Shake­speare and Scooby-doo: An In­ter­view with Ter­rance Hayes

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Jef­frey j. wil­liams

Jef­frey J. Wil­liams

Ter­rance Hayes is one of the most cel­e­brated poets of his gen­er­a­tion. Cur­rently a Macarthur Fel­low, Hayes syn­the­sizes dis­parate el­e­ments in his work: clas­si­cal forms like the son­net; pop­u­lar cul­ture ref­er­ences from hip-hop to Scooby-doo; com­ments on race, espe­cially African-amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence; modes such as the Ja­pa­nese busi­ness pre­sen­ta­tion slide se­ries pecha kucha; and re­flec­tions on fa­ther­hood and fam­ily. As he re­marks in this in­ter­view, he re­sists be­ing tied to one ad­jec­tive to de­scribe him­self as a poet. Since grad­u­ate school, Hayes has pub­lished a steady stream of books, be­gin­ning with Mus­cu­lar Mu­sic (Tia Chucha Press, 1999; re­print Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity Press, 2006); Hip Logic (Pen­guin, 2002), se­lected for the Na­tional Po­etry Se­ries; Wind in a Box (Pen­guin, 2006); Light­head (Pen­guin, 2010), which won a Na­tional Book Award; How to Draw (Pen­guin, 2015); and the forth­com­ing Amer­i­can Son­nets for My Past and Fu­ture As­sas­sin (Pen­guin, 2018). He re­ceived a Macarthur Fel­low­ship be­gin­ning in 2014. Born in 1971 in Columbia, SC, Hayes’s mother was a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer and fa­ther a mil­i­tary bar­ber. He at­tended Coker Col­lege on a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship, but ex­plored paint­ing and po­etry and, en­cour­aged by an English pro­fes­sor there and the poet Toi Der­ri­cotte, went to the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh for an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing. Af­ter that, he taught in Ja­pan, at Xavier Univer­sity in Louisiana, and from 2001 to 2013 at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity. He is cur­rently dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh and also dis­tin­guished vis­it­ing writer at New York Univer­sity. This in­ter­view took place on June 24 and July 1, 2016, in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia.

Jef­frey J. Wil­liams: You use a va­ri­ety of forms, you some­times draw from pop­u­lar cul­ture, and your po­etry changes from book to book, so it would be hard to de­fine you as one kind of poet or from one school. How would you char­ac­ter­ize your writ­ing?

Ter­rance Hayes: I have a line in the last book about how to draw an in­vis­i­ble man, and it says, “I’m try­ing to be trans­par­ent.” I don’t ac­tu­ally want to be in­vis­i­ble, which is the dilemma of peo­ple of color, but I would like to be trans­par­ent, so peo­ple can see what my is­sues are, good and bad. I just try to be trans­par­ent and very present, and then see what hap­pens.

JW: Where would you place your work? Some­times it seems like the New York School, but at other times, it’s very dif­fer­ent.

TH: It’s true, I do like O’hara, I like Ber­ri­gan, and I ac­tu­ally like Ash­bery, too. The New York School poets are in­ter­est­ing to me for their im­me­di­acy; New York School cul­ture is about be­ing present and be­ing in the mo­ment. But I think it is my per­son­al­ity that I can pretty much go into any room where peo­ple speak English and nav­i­gate around that room in terms of en­gag­ing with what they’re do­ing. When I’m at a con­fer­ence that’s full of for­mal­ists, they say, “Oh, you’re a for­mal­ist”; if I’m at an AfricanAmerican re­treat, peo­ple say, “Yeah, you’re an African-amer­i­can poet.” I’m in­ter­ested in form; I’m in­ter­ested in cul­ture. De­pend­ing on what space I’m in, de­pend­ing on what kind of wa­ter I’m in, peo­ple see me in very dif­fer­ent ways. But for my­self, I try not to think about it too much. The other thing is what the pro­noun “I” does in my po­ems—is it a con­fes­sional “I,” an in­tel­lec­tual “I”? Peo­ple come up to me say­ing, “You know, I think of you as a con­fes­sional poet.” That’s OK, too; I think the word means to be opened up. As a student of po­etry, I find that con­fes­sion­al­ism is a great tool that fic­tion writ­ers don’t have. (Non­fic­tion writ­ers maybe do, but they are a pris­oner to it.) Every­body as­sumes that the “I” is a con­fes­sional “I,” and they as­sume that with me, but I find it’s a use­ful de­vice so I can lie to peo­ple in plain sight. Some­times it might be con­fes­sional, but I do like to make stuff up. It frees me up to tell the truth. So when my mother saw my ear­li­est po­ems in the first book, she was like, “Oh, it was just your imag­i­na­tion.”

JW: Like the poem about her pulling a gun on you, “Late”?

TH: Yeah, but it’s not al­ways just my imag­i­na­tion. It al­lows me to not get too caught up in terms of pri­vacy and se­crecy across the po­ems. It gives me a way to not be lim­ited. I’m in­ter­ested in Lan­guage School po­et­ics, too. The idea that lan­guage in and of it­self is a ma­te­rial or com­mu­ni­cates sound that is a ma­te­rial— that in­ter­ests me. I’m a student of po­etry, and I feel like ev­ery­thing’s on

the ta­ble, and I can use it all. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to com­mit to one cir­cle, even though I feel peo­ple pulling me, “Be on my team, be on my team!” and I’m not sure if I want to be only in your part of the house.

JW: Do you think it’s be­cause you had an anoma­lous path com­ing into po­etry? You come from a small town in South Carolina and went to col­lege be­cause you had a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship. You were out­side the main aca­demic pipe­line and didn’t have a sil­ver spoon. Maybe it’s gen­er­a­tional, too. You’re not as fixed in one po­si­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the so­ci­ol­ogy, boomers are more fixed in their po­si­tions and more polem­i­cal, whereas Gen­er­a­tion X is more poly­glot and less op­po­si­tional: they tend to­ward what one so­ci­ol­o­gist calls “the cul­tural om­ni­vore” and don’t have as strict dis­tinc­tions among kinds of art.

