Terrance Hayes ponders self-image in new poetry collection
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Terrance Hayes’s most recent poetry collection “How to be Drawn” builds upon the idea of the word “drawn” in a broad sense. In addition to being a poet, Hayes is a visual artist, his work pondering what it means to sit for a figure drawing. In an interview, he posed questions such as: “What does it mean to sit? What does it mean for someone to let me draw them?” He also pondered what it is to be “withdrawn” as well as how to move about the world, and drawn as in the sense of a horse-drawn carriage, wondering what it is to be seen and be engaged.
Terrance Hayes read in the apse of the UMMA this past Tuesday as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Hayes is a former MacArthur fellow and recipient of 2010 National Book Award as well as recently appointed Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.
He read from his most recent collection of work, “How to be Drawn” and additionally shared a series of unpublished sonnets, each bearing the same title: “American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin.”
Hayes opened with a poem titled “Gentle Measures,” which alludes to an 1871 text that instructs parents on strict child discipline. In the poem, Hayes transcends time and space to navigate legacy, abandonment, God and love as one generation flows into the next. He ends one stanza, “Goddamn, I want to be as hardcore as my daddy,” and two stanzas later writes, “But I will not claim to know other people’s loneliness.” He mentions children growing up all over the globe, from Bolivia to Syria, moving seamlessly into reverence for things as small and tangible as a tongue painted inside a doll’s mouth and back to high-stakes statements of passion such as: “I have said I am in love with beauty,/ but my heart is so mangled, it spills blood on everything.”
With this he suggests a love that exists within the crossroads of inexorable pain and hardship, worthy because it is under such constant and complicated threat, something persistent across racial, geographic and theological lines.
He read “American Sonnet for Wanda C.” — a sonnet dedicated to Wanda Coleman, a poet who acknowledged the sonnet as an inherently exclusionary poetic form and worked to reclaim it. Expressing her experience as a Black woman, she titles her sonnets “American Sonnets” as a way of probing previously accepted notions of American identity.
In a tribute to her, Hayes writes: “If there is no smoke, there is no party. I think of you, Miss Calamity/ Every Sunday.” He embraces what can be made wild, radical or unpredictable within the confines of conventional form.
As a reading that took place on Valentine’s Day, it seemed only fitting for Hayes to read sonnets, best known as 14-line poems addressed to a lover, yet his sonnets are by no means swoony or adoring, as they dwell in imagined deaths and deep-rooted fear.
He introduced his series of unpublished sonnets, each bearing the title “American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin,” a collection Hayes began the day after the election. He described the poems as “weird.”
“They’re not like normal stories,” Hayes said. “People are used to thinking of poems and most things that are written as narrative.”
He claims that his poems do not always contain clear narratives, but are often are driven by tone or image.
“I recognize that my imagination is strange but I’m always trying to put people at ease,” he said.
The addressees of the sonnets range from a stinkbug to President Donald Trump to the color white. He revisits the omnipresent tension between light and dark with a line such as “part sanctuary, part panic room.” He pulls in references to music icons such as Prince and Jimi Hendrix (Hayes suggested that poetry is indeed music, the absence of instruments replaced by breath and voice). In writing these sonnets he asked himself: “Can I write a political poem phrased as a love poem?”
In one poem he repeats the n-word, associating it with different body parts — the repetition haunts the space and the poem ends with the line: “you will never assassinate my ghost.” Another poem addresses Sigmund Freud’s grandson Lucien Freud, an artist who encapsulated the perverse and strange. The poem dwells in the corporeal and contemplates the notion of the voyeur, using the word “pussy” liberally, much to the discomfort of the audience and even eliciting discomfort in Hayes himself.
However, this notion of discomfort or what one audience member identified as “provocative” is central to Haye’s poetic philosophy. He said that he likes to surprise and be surprised by his own work, exploring uncharted territory as far as writing poems that make him squirm a little. Hayes said that to read a piece of work that might make him anxious is a reminder.
“It just means that you’re still in the water, that you’re still working, that it’s a living breathing thing. It’s not even about perfection for me, it’s just about working. I like it because it makes me more alert,” Hayes said.
In another sonnet he addresses Donald Trump, invoking the color orange with phrases such as “goldfish pumpkin,” and a line, “I know your shade.” Another poems recounts images of whiteness in the form of a near-alphabetized list — “Aryans, Betty Crocker, blowfish, bullhorns, carcasses, etc.”
Hayes’s adherence to the traditional sonnet form amplifies his contained restlessness, as his final sonnet contains the eerily comprehensive lines, “You just wanted change is all,” and, “May your restlessness come to rest.”
This constant motion, a pursuit of restlessness and slight discomfort supports Hayes’s philosophy as a teacher of poetry.
“It is a practice. It’s not a product. It’s a process,” Hayes tells his students. “I’m trying to say you should always be thinking about what you’re making, what the next thing is, opposed to letting the dust gather on a handful of really great poems you’ve written. I don’t think that’s what it’s about.”
Hayes concluded the reading by sharing “The Rose Has Teeth,” a poem resembling a lyrical ode to the body and the piano and a lover that contains moments of music such as “I was trying / to limber your shuffle, the muscle wired / to muscle” and “I wanted to be / a ghost because the skull is just a few holes / covered in meat,” as he ponders bodily motion as one observes and exists and lives out the poetic process and indulges in what Hayes refers to as the “emotional, spiritual and intellectual” of making art.