Interview with Terrance Hayes, Spring 2010
A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Terrance Hayes received a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, and an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh writing program.
Hayes’ most recent poetry collection, Wind in a Box (2006), was named one of the best 100 books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly. His other books of poetry are Muscular Music (1999), which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; and Hip Logic (2002), which won the National Poetry Series Open Competition. Poems in Lighthead, his collection forthcoming from Penguin in 2010, have appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, Poetry, and The New Yorker. His honors include a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
He is Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Currently, he is the Coal Royalty Chair holder in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama.
In Capital Letters: Mr. Hayes, having been born in the South, how do you think growing up in that area of the country has informed your writing?
Terrance Hayes: Southern culture (especially in terms of imagery, history and language) is particularly interesting to me. The poem “Pine” from Wind in a Box features pine trees. It’s a tree common in South Carolina but I often have to describe it as a tree resembling a phone pole elsewhere. Otherwise readers might not realize the figure in the poem is scurrying twenty feet up a tree with no branches.
ICL: How did you come to poetry? Has it been something you always felt passionate about?
TH: From grade school to college I was a visual artist. Almost no one knew I wrote poems, not even my parents, until after the first book was published. Poetry is something I remain both passionate and bewildered by. It never gets easy. So I think of being a poet as an ongoing process. I'm a poet only when writing poems. The rest of the time, even as I think obsessively about poetry, I'm other things: teacher, parent, citizen. All to say I am still/always becoming a poet.
ICL: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
TH:I return regularly to Yusef Komunyakaa (especially Neon Vernacular), to Dave Berman (Actual Air) who is like Berryman on acid and Brigit Pegeen Kelly (Song, The Orchard) who is like Sylvia Plath (who I like too) but with more meditative stamina. Larry Levis and Lynda Hull I read probably once a month.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has surprised or inspired you?
TH: If I look at the poetry on my desk for this afternoon’s reading there is Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker, The End of the West by Michael Dickman, Horror Vacui by Thomas Heise, the recent issue of the Southern Review, Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison. With the exception of the journal, I’ve read all the books at least once in this last month. I’ll have to read them two or three more times before I have anything worthwhile to say. This is what excites me most about owning books. That, like marriage, I get to love them without really ever having to spell out why.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
TH: Oh those sorts of qualifies sort of blur. I just try to write something everyday. I try simply to be surprised and challenged. But sometimes it's a line or two. The hard thing is trying to progress/grow/move without looking back at products... If I said I never get writers block and I always have writers block, both things would be true.
ICL: What themes do you find central to your work? How have they changed over the years?
TH: I find I’m always writing about masculinity, race, Culture: “me.” That’s Identity, I guess. Which is both boring and unending. Evolving, I hope.
ICL: How do your poems first form? Where do you draw the inspiration for them?
TH: The forms and inspirations come in all sorts of ways: from music, people, places, images, sounds. I just try not to hamper what comes.
ICL: After your work is published/in print, do you think your poems still belong to you or does their ownership pass to the reader?
TH: They belong to the reader. Whoever owns the book. I just try to write the next poem.
ICL: What advice would you give unpublished writers that you would wish someone had given to you when you were still in school?
TH: To avoid genre, style, even voice. “Making” is what matters most.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
TH: Wouldn’t be one song…
ICL: Tell us something about yourself most people don't know.
TH: I’m afraid of cockroaches.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?