Last week the 42-year-old poet Terrance Hayes was named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow. Hayes, the author of four books of poetry, was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for his accomplished reflections “on race, gender, and family in works that seamlessly encompass both the historical and the personal and subvert canonical forms.”
Previous to the MacArthur fellowship, Hayes was the recipient of four Pushcart Prizes, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. His fourth book, Lighthead, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2010. Despite the sustained acclaim, Hayes remarks in an interview with Charles Henry Rowell in Callaloo that “awards and poetry have very little to do with one another. What it means to make art and make a living as an artist are two different things. So, you know, I get a monetary award I’m happy to have the money but I don’t mistake that for the true value of the work.”
Although Hayes’s first book, Muscular Music (1999), was published when he was just 28, Hayes came to poetry relatively late in his education. As an undergraduate at Xavier College, basketball and painting were Hayes’ passions. Yet when he considered a post-graduate career studying painting or playing basketball abroad, the 6’5″ Hayes realized that he “was tired of being coached both as an athlete and to some degree as a painter.” Poetry emerged as an alternate calling. Hayes recalls “reading Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, ‘The Mother’ one night in my college dorm room. When it made me weep, I realized no painting had ever moved me so intensely.” Hayes went on to receive an MFA at University Pittsburgh in 1997, and recently returned there as a professor of Creative Writing.
In Ploughshares magazine, Robert Casper notes that Hayes’ “poems and books follow a mainstream and not avant-garde tradition (for instance, his poems are strongly voiced and syntactically clear), yet tend toward an unpredictable or challenging or resistant way of seeing, and speaking about, what it means to be human. “Hayes’ writing does not bear a strong stylistic imprint, perhaps because he draws on so many different poetic precursors, including experimental poets. Hayes notes in his interview with Rowell,
I have very little interest in establishing a fixed style or subject matter.… I’m very interested in wearing Larry Levis on one foot and Harryette Mullen on the other. Or on another day—in another poem—Gwendolyn Brooks and Frank O’Hara. Reading provides an infinite number of shoes and paths.
In his writing, Hayes often draws on autobiography as a way to locate himself within larger historical and social forces. Explaining the title of his second book, Hip Logic (2002), Hayes remarks that “hips are the cradle of logic.…Which is to say, our understanding of the world and ourselves begins at our center and radiates outward.” A poem from that volume, “When the Neighbors Fight,” moves gracefully between African-American history and personal circumstance, as evident in the following excerpt:
To read the entire poem, see “When the Neighbors Fight” in African American Review.
Additional poetry by Terrance Hayes in JSTOR:
“Evening” in Callaloo.
“Gram of &S Bowling” in Callaloo
“Touch” in Callaloo
“Mystic Bounce” in Poetry
“New Folk” in Poetry
“Stick Elegy” in Poetry
“The Golden Shovel” in Ploughshares
“Snow for Wallace Stevens” in Harvard Review
“The Whale” in The Kenyon Review
“Wind in a Box” in The Kenyon Review