Terrance Hayes Says in Times Like These, Poets Need to Poet

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Throughout the day on Thursday, poet and teacher Terrance Hayes gave a series of talks on the campus of Bellevue College. His topic was “Social Justice for Black Lives,” and he addressed it through a morning presentation before faculty, students, and staff; a later question and answer session moderated by English professors Nan Ma and Fernando Pérez; and finally at an evening lecture open to the community.

Hayes may be best known for his work Lighthead, which won the 2010 National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of three other books of poetry—Muscular Music (1999), Hip Logic (2002), and Wind in a Box (2006)—and has won numerous recognitions, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship.

His latest collection of poetry, How to be Drawn (2015), won the National Book Award and has received significant critical acclaim for its uncategorical style and daring engagement with seeing and being seen. According to the back cover, “How, this dynamic collection asks, is the self drawn by and to the paradoxes of the mind, body, and soul; how do we resist being withdrawn, erased?”

In one of my favorite poems from the collection, “How to Draw an Invisible Man,” Hayes focuses on living transparently, not invisibly:

… the waterlogged monologues

one who is unseen speaks burst suddenly

from Ralph Ellison’s body and because I mean to live

transparently, I am here, bear with me,

describing the contents: …

This dynamic between being invisible and being transparent would remain a topic of conversation throughout the day. The goal of his work is to evoke “a refined transparency” in response to this tension, Hayes would explain in the afternoon.

Hayes began the morning event appearing on stage in a black tee shirt with the word “FREEDOM” in faded, grey letters printed across the front. He also wore two watches, one on each wrist, something he has done for the past ten years. He opened with a poem from his first book, a move he said was provoked by a conversation he had earlier in the morning—a morning, he acknowledged later, that put him in an angry mood. This mood, he asserted, had energized him for the day’s events.

After the first poem, Hayes began reading from a new series of sonnets, ones he was still revising, he said. They were all entitled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” and are in response to events that have followed the 2016 Presidential election—the one that put “the Trumpet” (one of Hayes’ names for President Donald Trump) into office. As he read through the sonnets for the next twenty-five minutes, Hayes gave little commentary.

He mentioned that he likes to keep it all in the poems themselves. For example, one poem comments on his relation to Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He knows, he says, as a Black poet, he should lean more toward the former writer, but, honestly, he feels pulled closer to the latter. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” resonates with him, yes, but more of what Plath was doing shows up in his work.

Hayes read a series of 8 to 10 sonnets. (I lost count, perhaps because they all have the same title.) In that small series, he displayed a significant breadth of voice and a complicated layering of themes and ideas that demonstrate why readers have reacted so favorably to his work. He is serious, driven, and fully engaged with the moment. More than other authors I have read of late, Hayes writes as a poet in his time. He is a poet who wears two watches, after all. He is a poet who admits he is obsessed with time, who tells us he writes in the here and now and urges us to live with an awareness of the moment we inhabit. And, all the while, his focus on the body and his sense of humor return to alter that moment, to make it recognizable and then strange—as all good poets should.

This alteration, or “volta” as he described it, is the turn in poetry (especially sonnets) that takes the image and alters our perspective, makes us look at it anew. A sonnet is like a cube, it has six sides, and the poet should keep turning it, Hayes explained. The poem establishes an expectation, responds in a way that shifts that expectation, and in the process alters the expectation with which the reader or listener began. His poem beginning with Hughes and ending with Plath demonstrates this well. So does “American Sonnet for Wanda C.” in How to be Drawn, where the lover in the poem announces his desire to be “her son,” shifting the significance of everything that came before and changing what a son’s love might mean.

After he finished reading, Hayes took questions and comments from the audience for twenty minutes. Following a break for lunch, he returned to address questions from the moderators and the audience for another hour. As he discussed the volta in both sessions and as I reread portions of How to be Drawn during the break, I saw how this turn works throughout his writing and how it applies to what he calls “poetry of palpable politics” and “the poetics of politics.”

The target in Hayes’ sonnets and the poems in How to be Drawn is the embodied experience of the political moment, not the disembodied ideology of politics in general. He is drawing out the moment of experience in all its carnal, corporeal layers to turn invisible bodies into transparent ones. He writes not to render the invisible visible and fixed but to trace the outlines of the apparition, summon the ghosts of those ignored, neglected, or oppressed. In conjuring them, he seeks their influence on the systems in which they live, whether those systems recognize them or not.

In one poem, Hayes repeats the N-word several times. The shock of it felt like a perfect combination of the volta and this conjuring—a moment in the reading that felt so different from the other pieces he read and the way he responded to so many questions. During the comments in the afternoon, he returned to that poem and told us he rarely uses the N-word. “That word,” he called it. And, after he explained his word choice, it became an ever clearer moment of the poet striving to poet, to speak in a voice not his own to bring that other speaker back into the conversation. The N-word signals the turn and the ghost that returns, it history and effect made transparent rather than visible or invisible in this political moment.

Near the end of the conversation, one moderator asked Hayes, “Do you see the poet as the voice of dissent?” Hayes nodded. But, his body language more acknowledged the question more than answered it in the affirmative. Earlier in the morning, when someone in the audience asked about the role of the poet in these times, Hayes responded that the poet needs “to poet.” The teacher needs to teach, the singer needs to sing, the builder needs to build, he said. We all need to do what we do to make politics palpable. There is no one way of doing it. Perhaps, then, in these times, the poet needs to keep asking this question about dissent, Hayes seemed to be saying.

Hayes also gave us one more bit of advice before the close of the day’s events: the new Kendrick Lamar album is great, he said. Damn. is better than, To Pimp a Butterfly, in his opinion. He told us he had been listening to Damn. and some work by the Irish musician Kate Tempest lately. And when one audience member shared his enthusiasm for Lamar’s album, Hayes responded excitedly, adding that we should give a serious listen to the songs “Lust” and “DNA.” In those tracks, whether or not Kendrick Lamar realized it, we could hear the volta and the ghosts conjured by his poetry.

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an editor-at-large with the South Seattle Emerald, the founder and chief editor of Screen Bodies and the editor of two books: Comedy Begins with Our Simplest Gestures and Transnational Chinese Cinema (with Mary Mazzilli and Hee Wai Siam). He is also an instructor at Bellevue College and the administrator of the blog foreigninfluence.com where he writes about film, disability, and political culture. Follow Brian Bergen-Aurand on Google+ and on Twitter @bbergenaurand.

Featured image courtesy of TerranceHayes.com


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