Terrance Hayes enters the box-like Duquesne University classroom as unobtrusively as can a 6'5" man with a mohawk. Instructor Benji Jones has her back to the door; when she turns she's startled to see her guest, standing by the lectern and smiling broadly above his soul patch. He's wearing a long navy woolen overcoat, a cream mock turtleneck sweater and brown cords, a gleaming stud in each earlobe. In one hand he clutches a grubby canvas "Associated Writers and Poets 2003 Conference" tote bag containing copies of his three volumes of poetry.
Jones's undergraduate English students have been reading Muscular Music, Hayes' first collection. Published in 1999, the book was basically his University of Pittsburgh master's thesis; today, he begins by telling the Duquesne students how much of Muscular Music was a reaction to being in grad school with "people smarter than me." One poem, "What I Am," is a young African American's tongue-in-cheek brag, a riff on cultural signifiers and stereotypes: "I got the dandruff-free head / & shoulders of white people & a cheeseburger / belly & a Thriller CD & Nike high tops / & slavery's dead & the TV's my daddy." It ends, as it began, with a reference to Sanford & Son: "You big Dummy! / Fred tells Lamont."
Such self-deprecation would ill suit Hayes these days. At age 34 ... and notwithstanding his impulsive switch weeks earlier from his characteristically shaved head to that low-rise mohawk ... he is by most accounts Pittsburgh's fastest-rising young poet. For the past five years he's taught in the writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was recently made a full professor. He's in demand for readings and conferences around the country. His books sell. Everybody, it seems, likes him.
And he's managed it all while trespassing, often willfully, across cultural boundaries. He's an accomplished poet and teacher who never formally studied poetry until he graduated college ... when he chose verse over professional athletics. He's a hipster bookworm, mercurially funny and slyly serious. He's an African American who was unaware of race until he was almost a teen-ager, and who still writes about it in ways both provocative and hard to classify. And in a culture where brand names are as important to poets as they are to soda pop, with April's release of his collection Wind in a Box, Hayes seems in no hurry to adopt a signature style.
In everyday life, meanwhile, he's a husband and dad who only recently met his own biological father. It's a development whose significance Hayes is still working out. In the Duquesne classroom, he tells students that his poems often explore black masculinity, and then in his relaxed baritone reads "For Robert Hayden," his poem addressing the African-American poet who in "Those Winter Sundays" powerfully rendered the distance between himself and his adoptive father. "Was your father a mountain twenty shovels couldn't bury?" Hayes' poem asks of Hayden. "Was he a blackjack smashed against your throat?"
Hayden's own 14-line poem begins, "Sundays too my father got up early / and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold" and ends: "What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?" Hayes, who invariably reads his own work from the page, recites Hayden's piece from memory. Then he shifts tone again, a few minutes later, eliciting laughs with a prose piece titled "26 Imaginary T-shirts." One T-shirt slogan goes, "I'm not shy, I'm sober."
"Terrance Hayes is, I think, one of the two or three most exciting young African-American poets of his generation, and one of the four or five most exciting poets period," say Keith Tuma, who chairs the English department at Miami University, in Ohio. One reason is "he's really taking chances with pushing poems in surprising, twisting, serpentine directions," says Tuma, a 58-year-old poet and critic who first dug into Hayes' poetry while recruiting for a Miami-sponsored conference on diversity in African-American poetry. "The whole poem can turn itself upside down in the blink of an eye."
Hayes and 18 other guests at that 2003 conference were collected in Rainbow Darkness, the 2005 anthology Tuma edited. Another reason for Tuma's enthusiasm is Hayes' protean quality: Neither the form nor the content of his work is easily pigeonholed, which often happens with poets, and black poets in particular.
For instance, one dividing line in contemporary poetry is between lyric poems ... the kind identified with, say, Robert Frost ... and "language" poems, comprising an avant-garde approach exemplified by John Ashberry ("Sometimes / the brick arches led to a room like a bubble, that broke when you entered it / And sometimes to a fallen leaf."). Most poets stick with one approach or the other. Hayes does both.
In one of the six poems in Wind in a Box identically titled "Wind in a Box" ... itself a cheeky move ... Hayes begins with a burst of imagistic play: "I want to always sleep beneath a bright red blanket / of leaves. I want to never wear a coat of ice. / I want to learn to walk without blinking." But there's also "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)," a wry, lyric narrative about a surreptitious Thanksgiving assignation with a biracial girlfriend in her father's basement.
