Saturday, April 17, 2010

Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes' most recent poetry collection, Wind in a Box, was named one of the best 100 books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly. His honors include three Best American Poetry selections, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Poems in Lighthead (Penguin 2010), his forthcoming fourth collection, have appeared in journals such as the American Poetry Review, Poetry, and the New Yorker. He is a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives with his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


My parents would have had me believe
there was no such thing as race
there in the wild backyard, our knees black
with store-bought grass and dirt,
black as the soil of pastures or of orchards
grown above graves. We clawed free
the stones and filled their beds with soil
and covered the soil with sod
as if we owned the earth.
We worked into the edge of darkness
and rose in the edge of darkness
until everything came from the dirt.
We clawed free the moss and brambles,
the colonies of crab-weed, the thorns
patrolling stems and I liked it then:
the mute duty that tightened my parents’
backs as if they meant to work
the devil from his den. Rock and spore
and scraps of leaf; wild bouquets withered
in bags by the road, cast from the ground
we broke. We scrubbed the patio,
we raked the cross hatch of pine needles,
we soaked the ant-cathedrals in gas.
I found an axe blade beneath an untamed hedge,
its too dull to sever vine and half expected
to find a jawbone scabbed with mud,
because no one told me what happened
to the whites who’d owned the house.
No one spoke of the color that curled
around our tools or of the neighbors
who knew our name before we knew theirs.
Sometimes they were almost visible,
clean as fence posts in porch light;
their houses burning with wonder,
their hammocks drunk with wind.
When I dreamed, I dreamed of them
and believed they dreamed of us
and believed we were made of dirt or shadows:
something not held or given, irredeemable, inexact,
all of us asking what it means to be black . . .
I have never wanted another life, but I know the story
of pursuit: the dream of a gate standing open,
a grill and folding chairs, a new yard boxed with light.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

“How a poem starts” is an interesting question. Can I say it began with the experience—with working in the yard with my family as an adolescent? Sometimes a poem is composed in a single, specific moment, but more often my poems are composed bit by bit with no particular linearity.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Lots of revisions… several years of revisions. Can’t say exactly for reasons I stated above… Time. I love when the writing happens outside of Time.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I do believe in inspiration, but that has nothing to do with actually making something worthwhile. (I’ve written lots of “inspired” slop.) The poem was the result of sweat and tears because it was based on an actual experience/memory. For me it’s harder to write about a (mostly) real experience than something that’s (mostly) imagined.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Who can say? Maybe this is related to its publication. I probably would have continued changing/revising it until it was published.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I can’t recall. Probably a few months.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

How long the poem sits varies with every poem. I do what I can to forget about the publication process while I’m writing. Sending work out happens usually when I’m producing less.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The poem is rooted in fact and experience. But if you think of metaphor as a means to enlarge experience, any liberties the poem takes with fact grow out of metaphor. I’m reluctant to call any part of fiction. Figurative, but not fiction.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Well, I’m always reading and rereading multiple books. Larry Levis is a constant influence.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

No… maybe my wife.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I can’t recall. I send poems to friends from time to time, but my most “rigorous readers” don’t usually see the poems until they’re part of a manuscript.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I like to pretend they’re all different. Though it may be truer to say they’re all the same.

What is American about this poem?

Its subject.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Abandoned though there’s no such thing as abandonment when the writing happens outside of time. They don’t start; they don’t end…


  1. I'm so happy to see another one of my favorite poets featured here. This blog is great.

  2. i love when a long poem can keep me reading. excellent!

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