Q&A: Poet Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes is cooler than you.

It’s not just because he won the National Book Award last year for his collection Lighthead. And it’s not because he gave a convincing impression of a male model in Dolce and Gabbana in the spring fashion issue of the New York Times’ T magazine. It’s not even because Hayes is that rarest of the rare, a poet who doesn’t toil away in obscurity, with recent lengthy interviews on CNN and the PBS News Hour.

No, Terrance Hayes is just cooler than you and me. He’s that guy who always knows what’s next. His knowledge of music rivals most critics. He invents his own poetry forms, just because he feels like it. He’s as erudite as you would expect from someone teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and who’s won the Whiting Writers Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Guggenheim Foundation grant. But in conversation, Hayes is easygoing; he’s no record store clerk, pretentious about his own coolness. He doesn’t have to be.

In the New York Times last year, Harvard critic and poet Stephen Burt described Hayes’ work as “invincibly restless wordplay at the service of strong emotions … [that] owes something to contemporary hip-hop and a great deal to old, rhyming poetic forms.” Indeed, when you read the poems in Lighthead, their musicality practically flies off the page. Stanzas like, “We tumble across the mattress unfazed. You treat me/like a fix. We set to licking. We nix the ticktock. Your sock/rolled down to your toes, I love your nose. We steal fire/and walk until the path levitates. Our feet light up the place,” make use of internal rhymes whose ease belies their structural complexity.

Hayes’ poems have as much depth as they do rhythm. He writes prickly poems about what it means to be black and from the South, loving poems about the challenges of marriage and fatherhood, and thoughtful poems about contemporary political culture. He’s also wickedly funny. And this Wednesday, you can find out just how cool he is in person.

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You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the “pecha kucha” format you use in Lighthead. What prompted you to turn the slideshow presentation into stanzas? [A pecha kucha is a Japanese business presentation format in which 20 slides are shown for just 20 seconds each. Hayes employs quatrains for a similar effect.]

The great thing about being a poet is that you can think about poetry at all times. I was invited to participate in an actual pecha kucha event some years ago at the school of architecture here in Pittsburgh. And so when I participated, I thought it would be a very interesting way to write poems. … I think I was unsuccessful for quite a while before I got few that actually seemed to work.

I think it’s really interesting the way you play with structure in relation to language, because so much of your language, unlike some contemporary poets, is so musical. When you’re writing, how do you balance the structure with that rhythm?

I feel like I sort of have to tamp it down a bit, because I am more inclined to go towards sound, because I am just surrounded by music—it’s always in the house and I think about it often, and in another world maybe I would have been a musician. So for me the challenge is not to walk towards the easy thing but just to figure out ways—which would go back to the form—to change it or challenge myself with it. But the musicality in the work just comes from a sort of lifestyle. It’s just a natural part of how I move through the world and how I think about things. I’m the friend who always has the new music and is always suggesting to people, even in my classes, “Hey, do you guys know who this guy is?”

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. It’s always a multiplicity in the term. My personality would be like that too, 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 show up for the poem to see what the poet is thinking, not to see just a beautiful piece of art, but to really think about the way that artist is really thinking about the world. And there’s a difference, you know, a sort of a more active relationship with your audience.” 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. … And you just have more room that way, there’s less ideas about what’s a great poem and what’s a bad poem if you’re really thinking about perspective, what is the perspective of the poet.

So you’re not trying to make art that is universal?

No, no. I don’t even think that’s possible. Because universal just means for everybody, and if it’s for everybody, then it’s for nobody, if you ask me. … But the primary thing I believe in is risk and surprise. So if you’re someone who always likes to use the first-person speaker in your poems, to me the risk or surprise would be to do the opposite. So that would be my primary attitude when I sit down to work—I just want to risk something I haven’t risked before, and I want to surprise myself in a way I haven’t surprised myself. So even though I can make a grand statement like I don’t really believe that there’s such a thing as a universal, and that’s true, but just after those kinds of statements, I think about, “Well how can I challenge that? What would it look like to try to write a poem like that?”

So who are some other contemporary poets you really like or that you think are worth checking out?

Do you know about David Berman—hey, isn’t he in Nashville?

Yeah. I actually interviewed him once, a long time ago.

He’s a great poet! And I’m not saying that just because he’s in Nashville. He’s always comes instantly to mind. He wrote the one book—Actual Air—it came out the same year as my first book in 1999, and it’s just what I’m talking about. What I was drawn to in that book was a sense of David Berman. This is separate from saying the poems are autobiographical or even confessional, but there’s a certain kind of perspective driving the poems. …The way that his poems sort of operate, the logic, or slanted logic in those poems excites me. And in other poets like that—like Larry Levis, who’s a bigger poet, a more loose meditative poet, is also someone I’m drawn to for that reason. Sylvia Plath. Elizabeth Alexander, for sure. And then Emily Dickinson—even Wallace Stevens. … I’m always looking to sort of see the person behind the poem. This is how great essays work. This is how David Foster Wallace’s essays work. You’re really having a conversation with him and his mind more than his subject. There’s something more than just getting a lesson or having an argument be proven in his essays, and that excites me.

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