'I Think of Metaphor as a Gesture of Empathy': An Interview with Terrance Hayes

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

Terrance Hayes likes to describe his background as ‘very American’. His mother, who works as a prison guard, had him when she was 16. He grew up in South Carolina, before attending Coker College on a basketball scholarship. It was there that he started writing poems. In 2014 he was awarded a McArthur Fellowship and in 2018 he was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. I was able to meet Hayes when he was promoting his book American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, a keenly insistent sequence penned in the news-scream fever-dream which followed the 2016 American election. We chatted in the corridor of his hotel, while he ate a croissant. Later that same week, I was also lucky enough to see him in conversation with Sarah Churchwell as part of the Southbank Literature Festival, where he elaborated on his choice of form: ‘Sonnets have love in them, which makes them a great form in which to talk about someone trying to kill you. One thing that appealed to me was the notion of the volta, the sudden turn. How do you go from Obama to Trump? Volta, volta, volta!’ In this book’s examination of America and its many assassins, Hayes’s modus operandi is to be unrelenting in his ‘posing of poets’ questions to history’; we discuss some of them here.

A lot of the reception of your sonnets has been in the self-exclaimed context of art that is of the Trump era. How do you feel about having it received in such a way?

What I have been doing lately is talking about Wanda Coleman, had been writing these ‘American sonnets’ over many years. She wanted to be a writer and it never quite worked out - she published a lot but never got to where I am. By default she writes what is maybe not a political, but a very tense, kind of poem. What I’ve been doing is trying to put that on the table as a writerly response to where the sonnets come from, next to the political or social response – which is Trump. There’s a third rung in that I had also just ended a marriage. That fall [2016] was my first fall in New York, so the Orpheus stuff in the poems or the lovers stuff that comes up sometimes is purely thinking about the sonnet form accounting for love and heartache. I slide that under the table because it’s true, I don’t just want them to be reduced. Even in the political sense, it’s not just about Trump. It’s about race, gender, masculinity – all of which hover around the political impetus for the script.

Specifically in the African American context, I find it quite worrying when people see Trump as the cause and not the symptom. I see in your sonnets a lot that stretches further back than just his presidency. It’s quite limiting to receive them as something that you started writing in November, but they have much deeper roots.

Politics is never going to be my main through line. I am just a person trying to write. Obviously something as loud as that election and the trauma that that will have. To me, that was part of the trick of it being the same title throughout the manuscript. Some days it was going to be very directly engaged with that noise and other days not. That was a very freeing element to the manuscript. So I am not offended when people come and ask specifically about race, or specifically about Trump. But I am also a person who writes every day, and in this environment that’s going to show up sometimes. It is a trigger, but I didn’t want to only write about Trump every day. I was glad some days when it wasn’t about him, even though the noise in the news was in my ear.

I would like to turn now to the poems that are more personal. As you say, they share the same title all through the sequence and they abut the more political ones.You are engaging with Wanda Coleman’s definition of a sonnet, but also the Early Modern notion of a sonnet sequence. Sonnets are often for loved ones and they follow a distinct emotional arc. In what ways are you engaging with or flouting those conventions?

What I was really interested in was the notion of ‘American’. What is American about the American sonnet? We know about Italian sonnets and Shakespearean sonnets – I went into it without a definition, and with a license to be more political and shifty and restless, exploratory. And they are not African American sonnets. You probably won’t meet anyone more American than me, and it’s not about power, it’s about my story. I was raised by a woman who had me when she was 16. My stepfather is a military dude. It is a very different notion than Trump’s notion.

The sonnet is a good place for me to say ‘You know, I think I have a better sense of what American is, a sort of lack of stability, and what that does creatively.’ What is an American sonnet? It is part meat-grinder, part music box. It’s part a place to be secure but also a place that is under siege and on fire, a panic room in a little house set aflame. It is not enough to love notions of America, but it is also not enough to want it destroyed. To be an extreme patriot – that’s also not enough.

Some days it was the notion of the sonnet. Some days it’s about time. Some days it’s about the assassin, whether or not that’s in the mirror or history or other people. The whole thing gave me a lot of room to negotiate those things. Certainly one of the most liberating things was that adjective, American.