TH: That’s a great ques­tion. I was born in ’71, and we had mul­ti­task­ing and were in the elec­tronic age. But now there’s dig­i­tal or so­cial me­dia, which peo­ple like my daugh­ter are very aware of. (I’m one of the few peo­ple I know of in my co­hort that doesn’t do so­cial me­dia. I used to do it, but it was tak­ing up too many of my words.) I do think that the phe­nom­ena where you have ac­cess to all of that in­for­ma­tion makes you poly­glot. You know a lot of things, but you haven’t spent a whole bunch of time in one area.

JW: One down­side with the glut of in­for­ma­tion now is that there’s no sta­ble core of ref­er­ences. It seems like, at mid­cen­tury, what­ever lim­i­ta­tions they had, they had a com­mon idea of lit­er­a­ture, which prob­a­bly val­ued high­brow modernism, whereas now it’s much more dis­parate and up for grabs.

TH: You get that with stu­dents. They some­times say, “There’s all this new work, and you’re still try­ing to make us read th­ese old white dudes from the canon.” Last year at Yale, some stu­dents protested, say­ing, “Why do we have to read all th­ese white guys? Why do we have to read Shake­speare?” I know be­cause an ar­ti­cle came back to me that said, “You should read Shake­speare and Ter­rance Hayes.” I agree with that, and I don’t see why it can’t be both. I’m in­ter­ested in Shake­speare, but espe­cially how Shake­speare is in con­ver­sa­tion with Scooby-doo or The Walk­ing Dead. You find that out espe­cially as a teacher. I was just do­ing a Q and A and bounc­ing be­tween The Simp­sons and Pi­casso. It was a room of low-res­i­dency MFA peo­ple in Tampa, and I said, “Half of you are go­ing to get what I say about ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, cu­bism, Rothko, and Pi­casso, and half of you are go­ing

to get The Simp­sons, Lil’ Wayne, and Fu­ture, this new rap­per.” Why do I have to sep­a­rate those out? Fu­ture has this song “Fuck Up Some Com­mas.” He’s talk­ing about money, but when I hear it, I hear it about syn­tax and the way a sen­tence is built. It’s like James Joyce and Molly Bloom and a fifty-page sen­tence—james Joyce re­ally fucked some com­mas up. So why would I have to seg­re­gate them? Why only Shake­speare, when there’s this other stuff that’s hap­pen­ing? I think for younger peo­ple espe­cially, ev­ery­thing is so si­mul­ta­ne­ous now. Some of my un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents don’t know that there is an­other way of learn­ing. Some­times black stu­dents and fe­male stu­dents will say, “They didn’t teach black writ­ers,” or “There weren’t that many women.” And I say, “Right, but that’s the symp­tom of their era; now it’s a new era, but it’s not like we can just for­get the canon.” If a kid says, “We don’t need Mark Twain,” I say the canon still has to be folded in. It’s not like you could move some­thing out just be­cause it hap­pens to not look like you. You can read Toni Mor­ri­son and still read Shake­speare. They’re dif­fer­ent, but you also find that they’re still gold. To go back the other way, when I’m talk­ing to some­one who’s six­ty­five, and I’m mak­ing a ref­er­ence to Fu­ture and say­ing it’s a song about strip clubs, I’m still say­ing it’s in­ter­est­ing. “To fuck up some com­mas” is an in­ter­est­ing idea. I’m not ask­ing to get rid of Bach and Beethoven and only to lis­ten to this knuck­le­head from At­lanta. But it so hap­pens that there’s some­thing in his mu­sic that can be of in­ter­est to how we work—espe­cially to a room of writ­ers or peo­ple who think about lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture.

JW: Is there a ten­sion be­tween form or aes­thetic value and iden­tity? There’s an as­sump­tion in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture that writ­ers rep­re­sent their iden­ti­ties.

TH: I’m in­ter­ested in iden­tity, but there’s an­other cir­cle that’s closer to the self, and that’s per­son­al­ity. Part of my per­son­al­ity, cer­tainly, is be­cause I’m black, and I’m South­ern, and I’m male. But there are also parts of my per­son­al­ity that just have to do with some weird thing my mother said to me or that I sat on the lap of a woman that couldn’t speak at a pi­ano when I was three years old. How you get fairly bor­ing po­ems about race is be­cause you are try­ing to plug into some no­tion about iden­tity, as op­posed to some no­tion of per­son­al­ity. Race might be part of my iden­tity, but it’s not the only thing that’s there. To me, per­son­al­ity is get­ting close to some­thing like trans­parency.

When I think about the Black Arts poets, peo­ple like Baraka, who I knew and hung out with, or So­nia Sanchez, to me the great tragedy is that there’s this wall be­cause they’re in­ter­ested in black­ness and up­lift and a cer­tain kind of iden­tity, but I get no sense through their work of their per­son­al­ity. It’s like your grand­fa­ther worked ev­ery day at the mill, but you never knew what his fa­vorite color was, or what cruel thing his mother said to him when he was ten years old. That’s what I find in­ter­est­ing, and to have that wall stops it. That gets back to trans­parency. All my flaws and quirks and neu­roses, they fit just as well as the scar­ring that comes from racism or mas­culin­ity, and I don’t want to have to cut that off. Peo­ple con­fuse pri­vacy and se­crecy way too much. I’m not say­ing it’s con­fes­sional, but it gives more tex­ture to your work if you can fig­ure out how not to close off those rooms.

JW: Do you con­sider your­self an African-amer­i­can poet?

TH: Yes—and many other things. I don’t think any­body is just a poet with no ad­jec­tives. I wouldn’t limit it there: I would say, yes, I’m AfricanAmerican; yes, I’m South­ern; yes, I’m male; yes, I’m hip-hop; yes, I’m neu­rotic; yes, I’m a bas­tard poet. It’s all th­ese other things and the more, the bet­ter. The or­der of those things shifts de­pend­ing on where I am that day: some days, I’m a male poet first, and that’s what’s re­ally go­ing to in­form the work; a lot of days, I’m a black poet first and that’s what’s go­ing to in­form it. But I don’t want to be tied to one ad­jec­tive. Po­etry is the end for me. It’s al­ways what I go back to, and ev­ery­thing is fil­tered through that. I would say, first, that’s who I am. But I don’t think that’s al­ways true for other peo­ple.

