate—precede and inform the self. The self, though, is psychically conflicted, with haunting declarations like “the mouth is a flooded machine” (“Fish Head for Katrina”) and “Yes, I have a pretty good idea of what beauty is. It survives / all right. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.” (“God is an American”).

Another approach to Hayes is to say his poems and books follow a mainstream and not avant-garde tradition (for instance, his poems are strongly voiced and syntactically clear), yet tend toward an unpredictable or challenging or resistant way of seeing, and speaking about, what it means to be human—to him, this is the charge of and reason for poetry. The last three poems of Lighthead are a perfect example: in a reversal of the book’s beginning, he moves from the personal (the above-mentioned “Arbor for Butch”) to the mythic (“Mule Hour”).

Lest it end on the bleak but thematically resolute lines,“I want to live as the roach lives, without / a head or body, free on both sides of the grave, like my father / beneath a black umbrella spitting on the Lord before he walks away,” Hayes follows with a poem-coda. “Airhead” subverts time on two levels (historical and sequential), and in place of conclusion gives us headlessness (literally, the prophet’s beheading after he dares to predict “what will / be the trouble” with the Emperor—but figuratively, too, as a counter to Lighthead’s illumination). The poem also provides a cryptic pair of credos: “There is no death beyond / the theory of death” and “I have no form because / I have no allegiance / to form.” It is a lightly disguised statement of poetics—of rebellion, as well as everlasting possibility and mutability—and it leaves Hayes with room to grow, in his deep and ambitious engagement with language. I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

—Robert N. Casper is the Programs Director of the Poetry Society of America and Publisher of jubilat.

Copyright © Robert N. Casper

Winter 2010-11 Cover
Poetry & Fiction

Guest-edited by:
Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes