blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1


A Reading by Terrance Hayes
recorded April 3, 2008

David Wojahn: Well, welcome everybody. Tonight it’s a real pleasure to introduce you to Terrance Hayes, author of three collections of verse, and one of the country’s most exciting and various young poets. You know, on the headstone of the grave of Frank O’Hara is a passage from one of his poems, and it says, “Grace to be born and to live as variously as possible.” It’s a fitting epitaph for the restless and manic figure that O’Hara was. And it would still be fitting if you substituted “write” for “live” in that line: “Grace to be born and to write as variously as possible.” O’Hara probably wouldn’t have minded this revision since for him the writing and the living were more or less the same. And I’d also use that line to describe the poetry of Terrance Hayes, use it not as an epitaph but as a characterization of the giddy restlessness and staggering inventiveness of his poetry.

American poets tend to have a notion—not always a good notion—that the purpose of a writing career is to arrive at a voice, arrive at a trademark style, and then plaster your poems with that trademark until the day you die. We’re told we need to find our voices, but when we achieve that, many of us get stuck with those voices. But if you look at the poems of Terrance Hayes’ most recent collection, Wind in a Box, you see a writer who trusts the poem too much to let it be preserved in the formaldehyde of some sort of failed voice. You instead get a bedazzling display of approaches, one that honors the tradition on the one hand, and which seems slyly postmodern on the other. And you get a variety of emotions and tones ranging from hilarity to pathos. And always, always, you get a jittery Cuisinart of references, both from high and low culture: Borges on one page, David Bowie on the next, Earth, Wind & Fire giving way to Dr. Seuss, literally. It’s a highly individual poetry, but it trusts the poem itself far more than it trusts some self-important concept of its author.

In a recent essay for the Poetry Foundation, Terrance Hayes writes, “I’ll say this here, that I think the poem is mostly an animal. We work to tame it, to train it, but ultimately it has a mind of its own. It’s a child we’re raising, a child we birthed and are responsible for, but a child we do not ‘own.’” In addition to Wind in a Box, Terrance Hayes is the author of Muscular Music, which was published in 1999 and won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Hip Logic which appeared in 2002 as a selection of the National Poetry Series. He’s won a number of additional awards and honors, among them an N.E.A., a Pushcart Prize, and a Whiting Fellowship. So please welcome Terrance Hayes.

Terrance Hayes: Alright, let me see here. This time, were going . . . Wow! So, that was a very smart and kind introduction. And I was sitting thinking for a moment I was just gonna praise you [David] and I thought, oh yeah, Greg and Clint . . . So I guess I’ll just say that this is a more than an exceptional faculty that you guys have here. I would be the least of the accomplished people in your company on a regular basis so—I mean, I’m sure you guys know that. So thank you for having me, thanks for the introduction, thanks for the friendship, thanks for the stories. I’m usually pretty bad at that sort of stuff, so I got that out of the way.

Alright, let me see. So I think maybe I’ll just jump around since I saw all three of the books back there. And I was thinking, because this is like, you know, like Larry Levis is in the house, I was thinking I’m gonna read a bunch of serious, real weird, sort of visionary poems. But then y’all might be mad at me, so—but Larry Levis wouldn’t be mad at me. Here’s one from Muscular Music, “When the Neighbors Fight.”

[“When the Neighbors Fight,” Terrance Hayes, Muscular Music, Carnegie-Mellon Press, 2005.]

As I get deeper into the more strange poems, maybe I’ll speak more, but in my mind I like to think that I, uh, talk very little and mostly read, but I’m pretty much a chatterbox. So I’ll try not to chatter too much. This is the last poem in Hip Logic. This is the only one I’ll read from this book, and I kind of said I wouldn’t read it anymore, but I’ll read it tonight. “The Same City.” It’s for my stepdad-slash-real dad. “The Same City.”

[“The Same City,” Terrance Hayes, Hip Logic, Penguin Group, 2002.]

So that’s two from the other books, but I’ll mostly read from Wind in a Box. So there’s a series of these poems that are sort of in the voices of people. I did, I really appreciated that introduction and, somehow, like this notion of style is tied up in, in Levis somehow. Don’t ask me how but, once upon a time, whatever my ideas about poetry were, they grew out of things that I read Larry Levis say about poetry—actually, things I read in Linda Hull too, if you must know the truth. But the idea of, like, style just seemed mostly like something that is good for marketing and good for selling. So mostly I like to just kind of impersonate other poets, imitate, pretend to be other poets—my mom is good at impersonations.