Wind in a Box also includes a series riffing on Michael Jackson (including "A Few Rumors Concerning Mr. Potatohead," and another in the voice of someone pretending to be a teen-age female fan). Eight "persona poems" in the voices of famous figures suggest Hayes' cultural omnivorousness: David Bowie and Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges stand beside filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, underground rapper Kool Keith and the poet Etheridge Knight.
African-American poetry, meanwhile, has long straddled its own fault lines. Black poets, says Rutgers University scholar and poet Evie Shockley, have had to pass a series of implicit "authenticity tests" administered by critics and the public. The tests are meant to determine, on the one hand, whether a poet is genuinely "black" ... that is, fundamentally concerned with the political struggles of blacks ... or merely "American." Another test confers authenticity on those who write in the black vernacular, but not on explorers of the avant-garde.
Black poets who fall outside the lines risk rejection. The landscape shifted in the 1960s, as a tradition of African-American poetry that sought to validate blacks for a white audience gave way to the politically charged Black Arts Movement, led by figures including writer and activist Amiri Baraka. Black Arts poets, says Shockley, depict blacks as essentially different from whites, and address black audiences directly in asserting the primacy of black cultural experience.
The Black Arts Movement both strengthened black voices and limited their range. And those criteria still guide what Shockley characterizes as "a vast majority of African-American poets" and readers of poetry. Hayes is among a relative handful of exceptions. "Terrance doesn't seem to be interested in addressing any one audience, or in making anyone particularly comfortable, including himself," says Shockley.
One aspect of the Black Arts legacy is confrontation ... especially confronting people with their racism and privilege. Hayes prefers to cultivate his own perspective. "When I'm not around anybody I can be confrontational," he quips. "All of my guts are in the poem."
Hayes' artistic role models include Etheridge Knight, a lauded Mississippi-born poet who was known for his jail time and heroin habit almost as much as for his verse.
Knight identified with the Black Arts poets, some of whom encouraged his work while he was still in prison. Knight was freed in 1968, and just afterward briefly lived in Pittsburgh as a visiting writer at Pitt; he died in 1991. For the past year or so, Hayes has been interviewing people who knew Knight, including surviving family. He doesn't know what he'll do with the material ... only that he's fascinated by Knight.
"I'm not that interested in the veneer of Black Nationalism with the fist up," says Hayes. "I'm more interested in just kinda like human stories. And I feel like a lot of [the Black Arts poets] don't reveal that in their poetry nor in their demeanor or in their public persona. But Etheridge did. I think you see in his poems his devils, and you see his ... his vulnerability I guess, is a really good word.
"I chase the poem," says Hayes. "I try not to chase ideology or politics." But politics sometimes gets caught. In Wind in a Box, there's "The Blue Seuss," in which Hayes appropriates the singsong language of Dr. Seuss to tell a cultural history stretching from the Middle Passage to Cosby. "Blacks in one box / Blacks in two box" makes audiences giggle; "Blacks on boxes stacked on boats in darkness" makes them flinch. It's political ("Blacks in rows of houses are / Blacks in boxes too"), but "I kinda slide into it," says Hayes. "I think that's what art is, kinda surprising people."
Tuma cites Hip Logic, the 2002 collection that first earned Hayes national attention. That book "occupies a space between experimental writing and identity-based writing," says Tuma. "At the same time, [Hayes] never loses sight of a certain core narrative, and [of] personal concerns. ... He straddles a lot of previous camps in African-American poetry."
Hip Logic, published by Penguin Books, sold well for a single-author poetry collection. But Hayes felt unconstrained to duplicate his efforts. "A lot of poets, once they get to a certain level they don't want the acclaim to stop," says Joel Dias-Porter, a Washington, D.C.-based performance poet and close friend of Hayes. "In Wind in a Box, Terrance is not settling."
An epigram for Wind in a Box, taken from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," reads "(I am large ... I contain multitudes.)." Whitman had prefaced the line with, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself." Hayes too prefers floating across categories. In one "Wind in a Box," he writes:
I want to be the wind and I want to fight off the wind
with its sagging banner of isolation, its swinging
screen doors, its gilded boxes, and neatly folded pamphlets
of noise. I want to fight off the dull straight lines
of two by fours and endings, your disapprovals,
your doubts and regulations, your carbon copies.
