Poet Terrance Hayes and clarinetist Anthony McGill have been resolute in pursuit of their destinies.
Terrance Hayes is an esteemed poet known for his honest and clear-eyed treatment of masculinity, race, music, and the modern world.
Born in 1971 in Columbia, SC, Hayes earned a BA at nearby Coker College and an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. His first poetry collection, Muscular Music (1999), won a prestigious Whiting Award. Among his other accolades, he received a National Book Award for Lighthead (2010), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
Hayes’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and other renowned publications. Selections from his sixth collection of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), formed Cycles of My Being, an operatic song cycle commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Carnegie Hall.
Hayes is a professor of creative writing at New York University.
A celebrated classical musician, Anthony McGill is the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic—the first African American principal player in the organization’s history. He won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2020.
Born in Chicago in 1979, McGill studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He joined Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as principal clarinetist in 2000, the same year he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant for promising young musicians. From 2004 to 2014 he was principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera; he has played with the NY Philharmonic since 2014. McGill has also appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras around the world, and played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He teaches clarinet at The Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.
In 2020, McGill received national attention beyond the world of classical music for his project #TakeTwoKnees, a musical protest video in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. And on this episode, “Singular Purpose.” Poet Terrance Hayes has been hailed for his fearlessness in pushing the boundaries of convention. But in life he’s learned to practice caution.
Terrance Hayes: I’m a kind of person who’ll maybe do nine miles over the speed limit, but not 10. You know, like I’ll bend the rules as far as I can, but breaking it is like anarchy.
And it took Anthony McGill five attempts to become principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. Failure for him was never an option.
Anthony McGill: There are a lot of people that don’t want you to succeed. The worst thing you could possibly do is believe them.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Terrance Hayes wears two wristwatches. He’s obsessed with time and how to make the most of it.
Terrance Hayes: If someone told you you had a definitive 20 years versus like, maybe you’ll die anytime, which would be more frightening? So for me to like, say, “What will I do if I just have 20 more years?” That’s not that much time, but I would rather think about it like that.
Hayes’ desire to control the uncontrollable comes from living in what he describes as a land of assassins.
Hayes: I just thought like, I’ll never see 50. I thought like a young black man in America, I thought like, I’ll be lucky if I get to 30. So when I got the 30, I was like, holy smoke. When I got the 40, I was like, well, John Coltrane died at 41, you know, MLK died at 36. I can get a lot accomplished if I think that that’s as much time as I have. You ask, you know, friends I’ve been with since the fourth grade, I’ve always been like, man, I don’t think I’m going to have very long. I never thought I would get the 50. I just thought for some reason or another…
But he did make it to 50. And he’s accomplished a lot in those years. He’s influenced his own generation of poets and the next by bending formal traditions and modeling an emotional honesty that might’ve surprised his younger self.
(Excerpt from Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin)
The subject is allowed up to twenty years
After leaving the home of his or her parents
To reconcile all but the darkest of infractions.
The deeper the wound, the more heroic
Hayes grew up in a home bound by rules. He was raised on military bases by a mother who worked as a prison guard, and from age four, a soldier stepfather. The family settled in Folkestone, South Carolina, a small black suburb of Columbia, a place where Hayes learned to live and play by the rules.
Hayes: I was always like having to engage a certain kind of like boundary. So I’m a kind of person who’ll maybe do nine miles over the speed limit, but not 10. You know, like I’ll bend the rule as far as I can, but breaking it is like anarchy. So I’ve always thought about these kinds of things. And I got that from my dad because he was very like reliable and disciplined and patient and kind.
His stepfather, James Hayes, was a good father and role model, but young Terrance felt his absence during the long stretches when he was deployed away from home.
Hayes: He was in the army. So he actually was not with us a lot. It was like, I really didn’t have a dad. I mean, from like when I was in the third grade to the eighth grade, I think he was in Alabama. And then for a long time, he was in Korea. When he went to Germany, my mother was like, “I don’t want to go to Germany, we’ll go back to South Carolina.” So it was me, my mother and my brother for that year. And then he retired pretty much when I was like 24, 22. So it was just an illusion. I mean, the best example of that is that I always thought he loved working in the yard because when he would come home, that’s what we would do. And so I have this affinity, still, for like gardening and cutting grass and these kinds of things. And maybe just a few years ago when I went back there and I was like, “Dad, you know, one of the first ones I wrote was about working in the yard with you.” And he was like, “Man, I hate working in the yard.” And I was like, “What?” I mean, this was just a couple of years ago. I must’ve been 45, no idea that he never really–
AJC: And he was doing it to be with you?
