Terrance Hayes is an acclaimed contemporary poet known for his innovative use of form and his originality with language, as well as his expansive range. Thematically, he explores such subjects as music, race, masculinity, fatherhood, and culture. An artist, illustrator, teacher, basketball player, pianist, and poet, Hayes wears many different hats. Toi Derricotte writes, “There is always a spiritual question driving the poetry of Terrance Hayes. What does it mean to be a black man? What does it mean to be an artist? He dances at the crossroads.” This negotiation, located at the intersection of multiple overlapping identities, opens the way for various forms of creative improvisation and interrogation in Hayes’s work, which has pushed the bounds of poetry and language for many who follow in his footsteps.
Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent books are Speak from Here to There, a cowritten collection of verse with Australian poet John Kinsella, and City of Bones: A Testament, both published in 2017. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.
Caleb Petersen is a poet in the MFA program at the University of Nebraska.
Terrance Hayes was born on November 18, 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina to Ethel Hayes and Earthell “Butch” Tyler Jr. He was raised by his mother, Ethel, and his step-father, James L. Hayes. His mother was a corrections officer, and his step-father was a military barber. Describing his childhood in a 2006 interview with Jason Koo of the Missouri Review, he explained:
We lived at first on military bases, and then when I was eight we went back to my mom’s hometown in Columbia. You know, my parents were encouraging, but mostly I was an enigma. They let me do what I wanted to do because I made good grades and I played sports. Everybody knew that I was an “artist,” but there were no art classes over the summer, no poetry camps. I would ride my bike to the library and I would read all the books in the house. And my parents let me be.
His journey to becoming a poet was unconventional. None of his family members had earned a degree, and when he went to college, he wasn’t thinking of becoming a poet. He went to Coker College, a small liberal arts school in South Carolina, on a basketball scholarship, while pursuing a degree in visual arts. He was an Academic All-American on the men’s basketball team and wrote his poems in private. About the roots of his relationship to poetry, Hayes has said:
The first poem I wrote is also the first poem I shared with anyone. It was a love poem for a girl I liked in the ninth grade. I lost the poem long ago but the refrain was something like: “sometimes I dream I’m a flower” and it ends with something like “when no one is looking I take off my shoes and wiggle my toes into the dirt like roots.” Had it been more about the girl than me, she might not have turned me down. I hadn’t read any poems at that point, so I was just messing around the way most adolescents mess around with poems. Back then I was mostly interested in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I was interested in literature, but I wasn’t specifically thinking about poems and poets.
After sharing some work with an English professor in college, he was encouraged to pursue an MFA. His English teacher had gone to the University of Pittsburgh and knew Toi Derricotte, so he reached out to her. Derricotte then told Hayes to apply for their graduate program. When he was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh, Hayes’ mother still didn’t know he was writing poetry.
He graduated from Coker College in 1994 and received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997. During his MFA, he studied under Derricotte, the cofounder of Cave Canem. While in that program, Hayes became an assistant at Cave Canem and helped with their first retreat in 1996. Through that experience, Hayes met Yona Harvey, a Cave Canem fellow at the time, and shortly after their meeting they got married and moved to Japan where she taught in an exchange program.
Coker College, where Hayes studied painting and played basketball.
Cave Canem was founded in 1996 to remedy the underrepresentation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape.
His first book of poems, Muscular Music, was published shortly after, in 1999. It was received favorably, and it was the winner of the Whiting Writers award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. That same year, his daughter, Ua, was born. Hayes had finished his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburg two years prior, and he had spent the next couple years teaching in southern Japan and Columbus, Ohio, then landing at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans in 1999.
His first book provided an introductory display of his characteristic, multitudinous voice, one that shifts and changes from poem to poem. In the collection, there are allusions to Hayes’ musical and cultural influences. There’s Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, and there are references to his influences in the literary tradition as well, as he nods to Robert Hayden, Larry Levis, Billy Strayhorn, among others. This is the case in his poem, “Poet Dying At The Window”, in which he references lines from Etheridge Knight’s poem, “As You Leave Me.”
