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“Of Headspace and Fire”: An Interview with Terrance Hayes

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The following interview with Terrance Hayes was conducted in 2013 by Rachel Carstens as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Terrance Hayes

The head-voices/images on the cover of your latest book, Lighthead, seem to have a more direct relationship to the poems inside than with your other books, thus it seems to open up an opportunity for the book to contain many speakers. Can you talk about the process of finding/creating cover art for your books?

My working habit is to separate my aims as a painting from my aims as a poet. They come from very different places and ultimately lead me to very different places . . . I’ll leave what I mean by “places” ambiguous. In any event, I will usually send five or six different images to my publisher along with details of the book of poems and then let them decide what they like. It’s always a surprise to me—something I look forward to. When I saw the painting they’d selected for Lighthead, like you, I thought it was very reflective of the book’s exploration of headspace and fire.

You work a lot in series, but it seems that the poems within the “Blue Terrance” series speak to one another but have a loose connection. How do you write into a series? Do you imagine the voices speaking to each other, or is there some other way you see them connecting?

For many years my answer to questions about working in a poetic series dealt with the ways a series always grew out of an obsession I couldn’t shake. I can’t say it’s quite that organic these days though. I think of the series now as a kind of study. Thus in my current book, How To Be Drawn, there are poems “studying” what that means: “How To Be Drawn To Trouble,” “How To Draw An Invisible Man,” “How To Draw A Perfect Circle.” While I didn’t have the title in advance with any of these poems, there came a moment that the book’s title gave me a way to direct and ultimately title the work. I don’t know if the three poems constitute a series. I doubt I’ll title more such poems. The moment a series or study feels predetermined, is the moment to move on to something else.

In terms of form, you seem to find ever-new ways of following/creating rules for your poems. But the content of these poems seem to push against their rules. They cover immense ground: historical, personal, mythic, and imaginative. How do you see the relation of content to form in your work?

You’re right when you say the content seems to push against the rules of the form even when it’s a form of my own invention. The title of my third book, Wind In A Box, maybe best reflects my (compulsive) interest in form—in borders I can straddle, the rules I can bend. Wind needs the box to be framed, contextualized. Without it wind is, like language, too pervasive too be grasped and shaped. What happens inside the box is always a gratifying surprise.

In “Snow for Wallace Stevens” your speaker refers to Stevens as a foe. Could you talk about that, and how poems can have an ambivalent relationship towards their influences?

The full line is “This song is for my foe.” The contradictory gesture of singing for a foe is meant to be ironic and sincere. It’s maybe more complicated than ambivalent. It’s another moment of trying to capture paradoxical impulses.

Tony Hoagland described your poetry as going to “difficult places of culture and self.” Do you agree with this, and if so what do you when arrive at the above “difficult places”?

This sends me back to my first answer: my desire is that my work leads me to places I haven’t been before. I mean place to be literal as well as figurative. So, I guess, yes that could be “literal” culture and “figurative” self. I suppose when I enter to the “difficult places” I hope to exit with something new.

Terrance Hayes is the author of six poetry collections: American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin (2018), winner of the 2019 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award for poetry and the 2020 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress; How to Be Drawn (2015); Lighthead (2010), winner of the National Book Award for poetry; Wind in a Box (2006); Hip Logic (2002), winner of the 2001 National Poetry Series; and Muscular Music (1999), recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His prose collection, To Float In The Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight (2018), received the Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism. Hayes’ other honors include a Whiting Writers Award and NAACP Image Award for Poetry, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2014, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. Hayes was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2017 and serves as an ex officio member of the academy’s board of directors. He is currently a professor of English at New York University.