JW: If I were to pe­ri­odize your work, I’d say there are three phases so far. In your first book, Mus­cu­lar Mu­sic, you play with pop­u­lar cul­ture, but there’s a stronger sense of self in your last two books. In the sec­ond and third books, Hip Logic and Wind in a Box, you’re experimenting more with form, whether it be the son­net or other pat­terns of rep­e­ti­tion. They’re also about iden­tity, and some of them talk about race ex­plic­itly. In your most re­cent work, in books like How to be Drawn, you have po­ems like “Gen­tle Mea­sures” where you’re fig­ur­ing your­self out and think­ing about fa­ther­hood. It seems more am­biva­lent, too.

TH: “Gen­tle Mea­sures” al­most went into Light­head, but I just didn’t have it fin­ished. It’s a pecha kucha, a Ja­pa­nese form. In the most gen­eral sense, my deep­est am­bi­tions are for the poem as a puz­zle, as an ob­ject,

as a Ru­bik’s cube to play with. My deep­est am­bi­tion is al­ways for the poem, but the growth comes from try­ing to not get stuck as a hu­man be­ing. So I would hope that in my for­ties I would be dif­fer­ent, more in­ter­est­ing, and know more—and prob­a­bly be more am­biva­lent—than I was in my twen­ties. The last poem in Hip Logic, “The Same City,” is about my step­dad and about the way I ap­pre­ci­ate this man who’s raised me. And I thought, af­ter I’d writ­ten it, “Well, if I don’t go out there and find this dude who’s my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, I’m go­ing to keep writ­ing this poem.” So that’s a per­sonal thing from my life, and if I didn’t an­swer that life ques­tion, I felt like I was go­ing to be stuck in my work. Then, find­ing him in my for­ties, and becoming some­what am­biva­lent about what that means. It’s in Light­head, and that poem is in con­ver­sa­tion with “The Same City,” about meet­ing this man who is my fa­ther, where he says to me, “God made noth­ing sweeter than pussy.” The growth of the po­ems is very lo­cal, and when they be­come con­fes­sional, it’s be­cause I’m try­ing to be­come some­one bet­ter from one day to the next, or come to terms with the ways I can’t be bet­ter from one day to the next. That goes back to trans­parency. I don’t want there to be a great dis­tance be­tween me as an in­di­vid­ual walk­ing down the street and in the po­ems, be­cause they feed each other, and one il­lu­mi­nates the other. I’m not do­ing enough as an in­di­vid­ual if I’m not seek­ing out new ex­pe­ri­ences, new peo­ple, be­ing chal­lenged, be­ing hon­est with who I am, or my po­ems are go­ing to be stuck. I don’t think Ash­bery thinks that. I think he could just sit down, lis­ten to some mu­sic ev­ery day, and feel like he could make an in­ter­est­ing poem. That might be true, but I think for the last ten or fif­teen years, Ash­bery wrote the same book. That’s a night­mare for me. I would not want to do that—al­though maybe I will when I’m eighty. I need the ten­sion of ask­ing my­self day to day, “Is that what I think?” Maybe that’s what gets called am­biva­lence or curiosity or even just play­ing—and it was dif­fer­ent when I was in my twen­ties.

JW: You’ve had plenty of crit­ics com­ment on your work, but if you said there was a qual­ity that it has, what would it be?

TH: The thing that is al­ways a chal­lenge from one poem to the next is man­ag­ing time. Where there’s an ex­pe­ri­ence, I’m think­ing: Is this go­ing to be con­verted to a lyric mo­ment? Or am I go­ing to break a line here? What’s go­ing to be left out? What’s go­ing to be the rhythm of my sen­tences?

The joke in my classes and in my house­hold is that I am al­ways tim­ing and mea­sur­ing ev­ery­thing. To go back to your point about the later books, in Light­head, the first poem be­gins with a line, “I could never get the hang of Time,” and the epi­graph is a Borges quote from “A New Refu­ta­tion of Time.” At some point I re­al­ized, even more than fa­ther­hood, even more than par­ents, even more than race, the thing I’m re­ally obsessed with is mea­sur­ing time. That’s man­i­fested in the pecha kucha po­ems in Light­head: they’re not mea­sure­ments of meter; they’re mea­sure­ments of time. It’s twenty sec­onds for each stanza, and I’m try­ing to cre­ate out of th­ese twen­ty­sec­ond lyric bursts a nar­ra­tive that holds to­gether.

JW: I can see how you’re a time poet rather than a space poet. What do you think is a flaw of your po­etry?

TH: That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Allen Gross­man said, when peo­ple ask, “What are your po­ems about?” he says, “Po­etry, the sub­ject is al­ways po­etry.” I find that to be very use­ful as a maker of po­ems, even though that’s frus­trat­ing for read­ers. So if some­one asked, “Are you writ­ing po­ems about race or Pitts­burgh?” I’d say, “No, I’m writ­ing po­ems about po­etry.” But if I find a flaw, I feel my­self com­ing up against a state­ment like that. I want to be writ­ing about some­thing; I want to have a sub­ject like nov­els can, cap­tur­ing a whole world. When I’m writ­ing po­ems, I can get an im­me­di­ate pleasure but still feel like there’s some­thing on the other side of that, which is what I go to nov­els for, like One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude. I feel like that’s some­thing I can’t do: the can­vas is not big enough to fully cap­ture con­scious­ness in a poem. And I think, if I was re­ally try­ing to fully cap­ture con­scious­ness, I would have to leave po­ems. There’s some mo­ments in David Foster Wal­lace’s non­fic­tion, like “Con­sider the Lob­ster,” that do it.

JW: I like the es­says more than the fic­tion.

TH: Me too, be­cause there’s too much af­fect in the fic­tion. In those non­fic­tion pieces, he’s to­tally present, and I’m to­tally with him; I’m to­tally in his head. I feel like that’s what I aspire to. In my body of work, that’s what I’m aim­ing for, and I never can get it. I’m chas­ing it. I think about the next poem, be­cause I’m al­ways think­ing I could do bet­ter, and have I done the best I can? I don’t know; I hope not. That’s how I work, from one day to the next. The best stuff still hasn’t hap­pened.