So I have this poem “The Blue Baraka” which is in the voice of Amiri Baraka, who I’ve met, although every time I meet him he never seems to remember me. Well, recently we had dinner in Pittsburgh in February. Somebody invited me and I was like, “Hey, Amiri!” And he’s like, “What’s your name again?” We read together at Lincoln Center. And in fact when we read together at Lincoln Center, I said to him before he went on stage, before me, I was like, “Oh, you know, I got this poem, man, I got this poem called ‘The Blue Baraka.’ I’m gonna read it for you.” And he was like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” And he went up and he did his thing. And then I went up and I was like, “The Blue Baraka,” and I looked at him and his back was to me—so, he never heard it. That’s all right though ’cause I know stuff about him! Like I think maybe him and—actually maybe him and Frank O’Hara, too—’cause you know “Personal Poem” and Allen Ginsberg, people think that he’s . . . do you guys know Amiri Baraka and “Somebody Blew Up America,” its anti-Semitic passages? In addition to having had a Jewish wife, he was in love, and is still in love, with Allen Ginsberg. He just loved Allen Ginsberg. So I don’t know if it’s metaphorical, or if there’s some sort of history there. But if he acknowledged me I wouldn’t even have to wonder out loud. Anyway, okay, I’m sorry. See I told you I wasn’t gonna talk. “The Blue Baraka.”

[“The Blue Baraka,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

I just knew he was gonna turn around and say, “Wow, that’s the best ode to me anybody’s ever done!” Instead he was like, “What’s your name again?” So I think he does it on purpose, I think he knows who I am. So, yeah, just scattered throughout the book, there’s these poems. And again, they’re mostly . . . I wouldn’t say, I won’t pretend any like grand aesthetic plans for the ones that I read out loud. These are just the ones I like reading out loud.

But this other poem is in the voice of this poet—well, he’s not a poet, but he’s sort of a poet—he’s a rapper, Kool Keith. Kool Keith: Dr. Octagon, Black Elvis, Dr. Doom. So, and who also likes personas, which is also part of my interest with him. So my story with Kool Keith is, you know, I was at Yale—actually I was at Yale, and Amiri Baraka was there too, another time he didn’t know who I was. It was for something for Langston Hughes. So then at the end, like later that night, a friend of mine was like, “Hey, man, Kool Keith’s in town, let’s go check him out.” So went we went. And we were in the room and, you know, I’m me, which is older and black, and my friend too was like, you know, older and black, but the room was full of all these young backpackers. Y’all know about the, the backpacker, like kind of underground rap scene, they carry all kinds of paraphernalia in their backpacks. So we were in the back, Kool Keith is on the stage, and the room was full of all these white kids, like, you know, bobbing, and he’s doing Dr. Octagon, everything else. And then at the end, we sort of like walked towards him to the front, and he saw us and he was like, “Oh my God! What are you guys doing here?” which is like, “What are y’all black people doing here?” And we’re like,“What are you doing here?—it’s Yale!” So he gave us T-shirts, you know, he was really happy, and I thought, I’m gonna write a poem for Kool Keith. So this is a poem in the voice of Kool Keith, although it’s not a bunch of “butt” stuff in here—but the reason I think that he hasn’t crossed over to mainstream is that he has . . . he has some sort of, like, butt fetish. So, you know, “I’ll wreck your rectum” would be like a . . . I mean, that’s a line, you know. Anuses, anything, so, don’t ask me why is just comes up which is why he’s not . . . he’s not LL Cool J, but very quirky. So this would be “The Blue Kool.”

[“The Blue Kool,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

So, these are the ones that I just like reading out loud, you know, ’cause you know I can’t do this. Like, you’ll see when I read my poems, I just can’t get that rambunctious. And inevitably I did. You know, I showed these poems . . . I had written a few of them, although only, you know, a handful of the ones I wrote are actually in the book. But I sent them to a friend, and he was like, “Oh man those poems, that’s just you, that’s just you.” And I was like, “Of course. I mean, it’s just a persona.” So then I thought, I’ll write persona poems in my voice, and then that will teach him—like who is this? The Blue Terrance. There’s like three of them in the book. “The Blue Terrance.”

 [“The Blue Terrance,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

So, you know, it’s all me. But I had like two martinis before I got here. You just never know how that stuff’s gonna influence you. . . . Oh, okay, I didn’t read this one, “The Blue Seuss,” since Seuss came up. And this again, it’s just, you know, having kids and reading things like Seuss and Shel Silverstein, and then letting your own obsessions kind of blend in with that. So this is, again, a poem sort of in the voice of Dr. Seuss, but it’s me. “The Blue Seuss.”

[“The Blue Seuss,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

You know, I read that thing in Boston, and there was this kid looking really serious in the front row, and he didn’t approve of the poem, ’cause he was like, “Man, blacks don’t vote!” And I didn’t know how to respond. This is before Barack Obama. So, that’s enough of those blue poems. . . .

“The Whale,” I guess, for my cousin Purvis who’s interesting and tattooed up, and I think he’s allergic to beer, so he drinks beer—this is a good way to explain abuse, ’cause he drinks beer then he becomes abusive to his lovers. So he says he’s allergic to beer to explain it, not that he needs therapy or anything. But he keeps drinking beer. But he likes literature, and he decided that I needed to write a poem for him after the first two books— ’cause he was going around using the books to get booty. But no one would believe we were related. So I wrote him this poem ’cause his dad passed away. You know, the book came out and I gave it to him ’cause he asked for it, and I didn’t tell him this was in it, but inevitably he found it. But this is the poem. “The Whale.” For Purvis.