Is this what Etheridge meant?
Walls blacker than a throat;
Poet dying at the window;
covering your tracks as you go (69).
While Muscular Music has the texture of a young poet exploring voice and style, it reveals an intentional way in which Hayes approaches his poetics. He has often used the mantra, “Last poem and the next poem.” In an interview with The White Review, he explains what he means by it, “I try to focus on that. I hope that I’m changing all the time. Constantly asking myself, how can it be different from the last? I like having something to work on. That’s how my head is. I have to do something new. Something different each time.”
The shifting nature of his poetic voice has been a prominent element of his work throughout his career, and it is evident from his very first collection. In much of his poetry, Hayes has a desire to synthesize and connect divergent ideas and voices. Speaking with The Missouri Review, he explained his approach to Muscular Music:
Initially it was just that I was so new to poetry and so excited about everything. At the time no one said I had to choose the school I was going to be in, so I didn’t. And that was one of the things I continued to be interested in. I mean, I like some of the stuff that Langston Hughes does, but I also like Larry Levis—I like a range of people, all kinds of styles. I like Amiri Baraka, I like Stanley Kunitz, two poets who couldn’t be more different. I’m interested in bringing all these styles together. That’s always been part of what I’ve been interested in as a reader. No one said you had to read only a certain book.”
This first collection of poems focuses on some of Hayes’ typical subjects: for example, masculinity and race, which would both come to characterize much of his later work. Yet Muscular Music also demonstrates the way in which he wants to look at those subjects. Speaking about his first collection with Charles Henry Rowell for Callaloo, Hayes explained, “In some sense, I’ve always been interested in anything that deals with looking and hearing” (1070). One way he demonstrates this interest is by writing poems about movies and music, as is the case with poems such as “Shafro,” “Boxcar,” “Jumpschool,” and “Something for Marvin.”
In a profile by Robert N. Casper for Ploughshares, Casper explains that rather than approaching his subjects from a single position, “[Hayes] addresses both from multiple angles, and to myriad effects” (180). This demonstrates Hayes’ attention to perspective, to the way in which a subject is viewed.
Throughout the collection, the poems contain Whitman-esque multitudes: pain, desire, virtuosity, pride, envy, and rage are all present. He explained to The Missouri Review that he hasn’t ever attempted to be uniform in his poetry:
Trying to write to this notion of audience, the idea of a reader—it’s much too broad. But if you write toward your own sense of self, you find that we’re all fairly schizophrenic, and we all have our different tastes, our own kinds of contradictions. To me, those are the interesting things. I’m interested in that, not in how a book is uniform or how a person’s project or a person’s notion of the world is uniform. There are all these tensions and textures and contradictions. Why would you only want to sing tenor?
Yet while he demonstrates this stylistic range and varied persona, his early work is grounded by a distinct lyric presence. In his poem, “Shafro” he writes:
Bits of my courage flake away like dandruff.
I’m sweating even as I tell you this,
I’m not cool,
I keep the real me tucked beneath a wig,
I’m a small American frog.
I grow beautiful as the theatre dims (20).
His reference to the frog, which appears in later collections as well, carries an emotional resonance that reveals the heart of the poet. Like a frog, who experiences life in two totally different habitats, Hayes is a person navigating different racial, political, cultural, and historical landscapes.
For example, in his poem, “What I Am” Hayes positions himself “standing in the express lane (cash only) / about to buy Head & Shoulders” (15). Interestingly, this ordinary experience of buying shampoo is a navigation of a racialized world. Hayes positions himself against racial stereotypes, which he alludes to when calling Head & Shoulders “the white people shampoo”. He follows that with the lyric insertion, “no one knows / what I am.” Situated as the first poem of the first section in Muscular Music, the ambiguity and traversing nature of his identity within this “post-racial” world is foregrounded, setting the tone for his future poetic projects.
After teaching at Xavier University in Louisiana, Hayes and his family moved back to Pittsburgh, where he began teaching Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University in 2001, where he would be until 2013. During that time, his work appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, namely American poetry: The Next Generation and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers.