As a poet, you know your lim­i­ta­tions, and those lim­i­ta­tions are the form of the per­son or the poet. So that’s my big ques­tion: am I the one that’s lim­ited and there’s a way to do this thing, or is it the genre that’s lim­ited? In Wind in a Box, I de­cided the only way to get into a poem was as a puz­zle that was go­ing to come to­gether, so the great rev­e­la­tion was all the boxes in the book. I wrote them one at a time, and there are six, be­cause a box has six sides. What’s im­por­tant for me in that book is the join­ing of it, mak­ing this new ob­ject. Then in Light­head, there’s a lot of fire through­out the book, so I’m play­ing around with the para­dox of fire and light­ing things up. Af­ter I’ve done a poem, then I can think about it as a piece of the puz­zle and as a part of this whole thing, as op­posed to writ­ing one poem at a time, and when I get to twenty po­ems or forty po­ems, I have a book. So what’s use­ful about the Allen Gross­man line is to say, what is the puz­zle about? Are you mak­ing a land­scape or a fig­ure draw­ing when you put the puz­zle to­gether? And his an­swer is it’s just lan­guage, it’s just po­etry. I think that’s use­ful, but on the other hand, it’s not quite sat­is­fy­ing for me. I still need it to be more rel­e­vant, and the stakes have to be a lit­tle deeper. If I switch metaphors—and I’ve had this ar­gu­ment with Mary Karr— it’s like if you make a meal and your au­di­ence is wait­ing to eat it, but when you put it on the ta­ble, they have to watch you eat it. That would be the Ash­bery kind of po­etry. It’s a great meal, and maybe you’re a ter­rific eater, so they watch and wow, those noo­dles look de­li­cious. But Mary’s at­ti­tude is that, if you never get to eat it, you’re like the cafe­te­ria worker, which is why she does not like that kind of po­etry. My at­ti­tude is to split the dif­fer­ence. I’m go­ing to starve if I don’t eat it, but if I don’t eat it, nei­ther should you. Don’t you want to see me eat it too? That’s the Stephen King end of things. So I feel like, if I’m go­ing to make a meal, we’re go­ing to sit down at the ta­ble and eat it to­gether. I am in­ter­ested in whether you’ll like it or not, but if you say, I like your steak but don’t like the beans, all right, eat the steak, and don’t eat the beans. I’m go­ing to eat it the same. I want us to en­joy a meal to­gether, and I can’t say it’s only for me, even though there is a part of me—and this is what I like about Ash­bery—that says, if you don’t like it, that’s your prob­lem. Eat some­thing else. I’m al­ways torn be­tween the dilemma of say­ing there has to be some­thing worth­while to some­one other than my­self, even though I can get pretty far just eat­ing what I make for my­self and hav­ing no one else at the ta­ble.

JW: And the de­ci­sion is how big the ta­ble is. It could be an enor­mous one, or it could just be a small ta­ble.

TH: That’s Baraka. Baraka would say your obli­ga­tion is to feed black peo­ple. If other peo­ple are eat­ing it, that’s fine, but this is your job. But does that mean I’m only mak­ing black-eyed peas and col­lard greens? What does it mean to say only cer­tain peo­ple? I like a lit­tle sea bass, too, or a lit­tle hal­ibut. So for some­one to say this is your au­di­ence and you have to give peo­ple the thing they’ll re­ally eat, I’m say­ing you don’t know what peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity is. Maybe they’ll like caviar, maybe you’ll like oc­to­pus. Or maybe they won’t. But I’m still try­ing to get peo­ple to the ta­ble. Who those peo­ple are, I don’t re­ally think too much about that. I don’t think about every­body that looks the same; I don’t know who those peo­ple are, but I’m go­ing to feed them.

JW: And it’s also the ta­ble to come, which you can’t quite pre­dict, or you might be to­tally off if you do.

TH: The other side would be the ques­tion of fail­ure. To stay with the food metaphor, you can make some­thing bad. If you’ve got a restau­rant and you’re Mcdon­ald’s, you can’t sell sushi, you just make burg­ers. My in­ter­est is not what peo­ple ex­pect from me as a poet; I know I can make burg­ers, but can I make sushi? Maybe I can, but I need to try that. That goes to the ques­tion of how much you al­low your­self to fail in your day-to-day prac­tice. Cer­tainly, af­ter enough books and enough ac­knowl­edg­ments, are you still com­fort­able with fail­ing? Th­elo­nious Monk says there is no fail­ure, there’s only re­hearsal and prac­tice. That might be a bet­ter way of think­ing about it. You write a poem, and you think it’s a failed poem, but maybe it’s a draft, and you just keep go­ing onto the next poem. The thing that lim­its peo­ple some­times is that, at a cer­tain age, they start to say, “This is what I do.” The de­sire to want to feed peo­ple is not a bad de­sire. It gets into the art for art’s sake ver­sus so­cial pur­pose ar­gu­ment, but I think the real pur­pose is who do you want at the ta­ble with you? Rea­son­able peo­ple do want some­body at the ta­ble with them; there’s some­thing wrong with the im­age of me sit­ting at the ta­ble and peo­ple watch­ing me eat. For me, that wouldn’t be enough. With suc­cess, you get en­cour­aged to think, “I’m so spe­cial that peo­ple will just watch me be me.” So when Pa­cino starts be­ing him­self in his movies and stops acting, peo­ple ac­cept that and say, “Oh, it’s Al Pa­cino! That’s great!” But I still want to see him be some­body else. There are

peo­ple that, when some­one be­comes a celebrity, they just say, “It’s enough if you write it, and it’s just some­thing you’ve writ­ten, we’ll take that.”

JW: I want to come back to how you re­flect upon your own suc­cess, but first I want to ask about your re­la­tion to art. I know you paint and have for a long time. In fact, you were a painter be­fore you were a poet. How does that bear on your po­etry? Do you see paint­ings as a puz­zle?