Hayes: Well, it was like, you know, my mother was like, “The yard needs to be cut. You’re never here.” I mean, he’s a man of duty. He’s a soldier. So he did everything he needed to do with the very like, without complaint. And so I always took that as patience. And I took it as like, focus. It is that, but he was like, “No, no, I, you know, I never really liked it. I don’t want to be out in the sun like that, you know?” And I was like, what? I love it. You know, because I had this idea. So that little example is very much how I think I, I had a lot of kind of things that weren’t true about a very good person. I think my brother’s the same way. So we never like pine for him. Whenever he came, he was present. So it wasn’t like I thought I didn’t really have a dad until I got older.
Together or apart, Hayes strived to follow his stepfather’s example. But as a teenager, he got into mischief.
Hayes: I did get arrested when I was 15. My brother was there. We were out, we had just gone into like a hotel and I saw a truck that was open. A U-Haul.
(Excerpt from Terrance Hayes’ Pine)
We found a pick up truck
Unlocked outside a small hotel and in its cab: trash bags
Fat with clothing and house wares, a toaster and vacuum,
Waiting to be used again by someone checked in for the night,
Maybe a runaway wife reversing her dreams, a streak
Of red wine sleeping on her tongue while elsewhere
Her husband was in the dark because he didn’t know yet:
She was gone, she was gone. For no good reason
We took the bags from the truck and propped them
Below the pine trees which, like everything in the dark,
Belonged to us. And to anyone approaching, our laughter
Must have sounded like the laughter of crows, those birds
That leave everything beneath them trampled and broken open,
Those birds dark enough to bury themselves in the dark.
But we were not crows, and we were not quiet until it was too late.
I was thrown against a tree as if I weighed less than a shadow,
A hand clutched the back of my neck as if it wasn’t a neck.
Hayes: I was the one that got caught. When they had me in the back seat and I was handcuffed and I looked up, it was South Carolina with all the pine trees. I actually could see my friend, Boomie, up at the top of the tree. He was like, so afraid, no branches. He climbed up the tree and held onto it. And nobody saw him. The cops didn’t see him, the forensic people came and cleaned everything up. But because I was bent over, I saw him and I never said anything. So the point of the story is that when they had me in the backseat, the two cops, I was like, just, I was like, “Man, I guess I can’t be a cop now, if I’m going to get arrested,” you know.
AJC: You charmed them.
Hayes: And just general conversations. I talked about my mom and my dad and yeah, they were at ease. Maybe it just comes from feeling fairly like, you know, like nobody was going to hurt me. I think people always just were maybe more intrigued, even if they were unthreatened by whatever I was, they were still intrigued, you know? But once I got north, ironically, in my twenties and I was so like, not in that space, just a dude in the city, I was shocked because obviously the story of what you would experience in the south to the north, I thought it would only be better. But I certainly got a real education, you know, about like whatever that looks like to be in my skin.
The world around him and the violence that might be waiting there felt unpredictable. Hayes began focusing on what was in his control, using his time to do what he wanted to do. Writing offered a world where he could feel free, alone.
Hayes: I think from a very early age, even in South Carolina, people thought there was something unusual about me. So my family thought it, but they sorta just was like, okay, whatever. But certainly in school, I mean my art teacher, my English teacher, my basketball coach. So I always felt like through a long period, somewhat like walled off from like real facts. No one knew that I was a poet except for like one English teacher in high school. ‘Cause it was always very secret. It was just a thing where I like to not have any other kind of like pressures on it.
Those who knew Hayes back then saw a gifted athlete and an aspiring artist, a future painter or pro ball player rather than a poet. And when Hayes left for Coker College in South Carolina, it was on a full scholarship as an All-American athlete. Writing was still his private joy, but an English professor, impressed by his poetry, encouraged him to pursue it further. So he applied for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Once there, he kept writing privately, still protecting his inner world, still counting time.
Hayes: I think my core self is probably like, you know, people aren’t going to get any of this. I feel this longing, this melancholy. So when I say to you, like my mother thinks I’m quiet and lots of my relatives are always shocked, you know, if they, if they see something like this and they see me talking, like “I’ve never had that many words with Terrance.” So I was listening and observing.