If the locust can abandon its suit,
I want a brand new name.
Friends to whom Hayes showed the manuscript for Wind in a Box included the poet Tony Hoagland. "One minute it's polka dots, next minute it's stripes, the next minute it's zig-zags," Hayes says Hoagland commented.
"At this point people want me to be one kind of way: black poet, hip-hop poet, language poet," Hayes recently told a Pittsburgh high school class. "I would say I'm none of those things, I'm all of those things."
Hayes says his touchstones include Keats ... not for the Romantic subject matter but for the dense music in lines such as "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun." There's also a philosophic kinship with Keats in seeing the poet as shape-shifter. "[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."
Hayes is similarly mutable. "I'm interested in form, and in [Wind in a Box] there's sonnets, and sestinas, and so, I go to a reading where they're all formalists ... 'Yeah, you a formalist, man,'" he says. "And then I go to a reading where there's, let's say second-generation language poets, or John Ashberry-type poets. Those people say, 'Yeah, yeah, you're one of us. You publish in Fits' ... it's an avant-garde magazine. And so I'm, 'Yeah, yeah.' And if I go to Cave Canem, [a group] for African-American poets, they identify me as a poet that's very interested in African-American identity, the cultural politics."
"That's who I am. I'm schizophrenic, all over the place."
In his poem "The Same City," in Hip Logic, Terrance Hayes describes a young man pulling alongside his father's broken-down car on a rainy December night. While his father connects the jumper cables, the narrator sits, feeding an orange to his girlfriend's infant daughter. He ruminates, with a New Testament reference, on the godliness of rescue: "Think of Joseph / raising a son that wasn't his."
The jump-start fails; the father climbs into the car and takes the baby and the orange from the narrator. "In 1974, this man met my mother / for the first time as I cried or slept / in the same city that holds us / tonight.
"If you ever tell my story," the poem concludes, "say that's the year I was born."
Among other things, "The Same City" is about identity ... about choosing who you'll be and how you'll define yourself. The poem is a gift to Hayes' stepfather. But it's also a chapter in a mystery Hayes has been writing about for years.
Hayes was born in 1971 and spent most of his childhood in Columbia, S.C. His stepfather, James Hayes, was in the Army and often away from home. His mother, Ethel, who worked as a guard at a state prison, recalls her eldest son in childhood as someone always drawing, always reading. He was drawn to music too, but not to the same music as other kids his age: In high school he listened to Coltrane and Sarah Vaughn. "He had me laughing, because he liked Mahalia," says Ethel Hayes.
Hayes traces his attitudes toward race to his upbringing in the racially integrated post-civil-rights-era South ... where he says the matter was viewed as such a settled issue his parents never discussed it openly. Through age 12, as he says in his poem "MJ Fan Letter," he saw himself as "a colorless American boy without detail."
A teen-age growth spurt was Hayes' first clue that James Hayes, now several inches shorter, wasn't his biological father. Another hint was that his own younger brother was James II. "I'm just very different than everybody in my family," says Hayes. At 18, he confronted his mom: "I knew he wasn't my dad, and she said, 'You're right,' but that was it, she wasn't going to say anything else."
When Hayes again began asking around, poetry both mapped and inspired the search. Since childhood he'd been a compulsive reader, yet the only reason he'd become the first in his family to attend college was because of sports. He got a full basketball scholarship to nearby Coker College, a small liberal-arts school. An accomplished painter, he majored in visual art. Meanwhile he broadened his reading, thanks to a big old Norton anthology he was assigned.
Other than the occasional girl he'd liked, the only people who knew that Hayes wrote poems were a couple teachers at Coker. "He really had the right instincts," says Lois Gibson, an English professor who encouraged his work, "the instincts you can't teach."
Hayes kept his interest in poetry cloaked. "I never thought that caring about poems and books meant anything," he says. "It's like liking food ... it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have it as a career." Yet it was an interest he pursued intensely. Gibson remembers speaking with him about a visiting poet at Coker. "He said, 'Didn't she have a poem in the Georgia Review last year?'" she says. "Without being told, he was reading the reviews."
