“Music Without Full Instrumentation”: An Interview with Terrance Hayes

by Lauren Russell

Terrance Hayes is the author of four books of poetry, including Muscular Music, winner of both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Whiting Writers’ Award; Hip Logic, which was a National Poetry Series Open Competition winner, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and a runner-up for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; and Wind in a Box, named one of the Best 100 Books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly. His latest book, Lighthead, was awarded the National Book Award. Hayes is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, three Best American Poetry selections, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Hayes is an alum of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA Program, and he opened the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series this fall. Hot Metal Bridge’s Lauren Russell caught up with Hayes at Voluto Coffee.

Hot Metal Bridge: You were a basketball player in college. At what point did you decide to focus on poetry?

Terrance Hayes: I started writing poems in high school, but I wasn’t thinking I could have a career at it, so I just kinda wrote, and even in college I was a fine arts graduate. I wasn’t a poet publically, but I had a professor who knew that I wrote. When I was getting ready to graduate, I wondered if I would go play basketball overseas or if I would get an MFA in painting. Painting was too expensive, with supplies, and I hadn’t really taken poetry. I hadn’t even taken a poetry workshop, so I thought that would be the thing that would be newest. So I just thought I would be an English teacher or something. I didn’t even think I would be a poet, even when I got here.

HMB: I heard that when you were a student in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, you had two professors pushing you in somewhat different directions. Do you think this was good for your work?

Hayes: Three. You know it was Toi and Lynn and Ed, Ed Ochester, and they were all very different. I don’t know how much you know about Ed—he runs Pitt press, and he was the chair of the department for most of the time I was there. I wouldn’t say they pushed me in different directions, just they had different ideas of how poems should be written. Usually students get their affiliations; they start identifying with one professor more than another. Usually when they’re doing applications, some professors want particular students, so there were sort of implicit divisions that way. It’s sort of my personality that I’m not a person who’s interested on being on any team, so I didn’t pick any of them, didn’t want to pick sides. Toi was the closest to me emotionally, but in terms of the classroom I was trying to get the most out of all of them and see what all three of them could give me.

HMB: I have heard you say that your aim as a poet is to resist being categorized with any particular school or style, to go from “room to room” in the house of contemporary poetry. Is this kind of independence hard to achieve?

Hayes: It’s more local. I just think about that when I’m writing a poem. I don’t sit down at the desk and say I’m going to write a black poem, a narrative poem. When you look at anybody’s bookcase, there are so many styles. When I’m working, I just try to write whatever the poem requires. But you know that does happen. People look at your work and say, “This is a Terrance Hayes poem,” and I have nothing to do with that. I’m just trying to be interesting to myself, but a critic or someone who’s read a lot of poems will identify a style. There’s a division between what critics/readers expect and what writers expect. As a writer I just try to keep writing, not think about what readers expect.

HMB: I think that’s why I have trouble with lit classes.

Hayes: Yeah, it’s two different sides. I don’t in a general way value one over the other, but I do think they’re separate. In a workshop, people function more as readers than as writers, but if you imagine what a writer needs rather than what a reader needs, that’s a very different kind of workshop.

HMB: You have also said you aren’t interested in “perfect poems.” Why not?

Hayes: Every year I have something. [I’m talking about] not a deliberately flawed poem but more a reflection of a perspective, which is not about perfection. If you think about an animal, there’s no perfect animal. Most people think of poems like they’re machines. I’m thinking of something more organic and human that exists the way it needs to exist, more like a baby or child. How do you achieve that? I think of myself as a person who likes to be in control of everything. So how do I surprise myself? For so long I’ve been this person who’s been too in control, so how do I relinquish control? Some of it’s about line breaks, narrative. I like the poem to look a certain way in terms of line breaks, but how do I release control? Some of it is subject matter. The poet wants to be liked in the poem, but what does it mean to not always chase some kind of appeal? Discomfort, vulnerability, rawness that come up in a poem—that also has to do with perfection, the absence of perfection. That’s hard to teach, but if you make people more generous in the workshop, then you can get it. You say, “Oh, it’s not a perfect poem, but it’s pretty good; we’ll take that.” It creates generosity if you aren’t chasing a perfect object.

HMB: Can you talk more about narrative?

Hayes: Narrative is all set-up—you know the Freitag triangle? Climax, resolution—that’s very controlled, so if you relinquish some of that so there are holes, digressions in the story, not feeling like you have to go from point to point in a story.

HMB: Harryette Mullen has said that her work struggles against the idea that “innovative” and “black” are somehow mutually exclusive. Do you also see your work as bridging that gap?