Success as a Poet
In 2002, he published his second book, Hip Logic, by Viking Penguin, marking a major step in his career as a poet. Shortly after that, Hayes’ son, Aaron, was born in 2003. Hip Logic was chosen for the National Poetry Series, selected by Cornelius Eady, the other cofounder of Cave Canem. Eady’s blurb of the book states, “Terrance Hayes is one elegant poet. First you’ll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turn of phrase. Then you’ll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world.” In 2005, Hayes was awarded with a selection in Best American Poetry, 2005, and he was also awarded with a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
Throughout the book, Hayes returns to the subjects of race and masculinity, which can be seen in poems like “Hip Logic,” “Sonnet,” and “The Same City.” In Hip Logic, he builds off of the variation of perspective and form which was characteristic of his debut collection, developing an interest in the poetics of formal experimentation. Hip Logic contains found poems, sonnets, narrative poems, ars poeticas, personas, odes, and anagrams. About this experimentation, Robert Casper writes:
While many of his poems highlight his impulse for narrative, Hayes has a penchant for formal invention as a way to showcase his lyrical skills. This is especially true of his serial work – each of Hayes’ books has employed the series format, to give him room to range. “A Gram of &S,” from Hip Logic, is a series based on daily word games from newspapers, and its procedural method results in taut poems with lines like, ‘Well, ain’t your mouth a pretty little pace – / maker.’
Describing the use of the anagram, Hayes explained that he liked writing them because they provided space for unconscious play. These self-inflicted, rigid constraints of the form produce a strangeness that Hayes thinks is reflective of the way he sees the world. He told The Missouri Review that those poems were “an effort to trick myself into a space that wasn’t concerned with anything other than the poems.”
At the time, Hayes wasn’t interested in categorizing himself within any particular school of poetry. He mentioned liking the New York School, and yet he also took influence from Language School poetics. In his interview with Jeffrey J. Williams for The Iowa Review, he explained that, “The idea that language in and of itself is a material or communicates sound that is a material—that interests me. I’m a student of poetry, and I feel like everything’s on the table, and I can use it all. I don’t necessarily have to commit to one circle, even though I feel people pulling me, ‘Be on my team, be on my team!’ and I’m not sure if I want to be only in your part of the house.” As his work progressed, forms, like the anagrams in Hip Logic, began to become an outlet for him to explore different influences and ideas.
The use of rigid forms and linguistic constraints as a way to access that unconscious, “associative logic,” as he calls it, is situated between the other sections of his book, which are more devoted to autobiographical narrative. Yet the collection as a whole is permeated by the kind of epistemological project that his formal experimentation produces. In an interview for Callaloo, he explains the meaning of the title, “hip logic implies a new and maybe strange way of taking in the world. A logic that is immediate, but not conventional or regular” (1075). This logic is something that he means in both the personal and cultural sense.
Hip Logic was so well received that Hayes was given what the New York Times referred to as “a rare commitment” from Penguin Press, who then published his next four books, thereby supplanting [Word choice?] his voice as a staple author for one of the largest and most famous publishers in the U.S.
While still teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, he published his third book, Wind In A Box, in 2006. It was during this time that Hayes began to garner sizable attention and fame. Wind In A Box was awarded the Pushcart Prize, was a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award finalist, and it was named one of the best books of 2006 by Publisher’s Weekly. Jason Koo, in his 2006 article in The Missouri Review, wrote, “There is a buzz about his name.” His rising influence in the arts and poetry led to his reception of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009.
Form and Perspective
In many ways, this third collection picks up right where Hayes left off. In it, his experimentation with form progresses even further. There are narrative, prose, list, and persona poems, which continue his negotiation of gender, race, history, and culture through various perspectives. On the back cover of the book, Penguin Press writes that the collection explores “how identity is both shaped and shrouded by culture; how the imagination is both enlarged and restricted by form.”