TH: I feel lim­ited as a painter. I can do pretty good fig­u­ra­tive stuff— Lu­cian Freud is my man. In this stu­dio class that I’ve taken, the teacher had a joke that I should take pic­tures of my paint­ings, be­cause he would come over, and I would have a paint­ing of a boy, and he would go away, and then an hour later it would be a paint­ing of a tree, then he would go and come back and it would be a paint­ing of a shoe, and it’s still the same can­vas. What I would say to him is that I was just try­ing to build up a sur­face. What I hate is a white can­vas, and I don’t like one layer of paint. I like the tex­ture of it, so the only way to get to that is to keep paint­ing stuff and eras­ing it, and paint­ing on top of it and strug­gling with it so the lay­ers would be hid­den. I feel like this is true in the po­etry process. I’ve been talk­ing for a year about this poem that I started in 2009, and in 2013 I printed it out and it was 244 pages. It was sort of like Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s Ar­cades Project, but it wasn’t work­ing and it wasn’t good, so I stopped and fin­ished How to be Drawn. Then last sum­mer, in 2015, I pulled it out again, and I was like, “Okay, I’m go­ing to get th­ese pages down to sixty pages. I think there’s a good book-length poem in here.” But I still couldn’t do it. When I worked on it, af­ter not hav­ing looked at it for two years, I de­cided it was still bad, and I was cool with that. I thought, “Maybe I’ll look at it in a lit­tle while.” That’s about fail­ure and prac­tice. It’s okay if I spent all that time on this man­u­script, and it is, by some terms, a fail­ure, but by other terms, it’s go­ing to lead to some­thing at some point. It’s still an open-ended process. What’s great about paint­ing is that all the dif­fer­ent things get ab­sorbed, and then there’s still a re­sult. Even if you can’t see un­der­neath all of it, I know that there’s a face of a boy and that I’ve built it up. So in the last year or two, I did take pic­tures of the paint­ings go­ing through th­ese var­i­ous stages. Maybe the one that’s cov­ered up is more in­ter­est­ing, and maybe the last re­sult is sort of a fail­ure, but that’s all right, I’m still go­ing through the process.

JW: Re­lated to art, there’s been a lot of crit­i­cal writ­ing about post­mod­ernism and dif­fer­ent kinds of the­o­ries, and you men­tioned Ben­jamin. Are there par­tic­u­lar ideas that you grav­i­tate to­ward or that have in­flu­enced you?

TH: The most ba­sic one is Hegel and the dia­lec­tic. I’m a di­alec­ti­cal thinker. I learned this stuff in col­lege, and it has be­come one way for me to un­der­stand what metaphor is. The­sis, an­tithe­sis, and syn­the­siz­ing—that cer­tainly is my way of be­ing in the world all the time. So, if I’m talk­ing to some­one, and I men­tion Glenn Gould and Fu­ture, or Pi­casso and Lil’ Wayne, my mind is al­ways bridg­ing those two things. Or in a poem I’ll talk about Ol’ Dirty Bas­tard and Othello. Bridg­ing those things is my nat­u­ral way of think­ing, and I think of that as a col­lage. I’m mostly in­ter­ested in philoso­phers that have an in­ter­est in lan­guage— Wittgen­stein, even Ni­et­zsche.

JW: I can see that in your po­ems. Some­times they seem eclec­tic—with ref­er­ences from pop cul­ture to high art—but your mo­ti­va­tion is to­ward syn­the­sis. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily the­sis and an­tithe­sis, but sev­eral things that you might bring to­gether. You’re a syn­thetic poet.

TH: I don’t know how neg­a­tive that is. I have a friend who’s a critic, and he said that my work was an an­them to am­biva­lence. I can put things to­gether and see what is made with­out hav­ing to choose. Years ago, I was on a panel with a guy who is a po­lit­i­cal and so­cial poet, and he said to me, “You know, at some point you do have to choose sides.” Why? To me, the con­ver­sa­tion is done once I choose a side. So maybe that’s a form of am­biva­lence. I’m not that in­ter­ested in any­thing other than mak­ing some­thing, play­ing with some­thing, and it doesn’t have to be any­thing other than po­etry. But then there is that other part of me that walks up the street and watches CNN and hears sto­ries, and it is true that I in­habit this world and want to re­spond to that.

JW: You do some­times talk about race and re­cent politics. I like the poem where you play off the line “Thank you for your ser­vice.”

TH: “Sup­port the Troops!” The poet I men­tioned who said you have to choose a side, it’s not like I dis­agree, it’s just, why would I rush? So I’ll risk naivety in the mo­ment. He’s an older, white dude, and he was say­ing that he had been a vic­tim of mo­lesta­tion, and he said, “Once you’ve seen what real evil can do in the world, you know you don’t have the

lux­ury of say­ing, well, Hitler was a painter too.” So I said to him, “I ac­tu­ally don’t dis­agree, I just feel like I could be naïve for a while and pur­sue truth, and at the end of that, if I see some­thing that’s evil, I will say it’s evil. If I see some­thing is wrong, I will say it’s wrong. But if I don’t know that, then the poem will also be about that; it will be about not know­ing.” That’s a bet­ter way of be­ing an artist to me; that’s a more in­ter­est­ing artist who doesn’t know and is pur­su­ing an an­swer ver­sus an artist who does know.

JW: So your obli­ga­tion is to ask ques­tions?

TH: Maybe a satir­i­cal ques­tion like in “Sup­port the Troops!” where I’m ask­ing, why should I sup­port them? My grand­fa­ther was a war vet­eran; my dad was in the army; my brother was in the army. And yet I still feel like there’s some­thing wrong with try­ing to force me to sup­port the troops. That poem is also a con­ver­sa­tion about whether you have to choose a side. And there’s a lot of ways to choose a side.

JW: I want to ask about your back­ground and how you came to do po­etry. On the one hand, it seems like your ca­reer was ac­ci­den­tal. You told me an­other time that, when you were grow­ing up, you didn’t know if you’d be­come a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer like your mother or go into the mil­i­tary like your step­fa­ther, but you came to po­etry while you were in col­lege.

