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Poet Terrance Hayes has been hailed for his fearlessness in pushing the boundaries of convention, but in life he’s learned to practice caution.

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Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes

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.


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
The healing.

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.