Displaying the range of what the LA Times calls “a bold virtuoso,” Terrance Hayes is one of the most compelling new voices in contemporary poetry. Provocative and unapologetic, Hayes boldly asks “if outrunning your captors is not the real meaning of Race?” His poems lie at what he calls the “intersection of identity and culture.” In poems that explore race, cultural heritage, and masculinity, he invokes American icons from Marvin Gaye to Dr. Seuss, and in his ability to deliver anger into tenderness, he shares with us experiences that are uniquely his own and significantly American. As the poet Mary Karr writes, he “will disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”
Hayes’s work is praised by poets of widely diverse sensibilities. In the words of Tony Hoagland, “He writes fluently and in a wide variety of forms and styles, swinging between narrative and lyric, sincerity and sass, but always one senses a fierce intensity, and the presence of that other significant deity of poetry, empathy.” And John Ashbery writes: “One after another, these poems explode with the euphoria of summer lightning for our instruction and joy.”
A native South Carolinian, Hayes’s first book of poetry, Muscular Music (1999) won both the Whiting Writers Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His second, Hip Logic (2002), was chosen by Cornelius Eady as a National Poetry Series winner, and also named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and runner-up for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Since the publication of his third collection of poems, Wind in a Box (2006), Hayes has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2005 Best American Poetry selection. Hayes currently teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and children.
Poetry Center Readings:
Woofer (When I consider the African-American)
When I consider the much discussed dilemma
of the African-American, I think not of the diasporic
middle passing, unchained, juke, jock, and jiving
sons and daughters of what sleek dashikied poets
and tether fisted Nationalists commonly call Mother
Africa, but of an ex-girlfriend who was the child
of a black-skinned Ghanaian beauty and Jewish-
American, globetrotting ethnomusicologist.
I forgot all my father’s warnings about meeting women
at bus stops (which is the way he met my mother)
when I met her waiting for the rush hour bus in October
because I have always been a sucker for deep blue denim
and Afros and because she spoke so slowly
when she asked me the time. I wrote my phone number
in the back of the book of poems I had and said
something like “You can return it when I see you again”
which has to be one of my top two or three best
pickup lines ever. If you have ever gotten lucky
on a first date you can guess what followed: her smile
twizzling above a tight black v-neck sweater, chatter
on my velvet couch and then the two of us wearing nothing
but shoes. When I think of African-American rituals
of love, I think not of young, made-up unwed mothers
who seek warmth in the arms of any brother
with arms because they never knew their fathers
(though that could describe my mother), but of that girl
and me in the basement of her father’s four story Victorian
making love among the fresh blood and axe
and chicken feathers left after the Thanksgiving slaughter
executed by a 3-D witch doctor houseguest (his face
was starred by tribal markings) and her ruddy American
poppa while drums drummed upstairs from his hi-fi woofers
because that’s the closest I’ve ever come to anything
remotely ritualistic or African, for that matter.
We were quiet enough to hear their chatter
between the drums and the scraping of their chairs
at the table above us and the footsteps of anyone
approaching the basement door and it made
our business sweeter, though I’ll admit I wondered
if I’d be cursed for making love under her father’s nose
or if the witchdoctor would sense us and then cast a spell.
I have been cursed, broken hearted, stunned, frightened
and bewildered, but when I consider the African-American
I think not of the tek nines of my generation deployed
by madness or that we were assigned some lousy fate
when God prescribed job titles at the beginning of Time
or that we were too dumb to run the other way
when we saw the wide white sails of the ships
since given the absurd history of the world, everyone
is a descendant of slaves (which makes me wonder
if outrunning your captors is not the real meaning of Race?).
I think of the girl’s bark colored, bi-continental nipples
when I consider the African-American.
I think of a string of people connected to one another
and including the two of us there in the basement
linked by a hyphen filled with blood;
linked by a blood filled baton in one great historical relay.
From WIND IN A BOX (Penguin, 2006)
We made our own laws.
I want to be a Hawk,
A Dolphin, a Lion, we’d say
In stores where team logos hung
Like animal skins.
We chased each other
Around the big field
Beneath branches sagging
As if their leaves were full of blood.
We didn’t notice when policemen
Came lighting tree bark
& our skin with flashlights.
They saw our game
For what it was:
Fingers clutching torso,
Shoulder, wrist—a brawl.
Some of the boys escaped,
Their brown legs cut by thorns
As they ran through the brush.
It’s true, we could have been mistaken
For animals in the dark,
But of all our possible crimes,
Blackness was the first.
So they tackled me,
And read me my rights without saying:
You Down or Dead Ball.
We had a language
They did not use, a name
For collision. We called it Touch.
From HIP LOGIC (Penguin, 2002)
Wind in a Box
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet-. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
and wonder. This box. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.
From WIND IN A BOX (Penguin, 2006)