TH: Or I might have be­come a high school English teacher. Grow­ing up work­ing class and not hav­ing any­one who had ever have gone to col­lege, I didn’t have an ex­treme pres­sure. My fa­ther would say, “You’re go­ing to go to col­lege—you’re smart.” But they didn’t have any sav­ings. My good for­tune was that I was tall, so I played bas­ket­ball. I was a vis­ual artist, too, so I got of­fers from Sa­van­nah Col­lege of De­sign, but they didn’t have any sports, and they didn’t give me enough money. I also was in track and field. I don’t know how many peo­ple know this, but I was on ESPN for the Na­tional Scholas­tic In­door Track and Field Cham­pi­onships. I did high jump and the four-hun­dred-meter re­lay. I got let­ters from LSU, Clem­son, UNC Chapel-hill, but no one gave a full ride. Track teams are so big, they don’t usu­ally give them. It’s not like the bas­ket­ball team. So I didn’t want to have to pay any­thing, and be­cause of my back­ground, I had no sense that peo­ple went to col­lege if they didn’t have their own money.

JW: So you went to Coker Col­lege be­cause they gave you a schol­ar­ship in bas­ket­ball?

TH: Yeah, a full ride. In bas­ket­ball, I was fine. I couldn’t do Divi­sion I, be­cause I would have been a guard, and be­cause I’ve been this tall since I was fif­teen, I’ve al­ways played in­side, so I never re­ally learned how to han­dle the ball. So for bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ships, it was go­ing to be D-II or D-III, and I thought that was the only way I was go­ing to go to school. Be­cause I was lucky enough to get a schol­ar­ship, my par­ents didn’t feel com­pelled to tell me what to do. My dad said, “Maybe you should ma­jor in busi­ness.” If he had said that when I was eight years old, I prob­a­bly would have done it, but it was too late. I also thought that, when I fin­ished, I would just go back home. I didn’t know what hap­pened on the other side of col­lege. I didn’t re­ally know any col­lege grad­u­ates other than my teach­ers. I thought, maybe I’ll teach, and if I didn’t teach, maybe I’ll go work in the prison. I had no sense of what kind of av­enues might open up. In my ig­no­rance, though, that meant I was ma­jor­ing in fine arts, and I was tak­ing writ­ing. I’ve al­ways had a sense of mov­ing into spa­ces where I felt a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. Whether that’s a black bar­ber­shop, or work­ing as a temp in an of­fice, or work­ing in a ware­house, I al­ways felt there was no­body in that space like me. So I just ac­cepted that. Every­body has their own weird thing, and mine is that I like books. Ev­ery time I tried to bring it up with my friends, they were like, “Man, what are you talk­ing about?” I didn’t ex­pect ev­ery­one to want to talk to me about it. So I just ac­cepted that. When I got in, the joy of col­lege was my teach­ers. I knew I could talk to this pro­fes­sor about Faulkner be­cause he was teach­ing it. Or Toni Mor­ri­son. I’d al­ready read their books, but now I had some­body to talk to.

JW: When you went to Coker Col­lege, you went for vis­ual arts. I think I read some­where that you only took one cre­ative writ­ing course.

TH: Right, In­tro to Cre­ative Writ­ing. It was with a pro­fes­sor who was the first per­son to say to me, “This is some­thing you could do.” He has passed away now, but he was a good friend. He was the type of pro­fes­sor whose house you’d visit, and all my fam­ily had met him be­fore he passed. His name was Jack French, and he ac­tu­ally called up Maya An­gelou for me when he was try­ing to con­vince me that I could do this. He had been in Viet­nam, and I think he worked as one of JFK’S speech­writ­ers or some­thing like that, but he had left all of that and had this big horse farm in Cam­den. He was a Yan­kee and he was gen­er­ally bored

and im­pa­tient with ev­ery­thing about the South, but he liked me and he thought I was spe­cial. It was my first time hear­ing it. I al­ways thought I wasn’t that much dif­fer­ent from any­body else.

JW: How did you end up at Pitt for grad school?

TH: I’d ma­jored in fine arts, and I’d been en­cour­aged as a painter for a long time, since third grade when I started in the art club, so I al­ways thought that was some­thing I could do. I could just write a poem for the fun of it, but I’d spent all this time as a painter, and my art teacher, who’s also passed away now, Kim Chalmers, cer­tainly en­cour­aged me. He was very di­rect about what he thought my po­ten­tial was. But when the time came and I looked at stu­dio arts, I couldn’t af­ford it. In my last year, I had done a se­ries of paint­ings on ceil­ing tiles. The rea­son I used them is be­cause I could get a big box of tiles for like five dol­lars. In that box, there were twelve twelve-by-twelve tiles, and once I put some gesso on one—it was smooth, and I could paint on it. Then I stood them up, and I had a grid of im­ages. They all had faces of or­anges in them and a bunch of other stuff. It was be­cause I couldn’t af­ford a twelve-by-twelve can­vas for each of the pieces. So I re­ally could not af­ford to do the kind of art I wanted to do in grad­u­ate school. Even though I had not done that much po­etry, it seemed cheaper. Then when I got a fel­low­ship to the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh, it re­ally seemed cheaper. An­other one of my English teach­ers had gone to Pitt in the six­ties, and he talked to Toi Der­ri­cotte, and she talked to me and told me to ap­ply. Then Toi, it just so hap­pened, was read­ing in South Carolina around the time I was think­ing, “Can I re­ally do this?” and I went to the read­ing and met her, and I de­cided I was go­ing to. Which is re­ally lucky. I also thought, if it didn’t work, I could just go back home and get a job there. I think that’s a work­ing-class outlook: if it didn’t look like it was for me, if I felt in the work­shop the way I felt in the bar­ber shop, I could just go home and work. I would do what ev­ery­one else does. When I’d go home, all they said was, “Why are you still go­ing to school?” And I would say, “You’re not pay­ing for it.” Most of the time, I was go­ing to leave. Then it was three years, and I was done.

JW: What was it like when you were in grad school? You ob­vi­ously did OK, but how did it go in the pro­gram?