But Hayes thrived in spaces where he felt understood. The literary retreat Cave Canem was one of them, a sanctuary for Black American poets. This was where Hayes began to feel less alone in 1996.
Hayes: Certainly I’ve benefited from that space for so many reasons. Like it totally put me at ease. It made me feel that I wasn’t totally an alien or a freak of nature, which is how I’ve always felt. And sometimes, still feel like that. But that space of my guard being down, was also because it was just weird black people. Not only because there weren’t any like kind of normal threats, but because it was a very like particular, unusual, and really talented group of writers and poets, it was really important for me to see that that at that age.
There Hayes had found his people, and eventually his person, fellow poet, Yona Harvey. The two kept in touch long distance and were soon married. Children followed, daughter Ua in 1999 and a son Aaron, four years later. The couple had twin lives writing and teaching in Pittsburgh. But the more time passed, the more Hayes pressured himself to achieve. Time was of the essence. And he was achieving, writing five books of poetry and receiving widespread recognition during his tenure in Pittsburgh: the prestigious Whiting Award in 1999, the National Poetry Series in 2001, and a National Book Award in 2010.
Hayes: I’ve had success being like something like a perfectionist or being something like an obsessive with, with work. That’s why I’m always alone, ’cause I’m always like I can only think about poems. You know, my mother thinks I’m super quiet because we don’t talk about poems. So if you’re not going to get me to talk about music, poetry, you know, movies, sometimes I’m just not going to save very much. So I just find myself not having a lot of people that I want to talk to. You know what I mean?
But his success was turning him into a local celebrity with growing international acclaim. It was inviting attention he’d never fully planned for or wanted. When Hayes and Yona Harvey’s marriage ended after nearly two decades, he moved to New York City in search of anonymity. Once again, he was alone with more time for his poems.
Hayes: I’m essentially a, very much a loner. All of my relationships, my marriage, everything comes out of the fact that I’m just a person who likes to be by himself for long, long periods of time.
And while Terrance Hayes’ need for solitude and creative freedom has led to great success as a poet, there have been consequences. Despite his efforts to split his time between Pittsburgh and New York, he’s now painfully that his own son will recall the ways in which he was absent.
Hayes: And I thought like, you know, I can get there any time. You’ll certainly see any more than I saw my dad. So divorce or not, it won’t be a big deal. But I think it has been.
(Excerpt from Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin)
My problem was I’d decided to make myself
A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly.
It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.
As a poem I could show my children the man
I dreamed I was, my mother & fathers, my half
Brothers, the lovers I lost. Just morning, as a poem,
I asked myself if I was going to weep today.
Terrance Hayes has come to understand that when confronting his own wounds or those he may have caused others, the potential for discomfort is worth the emotional honesty.
Hayes: I think like, the truth is the truth. And so, you want to get to the place where it’s something you want to share, not something you want to hide. Oh, I still think like, of course I could get hit by a car. I could die in a wreck going back, but that, I’m so secure thinking like that, that thinking that I actually could have 20 years, is like a whole other way of thinking.
Like all of us, Terrance Hayes doesn’t know what the future holds, but he does know that it will be best lived in an honest search for truth. About himself, about the world, and as ever, time is of the essence.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Anthony McGill’s family instilled in him a belief in limitless possibilities.
Anthony McGill: If you’re never told that you can’t do something and you’re allowed to like, explore the world and find out what, maybe, is your talent and is your gift, and not, more importantly, your interest. Your imagination of what you could possibly be does not have a ceiling on it.
As it turns out, tenaciousness runs in the McGill family. Born in 1979, Anthony was raised by two gentle, but strict public school teachers. Ira Carol and DeMar McGill, Sr. surrounded their family with art and music. His father, an amateur flutist, would eventually leave teaching and become Chicago’s deputy fire commissioner.
McGill: What I saw in my parents was a work ethic that was very high, and an attitude ethic about the world, which they believe and believe to this day is very important in the pursuit of things. If I look at a percentage of what my success as a musician is, as a person, I wonder what percentage I would give my parents. I’d probably give them 90% or something or maybe more.