Hayes: Yeah, I think that’s right. If I think about readers, if I think about readers’ response to her poems, I think there’s that cultural dimension to it—even in Muse and Drudge, she has African-American vernacular, blues, quatrains; she’s experimenting within the blues structure. As a reader I can see how she’s innovating with the blues culture, and I can see how she can’t escape that walking around in her body, in her brain. But as a writer I see that she is trying to write a long poem and play with language form, quatrains. Readers come up with styles, categories.

HMB: Some of your poems make references to the work of other poets (Jorge Luis Borges, Etheridge Knight, Harryette Mullen in Wind in a Box; Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, and James Dickey in Lighthead). Do you feel that your work is in conversation with other poets? And if so, why these particular poets?

Hayes: Yes, it’s in conversation with them. And those are poets for now. There are certain poets—Harryette, Elizabeth, Larry Levis, Etheridge Knight, Sylvia Plath. I have probably written about three poems about Etheridge Knight. They’re usually people I’m reading. The poem is just one way to think about a given writer. A poem is an ongoing interest and loyalty to a writer, but I can write a poem about anything I’ve been reading. Really if you think about the long haul, you’ve read everything by people. At this point I’ve read everything by Etheridge Knight, so there’s not going to be as much surprise for me, the same kind of spark, as with someone I’ve just discovered and am perplexed by. But usually people I am excited by—I bring them into the library, and they stay there. But I don’t think of it as a kind of fixed thing; I just bring them onto the shelf, and it’s ever-expanding.

HMB: Your work also frequently references musical icons—Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Tupac Shakur, James Booker, and Elizabeth Cotton, among others. Much has been said of the relationship between poetry and the visual arts, but I haven’t heard as much discussion about the interplay between music and poetry. Can you speak to this?

Hayes: Yeah, but you know, I think that’s first, that’s primary. Language is just music without the full instrumentation. Music doesn’t have the burden of connotation that language does. I prefer music, actually. I think there’s almost no room between the two. Talking about what a poem can do, think about Miles Davis or Beethoven—those pieces that have communicated something emotional without language; the only language you have is the title. I think a poem can do that, but people resist that. I’m chasing a kind of language that can be unburdened by people’s expectations. I think music is the primary model—how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition with no words communicates meaning? It might be impossible. Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.

HMB: I am really impressed with how you manage to take genres from other settings—liner notes, movie synopses—and turn them into poetic forms. In Lighthead, you adapted the pecha kucha, a Japanese business presentation format. How did you think to do this?

Hayes: I participated in one. A few years ago, they had one in the architecture department at CMU, and they invited a bunch of different people. I went to one in Japan, a year later, but before that, these guys called me and a bunch of other people and said, “The subject is open systems. Send us 20 images about whatever you’re going to talk about around that subject, and talk about them for 20 minutes.” I thought, language is an open system, because you can come up with a structure and put almost anything into it, and like a computer it feeds out results. I got the most intense parts of poems I could find—the most intense lines that Amiri Baraka ever wrote, Adrienne Rich, Jack Gilbert. If a poet writes a poem that’s 20 lines, there’s a “hot spot” that gives it its emotional energy. I cut out everything but the hot spot in my favorite 20 poems and put it together.

When I got there I saw other people—a jazz musician who said music was an open system, so he improvised on his bass; an urban developer talked about cityscapes as an open system.

Everybody went, and I very quickly thought that I had done it wrong, because I could see a kind of continuity in what they were talking about, but I had a one-sentence theory, and then I had just made something. So I was really nervous, and my wife was there, and then it was my turn. There were about 13 people, and if you do 20 slides at 20 seconds each, you can do it in six minutes 40 seconds, and at that moment I thought I did it wrong, and when I finished, there was complete silence. I was sweating, and I thought, “Ah, man I fucked it up,” and I said that to my wife, and she said, “No, it was extremely intense.” After people came down they said, “That was really interesting, that was mind-blowing,” but even in that moment when I thought I had done it wrong, I thought I wanted to replicate that feeling of reading it, and I thought would it be possible to do that in a poem that sustains this intensity through 20 seconds, that seems narrative by association but is really 20 moments of emotional intensity, so I decided I was going to do it.

So I just went home, and from then on I was working with all those parts. The first one was “Arbor for Butch,” and if you google the title you can find how there are associations with the Martin Puryear sculptures. The next one I did with music—I thought, “I’ll do 20 pieces with Fela Kuti.” And one I did with narrative, and the last one was the most far out, “Twenty Measures of Chitchat,” and I don’t even know if that works. I thought, “I’ll do these emotional responses to fragments of conversation,” so it’s far from the original idea. I’ve only read it out loud once. It was exciting to me to see how far out I could go. That would be the key thing I am suggesting—I wasn’t excited about continuing the form, even though I made it up. I want to see how far I can push it. I’m interested in breaking my own rules, even if it’s a failure. I don’t think it’s an out-and-out failure, that poem, but I know it’s more complicated and difficult than other poems in that book.