In that interview with Jason Koo, Hayes explained that “the box represents form, and then the wind is the spirit you breathe into it, the imagination, how it moves around in that space and takes its shape but still possesses its own freedom of movement” (73). His comment here demonstrates the larger conversation that he began having at this point in his career, not only with poetry, but also with the structures of society itself. The box seems to be a common theme for Hayes, who never quite fits the labels he is given. In one interview, Hayes explains this further:
I think it is my personality that I can pretty much go into any room where people speak English and navigate around that room in terms of engaging with what they’re doing. When I’m at a conference that’s full of formalists, they say, “Oh, you’re a formalist”; if I’m at an African-American retreat, people say, “Yeah, you’re an African-American poet.” I’m interested in form; I’m interested in culture. Depending on what space I’m in, depending on what kind of water I’m in, people see me in very different ways. But for myself, I try not to think about it too much.
Wind In A Box also demonstrates Hayes’ developing interest in the American Sonnet, a type of sonnet popularized by Wanda Coleman. Hayes would eventually become associated with the sonnet form, especially after his most recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. With the publication of Wind In A Box, it is clear that in the sonnet Hayes found an energetic structure which allowed for his creative improvisation.
Furthermore, in Wind In A Box, Hayes’ conversation between form and improvisation, between the self and culture, begins to really take shape. Form, for Hayes, begins to function like a metaphor for structures that create, limit, trap, and energize the self. Writing within the historical and political context of American racism, this conversation at the center of Hayes’ work begins to take on larger political connotations as his projects develop.
A series of poems with titles such as “The Blue Baraka,” “The Blue Terrance,” and “The Blue Seuss,” highlight this conversation. In one interview, Hayes explains that “blue” is a reference to melancholy as well as “a riff on the blues.” Each of the poems in this series are persona poems. Even the three poems titled the “Blue Terrance” are three different variations of the poet’s own voice. He says in that same interview, “I don’t like the idea that the persona is this fixed, final statement, when really it’s not; it’s just one of many perspectives on a given thing.”
This attention to perspective is also seen in his narrative poems, for example, “A Postcard from Okemah”, in which Hayes reflects on the photograph of the lynching of Laura and L.D. Nelson in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1911. This poem demonstrates not only his interest in the subject of American racism, it also demonstrates his interest in perspective. In it, he thinks of the “sixty-seven citizens & children / staring at what must have been a flash / & huff of smoke”, as well as the photographer, who “must have asked them to smile”. In that way, he is thinking about the multiple ways in which an event is experienced and understood. He ends that poem with the lines:
It is a Monday morning years too late.
All the rocking chairs & shopping carts,
all the mailboxes & choir pews are empty.
I cannot hear the psalms of salvation
or forgiveness, the gospel of Mercy.
I cannot ask who is left more disfigured:
the ones who are beaten or the ones who beat,
the ones who are hung or the ones who hang.
The uncertainty that Hayes leaves the reader with here reflects that sense of ambiguity which would come to underlie much of his poetry. In one of his essays in his recent book, To Float In the Space Between, he explains that he is interested in the questions that arise in the space between art for the self and art for others. He is looking for a way of writing poetry that grapples in the crossroads, one that is shaped by “a strange politics of negative capability” (115). Ultimately, he argues that he wants to create “a political work with some manner of tension and uncertainty” (115), a work that holds the paradoxes and contradictions of a person’s multiple selves together.
Hayes’ next book, Lighthead, was published in 2010, and it was the recipient of the National Book Award, which brought him further into the national spotlight. Lighthead was received with critical acclaim, and it accelerated Hayes’ rising fame. Andrew Mulvania wrote, in a review for Weave Magazine, that Lighthead signaled, “a bold movement forward in the development of an important voice in American poetry.” After the publication and reception of that collection, Hayes was selected as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2014. At this point in his career, he had ascended to celebrity status. In 2014, he was listed among People Magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive.” Additionally, he was honored with the opportunity to serve as editor for the 2014 version of The Best American Poetry series, which is one of the premier anthologies of American poetry.
