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Terrance Hayes Is the Most Interesting Poet in the World

Being a good poet takes practice. Just ask Terrance Hayes, a veritable renaissance man whose resume includes winning the 2010 National Book Award in poetry (among many other awards), landing a McArthur Fellow Grant in 2014, teaching roles at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University, a stint as poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, and seven published books under his name. Oh, and he was also an Academic All American on his college basketball team and has played piano for the past 20 years. Needless to say, Hayes has lived the life of an artist most people can only dream of. You would think that an innate ability to distill inspiration into a series of beautiful verses and thoughtful syntax would be his secret to success. But inspiration isn’t the word he’d use. It’s practice. 

“I work by showing up, practicing, and for me, inspiration is usually right in the moment of already being at work,” he says. “The pursuit of inspiration as opposed to waiting for inspiration is how I think about [it].” The basketball player in Hayes comes in for the proverbial assist, in this case, a metaphor. “Publishing poems, speaking to people. That to me is like a game, where there’s a referee and there’s an audience. But most of the time, you’re just in the gym maybe with people who care about the same things you care about, who care about the minutiae of daily practice.”

What drives the South-Carolina born Hayes is simple. “Some people prioritize thinking over feeling, and some people would prioritize feeling overthinking,” he explains. “I’m trying to influence the way you feel. I want to help you feel connected between things.” The way he feels about his subject matter intermixed with the feelings of the reader in response to his work serves as a sort of creative fuel for Hayes. Sure, other factors come into play, like love, empathy, introspection, and all those commons threads found in most poetry. What exactly goes into crafting verses designed to provoke certain types of responses? Hayes will be the first to tell you that it takes a lot of work. 

The first part of the process often involves hitting the books. “Research leads to new kinds of discoveries, even for a subject that you think you’re pretty familiar with,” he says. That’s right, research. Not really the sexiest source of inspiration as, say, unrequited love or a radiant maiden named Lenore. But it’s a solid starting point and trusty catalyst for creativity. Then comes the actual writing, something that takes time. A lot of time. “I love that I can work on a single sentence for six hours,” he says. What might be considered frustrating to most people is exciting to Hayes. It’s all about the process, the act of engaging with his work. 

If working on a single sentence for six hours didn’t seem taxing enough, Hayes gave himself the added challenge of exclusively writing sonnets in a collection of poetry released last year, titled American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. The resulting sonnets, 70 in all, were partly an exercise in structure, but also a way to challenge himself as an artist. “I think that sometimes you need a box so you know where the boundaries are. You need a speed limit so that you can go maybe 10 miles over it. It’s not about staying within the boundaries. It’s about knowing how to bend those boundaries.” The final product proved to be an eye-opening, thought-provoking series of poems on race, masculinity, politics, pop culture, and his own experience with American society past and present.  

In the grand scheme of things, Hayes sees the underlying purpose of his work as a means for documenting his life and leaving an indelible mark on the world. In short, it’s about posterity. “One of the most valuable things you could teach people is to record, to have some evidence of your existence on Earth,” he says. “We’re on the planet, and all we’re trying to do is make a record, to keep a record of our lives.” That’s a lesson he picked up from Toni Morrison, and it’s something the teacher in Hayes has strived to pass on to his students. “It’s always worth making a mark every day. Maybe that’s what poets are [for]. We’re sort of emblematic of what everybody should be doing, which is keeping count.”