Poet, educator. In his award-winning 2010 collection, Lighthead, Terrance Hayes explains through verse the essence of poetry: “Not what you see, but what you perceive: that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.” This quote summarizes the power of Hayes’s own verse: contradictions of images, voices, and themes explode within the subtle beauty of each poem. At this point in time, Hayes stands at the crux of a new wave of American poetry, one that simultaneously plays with and challenges forms and styles to create a liberated voice that is unique, fun, and deep.
Hayes was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on November 18, 1971. He was both an athlete and creative writer while in high school, earning him a scholarship to Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina. There he majored in English with a minor in fine arts and garnered recognition as an Academic All American. He graduated in 1994. During his senior year at Coker, he was turned on to poetry by a professor, and he decided to pursue that passion in graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh in 1997. He is married to fellow poet Yona Harvey, and they have two children.
Critically, Hayes has been received remarkably well for such a young poet. His first collection, Muscular Music, was published in 1999 and won the Whiting Writers’ Award that same year and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 2000. His second collection, Hip Logic, was published in 2001 and won the National Poetry Series Award while becoming a runner-up for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the James Laughlin Award (2001). His third collection, Wind in a Box, was published in 2005 and won the Pushcart Prize (2006). Hayes garnered a National
Endowment for the Arts fellowship following Wind in a Box. His fourth collection to date, Lighthead, was published in 2010 and won the National Book Award that same year. The latter three also display his visual art on the covers. According to the National Book Award website, this recent collection represents where Hayes has arrived in his art: “With one foot firmly grounded in the everyday and the other hovering in the air, his poems braid dream and reality into a poetry that is both dark and buoyant.”
In his earlier poetry, Hayes frequently chose subjects—popular culture, music, sports, racism—and explored how each shapes black identity. More recently, however, he has moved beyond those concerns to more universally existential matters. A good example of this latest shift is the poem “Woofer (When I Consider the African American)” from the collection Wind in a Box: “When I consider the much discussed dilemma of the African-American, I think not of the diasporic middle passage, unchained, juke, jock, and jiving sons and daughters of what sleek dashikied poets and tether fisted Nationalists commonly called Mother Africa.” Here he takes the common flash words and concepts associated with the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power Movement, flips them around, and dismisses them. He argues that identity is not always constructed against the enormous backdrop of historic injustices and militancy. Instead, the speaker relates more to the subwoofers bumping upstairs of his girlfriend’s parents’ house, ushering him into a rite of passage both sexual and cultural. This woofer, the instrument of a post-civil rights generation, symbolizes the new African American according to Hayes, as the speaker admits at the poem’s closing: “When I consider the African-American I think of a string of people connected one to another.”
Similarly, “The Avocado,” in the collection Lighthead, narrates a luncheon with a civil rights spokesman. While quoting key phrases from this man, the speaker in the poem concentrates on the guacamole on the table in front of him, a potential assuagement for his ever-growing hunger. Indeed, the shift in focus within the poem makes the speaker think about the mundane everyday struggle that African American pathfinders had to endure to make changes. After all, was not Rosa Parks just tired and reluctant to give up her seat? In this poem, the speaker shows that action and protest may emerge from a minor spark that in turn fosters the most profound response.
Another important theme in his work is that black identity can be revised. Hayes achieves this revision through carefully crafted mimicry and pastiche. To signal this theme, he often employs the color blue or a dedication line. For Hayes, the word “blue” represents the revision of traditional expression, a riff of sorts. He experiments in these “blue” poems with the voices, rhythms, and rhymes associated with each artist or person he reacts to: “Blue Baraka” (after Amiri Baraka), “Blue Bowie” (after David Bowie), “Blue Seuss” (after Theodore Giesel or Dr. Seuss), “Blue Strom” (after Strom Thurmond), and “Blue Terrance” (after himself). These revisions move African American poetry to new heights. Lighthead, more than his other work, celebrates the new altitudes Hayes has climbed, riffing once again on subjects of identity, race, and history. He writes poems playing with the tonal characteristics of Gwendolyn Brooks, Tupac Shakur, and Wallace Stevens, creating imagery that both alludes to each of these artists and, in turn, reinvents them.
Stylistically, Hayes offers tremendous variety. Beyond the blue poems and other homages, Hayes writes many prose poems, monologues, and abecedarians. His ability to create and expand form is perhaps his greatest achievement. He remarks on his webpage, “There are recurring explorations of identity and culture in my work and rather than deny my thematic obsessions, I work to change the forms in which I voice them. I aspire to a poetic style that resists style.” Like a gifted quick-change artist, Hayes puts on different outfits to entertain and amaze the public. Intellectually, these forms offer new territory for students and scholars to examine and enjoy.
Following a short stint at Xavier University of New Orleans from 1999 to 2001, Hayes resettled in Pittsburgh and became a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University. Hayes has asserted, “The dimensions of culture remain at the center of my professional and personal goals, permeating not only the themes of my work, but my relationships with audiences, colleagues and students.” Any reader of his work certainly appreciates and notices these dimensions. For these reasons and others, he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2013.
Hayes, Terrance. Hip Logic. New York: Penguin, 2002.
——-. Lighthead. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
——-. Muscular Music. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2005.
——-. Wind in a Box. New York: Penguin, 2006.