[“The Whale,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

I wasn’t thinking that he would be interested in that, so I just didn’t tell him. And then after a couple of months, you know, he called me. He probably had the book like six months, and he was like, “Hey man, I read that poem ‘The Whale.’ Give me a fucking call!” He was mad. I couldn’t explain it to him, so I just didn’t call him back. And I don’t think I’ve talked to him since then either, that’s been a couple of years. But I gave him what he wanted, just not how he wanted it.

So then there’s a couple of poems in the book called Wind in a Box. I’ll read maybe two or three of them. “Wind in a Box.” After Lorca.

[“Wind in a Box,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

You know, they’re all sort of different, I guess. Here’s another one. They have something about, like, obssessiveness with death or something, in common, but maybe that would be the only thing. So I’ll read one more of these Wind in a Box poems. “Wind in a Box.”

[“Wind in a Box,” Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box, Penguin Group, 2006.]

Those are some poems from Wind in a Box. And the only thing I’m ever really curious-slash-excited about would be like sort of newish poems. So one of these is very, very new. One of them is sort of new. And the rest of them are just kind of new. This one’s kind of new. Actually, I just heard from this dude. So this poem, you know, some of these poems are completely made up, and some of them are not. So this poem is, you know, fairly true. And I’ll tell you at the end, like, what’s made up. But I wrote it because, you know, the scene was so . . . you know, I felt so bad after trying to like hug this dude’s wife inappropriately. I felt like I needed to write a poem to, like, redeem myself. “A House Is Not a Home.”

[“A House Is Not a Home,” Terrance Hayes, Callaloo, Spring, 2008.]

So, you know, he didn’t knock me down. Everything else, you know, “I can’t believe you . . .” embarrassing him in front of his wife, it was really inappropriate. But he didn’t hit me, he just looked kind of stunned, and then never talked to me again. So I thought if I write this poem, maybe we can make up.

So this one’s sort of serious. These are sort of newish, tentative poems. “Cocktails with Orpheus.” Some of these poems are just so strange I don’t even think I can really set them up. So, “Cocktails with Orpheus.” I’ll just leave it at that.

[“Cocktails with Orpheus,” Terrance Hayes, unpublished]

So “Snow for Wallace Stevens.” So this is new. I think I’ve read this out one time. I guess it was all right. I still feel like there’s some stuff to work out so, you know, y’all can talk to me later. But he came up at dinner, so that’s why I thought I should try it. And so there’s like lines from Wallace Stevens in here. Do y’all know Wallace Stevens? I mean, if you don’t know him it’s not gonna matter what I tell you the poems are, you know, “To a Fair-Toned Christian Woman” [sic] . . . and this is the poem, that kind of, it rips off of, “Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” [sic]. Obviously, when I saw the title of the poem I had to write a poem for Wallace Stevens. So that sort of is in the backdrop of the poem. “Snow for Wallace Stevens.”

[“Snow for Wallace Stevens,” Terrance Hayes, unpublished]

Yeah, there must be a category for these sorts of poems. I just don’t know what it is yet. Didn’t I say were gonna get weirder? So I start talking more around them when they get strange, but I still believe them because they are, you know, they are your children. “The Mustache.”

[“The Mustache,” Terrance Hayes, unpublished]

I don’t do drugs. I don’t, I mean, not recently, I haven’t done drugs. I didn’t do drugs when writing these poems. That’s a good thing though. If you write crazy poems you don’t need to do drugs. You know, you just write weird poems and say, “God, it was like I was high.”

This is the newest poem in the batch, and I think I read it out once and then made some changes. You know, it sort of feels like cheating to set it up. It’s called “Shakur,” which means “thanks be to God,” but obviously it’s the name of Tupac Shakur too. I mean, I think it’s speaking to Tupac, but, you know, he’s sort of in the background. The riff of the poem is just, like, I heard this story about like this couple, these white kids, doing like meth or something, and then they got stuck in a snowstorm in Nebraska. I mean, they turned the car off ’cause they were so warm ’cause they were so high, and of course they froze to death, or something like that. See, that’s like the whole poem. So that sort of is like what’s behind it, and maybe right up in front of it too. So it’s called “Shakur,” and either it’s Tupac or it’s like a prayer.

[“Shakur,” Terrance Hayes, unpublished]

So this is the last one,    “Lighthead’s Guide to Addiction.” I have a whole bunch of poems sort of, I guess you could call them “head” poems, like “Anchorhead” and “Bullethead” and “Fishhead.” I didn’t read any of those tonight though, but this is one, “Lighthead’s Guide to Addiction.”

[“Lighthead’s Guide to Addiction,” Terrance Hayes, unpublished.]

Thank you again.   end

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