MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes: Poems Are Music, Language Our Instrument

Sep 17, 2014

On Wednesday, poet Terrance Hayes was named one of 21 MacArthur Fellows. Hayes, a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh, was recognized for "reflecting on race, gender, and family in works that seamlessly encompass both the historical and the personal and subvert canonical forms."

Hayes' poems play with ideas of music, visual arts, race, history and popular culture. In his poem "The Blue Seuss," he mixes the well-known childhood refrain of "one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish" with images of American slavery. It begins:

Blacks in one box

Blacks in two box

Blacks on

Blacks stacked in boxes stacked on boxes

Blacks in boxes stacked on shores

Blacks in boxes stacked on boats in darkness

Blacks in boxes do not float

Blacks in boxes count their losses

Blacks on boat docks

Blacks on auction

Blacks on wagons

Blacks with masters in the houses

Blacks with bosses in the fields

Blacks in helmets toting rifles

Blacks in Harlem toting banjoes boots and quilts...

Click here to read the rest of "The Blue Seuss."

"The idea of the box is a kind of interesting image, both for me as a poet, and, you know, historically speaking," Hayes tells NPR's Melissa Block. "What do boxes do for poems, and what do they do for our people?"


Interview Highlights

On whether he pushes against the "box" of being defined as an African-American poet

Well, you know, I wouldn't say I push against it. I think it's a bonus. It's a thing that makes me additionally interesting, is what I would say. So, black poet, Southern poet, male poet — many of those identities I try to fold into the poems and hope that they enrich them.

... It's lonely if that's the only thing in the box. ... I hope there are lots of other kinds of ideas.

On Pittsburgh featuring prominently in his poetry, even though he's originally from South Carolina

I became a poet in Pittsburgh. When I lived in the South I was a basketball player and primarily a jock. An English teacher essentially suggested that I send the poems that I'd been writing — really just for him — to a few programs, so that when I wound up in Pittsburgh, it's where I figured out that I could actually be a poet. And so, much of my identity is tied up into the city and my experiences in the city.

On the relationship between poems and music

Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument — language and breath. But I would say, you know, people say that I'm a musician. I would just say I try. That's always — I try to play, I try to engage music, and I think if I could really play music, I don't know if I'd be a poet. So, I think, in the absence of knowing how to play a guitar or a cello, I thought, well I can play words. I know words. They're cheap, they travel very easily, and so that became my primary instrument.

On his poem "Arbor for Butch" from his book Lighthead

It's broken in several pieces, but this is just one paragraph that sort of gets into both my interest in music and questions about identity. Primarily, the poem is about traveling to the South, and sort of reconnecting with the South. But also, reconnecting with my father, my biological father, who ... I didn't know until I was in my 30s. And so, this is just one section about what I thought I was looking for:

Sometimes my body is a guitar, a hole waiting in wood, wires
trembling to sleep. To identify what you are, to be loved by what
you identify, I thought This is how the blood sings into the self.
I thought what was hollow in me would be shaped into music.

Click here to read the rest of "Arbor for Butch."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A playwright, a cartoonist and a saxophonist are among the winners of this year's MacArthur foundation grants - 21 people in all, from a wide range of disciplines. They'll each receive a whopping $625,000 over five years to support their work.

We're talking with some of the MacArthur winners on today's program. Elsewhere we'll hear from a physicist who studies the brain and a labor organizer. And now from poet Terrance Hayes. He's 42, a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and a native of South Carolina. His poems play with ideas about music, visual arts, race, history and popular culture.

TERRANCE HAYES: (Reading) "The Blue Seuss." Blacks in one box, blacks in two box, blacks on blacks stacked in boxes stacked on boxes. Blacks in boxes stacked on shores. Blacks in boxes stacked on boats in darkness. Blacks in boxes do not float. Blacks in boxes count their losses. Blacks on boat docks, blacks on auction, blacks on wagons, blacks with masters in the houses, blacks with bosses in the fields, blacks in helmets toting rifles, blacks in Harlem toting banjos, boots and quilts.

BLOCK: That's Terrance Hayes reading the beginning of his poem, "The Blue Seuss." Terrance, welcome to the program.

HAYES: Thank you. It's great to be here.

BLOCK: And you are clearly mixing Dr. Seuss there - one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish - with some very troubling history - the history of American slavery. What were you getting at by mixing those two themes?

HAYES: Well the idea of the box is a kind of interesting image both for me as a poet and, you know, historically speaking. What do boxes do for poems, and what do they do for people? So it seemed like a great kind of idea to reiterate throughout that poem.

BLOCK: Thinking about boxes, I wonder if the box of being an African-American poet is something that you struggle with - that you push against?

HAYES: Well, you know, I wouldn't say I push against it. I think it's a bonus. It's a thing that makes me additionally interesting is what I would say. So black poet, Southern poet, male poet - many of those identities, I try to fold into the poems and hope that they enrich them.

BLOCK: I guess I'm wondering if it's limiting in some way to be put in that box - African-American poet - Southern poet.

HAYES: Sure. It's lonely if that's the only thing in the box, if you know what I mean.

BLOCK: Yeah.

HAYES: So yeah, I hope there lots of other kinds of ideas.

BLOCK: Do you hear a lot of South Carolina in your poems?

HAYES: More and more recently I think because I became a poet in Pittsburgh. When I lived in the South I was a basketball player and primarily a jock. And an English teacher essentially suggested that I send the poems that I'd been writing really just for him to a few programs so that when I wound up in Pittsburgh, it's where I figured out that I could actually be a poet. And so much of my identity is tied up into the city and my experiences in the city.

BLOCK: Yeah. In reading about you I've learned that apart from poetry, you're also a musician. You're a visual artist - all sorts of things wrapped into one. With music in particular, is there a direct connection with the rhythm of language and the way you're using words, do you think, and your musicianship?

HAYES: Well, I certainly think that poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument - language and breath. But I would say - you know, people say that I'm a musician. I always just say I try. That's always - I try to play. I try to engage music. And I think if I could really play music, I don't know if I'd be a poet.

So I think in the absence of knowing how to play a guitar or a cello, I thought well, I can play words. I know words. They're cheap. They travel very easily. And so that became my primary instrument.

BLOCK: Do you have a poem there with you that you could read to take us out with?

HAYES: I could read a section of a poem that's in my last book, "Lighthead." It's broken into several pieces, but this is just one paragraph. It sort of gets into both my interest in music and questions about identity. Primarily the poem is about traveling to the south and sort of reconnecting with the South, but also reconnecting with my father - my biological father who, you know, I didn't know until I was in my 30s.

And so this is just one section about what I thought I was looking for. (Reading) Sometimes my body is a guitar, a hole waiting in wood, wires trembling to sleep. To identify what you are, to be loved by what you identify, I thought, this is how the blood sings into the self.

I thought what was hollow in me would be shaped into music.

BLOCK: That's poet Terrance Hayes, one of this year's MacArthur winners. Mr. Hayes, thank so much and congratulations.

HAYES: Thank you - great being here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.