At the time, he was still teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. That year, Robert Casper wrote for Ploughshares that Hayes “is firmly rooted at the university and in the Steel City—in a recent PBS NewsHour profile, he aptly read his poem ‘Pittsburgh’ at a neighboring bus stop—where he and Harvey are raising their two children, Ua (age 10) and Aaron (age 8)” (179).
In Lighthead, Hayes introduced a new form to his work: the Pecha Kucha, a Japanese style for business presentations, in which each slide of the presentation lasts twenty seconds. In an interview with The Iowa Review, Hayes calls his Pecha Kucha poems, “measurements of time”. As is the case with the Pecha Kucha, Hayes’ stanzas are “twenty-second lyric bursts” (175). William M. Ramsey, in an article for the Southern Literary Journal, referred to this form as an example of Hayes’ creative improvisation amidst “life’s universally destructive pressures” (129).
At the heart of this fourth collection of poetry is Hayes’ negotiation of form and creativity, oppression and subversion. This is evidenced by his poem, which begins the first section of the book, “All the Way Live.” In this poem, Hayes discusses an event in which Black youth spray painted a statue of Robert E. Lee with the word “NEGROPHOBIA”, which Hayes calls, “a symbol of the bondage / We had spent all of our All-the-Way lives trying to subvert” (5). Ramsey explains this as an example of “subverting ideological fixity” (129). He goes on to refer to the book’s last poem, “Airhead”, in order to demonstrate how this theme tracks throughout the collection, “The book’s closing three lines circle back to the poet’s desire for transition and transformation: ‘I have no form / because I have no allegiance / to form’ (93). This theme may also suggest another meaning of ‘light.’ When one creatively responds to being burnt by disastrous events, one’s glowing fame is the light of one’s resourceful humanity” (129). This seems to hint at the idea of transparency, which went on to become a theme in his next book as well.
The Golden Shovel
In Lighthead, Hayes created another new form of poetry called a Golden Shovel, for which he is well known. In the poem, “The Golden Shovel,” he pays homage to the influence of Gwendolyn Brooks by inventing a form which weaves her poem “We Real Cool” into the line endings of his poem, which puts the language, tone, and content in conversation with Brooks.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June,
The boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake, Da said to me, it will be too soon. (6-7).
In this excerpt from the poem, one can see how Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” begins to pull the narrative toward that difficult ending. The words “June”, “we”, “die”, and “soon” lead Hayes down a path towards Brooks’ conclusion, which powerfully connects both of their poems together, and the finished product speaks to the larger narrative of African American experience and African American poetry.
The golden shovel is now a well-recognized form, attracting poets from many different traditions. For example, Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine, writes that, “So attractive is this new form that hundreds of them have been carefully and entertainingly compiled by the poet-teachers Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith for The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks.”
Three years after the publication of Lighthead, Hayes left Carnegie Mellon University and became a distinguished professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. During that time, he also worked as a distinguished visiting writer at New York University.
As his popularity continued to rise, his next book, How To Be Drawn, was published in 2015 and was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book explores visibility and invisibility, especially as it concerns the experience of Black people in America, which further negotiates the conversation between looking and being looked at, which had been a focus of Hayes’ work up to that time.
In the poem, “How to Draw an Invisible Man”, he writes:
And then when Ralph Ellison’s corpse burst
open, I discoverd his body had been hoarding
all these years a luscious slush, a sludge
of arterial words, the raw and unsaid pages. (38)
This allusion to Ralph Ellison’s famous critique of race in America demonstrates how Hayes’ collection seeks to make visible, and audible, the words left unsaid. In his conversation with Jeffrey Williams, Hayes references that poem. He states, “I have a line in the last book about how to draw an invisible man, and it says, ‘I’m trying to be transparent.’ I don’t actually want to be invisible, which is the dilemma of people of color, but I would like to be transparent, so people can see what my issues are, good and bad. I just try to be transparent and very present, and then see what happens” (169). In this statement, there is Hayes’ characteristic inclination to reveal the self, even as it resists classification. Yet again, this “making visible” is not a one-dimensional project. Trevor Ketner, in his review of How To Be Drawn for Rumpus Magazine, writes that in Hayes’ book, “invisibility is a product of the viewer not the subject”.