Ask Hayes today why he enrolled in grad school for poetry, and the answer contains multitudes. Hayes contends everyone expected him to either play more ball ... pro hoops overseas were a real possibility for an all-conference Division II forward ... or else keep painting. So he did neither.
"That was my way of kinda getting to them," he says. "'I'm going to do the most unlikely thing that you can imagine.'" Moreover, painting came easy, but poetry beckoned as a challenge. Too, poetry was simply what moved him most. "I never did a painting and started weeping. But I would do that with poems," he says. "So I thought clearly, this is what my calling is."
Gibson, who had studied at Pitt, recommended the school to Hayes, and called some people there. "I said, 'You want him.'" Pitt's Toi Derricotte, who became a mentor for Hayes, met him at a South Carolina reading and also invited him north. He told his parents only that he was going to Pitt to study English; they didn't know he wrote poetry until Muscular Music was published.
In three years at Pitt, starting in 1994, Hayes' instructors included Derricotte, who wrote emotional, lyric poems; Ed Ochester, known for his narratives; and Lynn Emmanuel, who looked to language play. "I thought it was great to see like these three very different aspects of what a poet can be, and just take stuff from all of them," says Hayes.
In Pittsburgh, his friends included a small group of rappers and hip-hop artists who'd get together on the North Side to improvise music and rhymes in what they called the Double O Sessions. Hayes was "someone who listened to hip hop who also knew about the creative-writing world," says another Double O-er, the writer and musician Omar Abdul.
Meanwhile, Hayes continued exploring black identity, masculinity, the labyrinth of cultural authenticity ... and the question of who his father was. Hayes' wife, the poet Yona Harvey, says when they met in 1996, the latter concern was a major issue for Hayes. "He wanted to know who he looked like," she says.
Hip Logic is about nothing so much as fathers and other ancestors: ghostly, imaginary, absent or false. In "Mother and Son," the woman says, "He was whole years, Son, / & even at this moment, / he walks through your face ..."
Hayes mocked his obsession in "Ars Poetic # 789":
One of my daddies
was a carpenter. One lost his tooth
in a fistfight with Jesus. One went to prison.
No, two went to prison. ...
My daddy, Mr. Blacker-than-most,
wears shades in the house. He says
"Nobody's blacker than me, Boy."
Each of my daddies asks, "Are you writing
another poem about me?"
Hayes' poems, in fact, told him what he had to do. "If you have a revelation in a poem ... and you say, 'I never knew my father,' to me once you close the book, or shut down the computer or typewriter, you need to go out and find him," Hayes says. "I thought about my stepdad's feelings, et cetera. But really I did it because I didn't want to write 12 books about 'who's my daddy?'"
"Ars Poetica #789" was partly based on what Hayes says was a false lead his mother gave him in the mid-'90s ... a man he knew wasn't his father the second he saw him. (Hayes says his mother was unwilling to divulge the identity of the real father ... who didn't know Terrance Hayes was his son ... because of her relationship with the man's mother.) By the time Hayes and Harvey married, in 1997, he knew his biological father's name. The search lasted another seven years ... years that included relocations to Japan, New Orleans, Columbus and Pittsburgh, as well as the births of their two children.
Butch Tyler, says Hayes, is tall, charismatic ... and a raconteur. Father and son met about six months after the birth of Hayes' own son, Aaron.
"As soon as we see each other, it's obvious that we're blood, right?" says Hayes.
Right off, Tyler told Hayes about his grandfather, Earthell Tyler. There were bizarre synchronicities. Earthell had been a military man whom Butch saw as infrequently as Hayes saw his own stepfather. Hayes was also working with the Heinz Regional History Center on an upcoming exhibit about black Vietnam veterans: In January, he learned that Sgt. Earthell Tyler, age 35, died at Ia Drang in 1965, shot through the neck.
Tyler still lives in Columbia, where through him Hayes has met two half-brothers. "The poems have led me to finding this dude, and I'm hoping that finding him will make me a better poet, to be able to grow," he says.
Did not knowing his biological father provide a kind of freedom? Was the idea of the man more creatively fruitful than the reality?
It's possible, Hayes says. But he says he doesn't know how meeting Tyler affected his poetry ... only that he hasn't yet written any poems explicitly about the experience. "I don't feel like I have to rush any of that stuff," he says. "I feel like I need to live through it."
