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Poet Terrance Hayes holds a mirror to history, headlines and himself in 'So To Speak'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The poet Terrance Hayes writes words that make it feel like he is holding up a mirror - to himself, to daily news headlines, to history. Hayes is a National Book Award winner, also winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant and author of a new collection of poems just out. It is titled, "So To Speak." Terrance Hayes, so good to have you with us.

TERRANCE HAYES: Very happy to be here. Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Yeah. So when you hold up this mirror - and I don't know if that's the way it feels to you, but that was the way it felt to me reading these. You hold up this mirror, and then the reflections are refracting and intertwining and double back on each other. There was one poem that, just reading it silently by myself on the page, I really felt this, and it's a poem about George Floyd. Tell me what was going on in your head as you wrote it, and then I'm going to let people listen to you read it.

HAYES: Well, the idea of the mirror is interesting because I do think that my basic approach to poetry is to maintain some sort of practice, with a few exercises thrown in there to disrupt that practice. So even on this day, you know, I was at my writing table in my office with my window up, and the marchers were on their way to Washington Square to protest the death of George Floyd. And my first...

KELLY: So this was right after he'd died. OK.

HAYES: Yes, it was the very first gathering.

KELLY: OK.

HAYES: And my first impulse - to go to this idea of mirrors and practice - was to put my window down so I could see the very beginning of the crowds. And I did not go. I put my window down and went and continued to try to write. But of course, after even 30 minutes, it was thousands of people. And so I left. I went to join them. There was nothing. You know, people were pulling their phones out. I'm looking for things to say. And of course, I was in the middle of writing, so I didn't have anything to say either.

KELLY: Yeah.

HAYES: And then I went back to my desk and resumed my practice, and this is what came out.

"George Floyd."

(Reading) You can be a bother who dyes his hair Dennis Rodman blue in the face of the man kneeling in blue in the face. The music of his wrist, watch your mouth, is little more than a door being knocked. Out of the ring of fire, around the afternoon, came evening's bell of the ball and chain around the neck of the unarmed brother being ground down to gunpowder. Dirt can be inhaled like a puff. The magic bullet point of transformation both kills and fires the life of the party like it's 1999 bottles of beer on the Wall Street. People who sleep on the streets do not sleep without counting yourself lucky, rabbit's foot of the mountain, lion, do not sleep without making your bed of the riverboat gambling. There will be no stormy weather on the water. Bored to death, any means of killing time is on your side, of the bed, of the truck, transporting Emmett till the break of day, Emmett till the river runs. Dry your face, the music of the spheres, Emmett till the end of time.

KELLY: Terrance Hayes, I'm listening to you read that, and I - what is going through my head is you're writing about something deadly serious, really sad, and you're having so much fun with the language. Do I have that right?

HAYES: I mean, I guess you would call it fun or just a kind of engagement, you know? If I go back to the idea of a practice, I don't even think those kinds of adjectives - like good or bad, failure or success - matter if you're just trying to be in that practice. So yeah, I think fun, grief, ecstasy, anguish, anxiety.

KELLY: So let's talk sonnets. I have never met you in person, but reading your work and reading some interviews you've given in past, you don't strike me as a guy who enjoys being constrained by a bunch of rules. Sonnets have rules - 14 lines - can't be 13, can't be 15. Why limit yourself that way?

HAYES: Well, I do like bending rules, so I'm very aware. And I say in my teaching to my students about bending the rules so that we know that there was a rule to be broken. Otherwise, it's anarchy. For me, in the sonnet form, it's that volta - the idea that you're going to have to change your mind at some point if you know sort of psychologically how the sonnet's set up. So I think about that as an American. You know, we would never have just one volta 'cause, for us, it's just going to be constant changes - from Black presidents to whatever follows Black presidents, from crazy weather to beautiful weather - you know, just turn - constantly a kind of turning is how I think of the volta in an American sonnet.

KELLY: Yeah. Let's hear one of them. You have "American Sonnet For My Grandfather's Love Child." Would you read that?

HAYES: Sure. Yeah. So, you know, maybe this is the first time I've also tried to do some overlapping with forms, and so I'm really trying to get away from these sonnets. And so even here...

KELLY: You didn't succeed.

HAYES: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: There's a few of them in here (laughter).

HAYES: So, you know, I'm turning to different ideas. So this one's probably more personal if I think that the American sonnets in the collection were directly coming out of...

KELLY: Yeah.

HAYES: ...You know, political context.

KELLY: OK.

HAYES: So this one's called, yes, "American Sonnet For My Grandfather's Love Child."

(Reading) You take a tree where all the blackbirds are sleeping except for the one clapping its wings. That's the kind of woman who raised me. My mother changed her name to daughter, then to sister, then back to mother again. Three times, she parked outside her wretched father's house undertaking a melancholy kind of karaoke. She can't sing, really. She's ashamed of her teeth. But she pretended an emcee was saying, give her a hand, when she finished. I wasn't there, but I bet she jangled her car keys as if she was offering a small girl a ride to the beach, to the oceanside, to the water a girl becomes to survive, and the soft applause washing ashore when she retreats. To love her, I had to love the night curling up around me. I woke up surprised whether she was coming or going.

KELLY: So the title again, "American Sonnet For My Grandfather's Love Child." Tell us what's going on here.

HAYES: If I could say anything about these poems - you know, I recently went home. I get home maybe once or twice a year.

KELLY: Where's home?

HAYES: South Carolina. And I just packed one or two books to give to the one or two friends in the South who know that I write. So as soon as I sat down with my bags and opened them, these books fell out. And my mother grabbed the poems, and my dad grabbed the other book. And I just started sweating.

KELLY: Yeah.

HAYES: And I thought about this poem. And the line that I most was concerned about was, she's ashamed of her teeth. So I will say, yes, I - this is something like a confessional poem. It's something like reconciling what it meant to think of my mother as a young woman who had me when she was 16, but also saying I'm not necessarily interested in talking to her about it, you know? So I'm like, oh, y'all give me these books back. Just give me these books back...

KELLY: (Laughter).

HAYES: ...Which they did. And we didn't mention it again. I said, I'll mail them to you when I get home.

KELLY: Has she read this poem then?

HAYES: Oh, no. No. They don't read any of it. That's what I'm saying to you. I - they may hear this on NPR, and then I'll have to...

KELLY: Then you're going to have to...

HAYES: ...Come up with some explanation.

KELLY: Some explaining to do.

HAYES: Yeah, that's what I thought when you asked for that poem.

KELLY: I mean, there is a lovely image in here of your mother as a - the clapping blackbird. Where did that come from?

HAYES: Well, you know, in the previous sonnets, there's a poem in there talking about my mother as a kind of bird, free within this cage, and my father as this kind of bull, very stoic inside of a stall. And I do - I knew I think of them in - as that way. I did grow up in the South, and bulls and horses and cows and any kind of thing you could think about, you know, in terms of the natural environment, sometimes will show up in the poems. And it just so happens I do think of my mother as a kind of blackbird image.

KELLY: The poet Terrance Hayes. His new collection is called "So To Speak." Thank you so much. This has been a total pleasure.

HAYES: Thank you. It's been great.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOOLA GANG TEEROY SONG, "F-TOWN BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.