Several of his books feature his paintings on the cover, yet this collection more explicitly linked Hayes’ interest in painting and poetry together, as it explores innovative forms as both visual and written works of art. This can be seen in poems like, “Who Are the Tribes”, “Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report” (Parts I, II, and III), and “Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs”. Reflecting on this, the Rumpus Magazine adds, “[Hayes] even challenges the visual processing of language through the use of forms/maps/graphs as templates, complicating and deepening our experience of the language on the page and therefore its content.” This connection between visual art and poetry continues to impact Hayes’ work, as his most recent collection of essays includes his own illustrations alongside the text.
His sixth collection of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, was published in 2018. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. That year, Hayes left Pittsburgh and moved to New York City, where he took a job at New York University. In a conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib, Hayes explained that the love he felt in Pittsburgh became overwhelming. “They had my face up in the airport…I couldn’t handle it.” Hayes’ marriage had also come to an end at that point. In 2016, the same year that Trump was elected, Hayes was going through a divorce, and he explains that the book was the product of that time in his life. In an interview with Rachel Long and Victoria Adukwei Bulley from The White Review, he says, “All of the Orpheus references in the book are really about me and Yona. I’ve never really said that before… All everybody else knows is I’m writing about Trump, and I am, and Wanda Coleman also, but Yona too, and the end of our marriage.”
The collection builds off Hayes’ interest in the sonnet form. It contains “seventy sonnets of the same name from over three hundred sonnets he began writing when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in November 2016. Hayes began writing these daily sonnets not only in response to the election results, but also as a means of thinking about the experience of living in the contemporary political, social, and cultural climate as an American, as Black, a man, and a poet” (Hamer, 19). Again, the 14-line structure of each poem gives way to a broad and varied collection that in no way can be put in a box, demonstrating Hayes’ capacity for innovation, play, and transformation. The book provides a polyphonic multitude of speakers and subjects. Interestingly, the assassin shifts throughout the collection, from Donald Trump to George Zimmerman to America to the poet. In his 2020 article, “Terrance Hayes Sings to His Assassin,” Forrest M. Hamer writes, “it is interesting to recognize that the past and future assassin is not only a fearful and murderous white man, not only a frightening otherness within Hayes the poet, but also the American sonnet.”
The sonnet itself is a perfect form for the collection, because, as Hayes writes, it is “part prison…part music box.” It harnesses the powerful emotions of both love and fear as a response to the American political and cultural landscape. Hayes writes, “It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.” He grapples with how to stay in relationship with the assassin, wrestling with the limitations of love and violence. Hamer further explains:
The purpose of being alive is living. And Hayes, the hero of his own poems, is moved to generate more living, even when confined within the small spaces of resignation and doubt, within the confines of a history of griefs and grievances, and inside the particular prisons of the names in graves. The cell that is an American sonnet is a site of potentiality, a potential space bounded by the poet, the reader, and all of the psychic associations, peoples, musics, languages, images, histories, and more, able to be pulled inside its fourteen-line structure” (37).
Cover art for Hayes’s sixth poetry collection
As his collection, American Sonnets, was being written and published, Hayes was also working as the poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, and in February of 2018, his project Cycles of My Being had its premier. Cycles of My Being is an opera co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and. Hayes worked together with the writer and singer, Lawrence Brownlee, as well as the composer, Tyshawn Sorey. It has been described as a song cycle that “explores the realities of life as a black man in America.” For a number of years Hayes was also doing lectures on his poetics around the country, as a part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry. In 2018, the same year that he published American Sonnets, he also compiled his lectures into a nonfiction book titled To Float In the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight. The essays in that book explore Hayes’ ideas of influence, ancestry, craft, and politics, as they impact his work as a poet.
