Presenter of the National Book Awards

2010 National Book Award Winner,

Terrance Hayes


Penguin Books

Interview by Jean Hartig

Jean Hartig: What was your reaction to Lighthead having been shortlisted for the National Book Award?

Terrance Hayes: Absolute joy followed by the absolute terror of having to wear a tux. Since then, I’ve been thinking mostly about how terrific the finalist reading will be. I suspect I’ll come home with a trunk of new books from every category.

JH: What compels you to investigate history—of your family, of figures such as Malcolm X and General Patton—in verse?

TH: Because I believe memory is a form of the imagination, my poems are often drawn to and drawn from the well of history. I’m interested in the relationship between private, local history and broader, cultural history. Metaphor is a wonderful tool for exploring this dynamic because it encourages empathy. It shrinks the distance between the past and the present, us and them, you and me.

JH: Fela Kuti, Antony and the Johnsons, David Bowie, and other musicians make appearances in Lighthead. How did music influence the writing of this book?

TH: I live in music. It is where my poems begin—sometimes at the level of syntax and sound, sometimes at the particular level of whatever song or composition is pouring from my earphones. I aspire to write poetry that is as diverse and provocative as music.

JH: The image of the blindfold arises again and again in these poems—the president in a blindfold of lizards, a snowed-in figure unable to sleep without one, a blindfold of razors, the “uneyed.” How do these incidences of sightlessness resonate with you?

TH: A line from the first poem in Lighthead states it’s “not what you see, but what you perceive: that’s poetry.” The image of the blindfold underscores this idea of trusting one’s perceptions in the face of myriad illusions and constraints.

JH: How did the contemporary social and cultural landscape of our nation affect your recent work?

TH: Our social and cultural landscape often informs, if not infiltrates my work. For Lighthead, our nation’s wars and tragedies over the last years threw an unavoidable shadow over my usual themes and passions. This is as it should be. It means my sense of the world is often challenged by the world. And it means my poetry should grow and evolve under the pressure of those challenges.

Jean Hartig is the author of a poetry chapbook, Ave, Materia, and the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.