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Capitol Hill Lit Report: Terrance Hayes on Liquid Modernity

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The following guest post is by Yvonne French, webmaster for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes gives a lecture on poetry in the Whittall Pavilion, Jan. 22, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.In the latest installment of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on poetics, on January 22 in the Whittall Pavilion, poet Terrance Hayes gave a 40-minute slide-studded lecture, “Ideas of Influence: Poetry and a Poet through the Lens of Steven Johnson’s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From,'” that challenged assumptions about creativity, community, and influence.

“It’s all about aspiration,” Hayes said, in talking about the creative process. “Apprenticeship is what I want; liquidity is what I want, not maturity, obviously. . . I’m not interested in ‘maturity’ or ‘mastery,’ or any of those kinds of terms.”

Transposing the terminology of writer and speaker Steven Johnson’s TED Talk into the creative process of poets, Hayes argued for a new way to approach poetry. The chart below illustrates:


To Hayes, the best way to make poetry is to imitate it. “We look at the Mona Lisa and say we’re going to do our version of the Mona Lisa. We mirror it. But exaptation would say that painting the Mona Lisa would lead to a whole new place . . .  Bugs Bunny.” He referenced Italian political philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who followed Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” with “I make therefore I grasp.”

“We can’t really know ourselves because we have not created ourselves,” said Hayes. “But we can know computers, we can know cars, because anything that we made, we can understand. So the best way to understand poetry, which is made by men, is to imitate, and that goes back to making work as a kind of doorway into new work, as opposed to making work as a mirror of the old work.”

Besides imitation, apprenticeships, mentor/mentee and workshop/teacher relationship may be the best possible arrangement, according to Hayes, who encouraged the audience to join community writing groups and attend retreats and conferences and bring new information back to the table.

Hayes also discussed Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman‘s notion of liquid modernity–the liquid modern person flows through his own life like a tourist, “changing places, jobs, spouses, values, sometimes even more, such as political and sexual orientations.”

Hayes said the poet Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) was the quintessential liquid modern man because he placed himself in various liquid poetic networks. But unlike college-educated Black Arts Movement poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Audre Lorde, Knight dropped out of school at 14, joined the Army, and “absorbed the sounds and substances that surrounded him.” He described how Knight was convicted of robbery and spent time in prison, where he came into contact with visiting poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall.

“[Knight] wasn’t a quintessential Blues or Black Arts or Black poet,” Hayes continued. He was “ready and willing to change tactics on short-term notice.”

National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes gives a lecture on poetry in the Whittall Pavilion, Jan. 22, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.After Knight got out of prison, he plugged into the poetic network through Brooks and Randall. He married Sanchez, divorced, then married poet Mary McAnally, and eventually joined the “Deep Image” poets Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell and James Wright. Like them, he eventually “settled into himself,” Hayes said.

Most people do, Hayes conceded, but he encouraged the audience to remain “liquid as long as possible.”This all rings true for me as I take my son on college visits. He wants to design and build theater sets for a living and the places we’ve visited are veritable gymnasiums for theater technology. They are like villages full of artisans who are apprenticed to their professors to support operas, musicals, plays, concerts and dances in a variety of settings from proscenium-style stages within grand old treasure boxes of theaters retrofitted with modern accoutrements to infinitely flexible black box theaters. I am agog with all this theater technology, but the neatest thing is not the infrastructure, but rather the level of collaboration that goes on among the students in the various fields, from wig-making to scene painting. This could very well be the most creative, collaborative time of his life as he goes into just the sort of transitional phase that Hayes says we should all strive to inhabit as long as possible.