Now twenty-five years after finishing his MFA, Terrance Hayes is a defining voice in American poetry. His innovative use of form, disarming sense of lyricism, and urgent and important message has brought him fame and popularity, and yet it is his intense work ethic, his passionate desire for invention, improvisation, and change, that keeps him writing poem after poem, each time providing a unique and compelling voice amidst the current political moment. Hanif Abdurraqib said in his profile on Hayes, “[he] is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway.” And it seems that way with his work as well. He will be on to the next thing, continuing to create and stretch the bounds of what poetry can be. It is America’s job to keep up.
Video of Lawrence Brownlee singing the first movement of the opera Cycles of My Being
Terrance Hayes’s website features videos, visual art, biographical information, news and updates about readings, and more.
This video documents a reading and conversation at New York University featuring internationally acclaimed authors and professors Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, and Ocean Vuong, introduced by Program Director Deborah Landau.
Hayes studied art at Coker college and has supplied the cover art for many of his own collections. This painting by Hayes is based on a photograph of musical artist Nina Simone, of whom he writes in American Sonnets: “Give the world half of what Nina Simone gave it, and you have lived an exceptional life.” Click through for a gallery of his paintings.
LIST OF WORKS
Muscular Music (Chicago: Tia Chucha Press, 1999 / Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006);
Hip Logic (New York: Penguin, 2002);
Wind in a Box (New York: Penguin, 2006);
Lighthead (New York: Penguin, 2010);
Who Are The Tribes (Pilot Books, 2011);
How To Be Drawn (New York: Penguin, 2015);
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (New York: Penguin, 2018);
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (Seattle: Wave Books, 2018).
Cycles of My Being, performance by Lawrence Brownlee, lyrics by Terrance Hayes, composed by Tyshawn Sorey, co-comissioned by Opera Philadeplphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited (2018).
“The Long Shadow of War” in Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era, edited by Samuel W. Black (Pennsylvania: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 2006);
“The Sentenced Museum,” in Ploughshares, volume 113, edited by Hayes (Boston: Emerson College, 2010).
“Still Air” in pittsburgh noir, edited by Kathleen George (Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2011);
“Still Air” in USA noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series, edited by Johnny Temple (Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2013).
The Best American Poetry, 2014, edited by Hayes (New York: Scribner Poetry, 2014);
Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems, by Wanda Coleman, edited by Hayes (Boston: Black Sparrow Press, 2020).
Koo, Jason. “A Conversation with Terrance Hayes.” The Missouri Review, vol. 29, no. 4, Winter 2006, pp. 58-78, https://doi.org/10.1353/mis.2007.0051.
Long, Rachel. “Dinner with Terrance Hayes.” The White Review, January 2019, https://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/dinner-terrance-hayes/.
Abdurraqib, Hanif. “My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes.” Poets & Writers, July/August 2018, https://www.pw.org/content/my_past_and_future_assassin_a_profile_of_terrance_hayes.
Burt, Stephen. “Galaxies Inside His Head.” The New York Times, March 24, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/galaxies-inside-his-head-poet-terrance-hayes.html.
Casper, Robert N. “About Terrance Hayes.” Ploughshares, vol. 36, no. 4, Winter 2010-11, pp. 178-183.
Hamer, Forrest M. “Terrance Hayes Sings to His Assassin.” Jung Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, August 2020, DOI: 10.1080/19342039.2020.1781514.
Ketner, Trevor. “How To Be Drawn By Terrance Hayes.” The Rumpus, June 5, 2015, https://therumpus.net/2015/06/05/how-to-be-drawn-by-terrance-hayes/.
Mulvania, Andrew. “Review of Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead.” Weave Magazine, June 2, 2010, http://www.weavemagazine.net/2010/06/review-of-terrance-hayes-lighthead.html.
Ramsey, William M. “Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey: Contemporary Black Chroniclers of the Imagined South.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 122-135.
Share, Don. “Introduction: The Golden Shovel.” Poetry Magazine, 2017. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/92023/introduction-586e948ad9af8
“Terrance Hayes: Lyricist.” Lyric: Opera of Chicago, 2018, www.lyricopera.org/about/company/artists-musicians/composers-librettists/terrance-hayes/.