Terrance Hayes’s books include American Sonnets for My Once and Future Assassin, How to Be Drawn, Wind in a Box, Hip Logic, Muscular Music, and Lighthead, which won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hayes was a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, an NEH and a Guggenheim Fellow. He teaches creative writing at New York University. See https://terrancehayes.com/ for his interviews, performances, art, and books.
Jan Garden Castro: How has your life changed due to COVID-19?¹
Terrance Hayes: My normal lifestyle is one where I’m mostly just here working on poems or working on things, so my life hasn’t changed that much. I go and I teach and I give readings. I typically paint over the summers and over Christmas break—I did four paintings over Christmas break, so I’ve been painting through it. My daughter came through; she was doing a semester abroad, so we had to get her from New York to Pittsburgh. She said she wanted to go because she feels New York is less safe. I’m naturally a reclusive person anyway. I have more inner resources for this kind of thing than most people (laughs).
Castro: Good to know. Did you train as an artist and a pianist? How do other arts feed your poetry?
Hayes: I did. Music is different from art. Most people in school up through college would have guessed I’d be a painter. I majored in painting in college and was in all the art clubs and went to camps when I was younger. Few people knew I was writing on the side—my English teacher but not even my parents. When I was getting ready to graduate from college, my English professor—I had one intro to creative writing class—said, “You should send some of the stuff you’ve been doing to a few places.” So I did. It was cheaper than trying to be an artist the way I wanted to be—too expensive for materials.
The piano is separate. I took a class once with a guy a dozen years ago, but I’ve mostly messed around with it for twenty years. I don’t think about it the same way as I think about poems or art—no words—just make noise and see what happens.
Castro: Do you ever collaborate with musicians?
Hayes: I wouldn’t say I’m good enough in terms of my own music. Even with poems, I sort of … American Sonnets, before the book came out, were turned into a libretto and performed at Carnegie Hall, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Philadelphia Opera, and that was cool; when they asked me about doing it, I said, “Do whatever you want to do.” I tried not to think about that relationship. I just put all the pressure on my language. They did some interesting stuff; that was part of the surprise. I think of poetry as a solitary thing. It’s language, so it absorbs other things. It’s easy to get into a conversation with other things. I never in advance try to think about collaboration. My natural tendency is just to do the poems. Who knows? Things change. Part of what excites me about the future is always possibilities.
I think of poetry as a solitary thing. It’s language, so it absorbs other things. It’s easy to get into a conversation with other things. I never in advance try to think about collaboration. My natural tendency is just to do the poems. Who knows? Things change. Part of what excites me about the future is always possibilities.
Castro: Right. The “liquidity” of your practice. The lectures in To Float in the Space Between discuss liquidity and crossing “the borders of various poetics” in the work of Etheridge Knight, Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich. Could you discuss liquidity in your practice?
Hayes: I might invert it and say once I had that term, it was a way of understanding the way I always understood language and poetry anyway. Even in metaphors, it’s implicit that language is always trying to make a connection with something beyond itself. Language is life, right? I’ve always thought that. Poems can be like everything in the world. Ideas, stories, notions of song, music—the liquid is metaphor to me. Metaphors are inherently liquid. They can’t resist anything by definition. Because metaphor is so central to my understanding of poems, that is my notion of liquidity. Poetry is like everything. Language is like everything. You just figure how to get that equation to work out. That basic principle is usually the one that’s underneath everything.
Castro: That is beautiful. Do your present projects use any kinds of forms or any particular focus?
Hayes: (laughs) Yeah. I generally am looking at the stuff that’s at my feet and over my shoulder. Before this all happened, I was supposed to do some kind of art project. I know so much about art because I studied it; obviously, my interest in music is always present, so even before the last book (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin), in the preceding book How to Be Drawn, I’d maintained my visual arts practice. I’d even go to figure drawing once or twice a week. If Trump hadn’t been elected, I’d still be on this path. Trump was an interruption to this idea of a real bridge between art and language.
I was invited to do this thing in D.C. at The Phillips (Collection). I had about thirty of their paintings, and I created this visual “sestina generator”—it’s four columns, an adjective, a noun, a connective verb, another adjective, and a noun. This thing was helping me generate these lines. I did that with four of them, and then I started writing the envois instead of thinking about the sestinas. My idea, which also goes to my thinking these days, was how to get a reader to make something—to set up something for them to use to generate a poem—a dialog with the reader—artistic participation. I got about twelve pages into it, a whole bunch of sestinas and had decided to stop and do something else and then the coronavirus happened. So who knows what will happen now?