You’re an educator, and you have talked before about the university’s responsibility is to engage with the culture that its students are bringing in. In your poetry you also yourself bridge lots of frames of reference. Can you expand on universities’ need to move in real time with the culture?

There’s two things. I tend to remember a lot of stuff and watch TV, have the radio on – you know, my mind is naturally into multitasking. But I actually think that what’s an academic is. An academic means that you need a little bit of extra outside information when you’re engaging with the text, which floats at the edges. Pop culture is under the umbrella. Generally, what happens with allusions – regardless of where they register – is an academic gesture. I am a lifelong nerd and I do love teaching in that regard, because you can go everywhere.

It’s the simultaneity of different registers that I like in your work.

Yeah, and that’s what metaphor does. Metaphor is a bridge. You know in ‘My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun’, you’ve got so much. You’ve got the sun – they’re not really like the sun but the sun is still invoked, and wow, are her eyes like that. I think of metaphor as a gesture of empathy. The metaphor is always reaching to connect to something else. And I talk like that, which can be terrible. It is a figurative gesture which allows poems to be everything else in terms of language. I find that superb, super-freeing.

Your use of jokes as well is very exciting. Jokes and metaphors operate in very similar ways in that you laugh because you’re surprised that a connection has been made between two seemingly disparate things.

Yes. And you know it’s interesting to be a teacher/academic with certain ideas because sometimes I’m trying to teach my own sensibility to people and on others I’m wondering how much I’m teaching a useful philosophy. It just depends on the day that I wake up. Somedays I think this is what I believe and this is the only way that I know how to teach. Other days I think this is the way I am striving to be and I think you should strive to be it as a poet. Is it just me that wants jokes, or is it useful as a mechanism for teaching and writing? I think second. I mostly think it’s a useful way to be in the world.

We just touched on this a little bit, but there is a freneticism in your lyricism which I recognise from the work of other figures of African American writing, like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison and Baldwin. And Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets engage with jazz and look towards those traditions. Does this sort of observation bother you? Do you feel limited by it?

No! Again, this would be the notion of metaphor. I’m friends with Ta-Nehisi and we had a conversation about the N-word and whether people can use it. I said ‘Yes! Use it well’. So I just don’t make those kinds of hard fast rules. As a poet and as someone who is engaged with what metaphor does, I feel like I have to be open to everything. So yeah – black poet, Southern poet, tall poet. All those adjectives are fine with me so long as we’re not resting on one. None of those labels bother me. I am thinking now whether I would ever use the word ‘offended’. I’m a person that is pretty hard to offend. I’m hard to offend and I don’t take offence at any adjectives. The noun is where it’s at! And the verb. Adjectives are seasoning, not things that bother me.

You’ve eschewed Twitter. There’s a lot of discussion on the various registers of the internet and how all its various verbal tics are impacting literary language. What are the aspects of internet speech that you would like to see infiltrating literary language?

The thing about Twitter for me – and Facebook too, I don’t do that either – is that it’s hard to genuinely have a real communication. It’s hard to believe in a mutual conversation. It’s a sensibility that maybe becomes a philosophy but is rooted in my saying ‘My words are just too valuable’. I can’t imagine just throwing words into the universe every day, because I need all of those words! I don’t have that many of them.

That’s very interesting because I think your engagement with purposefully restrictive forms and the freneticism – the internet is a very frenetic place, and you’re dispensing of it.

Exactly. But because of my personality, it would be either all or nothing. I’m sort of like that with emails, when I get around to them. I am normally working on sentences for a long time and I probably take emails too seriously sometimes. If language is being written, it always needs to have a shape. So I will put that energy into my poems where it belongs – and into my real relationships.

How has your reception in the UK differed from your reception in the US?

I’ve always been curious about contemporary poetry in the UK. Who are y’all reading? I bought a book of John Burnside’s when I was in my twenties, and it was the first time I had bought a book of poems by a living poet in the UK. I am interested in the fullness of your reading poetry life here. You know about me, so that means something. But who else are you reading? And it’s true, the internet does make the notion of global poetry more tangible. People putting music in, and pop culture – not necessarily people obliged to tradition and history in the way that a lot of poets – and I think Americans generally think that about the UK, that there’s a huge literary history that makes it hard. Where are the other people who are committed to poetry? It’s a sacred language. My first loyalty is to the poem. I hope you’re all still working.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is published by Penguin.