Poet Terrance Hayes recently spent a week at Idyllwild Arts Academy as a guest poet, just prior to being named The New York Times Magazine’s new poetry editor. Author of six distinguished collections, Hayes’ gift for process distills language into its combustible form, garnering his voice a host of distinguished accolades including an NAACP Image Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. Hayes also is chancellor at the Academy of American Poets and was recently profiled by Poets and Writers magazine.
In “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” released June 19, Hayes captures essence. With sublime finesse, his voice peels the skin off deeply held cultural bigoty and bias while laying bare its psychological byproducts with masterful clarity. Elegant. Honest. Cultivated, soul revealing — Hayes’ lens focus internally, burning away the dross encircling generations of discordant cultural hysteria.
Majestic accounts of his loves, music, heroes and mentors telegraph profound depth, while treating his own susceptibility with equal aplomb reveals vivid spectrums of awareness. A quote from the book’s cover defines the collection’s principle influence: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.”
The collection’s title appears on the top of each page as if to provide the reader with a context within which each poem gracefully presides. Each sonnet is numbered and indexed by first line, offering a hint to its topic. Hayes’ choice of the singular “Sonnet” reveals an intent that each dialectic responds to a specific “assassin.” Death by love, death by hate — past and future.
Over what period of time did this collection come together? Hayes responds, “It’s an emotional response to the Trump phenomenon.” When asked if he views his work as cross-cultural he responds, “All I’m trying to do is live. To separate poems and poet. My ambition is to be a poet — my work is a record of where we are, but I don’t view my work as an antidote.”
Written during the first 200 days of Trump’s presidency, in excerpts from sonnet 32, Hayes writes, “America, you just wanted change is all. Like no culture before us, we relate the way the descendants of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists. May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents of Midas. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.”
“Slavery commoditized human beings for trade,” reminds Hayes in sonnet 43. “And because the son can see who he [the father] was long before he had a name, the trace of his future on earth long before he arrived.” Taken in its entirety, this poem embodies images of generations of lost destiny. Sonnet 27, in part, states, “We’re on the middle floor where the darkness we bury is equal to the lightness we intend … to be divided is to be multiplied. Our sermon today sets the beauty of sin against the purity of dirt.”
Sonnets are, by definition, love poems, an interesting structural choice for an evocative social narrative. Limited in length to 14 lines, the 70 sonnets in this collection are artfully matriculated complete with a signature Volta — a turn of phrase that takes the reader on a secondary journey deepening motive, other times recounting a premise. Whatever, the result set is compassionate articulation available to old souls; yet Hayes leaves no discarded stone of heart unturned. “The sonnet is a love poem, so I approached the topic of my life, and who I am and world view from within this awareness.”
When asked, to what degree does the mysticism of Eastern philosophy influence him? “I think of mystery as the difference between compassion and love. It’s the principle — reclaim language, find your definition. The most fearful thing is people who are good, who are silent now. The value system governing principles of kindness is good business.” Its absence is recounted in the final line of sonnet 22, “This bitter earth is a song clogging the mouth before it is swallowed or spat out.”
Hayes’ is a quintessentially American story. His mother was 16 years at his birth. She later met his stepfather who chose a military career and like most military families, they moved around. Hayes says, “It’s work to understand others, to come to terms with who I am. This book is a product of understanding a power that wants to take me under.”
Do you think members of any culture that identify by skin color can truly achieve an unencumbered sense of identity? “I think vulnerability is a kind of strength — a real memoir to the secret of strength.” Hayes operates under no illusion that his skin tone, whether displaying a tad more or less melanin than another’s, will anytime soon attain social irrelevance.
To the question, what role can poetry play in popping racism’s illusory bubble? Hayes responds, “If you can get over the wound, forgiveness is the compassionate heroism. If you cannot overcome the wound, strive for vulnerability.” To this end, in Sonnet 45, Hayes proposes definitive action, “The deeper the wound the more heroic the healing. And the story of Odysseus, The Odyssey, the name of the subject is as mysterious as the journey. The subject must speak as if he or she is witness to a story no one who has lived in the entire tangled future and history of the world has told.”
The reference in Sonnet 54 to contemporary writing and journalism provokes concern regarding a superficially benign nuance: “Because a law was passed that said there was no worth to adjectives, companies began stringing superlatives before unchanged products manufactured by men who know how to make money but little else … all the news was a bilateral headline in the sand.” Hayes further ponders, “What’s been chopped off to deliver the news because of the limiting nature of drawing lines on the sand? Adjectives can frame the topic.”
In conclusion: In sonnet 62, Hayes muses, “Moving through the tangle of bramble on your way to scrap with Death at the pier, remember to sing a battle song. The one I’ve prepared goes this way: Come & meet me by the water, swim the twilight by & by. Come meet me in the water swim the mirror of the skies. Come & meet me in the water by & by. I sing it every day.”