TH: I was a self-starter, be­cause I had been writ­ing for so long, re­ally only show­ing it oc­ca­sion­ally to my pro­fes­sor and some­times a room-

mate. But I had got­ten into a habit of work­ing as long as I wanted to on my po­ems. I didn’t write a lot of po­ems as an un­der­grad, but I was al­ways work­ing on them. I read “To Au­tumn” by Keats, and I was like, “This is blow­ing my mind! It’s so erotic!” And then for the next year, I was work­ing on a poem that was to­tally a Keats imi­ta­tion. Be­cause I wasn’t in a class and didn’t have to turn it in at the end of the week and re­vise it and turn it in again in a port­fo­lio at the end of the se­mes­ter, I could just work. I had an­other poem about my fa­ther work­ing in the yard called “The Earth God,” and I worked on it for about two years. Both of them were in the packet I sent to get into Pitt. I also sent in sto­ries—it was an MFA in cre­ative writ­ing, not just po­etry, and I didn’t know they had dif­fer­ent sects. The chal­lenge for me in grad school was other peo­ple’s time­lines. I thought, “Wow, a poem a week?” Even now, I re­ally don’t show peo­ple stuff when I’m work­ing on it. I’d rather take a year to fig­ure it out than have you tell me in five min­utes what’s wrong with it. I have to trust my own per­cep­tion as op­posed to wait­ing for some­one to tell you how to fix it, which is what hap­pens in an MFA pro­gram. I was in a space where peo­ple had read lots, and I felt like I had to go to the li­brary and read ev­ery­thing in it. In fact, I tried to do that, all the con­tem­po­rary po­etry books and the books on the Pitt Press, be­cause I as­sumed that every­body else had. Of course I was wrong, but it’s be­come a prac­tice that I’m still try­ing to read as much as I can. Espe­cially in po­etry, al­though the joys are when it’s not po­etry. But the big chal­lenge was other peo­ple try­ing to tell me how to fix the po­ems.

JW: One com­plaint about cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams is that they rou­tinize the process and pro­duce cookie-cut­ter writ­ing, but the univer­sity also al­lows a lot of peo­ple to write and do things like that.

TH: One thing that peo­ple say is that we’re cre­at­ing ro­bots, and stu­dents are just writ­ing the same po­ems. But I’d say that’s al­ways been true. When peo­ple read Sylvia Plath, ev­ery­one wanted to write con­fes­sional po­ems. There have al­ways been medi­ocre poets and a large num­ber do­ing the same thing. I don’t think the num­ber in­creases or de­creases the po­ten­tial for find­ing real bril­liance in the pool. If we’re talk­ing about class, the peo­ple who could sur­vive as poets be­fore were peo­ple who were wealthy al­ready. That’s Wal­lace Stevens or T.S. Eliot, so the model for the poet who lives as a poet would pri­mar­ily be rich white dudes. On the other hand, it’s ro­man­tic to as­sume that you’re go­ing to be poor. Are those our only op­tions? Ei­ther you’ve been

born into wealth, or you’re down-and-out in the gut­ter, like Charles Bukowski, do­ing ter­ri­ble jobs? Both of those are equally ro­man­tic and equally prob­lem­atic. What we can say now is that at least there are more peo­ple with op­por­tu­ni­ties. Peo­ple can come and sit around and talk about work. The prob­lem is what to do with them af­ter that, if they can’t get a job teach­ing?

JW: It’s hard to get around the ques­tion of jobs and the shrink­age of the aca­demic pro­fes­sion. How do you see that af­fect­ing cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams?

TH: The thing that I ap­pre­ci­ate with an un­der­grad is the free­dom of writ­ing and not con­nect­ing that to pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tions. Some of them want that, but they don’t know what it looks like or know enough about the tem­plate for becoming a suc­cess­ful writer, so they wind up writ­ing re­ally in­ter­est­ing things all the time. On the other side, a grad­u­ate student is so close to the pro­fes­sional world that they can’t help but have those things in­flu­ence them. What you find with the typ­i­cal grad student, even on the first day, is they’re think­ing about books and con­cepts. I don’t work like that, and I don’t think that’s the best way to open up one’s cre­ativ­ity, so I’m telling them that I’ve got­ten here by just keep­ing my nose an inch from the page. And you can’t force any­body to ac­cept your art; you can’t make peo­ple take the food that you’re giv­ing them. My ap­proach to life and my work is not strat­egy. I’m some­one who wants to ex­per­i­ment and play and see what hap­pens, be­cause it’ll be new no mat­ter what it is, which is prob­a­bly why I can’t write a novel. I think a nov­el­ist has to be a strate­gist of sorts and think “this is the gen­eral struc­ture I’m work­ing out.” That in­forms my teach­ing, too, and that could be a prob­lem for an MFA student or a young poet who wants a strat­egy and says, “Tell me how to be­come a suc­cess­ful writer.” I’d say, “I be­lieve in experimenting, and some ex­per­i­ments suc­ceed, and some fail.” Peo­ple from the out­side some­times look at me and look at how things are go­ing, and they say, “You were very strate­gic. How did you get here? How did you win this?” And I say, “I didn’t pre­dict any of this.” With each book, I think ev­ery poem is the last poem, ev­ery book is the last book. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think I’m en­ti­tled to any­thing or that I can con­trol very much.

JW: There are more than four hun­dred cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams in the United States. There are no doubt dif­fer­ent kinds of pro­grams, but what do you think makes a good pro­gram, and what makes a bad pro­gram?

TH: Flex­i­bil­ity is what makes a good pro­gram. The univer­sity space should be, ide­ally, a fluid space, but in­stead we of­ten en­counter peo­ple say­ing, “This is at the top of the pyra­mid, and ev­ery­thing else is be­neath it.” I think that a good pro­gram val­ues Lan­guage poets the same way they value Black Arts poets and con­fes­sional poets. You can in­sert any­thing in that but cer­tainly flu­id­ity in terms of fac­ulty and aes­thet­ics. It’s im­por­tant that new things can show up, as op­posed to things that shut doors and seg­re­gate peo­ple. Re­spond­ing to the per­son in front of you and their po­ten­tial and in­ter­ests, and chal­leng­ing those po­ten­tials and in­ter­ests, seem to me bench­marks for a pro­gram. But stu­dents of­ten don’t want that; they want a strat­egy for how to make it in the academy. If you’re just try­ing to make art, no­body has to buy what you do, and the world doesn’t need it, so I try to tell them to re­lax. You have to be adapt­able. Could you run a press? Could you do com­mu­nity work­shops? Could you be a high school English teacher? Could you get a job for a com­pany us­ing your skills with lan­guage? When you look at all of the MFA pro­grams, very few of­fer al­ter­na­tives other than look­ing for an aca­demic job, but I say to folks all the time, “It is not your only op­tion.”

