Poems to Answer All of Your Questions? A Reading and Discussion with Terrance Hayes

in Arts/Bryn Mawr by

By Lily Lopate

Staff Writer

Poet Terrance Hayes has recently visited Bryn Mawr College to conclude the fall semester of the Creative Writing department’s ‘Reading Series.’ As a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry for his most recent collection, Lighthead (2010), as well as a recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, and Pushcart Prize, and the author Wind in a Box (2006) and Hip Logic (2002), Hayes has without question established himself as a skillful, influential writer in our time. Professor J.C Todd noted in her introduction that through a love of language and a craft for poetry, Hayes brings us a “lyric narrative.” From Hip Hop to Jazz to Blues, his poetry draws from musical traditions and oral vernacular. His work might be characterized as ‘hybrid poetry’ with variations and riffs on traditional forms and quickly changing perspectives on modern ones. His poetry is a gumbo infused with rhetorical tactics, from questions and answers to confessions and recollections. It is playful, nuanced, probing and perceptive.

From the moment Terrance Hayes arrived at the podium and welcomed us with his soulful voice we were transported to a world filled with “primate tongue[s] and its syllables of debris” against a soundtrack of “Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement of derangements” (“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and an atmospheric state of erotic moonlit carelessness alongside cautionary self-preservation and inhibition.

Unlike previous readers during this semester’s Creative Writing series, Terrance Hayes conducted the evening in a very spontaneous manner. While casually speaking to the audience, he broke up selected readings from his newest book, Lighthead, with commentary to give us some insight into what he was thinking when he wrote each piece. He came across as having a self-assured and charismatic personality. In following the natural train of his thoughts, his talk took on a conversational dimension, giving the audience a chance to relate his speaking voice to his reading persona. Program coordinator and Creative Writing professor, Daniel Torday, welcomed the ‘enthusiastic and robust’ turnout, as students seemed engaged, curious and amused.

At the end of poems like “New Folk” or “A Plate of Bones” he expressed humorously (speculating on his structure and syntactic construction) “See, that’s crazy… there’s something going on here.” His poems deftly alternated from scenes of physical action to stories and dialogue, to others that were more meditative.

Hayes spoke interestingly about the process of writing poetry as an organic form. He noted the shift that takes place when you look back at a poem you haven’t read in a while and how that distance of time makes you feel more detached or nostalgic. For Hayes, the structure becomes clearer as he continues to rewrite and revisit his poems. Before reading his elegy to “The Mustache,” he confessed “I have not read this poem since the last time I shaved my mustache.” He spoke honestly about how sometimes one writes with a clear intent and how other times it’s just a manipulation of words on paper, and watching it is like letters with legs, seeing where they lead. Responding to questions about the origin of a poem, he said: “I still don’t know where it came from.” His answer to why he writes poetry speaks for itself: “I want to make something. My profession grows out of a need for expression.”

His most re-visited form is the list poem—a construction most harmonious to the instinctual flow of his thoughts. He varies this tendency through slant rhymes or repeated sounds, or taking figures of speech or well-known expressions, turning them on their heads, to stir an internal dialogue, a cause & effect relationship—the goal being unexpected juxtaposition.

Underneath a satirical weaving of modern pop-culture and colloquial dialogue, his poems carry a thread of more serious themes, ranging from globalization, politics, race, family, sexuality and existential dilemmas on self-fulfillment. But his handling of these issues never preaches moral platitudes. He writes about a level of unmet expectations “thinking, ‘is that all there is?’… All species have a notion of emptiness” (“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy”). In poems such as “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” he adopts literary references ranging from Kafka to Odysseus, adding a distinct texture to his sentences.

Hayes’ reading voice was tuned like a musical instrument, articulating every syllable and animating changes in tone or pace. In this way his poetry speaks not only to the eye but to the ear as well. He described how he sometimes finds himself falling in love with a certain word, like “fork—what a great word” or “somberness,” and like a cough drop, he just let it just roll around in his mouth. When he had read “All words come from pre-existing words” and the “world is connected to a circle,” we were reminded of the cyclical, ouroboros nature of things. His wry frank tone commands us to look within ourselves and examine how “blood spirals [a] helix of defects” (“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blind Contour Drawing”). His poetry manages to speak a trilingual language of atmosphere, biology and metaphor. Not only does his poetry target the five senses, it fundamentally appeals to the mind, body and soul.


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