Interview with Terrance Hayes, 2015 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
How to Be Drawn
(Penguin/Penguin Random House)
As we know, poetry is not a transcription of experiences, but a transformation of them. In How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes does us one better. He transforms transformations. And then transforms those. What results are poems at once original and daring, willful and honest. Readers will return to this collection again and again and leave its pages annealed, challenged, and often broken.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry: Muscular Music, Hip Logic, Wind In a Box, Lighthead and, most recently How To Be Drawn. Hayes teaches writing in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Nicole Sealey: From one book to the next, it seems as though you’re conducting collection-specific experiments with form and content. Is this something you set out to do or is it realized in hindsight?
In each, it was like trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as possible, like seeing how long I could hold the air inside a poem.
Terrance Hayes: I’m mostly just thinking about the last poem and the next poem on any given day. So my experiments are really poem-to-poem challenges. Sometimes a challenge merits a few different attempts. I think in How To Be Drawn the experiment with the “long poem” form required multiple tries. Each section has some variety of extended poem: “Who Are The Tribes,” “Instructions for a Seance for Vladimirs,” “Self Portrait as the Mind of a Camera.” In each, it was like trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as possible, like seeing how long I could hold the air inside a poem.
NS: “Who Are the Tribes,” “Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report,” “Reconstructed Reconstruction” and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh” aren’t just longer. There are other experiments being undertaken, no?
TH: Yes, those poems are experiments, but in the way every new poem is some manner of experiment or challenge. The longer poems were attempts to sustain an experiment in a way that differed from repeating a set of rules. The Pecha Kucha poems from Lighthead (in How To Be Drawn, “Gentle Measures” is a Pecha Kucha), for example, are a formal experiment repeated in separate poems. The long poems in How To Be Drawn are extended experiments inside each poem.
NS: Do you worry when you’re not writing or do you think whatever you’re doing (or not doing) is contributing to poems yet to come in ways you may not know?
TH: I always feel like I’m not writing enough. Or well enough. And that I am always missing most of what’s interesting in the world. I cope with this feeling (of inadequacy) by trying to be alert to experience. But I want the experiences I capture to become more than simple records of experience. Sometimes the result is a record of fantasy. That’s the case in “Black Confederate Ghost Story”. Sometimes the result is a record of meditation. That’s how I think of “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” Both poems originate in actual experiences, but in neither poem did I know what would result beforehand.
NS: I first heard you read “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” a few years ago, but it was only recently published. From first to final draft, how drastic are your revisions?
Every draft is presumably the last draft. Until it’s not.
TH: I try not to track my revisions because they are so extensive. It can be daunting to realize a poem has gone through one hundred drafts—it was at least one hundred drafts with “How To Draw a Perfect Circle.” I remember there was a much longer section about the cyclops and the size of his eye socket. That’s now just a moment about an onion the size of his eyeball. When I’m not keeping count, the process feels both engaging and discouraging. Every draft is presumably the last draft. Until it’s not. So I usually will sit with a poem for quite a few months before sending it out for publication. I have to be sure I’m done with it.
NS: Per the opening poem, “What It Look Like,” the speaker “care[s] less and less about shapes of shapes because forms change and nothing is more durable than feeling.” How then should one be drawn?
TH: Variously. Every portrait is a self-portrait, I read somewhere. If applied to the “What It Look Like” quote: the form a portrait takes matters less than the feeling it elicits. Or: What it looks like is not always the same as what it feels like.
NS: If you were stranded on a deserted island, and could only take one medium with you, what would it be? Pen and paper? A finely tuned piano? Or, canvas and paint?
TH: That’s a hard one. If I were stranded on a monkish mountain, I’d carry painting supplies, if I was stranded in a cave, I’d want a piano. On an island, I think it would be books. Not my own. I’d write in the sand.
NS: Which books would you take?
TH: The first books that jump to mind are novels I’ve read more than a few times (Lolita, Savage Detectives, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Song of Solomon) but definitely one of the books would be the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t think I’d take one book of poetry—unless I could take like 100. I don’t typically read one book of poetry at a time, come to think about it.
NS: From book to book, does “poetry” get any easier?
TH: Right now I fear this is the last book I’ll write. It’s the way I often feel after a book is published. That’s not to say I’m not writing new poems. It’s just that I write poems not books, mostly. At some point a book emerges, but the day-to-day work is about single poems. The challenges are found in the poems.
Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.