Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock

Meg E. Griffitts Interviews Terrance Hayes

In Terrance Hayes’ most recent full-length collection of poetry, How To Be Drawn, music, humor, and violence all work simultaneously to deliver a hard-hitting balance of language and breath. Hayes’ insistence on the convergence of music and poetry are convincing in their ability to spotlight the speaker’s suffering while maintaining the sonic brilliance Hayes is known for. His work is hungry, and we, as readers, are hungry too, for the burden of a hum.

Front Porch: Can you talk about the role of humor in your work?

Terrance Hayes: Humor is how I think of Old Dirty Bastard in that line “ooh baby I like it raw,” which there are all kinds of problems with that notion, but he is a tragic figure that happens to be a hoot. That’s true for Richard Pryor too. I see the two of them [linked] pretty closely together, and there are polarities in terms of emotional intensity—laughing, crying, anger—any sharp action to me is of value when it comes to art. Art is always trying to deal with the soft edges or the blurs around things. I don’t set out to be humorous per se. Someone had to tell me when I was 25 that I was funny, but I hadn’t thought growing up that I was especially funny. I think I’m just reaching for feeling, which in my first poem of How To Be Drawn is in the line “I don’t like Duke Ellington at a birthday party.” I’m just going for feeling… It’s not an anticipated humor. I can’t sit down and write jokes, but those moments sort of arise.

FP: Is there anything you used to believe (perhaps when you first started writing poetry) you wouldn’t or couldn’t do in your own work?

TP: That’s an interesting question. I think I thought when I was younger that I would figure out a kind of a style and I think someone who I like—Lucille Clifton or even Billy Collins—who’s fun to hang out with and go shopping with, and that’s part of the ease those writers have. I thought when I was younger, [that] after a couple of books, I’d know what my style is. When I was a grad student, I thought I’d have plenty of time to be an apprentice and experiment, and I still feel that way. Maybe other people look at [my work] and they can say “oh that’s a Terrance Hayes’ poem,” but as soon as I can identify it, I’m already trying to figure out how to do something different.

FP: In your poem “My Life as a Hummer,” one of the (many) lines that struck me, because of how it articulated a lot of the concerns of How To Be Drawn, was “whatever cannot be said / when being suffocated / can be hummed fairly easily.” Can you speak about the relationship in your work between music and violence?

TH: Music and expression—if we think of violence as a kind of expression—I can answer that—which is how to say a thing without [explicitly] saying it, which is how I think about metaphor. To never say what a thing is, but just what it’s like, which is why [in] “Wigphrastic” [the line], “if you like like like I like like you should wear a hair piece.” [Writers] should fully embrace the idea of persona, of never being fully who you are, or almost who you are. Persona is one of the ideas that run[s] throughout the book—[but] returning to the correlation between music and expression—a hum can suggest the tenor of that experience, the sadness, or the joy.

FP: Which non-poets inspire you?

Roberto Bolaño is great. He’s endlessly interesting—The Savage Detective—and he’s got this interesting collection of posthumously published short stories, The Return. And for similar reasons, Denis Johnson. I am fairly real-time in my thinking, so the answer will probably be different tomorrow. Two days ago, I was thinking about their writing because it’s so naturally slanted. I’d never read Bolaño thinking, “is he really smoking weed when he’s writing these pieces?” But what’s interesting about that whole group is what I would call “the slant.” I’m generally drawn to work that feels even a bit looser than I think of my own writing—certainly with prose—but when it comes to poems—David Berman in Actual Air, [Robert] Bly, Dickinson, Stevens, and Jean Toomer. Outside of poetry though, what I’m drawn to is something a little bit off about the work, a bit rough around the edges, not too neat. My man on the regular though has been Bolaño.

FP: Music is such a formidable presence in your work in terms of rhythm, content, and form so I have to ask: what’s the last song you listened to?

TH: I was listening to The Swans. I’ve been listening to them all morning… I was also listening to—because I organize my library in S’s—Sleeford Mods’ “Divide and Exit.” I was actually making a playlist for Tony Hoagland, whose birthday is the day after mine. I haven’t heard back from him, but there’s some really weird stuff on it too.


—Meg E. Griffitts


Terrance Hayes is the author of Lighthead (Penguin 2010), winner of the 2010 National Book Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other books are Wind In a Box (Penguin 2006), Hip Logic (Penguin 2002), and Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999). His honors include a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a United States Artists Zell Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. How To Be Drawn (Penguin 2015), his most recent collection of poems, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.