National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes to read at Dey House

Poet Terrance Hayes, who will be reading on Friday, March 3 at the Dey House in Iowa City, situates himself in a unique juggle. People tend to place things in dichotomies. Poetry is no different, pitting schools of thought against each other: confessional vs post-confessional, description vs exposition, poets of the academy vs poets of the street. Hayes writes where those dichotomies meet.

Race, pop culture and linguistics all exude from throughout his work; the lingo of the street, the South and Afrofuturism inform his voice. But at the same time he holds a full-time professorship at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received his MFA in 1997. He’s the recipient of numerous fellowships, including from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a 2014 MacArthur fellowship.

Terrance Hayes

Dey House Frank Conroy Reading Room (507 N Clinton St) — Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m.

Hayes’s fourth collection, Lighthead (Penguin Poets, 2010), which won the National Book Award in Poetry, explores the construction of identity through experience: fatherhood, contemporary African American culture and resisting his birthplace, Columbia, South Carolina. In the collection, he converges Harriet Tubman with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Wallace Stevens with PechaKucha (a rapid fire style of presentation, common in the Japanese business world).

How to be Drawn (Penguin Poets, 2015), Hayes’s most recent collection, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. The poems within feature charts, lists and maps, which hint at his return to visual arts — he studied painting as an undergraduate. How to be Drawn blends written and visual arts to embody the ways in which we as humans are made legible.

Hayes’s work over five collections of poetry is constant experimentation and evolution in voice. He has developed an eye that attends to physical spaces as more than just what house us, but which couch our experiences, memories and conversations. This clairvoyance hovers in a language equally intimate and bewildering. In “New York Poem,” Hayes writes:

… On a Chinatown rooftop
in New York anything can happen.
Someone says “abattoir” is such a pretty word
for “slaughterhouse.” Someone says
mermaids are just fish ladies. I am so
fucking vain I cannot believe anyone
is threatened by me …

His lines plait numerous voices of varying identities, but also dredge the nuances of power between those characters. That makes the timing of his reading all the more critical. Notwithstanding the ever-looming threats to artistic and racial identity under the Trump administration, Hayes’s reading comes at a time when writers’ workshops as institutions are under fire for inclusiveness, or lack thereof. Many writers of color are calling out MFA creative writing programs, particularly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and their implicit whiteness.

Terrance Hayes speaks about language at CreativeMornings, Pittsburgh. — video still

Hayes, in an interview published on his website, says on the topic of politics and poetics: “Contributing to progress, to social change is very important for poets, which is to say apathy is never a useful perspective. But I also feel entering a poem with a bullhorn and soapbox is equally useless. The poet should never be the person with the saber saying, ‘Everybody let’s go this way.’ I think you participate in change with other people.”

“I’m not sure what that means for poetry,” he continues. “Poems are written in solitude; they work toward the language of intimacy, singularity. Can a poem make people charge into the streets and change everything? I don’t know if that has ever happened here, or if anyone should want that to happen. Contributing to the flow out to the street I think is as much as we can hope for.”

Hayes will read at the Frank Conroy Reading Room (507 N Clinton St) at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 3. The event is sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is free to the public.

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