In early April, Hayes attended a reading at Carnegie Mellon by Saul Williams, the nationally known performance poet who starred in the movie Slam. Hayes was chagrined to see that Williams, who's also 34, had cultivated a mohawk too. Watching Williams please the mostly white crowd with his inspirational verse, he wondered whether he himself isn't too eager to be liked.
"Maybe that's what it means to be middle class," says Hayes. "White people aren't foreign."
Worrying about his success at first seems uncharacteristic of Hayes, a man so relaxed he signs off e-mails "Smiles, Terrance." Then again, each of his book titles suggests a paradoxical unity, with "wind" meaning breath and the "hip" in Hip Logic referencing the pelvic region. And he's been fortunate as well as good.
Hayes was at Pitt when Derricotte joined poet Cornelius Eady to start Cave Canem, dedicated to nurturing black poets. Hayes staffed the group's first annual retreat, in 1996, and attended subsequent sessions as a writing fellow. Cave Canem became a place for poets who, like Hayes, didn't fit in. It also became a force to be reckoned with. Miami University's Keith Tuma calls Derricotte and Eady "the power-brokers of African-American poetry."
Moreover, writing outside the lines (or across them) seems only to have helped Hayes' career. After Muscular Music won awards, the manuscript Hayes blind-submitted to the 2001 National Poetry Series was selected by Eady, who'd been handpicked as a judge by Penguin Books, one of five contest sponsors. The prize included publication by Penguin. Favorable reviews followed in industry bible Publishers Weekly, along with a prestigious Pushcart Prize and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
"He's had a lot of success very quickly," says Michael Simms, a friend of Hayes who runs Pittsburgh-based poetry press Autumn House. "He's more established than a lot of poets in their 60s."
Hayes, says Tuma, is "remarkably lucky to have the publisher he has"; most poets make do at small houses. Wind in a Box, also on Penguin, came out April 4. "Utilizing a range of forms and voices ... Dante's terza rima, jerky blues in the spirit of Langston Hughes, Frostian lyrics, contemporary prose poems ... Hayes brilliantly delivers the aeolian flux promises by the title," said Publishers Weekly, in a coveted "starred" review.
As for sales, even Pulitzer-winning poets don't truck enough merch to get Stephen King off the couch. But by poetry's measure, Hayes does well: Hip Logic just went into a second printing, says Paul Slovak, Hayes' editor at Penguin. That happens only once a year at Penguin, which publishes six poetry titles annually. Hip Logic's first run was 4,000 copies ... at least double the sales of a typical contemporary poetry title.
Poetry sells best when poets read their work in public, and Hayes is a popular reader. Last National Poetry Month, April 2005, he spent 22 days on the road. Hayes enjoys traveling ... he admits a "hotel fetish" because of the unobstructed reading time the road provides ... and performing. But with two young children at home in Highland Park ... Ua, who's now 6, and Aaron, nearly 3 ... Hayes has cut back to once a month most months. Most of his poetry translates well from page to microphone. "They're not spoken-word poems in a traditional sense, but they sound great," says Mark Yakich, an English professor who hosted Hayes at Central Michigan University last fall. "I think Terrance is kind of the best of both worlds."
In his April talk at Duquesne, he read the comic "I Want to Be Fat," which includes the line, "You motherfuckers will have to give me my own seat on the bus.'" The poem drew chuckles and prompted Hayes (who's quite lean) to talk about how he's both grown and lost breadth since he wrote it.
"I don't think I could write this poem now. ... I think I'm too smart to have this kind of fun now," he said. "Most of my time now is spent trying to get back to that type of freedom, that type of fun."
Hayes also has an easy familiarity with students even younger. In early April, he led a class of writing students at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown. Most of the 50 students are girls. He charms them with his Michael Jackson poems, drawing laughs by reading one in a girl's falsetto and ending another with the "ah-ah"'s from "Billie Jean."
He answers kids' questions. "I write every day. Sometimes a little, but sometimes a lot," he says. "If people ask me what I'm proud of, I say, 'Reading.'"
"Have you ever compared your poems to raps?" one boy asks.
"No, but I like what rappers do," says Hayes. He tells the class he enjoys the dense verbiage of Ghostface Killa and Talib Kweli ... but also of Toni Morrison, Tom Waits and James Joyce.
"Weird sentences, weird images," Hayes concludes. "People who like words, that's what I'm interested in."