Terrance Hayes: Poetry in Motion

Issue Date: 
September 28, 2015

Most late nights, the husband, father of two, and full-time professor escapes the “jam of life’s traffic” by walking the 14 steps to his third-floor study. Here, cradled amid his wall of books and self-drawn canvases, he shuts down the noise of a thousand thoughts and goes into the quiet of listening to himself. 

He could spend hours here. It’s the chamber where he finds focus, a chance to corral his roaming imagination.  

If he can get just a solid 15 minutes of clarity, he can scrawl, write, create—begin the craft of spinning words into ideas and ideas into poetry.

Photo by Becky Thurner-Braddock. Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationBut poet Terrance Hayes is at peace with it now, the notion that 15 minutes is all he might get out of 24 hours. Now, he seizes those 900 seconds and immerses in them. He no longer frets that in any single day there may not be more creative time. 

That wasn’t always the case. “For a long time, I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to get it all, to get more,” he says. “I felt deep anxiety about how much I was missing. It’s like Arghh!, I haven’t read enough books, and I said something really smart an hour ago but now I have forgotten it.” Even in his sleep, he fretted. The anxiety over what he might be missing sent waves of frustration and fragments of ideas crashing into his dreams.

But then he had a breakthrough. “I just decided to take what I could get,” says the poet. “If it’s a really, really great idea, I’ll put it in my phone or jot it down. I’m trying not to feel too guilty about what’s lost and, instead, reflect more on what’s gained, because you can never get it all.”

Whatever Hayes is channeling, it’s working. What the lanky, 6’6” writer has been able to accomplish with the scraps of time he has gathered over the years is what some would call … well, genius.

Last September, Hayes was named one of 21 recipients of a 2014 MacArthur fellowship, a much-heralded honor more commonly known to the public as a genius grant.

The MacArthur Foundation avoids the “genius” word, instead emphasizing that the selected fellows are individuals of exceptional creativity. 

No doubt, the fellowship is a bright light. And for nearly two decades, the warmth of other creative suns has also shined on Hayes. 

His efforts have consistently produced award-winning volumes of poetry. Muscular Music (Tia Chucha, 1999) won the Whiting Award in 1999 and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 2000. Next, Hayes was a 2001 National Poetry Series winner, which resulted in the publication of Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006) earned a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. His collection Lighthead (Penguin, 2010) won the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry. His latest volume, How To Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015),  is one of 10 titles under consideration for the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry. 

The awards are one measure of creativity, but Hayes’ exceptionality has always been evident, says Toi Derricotte, Pitt Professor Emerita of English and a renowned poet with her own slew of honors, an award-winning memoir, and more than 1,000 poems published in anthologies, journals, and magazines.

Derricotte met the curious and striving Hayes about 20 years ago. He was an Academic All-American basketball player at the small, private Coker College in South Carolina, and she was giving a reading not far from his campus. Hayes went to her presentation, and when Derricotte finished, he approached the poet. 

He told her: “I want to write.”  

She remembers that Hayes wasn’t sure of the path to follow to get started. However, she recalls him as an earnest, impressive young man who spoke with passion about what he wanted to do with his life. Derricotte invited him to apply to the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate program in writing. 

Within a few months, Hayes arrived in the city of Pittsburgh. 

“I can remember getting here and having not even decided what my genre was,” he says. “I just said I wanted to study creative writing.”

Suddenly, the young man from the South who had primarily seen himself as a jock and a visual artist was thrust into Pitt’s Gothic tower of lively classrooms and lofty conversations with other writers. It was a strange new place, and Derricotte recalls Hayes as being uneasy, initially, about where he fit in. The poetry track offered support and a place to explore all of his feelings.

Hayes was humble, Derricotte observed, but he was also someone who built community among his fellow students and within the larger English department by arranging readings and supporting other writers. Perhaps what she was witnessing early on was the truth-telling, generous spirit that would come to define Hayes and his work—inviting, challenging, always drawing people toward the light.

Hayes grew up in Columbia, S.C., a creative spirit who loved language and arts. His mom, a prison guard, and his father, who built his career in the military, bought him art supplies and sent him to art camp. He sketched his friends and painted murals, toyed with the piano, made T-shirts, and, when night fell, spun his adventures to his cousins, turning what should have been slumber into story time. As a youngster, he spent much of his time in the warmth of his grandmother’s kitchen reading to her, and, as he got older, visiting the local library, wrapping himself in the words of his favorite writers.

“The scope of his imagination is limitless,” says Samuel Hazo, an award-winning author and poet laureate of Pennsylvania from 1993-2003. He founded the Pittsburgh-based International Poetry Forum, which, for more than 40 years, hosted some of the nation’s and the world’s best poets. Among the artists featured at the forum were Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich. And Terrance Hayes.

Hazo describes Hayes’ work—provocative reflections on race, gender, and family—as “unforgettable.” He praises Hayes’ bold verse and experimentation with form as being filled with a vast acquaintance with literature, as well as historical and sociological insight. “He is an American poet, but he transcends place,” says Hazo.

In 2013, Hayes joined the University of Pittsburgh as a professor of English after 12 years on the writing faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. He is married to poet Yona Harvey, a Pitt writing professor and author of Hemming the Water.

Those who know Hayes in the classroom describe him as a gracious teacher. He does not so much grade one’s work as listen to it, telling his students there are a “million ways to fix” a poem, and that they have to do the hard work of deciding which of those ways to choose.

For someone who first wrote to impress eighth-grade girls or teachers, Hayes is now largely motivated by his engagement with the language. “The joy I get out of reading is that it continues to be a kind of spark to my own writing.”

Recently, much of his creativity has focused on examining masculinity and the influence of the male gaze. They are themes covered in his latest book, How To Be Drawn, where he delves into the language and expectations of what it is to be a man. “What can a man say and not say?” asks Hayes. “What can a man feel and not feel? I thought this was a space worth exploring.”

He’s as comfortable in a tuxedo, hobnobbing in one of Manhattan’s luxurious Cipriani establishments accepting a prestigious writing award, as he is in blue jeans, sitting in Kelly’s bar in Pittsburgh’s East End while talking to a former student about writing.

Hayes has what poet, scholar, and his former student Tameka Cage Conley calls “endless relevance.” She still trembles when she reads Langston Hughes’ classic poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and she says, “I think Terrance Hayes’ poetry will have the same effect. It will resonate until there is not a world anymore.” 

Meanwhile, Hayes is searching, as always, for the quiet moments at the top of those 14 stairs. The moments that set his poetry-making in motion; 900 seconds, a world without end.

(This is an excerpt of a profile on Hayes that appeared in Pitt Magazine, Spring 2015 issue.)