My typical practice is to figure out some kind of strategy across projects. I write every day. It’s fairly loose. I’m happy for whatever comes. Sometimes a poem will come. It never comes out at once but I can get chunks of ideas down, and that’s all I’m going to try to do on a day-to-day basis. With this sort of project, I thought, it will give me something to work on full time for three months. I started in December or January working on these elaborate kinds of mathematics. The last thing I thought was maybe I would get rid of the sestina-generator portion of it and work on whatever came in the envois. Through all of that, I’m still thinking about how to relate the visual part. It all grows out of the sestina form, which I find an inflexible, challenging form, and seeing what happens. Maybe I’ll get rid of everything and use the responses to the sestinas. I’m a dozen pages in, and I’ve set it aside, as was my intention. I may pick it up again in April with or without the Phillips Collection project.
Poems can be like everything in the world. Ideas, stories, notions of song, music—the liquid is metaphor to me. Metaphors are inherently liquid. They can’t resist anything by definition. Because metaphor is so central to my understanding of poems, that is my notion of liquidity. Poetry is like everything. Language is like everything. You just figure how to get that equation to work out. That basic principle is usually the one that’s underneath everything.
Castro: What do you consider most important during this global turning point and crisis?
Hayes: It’s still a question of resources. My daughter came in from studying in Senegal, where they’re handling things well, but what if she got stuck there without resources? I said to her: be smart; try not to live in fear. It’s not about monetary but about inner resources. This moment is a great leveler. My inner resources are the opposite of capitalism—not to rely on anything other than your capacity to make stuff as a way of spending your time. I’ve always thought that. It’s all in the work. What I would say to my kids when they were going to school: be sure to make something today even if you’re making trouble. The idea is maker’s knowledge. Her response to that was if you don’t have that regular practice, how do you suddenly become a creative person if you haven’t been creative in that way? I’m still thinking about the quality of the conversation and whether she understood what I was saying. Did she see me as saying I’m independent and I don’t have to worry about it, or did she see me as saying figure out a way to keep yourself busy during a time of stress? Make a video about what you did in Senegal for that half of a semester. If that’s not your natural practice, I don’t know if everybody puts the same kind of premium on what I’m suggesting.
And it’s what I’m suggesting to everybody: make something. When you’re in the midst of creativity, time—for me, anyway—just falls away. Any art form stops time; anything totally engaging your imagination is a foil to time. Even on the anxiety part—I’ve been working on a painting, and the painting should register what I’m feeling even if I don’t have coronavirus written on it. I know the time it was made, and all art is a kind of diary practice in some ways. If I’m thinking about other things as I lay the paint on, that’s impacting it. I have written things, too. What I’m advocating is a practice that allows you to figure out how to make the best of your time.
Castro: Your daughter went back to Pittsburgh?
Hayes: Yes, with her mother and brother. I took them to the airport, and they’re back. Are you making the right decision is an ongoing question. I try not to speculate too much about where things are going. I guess we’ll see how this virus will impact people psychologically.
Castro: That brings me to my question about feeling. In To Float in the Space Between, you state that “Feeling means more than meaning” (76) and say that if a poem is a house with a yard, “what’s inside is a poem, what’s outside is not.” (82) Could you unpack these two thoughts?
Hayes: They’re two separate ideas. The second one about the fence is about generosity as a reader. Once you have a sense of what a poem is, that fence automatically comes up in terms of what it’s not. For me, I know there’s a fence but I don’t overthink where the borders are. The ways poems can be in the world is something teachers can talk about with students.
Thinking versus feeling is an ongoing theme for me. I could say, shapes and forms change. People used to ride horses; now they drive cars. People used to not have internet as a way of expressing themselves; now they do. Technologies and forms are constantly changing but the things that are consistent are the basic tenants like love, fear, hate, jealousy, insecurity, you know. Feelings are much more consistent than even something like logic and form. Fences and borders are up for grabs and always shifting; I just rely on feelings. That includes generosity, love, communication, and not the thinking side. I try to capture what that feels like as opposed to what logic feels like all the time. I also like to step back and see how much the rules will bend or understand the principles behind the rules, that kind of thing. If you want to build on that, it extends to how we think about laws. One’s intuitive sense of the world is more important than all the stuff that gets constructed around us.
