National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes

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In researching a 2006 profile of the poet and Carnegie Mellon professor,  I learned that what seemed to impress people most was that there's no pigeonholing him, whether personally or artistically. Everybody likes him, but no one seems able to pin him down; and he seems capable of writing in any style, about any subject, while plainly remaining Terrance Hayes. (Here's the article: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A28483.)

Here's an excerpt from his "I Am a Bird Now":

After the vase is asleep with the taste
Of the bit flower its moodiness and lust

You know how I feel / submerged
In a clouded jar altered and alert

The mind light-headed and hawked
Run-down and cloaked in awkwardness

Beautiful lines, but they don't begin to give a sense of everything that's going on in Lighthead, the collection that won him this year's prestigious National Book Award for poetry. (Here's CP review: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A82228.)

There are also wild narratives, sensitively detailed poems about family, and drily comic flights of fancy. And while Hayes isn't a "political poet" in the conventional sense, his social commentary is no less potent for its slyness: "I realize that when you said 'Freedom,'" says one of his narrators in Lighthead, "you were talking about the meat we kill for, the head of the enemy leaking in the bushes, how all of it makes peace possible."

If Lighthead has a signature stroke, it's Hayes' use of the "pecha kucha" form, named for the trendy presentation format in which each of 20 images is accompanied by a brief talk. The stanzas of his "Coffin for Head of State," their titles based on song titles by African music legend Fela Kuti, constitute a sinister political prophecy: "I almost described the leaves shining on their bones / and the snakes roosting in their sheaths to the coffin." 

Hayes turns 39 this month -- quite young for a National Book Award. But Hayes, who's from South Carolina, got a jump out of the gate. In a world where many poets never get formally published at all, his very first collection, Muscular Music -- basically his master's thesis in Pitt's poetry program -- made it to shelves. Considering that he's now one of a handful of living poets on a big imprint like Penguin Books, the surprise isn't the National Book Award, but only how quickly he earned it.

Hayes is protean. In that 2006 profile, he includes Keats among his influences. The kinship is mostly stylistic, but Keats himself once seemed to describe Hayes' omnivorous approach to subject matter. "[T]he poetical Character," Keats wrote, "it is not itself ... it has no self ... it is everything and nothing ... It has no character ... it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated."

Or, as Hayes put it, "I'm schizophrenic, all over the place."

And as Hayes writes in Lighthead, a poet's job is to "root through noise like a termite / with a number on his back."

And now he's a termite with a National Book Award.

Terrance Hayes in 2006. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL.

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