Published: December 11th, 2014
Terrance Hayes is an accomplished American poet. In 2010, he was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. Other accolades include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Writers Award, and was the guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2014 anthology. He has four collections of poetry and has taught creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and, currently, the University of Pittsburgh.
Howl: What is your writing and editing process like?
Hayes: My usual process is writing every night and editing mostly during the day. But this past year I have been writing essays. That requires work during daylight.
Howl: As a guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2014, where do you see poetry heading in this country? Trends? Common themes? Styles?
Hayes: That's a big question. I hope the BAP 2014 suggests an answer. The interview, by the way, is imaginary. Dr. Charles Kinbote is a fictional character from Pale Fire, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Kinbote is obsessed with John Shade, a poet neighbor who Kinbote may have murdered.
Howl: Between Twitter, Facebook, and everything in between, some might say that attention spans are shriveling. It might pose a challenge for longer pieces of prose, but what do you think about readers of poetry in the 21st century?
Hayes: Poetry and painting and certain styles of music have always been at the fringes of American culture. I invoked Charles Kinbote in my intro to suggest poetry survives/thrives because of the passionate few who read and write it. I prefer "a passionate few" to a "fickle many." Two or three close, caring readers are better than a fleet of skimmers.
Howl: Who were your literary influences and why?
Hayes: Also huge question. The library is my primary influence. Then music stores, museums – anywhere that houses arts and artists is an influence.
Howl: How might you advise a new reader of poetry to delve into the medium given its oftentimes difficult-to-grasp reputation?
Hayes: I'd advise a new reader to read poetry with the same openness he or she has listening to jazz or classical music or Lil Wayne. A new reader should not read poems the way he or she reads the newspaper – for passive reception of information. He/She should be an actively "imaginative reader." Robert Frost says one should listen to a poem as if through a door – the connotative sounds more than the denotative words will suggest the sense.
Howl: Why poetry as your creative medium of choice?
Hayes: Because language can do anything in the right shape/context. Poetry is shapely language. It can imitate newspaper info, novel narrative, painting imagery, music's music, and more.
Howl: You also talk about “hot spots” in a poem as the “focal point that both anchors and charges it.” From where do you think those hot spots originate in the poet’s writing process?
Hayes: Always somewhere different. Each poem is as new and different as a new child is to a parent. So you have to wait to figure the poem's character and heat during the process. Sometimes revision is mostly a matter of feeling for the heat.
Howl: In the anthology, you created “centos” or poems derived from the hot spots of poems you collected. If a hot spot is a kind of climax of a poem, don’t you think that creating poems entirely out of hot spots might diminish the overall effect, perhaps desensitizing the reader from the hidden discoveries of these hot spots within each poem?
Hayes: Great question. I think the ambition is to make every poem all heat. But it's impossible and maybe contrary to a definition of structure and rhythm – elements that are distinguished by contrast, context, and movement. I hope the centos show a reader the role structure and context play in poetry.
Howl: Despite the ever-changing nature of society throughout the centuries, people never seem to tire of reading “good” poetry. Why do you think we have this seemingly intrinsic relationship with this literary form?
Hayes: Everyone has an intrinsic relationship with language. Poetry (good as well as bad) gives shape to language (good as well as bad).
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Hayes: To write. It's hard work. Only do if if you can't help yourself.