Thinking versus feeling is an ongoing theme for me. I could say, shapes and forms change. People used to ride horses; now they drive cars. People used to not have Internet as a way of expressing themselves; now they do. Technologies and forms are constantly changing but the things that are consistent are the basic tenants like love, fear, hate, jealousy, insecurity, you know.
Castro: You grew up in South Carolina not knowing who your father was. After you met him and found that your grandfather was a Vietnam war hero, how did learning more about your ancestry affect your life and your writing?
Hayes: That’s an interesting question. By the time that happened, I was in my thirties and had developed an approach to not knowing my history. I did know my Mom and my step-Dad, who was in the military and playing sports. John Coltrane, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker—I figured out my own ancestry. I saw my father and my half-brother twice. That gave me a new sense of my personal history. It’s ironic that the military-industrial complex is part of my ancestry. I think of myself as a poet who was raised by soldiers and jocks (step-father) and prison guards (mother). Whatever that does for the poem, I accept.
Castro: It’s what you’ve done with it that’s interesting. Was your interest in Etheridge Knight’s ancestry and history, as you learned about it both academically and anecdotally, related to your mom’s being a prison guard? Probably not …
Hayes: The anecdotal part is that when I had the opportunity to meet Etheridge Knight—this is the first chapter in the book (How to Be Drawn)—I was intrigued by going to Indiana to meet an ex-convict, to stay with this white guy I’d just met—with a little bit of support, I might have done it. My natural attitude was: that can’t happen. In terms of role models and father figures, Etheridge Knight was the first person I encountered who had a background similar to what I had had—growing up liking Shakespeare—I had not seen anybody like him. The opportunity to meet him was amazing, and the fact that I passed it up was the catalyst for the whole book.
Castro: The fact that he is a catalyst for you is interesting. In To Float in the Space Between, you distinguish between Wallace Stevens’ racist remark about Gwendolyn Brooks and Stevens’ poetry. How do you distinguish between Knight’s treatment of women and his poetry?
Hayes: We can talk pretty openly about those kinds of shortcomings. The essay “The Craft of Love” on his relationship with Sonia Sanchez addresses that. It’s on the table. It’s true for Robert Frost and Langston Hughes and everybody. It’s true for Toni Morrison, too. I did The Blaney Lecture ²—a series of questions that hit that subject. One of those questions is, “What do we do about Derek Walcott now?” The reason they’re all questions is the nature of my personality. I’m not so interested in answering those questions; I’m interested in the conversations around them. One of them goes to this thing about Wallace Stevens, too, and is my favorite question in all of them out of the 200: “If Wallace Stevens can be of three minds like a tree in which there are three blackbirds and still be fairly narrow-minded, how many blackbirds do you suppose occupy the tree of Gwendolyn Brooks’ mind?” That’s not taking much from Wallace Stevens. The three mind thing is probably accurate for how one thinks about the creative process, perhaps. I’m also suggesting the untapped potential all across the culture, so if Wallace Stevens could be that complicated and still narrow-minded, when you think about just how complicated the mind of Gwendolyn Brooks would be in a world where she could be the VP of an insurance company and have leisure time, and just write everything she wants to write, which was nobody’s story except for Wallace Stevens and a few others. The point is to not take anything away from Wallace Stevens but that there are many separate issues all across the culture.
I say this to my students: poetry, poems, poets. Poetry is the broader question of, like, how do you live in a poetry world? How do you support other poets? What do you think about poetry? Poems are the actual text. Poets are the people walking around. My order of those things would be: poems should be first. Poetry would be second, and the poets would be last. I don’t prioritize any real relationship with the poet over my relationship with the thing the poet has made and my general sense of how poetry can benefit from that poet.
Here’s the thing, though. One of the key things about poetry for me is it’s about truth. The work is a record and the reason that Etheridge Knight and Lucille Clifton would be more important than someone like Wallace Stevens. One of the reasons is that evidence is in the work; this is true for Sylvia Plath, too. Etheridge Knight is trying to tap into some of the blues aesthetic, some of his flaws, too. We could broadly call that confessional poetry. When I look at somebody like Wallace Stevens, it’s not there. It’s in William Carlos Williams, so Williams gets to be put above Stevens. It’s not in a lot of Langston Hughes. It’s not in a lot of work by T.S. Eliot.