JW: What makes for a good work­shop?

TH: Most work­shops are set up around strat­egy, but they’re not set up around fail­ure. You work on the poem, you bring it in, and peo­ple say this is wrong, here’s a strat­egy on how to fix it. My skep­ti­cism around strat­egy is that it doesn’t have room for fail­ure. So an ex­per­i­men­tal work­shop asks, “Why were you try­ing to do this? Maybe you’ll try this?” And maybe we’ll gen­er­ate po­ems that aren’t done or fin­ished, but at least we’ve made some­thing new. That is what I value in a work­shop. I’ve re­al­ized that my stu­dents def­i­nitely need to be praised and en­cour­aged, but my method goes back, again, to the way I write my own po­ems. I just want to be writ­ing, and I don’t care that much if you say you love it or you hate it. My de­fault an­swer to just about ev­ery­thing in the world is, “Man, I’m just go­ing to go write a poem.” When things get rough, whether it’s grad­ing student pa­pers or pay­ing the bills or a fight with my wife, my de­fault an­swer is to write a poem and just for­get about all of it. That’s my at­ti­tude in the work­shop, too. The chal­lenge is to con­vince stu­dents that that’s vi­able.

JW: Col­lege was piv­otal for you, and you work in a univer­sity. What do you think uni­ver­si­ties can do?

TH: What I think the univer­sity can do is bridge the things we’ve been dis­cussing; it can bridge James Joyce and Fu­ture. But you have to know what kids are re­spond­ing to. The univer­sity seems to be fairly fixed and sta­ble, where James Joyce is more im­por­tant than “Fuck Up Some Com­mas.” But for me, the univer­sity is as fluid and as re­spon­sive as the cul­ture is. I think what young folks re­coil from is when they show up and say, “I was just lis­ten­ing to some­thing in­ter­est­ing,” or “I just saw some­thing in­ter­est­ing on my Twit­ter feed,” and older folks say that’s not im­por­tant. My sense is that the syn­the­sis is what the univer­sity can do. It can syn­the­size his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge and re­search and con­tex­tu­al­ize those things, be­cause it’s hap­pen­ing right now. Stu­dents should be able to bring us the now, and we should be able to bring them the re­search and the his­tory, and then that mid­dle ground is what the academy is. So my def­i­ni­tion of the aca­demic re­quires a lit­tle out­side in­for­ma­tion. That means if you’re read­ing a poem that has a ref­er­ence to Ol’ Dirty Bas­tard, that’s an aca­demic poem, be­cause not every­body will know who he is, and you have to go re­search. But then there are the po­ems that are just about feel­ings and about fam­ily, and maybe you don’t have to have a dic­tionary or in­ter­net next to you. Those aren’t aca­demic po­ems. My point about the aca­demic is not about high or low, it’s just that there’s out­side in­for­ma­tion. I say to stu­dents that it’s fine to not know stuff, but you have to re­search ev­ery­thing. That’s what the academy is: know­ing how to find things you don’t know, as op­posed to “th­ese are the things you should know.” And to me, aca­demic dis­course is about mak­ing con­nec­tions and con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing.

JW: You have a sig­nif­i­cant po­si­tion now—you won the Na­tional Book Award in 2010, and you’ve won sev­eral other awards, and you got the Macarthur in 2014. Ev­ery time I’m fly­ing out of Pitts­burgh, I see your pic­ture in the air­port, with Pitt ad­ver­tis­ing, “Come study with a ge­nius.” How do you feel about your po­si­tion? On the one hand, peo­ple must want things from you. On the other hand, it has to be grat­i­fy­ing.

TH: Once your pic­ture is up at the air­port, there’s al­ways peo­ple mak­ing pro­pos­als to you about what they think your name could lend to their ven­tures. But I want it to yield some­thing for my pri­mary con­cerns: teach­ing and writ­ing po­etry. My job in the univer­sity is sim­ple: I’m a teacher. Any­thing else con­nected to that is just gravy. I did help start

the Cen­ter for African Amer­i­can Po­etry and Po­et­ics, which is im­por­tant in ar­chiv­ing po­etry, but most of my con­cerns, over eighty per­cent, go to­ward teach­ing. How can I be a bet­ter teacher? How can I make my stu­dents bet­ter equipped as writ­ers or read­ers or what­ever? For my po­etry, I haven’t had the prize that makes me feel like I’m se­cure and don’t need to write an­other good poem. I haven’t seen that prize. There are peo­ple who have achieved more than I have, like No­bel lau­re­ates in lit­er­a­ture, but still, there’s no guar­an­tee. So I op­er­ate in the long view: what­ever prize I get to­day doesn’t guar­an­tee a real legacy. My legacy is still in an up­ward arc of po­ems, so peo­ple can say, “I didn’t know he was go­ing to do that. I didn’t know a poem could do that.” I con­tin­u­ally want to make the last poem more in­ter­est­ing. I was wired that way from the out­set, as a col­lege kid with­out any con­cern with where it was go­ing to go or who was go­ing to like it. Part of that is just ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive­ness, which may be in my per­son­al­ity. That has helped me deal with the suc­cess, be­cause the suc­cess still feels very ephemeral or tem­po­rary, and it cer­tainly hasn’t helped me write po­ems. I un­der­stand that peo­ple around me think that my in­volve­ment in a new cen­ter will be a good thing, but I say, “Well, how does a Macarthur make me a bet­ter poet?” Some of the re­sources avail­able to me now al­low me to put my­self in new sit­u­a­tions, but that has never been my am­bi­tion. I’ve al­ways tried to stay very fo­cused in terms of what I need to write. A lit­tle bit of read­ing, talk­ing to some peo­ple about art and how art works—those are things I know work for ba­sic stim­u­la­tion. I could talk to my­self in a room and come up with some­thing, but I wouldn’t want to only do only that.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.