Terrance Hayes, nationally-acclaimed poet and artist, read from his works and answered questions from on April 10 from 6-7 p.m. The event, which took place in Mudd 26, was part of the Turnbull Lecture Series.
Hayes is the author of five previous poetry collections that have received numerous honors, including a National Book Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is currently the poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine. In addition to writing poetry, he also creates visual art.
Hayes is currently working on a book of poems, essays and visual works, described during the event as a “space between drawings and essays and a conversation with the writer Etheridge Knight.”
He read mainly from that body of work, as well as from the long series of sonnets that he has been working on since the 2016 elections, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, which will be published later this year.
Dora Malech, poet and associate professor in the Writing Seminars department, oversaw the event.
In her introduction, Malech described Hayes’ work and its engagement with a variety of topics.
“Terrance Hayes’ poems are such intense and engaging explorations of love, life, memory, race, gender, sexuality, family, lineage, politics, power, culture, imagination, music and art, that a reader might need to blink and reread and reread to catch all the subtlety of their structures, the wrought wonder of their making,” she said.
After Malech’s introduction, Hayes took over the podium with an immediately casual and modest tone.
“I have to carry a handkerchief because this is making me sweat, and I’m already hot... but really what I want to say to y’all is... I want to get to the Q&A, so what I’m gonna do is set my timer and try to talk for 15 maybe or so minutes, and then I’ll read some poems, and when this thing goes off, then we can talk, okay?”
Hayes then began explaining the background of his upcoming book about Knight. He cited inspiration from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, a book in which Charles Kinbote, a scholar, is obsessed with the poet John Shade, who also happens to be his neighbor. Kinbote writes commentaries on and even intrusively inside one of Shade’s poems.
“The book is set up as if I was Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. Kinbote sees himself everywhere in the poem, and the great distorting power of Kinbote’s imagination provides a tension and his trajectory ruins the practice of close reading. Pale Fire shows how expertise slides down a slippery slope into delusion, and delusion, depending on how you look at it, is a form of the imagination, and imagination a form of critical study.”
In addition to Nabokov, Hayes also touched on cellular and molecular biology as another source of inspiration and thought. He spoke about a piece that he read related to his relatives and the cell (both biological and corrective).
“The molecular biography of a cell is the image that I use. It was something that I got from an actual biology piece on the parts of a cell... these two scientists were talking about the cells in your body, when were they made, what the contribution of neighboring cells was and what role was played by more distant influences, what the role of chance was in the life of a cell, at what point the final fate was initially specified and when was it an ultimately sealed,” he said.
Hayes then read from American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin. These sonnets focused on himself, masculinity, blackness, Trump, America, poets, writers and rappers.
Each time he recited a poem from the series, he repeated its title (each poem had the title of the series).
“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” he said. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes or, God forbid, Wheatley, but actually / It began with all the poetry weirdos and worriers...” Again, he began, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin... America, you just wanted change is all, a return / To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign / Of gold.” Each time, Hayes delivered the title with a seriousness and deliberate gravitas.
Having gone over the 15-minute buzzer he had set for himself, Hayes, laughing, then switched over to the Q&A section of the event.
When asked a question that touched on wealth, Hayes said “I’ll just say in a very simple way that I don’t think that money has anything to do with my wealth... I know money means something, but it would not be top in my value system. I understand — this is America, this is capitalism — but money is not the definition of what my richness comes from, if you follow me.”
Another question centered around the critical view of Hughes in one of his American Sonnet poems. Hayes said, “he went to Russia and he was something of... everybody in the ‘30s was a communist sympathizer, so that’s fine, but when McCarthy called him up, he’s one of the few people who — it’s on the record, you can look it up — he submitted to McCarthy. He pretty much bought off all of his work before ‘53, so there you go.”
One of the last people in the Q&A session asked about the quoted lines from Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” in one of the American Sonnets: “Yellow rims, yellow big booty, yellow bones / Yellow Lambs, yellow MP’s, yellow watch.”
On using references and quotes in his poems, Hayes said, “At the moment when one comes through, I don’t filter it out. I guess I don’t concern myself with whether you look it up or whether you get it because it just takes a few people I mostly think of at the moment.”
Hayes said that he tries to avoid following a set formula when writing his poetry. At the end of the day, he just wants it to be “cool.”