I guess I’m suggesting: if one is flawed and you see some of that struggle in the work, then that’s great; maybe it’s not in the Modernists. I like Gertrude Stein. You can find her thinking and her truths in the work. I would advocate for that. But if that’s hidden from the work, that’s another kind of problem, a more corrosive kind of thing—questions of character, questions of moral visions of the world. In some ways, Frost and Stevens are icy. They don’t have the kind of heat that I seek in most poetry. Wanda Coleman is a great example—she’s so honest in her work. She’s doing a bunch of other stuff. You see her rage, her sadness, her pride, braggadocio; that’s the direction I’m typically looking in. Audre Lorde: all of her is in the poems. For me, it’s important: always get all of the poet in the poem. Those are the poets that I value.
Poems are the actual text. Poets are the people walking around. My order of those things would be: poems should be first. Poetry would be second, and the poets would be last. I don’t prioritize any real relationship with the poet over my relationship with the thing the poet has made and my general sense of how poetry can benefit from that poet.
Castro: That clarifies a lot. Who else is at the top of your personal canon?
Hayes: Toi Dericotte was my teacher and comes out of the NYU school where Sharon is and where Galway was. Frank O’Hara—I don’t know what the relationship between the locale is—I don’t think it’s New York. … Anybody who’s read them understands what I’m saying about them. This goes back to the teaching thing. I’ve had to, like, work to know how to teach and know what to learn… For instance, with Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery, I’m increasingly enamored of those poets—John Ashbury blurbed my third book—but I still don’t count him as the same kind of poet like Sharon Olds or Galway Kinnell. For me, that’s the great luxury and the great joy of teaching: if I’m not getting everything, I can keep messing around to see what’s there. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is fine, but I’ve exhausted my interest in T. S. Eliot.
I can turn a corner. I was definitely excited to deepen my relationship with Emily Dickinson, but that comes from reading someone like Lucie Brock-Broido or Susan Howe. I’m always eager to have my mind changed about these people, but my waking up thing is the feeling versus thinking—who’s going to give you that fire—Plath and the contemporary poets who are doing that. I kind of maintain a love for both things happening—someone like Yusef Komunyakaa comes out of that tradition, but those flickers underneath the poem where you get that eye close to the heart which is in a lot of Yusef’s work—is more shaky than Sharon. They’re both going for the same kind of heat; it’s not manifest in the same way. The poet is present in the work. My favorite poem by Elizabeth Bishop is “One Art.” I don’t think of her as a super-exposed poet. I still like her, but that is always my question for her: if you are working on a book every ten years, and you refine them in that way, how much of yourself is gone as you go to the thinking part the longer you’re looking at it? I also argue with Baraka about the Beats’ “First thought, best thought” idea. It has the same kinds of problems—not thinking about it, then thinking about it too much—Ginsberg on one side and Bishop on the other.
Finally, when I say this thing about poems coming first, that’s usually where I go. I try not to dwell too much on the broader issues. Whatever my opinion of Elizabeth Bishop is, I still know she has poems in my top ten. Poems are the clearest evidence of what we believe as opposed to careers or books. Certain prizes don’t count. You want to be able to go straight to the poem and say, this is great, and let me tell you why.
I just try to write out my body, to listen to my eyes. I know that when the poems go into the world, people have places to put me and the work, but as a maker of the work, those things aren’t interesting to me. My daily practice comes from being a black man walking around in the world.
Castro: Good. Sounds like you’re a great teacher. Each poem raises different voices and worlds, such as your “Self-Portrait as the Mind of a Camera,” which suggests that cameras in some ways create, authenticate, and obfuscate black male identities. I don’t want to oversimplify this poem, but why is it crucial to newly address how black male identities have been both maligned and “stitched together”?
Hayes: I just try to write out my body, to listen to my eyes. I know that when the poems go into the world, people have places to put me and the work, but as a maker of the work, those things aren’t interesting to me. My daily practice comes from being a black man walking around in the world.
Castro: One last question: did you make up ‘Lorca’s Breath’ as an orchid? I loved the message in the poem.
Hayes: Yes. That is the last poem in the book (American Sonnets) because Lorca was assassinated, and we don’t know where his body is. This is why you would make art in the midst of war. His gesture of making was his resistance, a tool, and also a weapon. I’m just here to show you how to wield it as a tool, how to wield it as a weapon. If you understand that that is, to me, what art is in a certain way, you’ll be fine going forward.