Anthony’s brother DeMar, Jr. was seven when he found his father’s flute in a closet and began playing. At nine Anthony followed suit on the clarinet when his first choice of wind instrument, the saxophone, proved too large for him. By age 12, the brothers were playing with the Chicago Youth Orchestra. In 1994, Anthony was 14 and DeMar was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when they were invited to play Saint-Saens’ “Tarantella” on the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After following his brother through the Curtis Institute of Music, McGill joined the Cincinnati Symphony as Associate Principal Clarinet, then became Principal Clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. When he joined the New York Philharmonic in 2014, he was the first African American Principal in the organization’s 179 year history. And he took over from the, by then, legendary Stanley Drucker who had played with the orchestra for 61 years. But attaining this vaulted position didn’t come easy. He had to audition several times before he got the job. What eventually convinced the New York Phil that he was their guy was, at least in part, McGill’s technical prowess and emotional depth. Anthony McGill’s playing reflects his day-to-day lived experiences. He’s at his best in the moment, in performance, toying with tempo, tone, and color.
McGill: Every experience, every interaction, every thing I do, every book I read, every conversation I have, all of it, I’m absorbing, just kind of experiencing this, right? And all of that is going to be, and sometimes I like to use that actively in, you know, how I approach music, from an intellectual standpoint or how I feel music. What I’m experiencing in every way. The sounds I hear. The things I love. Those great experiences, the sad experiences, the pain, the agony, whatever it is, it’s all going into here, which, you know, when I’m performing or when I’m playing music will probably show up somewhere.
Yet unlike many of his colleagues, most notably string players, McGill is not creating this extraordinary music on a centuries-old priceless antique.
McGill: No, they’re just, just clarinets. Well, the clarinet specifically, you know, it’s a, it’s a band instrument. It’s a wind band instrument. It’s one of the spitting instruments. You blow and you spit in it. That’s not exactly like the height of refinement, you know, as far as the quality. So that’s one of the reasons why they don’t really appreciate because you know, like with all of that air blowing and whatever, it’s like nature in there and it erodes. And so it doesn’t preserve itself that well.
And though he doesn’t give them names. McGill does form close relationships with his instruments. He tinkers with the reeds and other moving parts, always searching for a more beautiful sound.
Anthony McGill also forms close relationships with other musicians, particularly with those just starting out. In 2019, the Julliard school appointed him Artistic Director of its music advancement program, where he and conductors such as Simon Rattle, mentor students from a wide range of backgrounds. Through the music, these students learn to connect with the world around them. They learn about their obligations to the group, as well as to time, rhythm, and space.
McGill: When I see a kid who was not able to like, look me in the eye was like, when I first started hearing them play in a group, was almost like cowering from the world, you know, scared of the world, and to see them speak up and be proud and communicate, in a way that I think music helped them to, because they got pride in doing that thing. But also you learn a lot of skills that help you express yourself.
McGill views an orchestra as a metaphor for community: 100-plus individuals subverting their feelings in favor of one goal, a great performance. A utopian vision, to be sure, but something to always strive for.
McGill: Playing in a symphony orchestra is an interesting experience, because you know, you do have so many different personality types in an orchestra. So if we’re on the orchestra stage together and we believe that those people over there, the bassists, are the terrible ones that are creating the bad, playing all the bad notes. Or we think that, “Oh no, we’re the violins. And we are superior to those other people because they play those instruments.” And it becomes a competition instead of a concert. When the competition gets so unfairly balanced and rigged towards the violins or towards the trumpets, then it becomes very difficult to play that concert together. And when things work you know, in our cities, in our communities, they work, because first of all, we understand that we are the same. And when I have felt that kind of peak experience as a musician, it feels as though you as a human, like you become a part of this organism of energy, of sound, of all of those things that comes together, that brings a feeling of ecstasy to you. You know, the chills, it’s the thing, it’s the whatever. And you can kind of feel it like being transferred around you, with all of the other players, into the audience, and back after the performance.
Perhaps due to his family successes, Anthony McGill believes the change can happen. One person at a time.
McGill: I was sitting around a room with some young students recently in a performing residency somewhere. And one of them said, “What do you do about all the, those barriers in the world? It’s difficult because of the people are putting these barriers in front of me.” And I said, “If you think of the world as like being a space where there are a lot of people that don’t want you to succeed. The worst thing you could possibly do is believe them, is agree with them, that there’s no way you can possibly succeed. And that you don’t deserve to.” And so, that’s what I mean by success.
Anthony McGill is proof that to excel, talent and dedication may not be enough. A tenacious belief that anything is possible is something he learned at an early age and one that he models every day. And how he teaches others and how he makes music every time he steps onto a stage.