Last summer I went to Japan. A graphic design artist started the pecha kucha in 2003. The founders still do them every other month. So I just went and told them I was writing poems and gave them a book. They weren’t that interested, but that’s fine. I did one more, “Gentle Measures,” which is the first time I have maintained a longer interest in a form, beyond the book. This woman came up to me and said, “People are doing these all over,” and I said, “They were doing that before,” and she said, “No, they’re doing poems,” and I think that’s cool. But getting back to the writer/reader thing, I don’t claim that as a form I made up. It’s just something that was helping me write, and I just adapted it. But I don’t have a trademark on it, which is what I said to the person who said they wanted to do an anthology. The point is to do something new, not to invent a new form.

HMB: You have said you always try to do new things but that certain themes always catch up with you. What are those themes, and if it is impossible to escape the topics that obsess you, how do you keep “making it new”?

Hayes: What are the themes? Can music be a theme? Family, particularly fatherhood/masculinity. My poems are full of guys; my drawings are full of guys, too. I don’t know if music is a theme. It’s more of a constant approach. Identity, that’s such a big word, with a capital “I.” Who am I, what am I—what is good, what is bad. Most recently, something about place. Being a Southerner living in Pittsburgh. Race. Culture with a capital “C.” Race, gender, place—those certain things in a big way. Those things come back. I can always see it retrospectively, but when I’m in the middle of a poem, I try to think of it as a very local experiment, but then when I look back at it, I can see that’s what I’m doing. You think you’re always going to go right, so maybe this time you’re going to go left. You’re always using the word “up;” this time use the word “down”—which is why I always go back to music. If your poems are always like a Bob Dylan piece, now you can write a poem like Lil Wayne. What would it mean to have a poem replicate the way Lil Wayne usually uses language. What’s different about how Lil Wayne uses language rather than the way Bob Dylan uses language? That’s why I always come back to music—it’s a way to think about using sentences. But in the end you can’t outrun your skin. Everybody has a style. But it’s fun to resist it.

HMB: Congratulations on winning the National Book Award for Lighthead! In some poetry communities there is a lot of tension around the distribution of awards, particularly since the greater society gives so little recognition to poetry in general. Does this kind of validation from the “establishment” change how you feel about your practice?

Hayes: They have nothing to do with each other really. I was on CNN and on PBS and in Oprah Magazine and The New York Times, the fashion spread, and all that stuff. So that was unusual, especially for a poet. On CNN there was that general question with a broader populist proposition to it—what do we do to get people to read more poems? I say when I do readings and when I go to readings, people are there. I think a small group is fine. Poetry doesn’t have to be a bestseller. It’s not walking down the street and having everybody know who you are. The prize is separate from how I prefer a really small, really faithful readership—people who will say, “The last poem you wrote was not very good, but I’m still with you.” That’s what I’m chasing—a reader who will tell you that. That’s not very many people, but that’s the kind of reader I’m trying to cultivate. People who see me on CNN and whatever and buy the book—that’s cool but has nothing to do with a reader who will try to be with me through my missteps. I try to be grateful, display a certain kind of gratitude so I don’t seem too ungrateful, but I don’t dwell on this.

The CNN thing went well, and the woman said, “They’re going to call you back to do more stuff because you’re young” and all that, and maybe two months later, Anderson Cooper’s assistant called. There was this new thing with Huckleberry Finn where they took out all the n-words.

On the phone they asked what I thought about it, and I said, “That’s like putting underwear on Michelangelo. We’ve already seen what’s there; you can’t cover it up.”

And she said, “Do you want to come on the show?”

I said, “No, I think I’m doing something.”

She said it would be a great opportunity, and I said, “Well, imagine Huckleberry Finn where everything is gone except for the n-word. That’s what I thought about when I heard about the book.”

The woman, his assistant, paused. She said, “I don’t know if you can say that for the show,” and I said, “That’s why I can’t come on,” and I said that’s fine. I have to be able to say what I want. There’s something that clamps down on naughtiness. I have friends who support what I do and say I should take these opportunities and be a spokesperson. I don’t want to be a spokesperson, I just want to write poems. A) I’m always going to be saying something crazy, and B) I can’t remember what I say from one minute to the next. That’s the current dilemma, but it’s passing. They’ll find somebody else who can do a better job, but it’s been cool.