A Poem for NPM, Day 6: Terrance Hayes Special

(This one’s for you, Niner.)

Instead of offering just one poem today, I would like to introduce a poet. Not that he needs introduction per se, as he is already fairly well-established, but even if only one person starts to read his works because of my musings to follow, then it was worth it. The poet in question is Terrance Hayes. (You are probably going to notice throughout the month that I have a knack for African-American poets and their work.)

He was born in 1971 in South Carolina, earned his creative-writing MFA at UPittsburgh, and has been teaching the same at Carnegie Mellon for a number of years now. (In case you are curious, the person right above Hayes on the CMU staff page, Yona Harvey, is his wife.) He has published three collections to date: Muscular Music (1999), Hip Logic (2002), and, most recently, Wind in a Box (2006).

I would very much argue that he is a legitimate heir of Langston Hughes’s, in terms of style as well as in his scope, the choice of thematic elements, and his efforts to place African-Americans in an all-American cultural and historical context. This is especially true for Wind in a Box, a remarkable collection of which I still have vivid memories. I devoured the entire book in just a few hours almost exactly one year ago (on April 10, 2007), having read Hip Logic right before within two days.

Numerous passages from Wind in a Box struck at my core. Here are just two:

When I threatened to run away
my mother said she would take me wherever I wanted to go.

from “The Blue Terrance”

or that we were too dumb to run the other way
when we saw the wide white sails of the ships
since given the absurd history of the world, everyone
is a descendant of slaves (which makes me wonder
if outrunning your captors is not the real meaning of Race?)

from “Woofer (When I Consider African-American)”

The latter poem, “Woofer,” is also the one I want to draw special attention to today. It was the first Hayes poem I read. That was two years ago during the second round of the Daily Poem Project. Strangely enough, the month the poem appeared on Poetry Daily was also April. I am beginning to think that there must be some supernatural connection between Terrance Hayes, myself, and the fourth month of the year (the first time I encountered Hayes was in April 2006, the first time I read two of his books was in April 2007, and now, in April 2008, I am praising him to high heavens). What is going to happen in April next year, I wonder. More likely, it is all mere coincidence. Also, my vote during the grand finale of DPP2 went to this poem.

Anyway, back in 2006, I wrote a short close-reading essay on “Woofer” which you can read just a bit further down at the end of this post. But first, indulge in this fantastic poem (do not forget to come back here when you are done):

Terrance Hayes, “Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)”

I looked around a bit on the internet for some more legitimate material by and about Hayes. Here is what I found:

  • profile at the Academy of American Poets – links to several poems in the right sidebar
  • short portrait at the Poetry Center at Smith College – includes photos (check out that mohawk) and a few poems
  • selection of a few poems from his staff page at Carnegie Mellon (PDF) – mind you, there is a “The Blue Terrance” among them, but it is not the same I quoted from earlier; there are several “blue Terrances” in Wind in a Box
  • three poems at the Fishouse – each with an audio recording; you have to check out “The Blue Seuss,” one of my favorites from Wind in a Box
  • “New Folk” at Poetry – with a short Q&A
  • three poems over at Guernica – rather recent, from this past November
  • a review of Wind in a Box – by Peter Blair from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
  • a five-day journal for the Poetry Foundation – from June 2006
  • “Carp Poem” – at the Konundrum Engine Literary Review
  • “The Blue Bowie” – from Jubilat 6
  • “Serenade” – at Fugue

~~~~~

Other poems for April

Poets.org: Ciaran Carson, “The Assignation”

Knopf: Kenneth Koch, “To Psychoanalysis”

~~~~~

And here goes the slightly revised version of my 2006 essay on “Woofer.” Please read the poem first.

Woofers: New Drums for a New Generation

TERRANCE HAYES has written a beautiful poem about the new African-American self. In order to describe it, he mocks cliché traditions, ridicules stereotypes, and satirically plays with the term “African-American”. All of these methods involve the reader’s experience with race and racism.

Hayes juxtaposes the stereotypical African-American image and the way he sees it by using the formula “When I consider the African-American, I think not of […], but of […].” This is a paradox, though. It is impossible for him to state what he does not think of (as it is for everybody); by saying what he did not think of, he had to think of it. This method plays with people’s inevitable associations when they see someone of another race. The racial stereotypes are automatically projected onto that person, and Hayes does exactly that when he (paradoxically) says what he does not think of.

His “not-thoughts” are filled with self-mockery, which indicates that he is basically immune to accusations, such as “we were too dumb to run the other way / when we saw the wide white sails of the ships.” But his “thoughts” are not exactly free of clichés, either. On Thanksgiving, a chicken was “slaughtered” and not a turkey, by a witchdoctor to boot, a clear reference to voodoo. The closest he has “ever come to anything remotely ritualistic” were drums from hi-fi woofers. It is one of the clichés that all African-Americans still connect to their African roots and heritage. That they might have a culture of their own does not come to mind. The “drums drumming from woofers” combine these two cultures. The woofers are the drums of the new generation—again a cliché that African-Americans always listen to loud, thumping music.

Hayes also plays with the term “African-American” itself, raising the question why they are not just called “Americans,” or why people have to be divided into races at all. The girl’s “bi-continental nipples” are a great example of this. They are bi-continental in so far as that she is African and American, but also, on a smaller scale, that one is on each breast. They both belong to the same body, as Africa and America belong to the same world. “Linked by a hyphen filled with blood” is also ambiguous. For one, it points out America’s history of violence and slavery. But since Hayes uses the expression in connection with “the two of us there in the basement,” it can also be a reference to them having sex.

Hayes questions race and racism in a funny way that never loses track of its purpose or its audience. The pickup line he uses in the beginning of the poem — “‘You can return it when I see you again'” — is not only meant for the girl, but also for the reader. Since the line is so original, he can count on the reader to keep going, hopefully beyond the poem as well.

(written on May 30, 2006)

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3 thoughts on “A Poem for NPM, Day 6: Terrance Hayes Special

  1. Dude,
    I’m flattered, if not even flattened. ;)

    And, obviously, this stuff is just about my cup of tea. Matter of fact, I’ma have to pick up one of his books at some point, it seems.

    The bit in Woofer I liked best was clearly:

    “her smile
    twizzling above a tight black v-neck sweater, chatter
    on my velvet couch and then the two of us wearing nothing
    but shoes. When I think of African-American rituals
    of love, I think not of young, made-up unwed mothers
    who seek warmth in the arms of any brother
    with arms because they never knew their fathers”

    don’t wanna discuss it to death. just great wit, images and wordplay.

    and the Blue Suess is dope. i think I once wrote a lil essay about the boxes blacks live and work in, too (not worth posting, just saying it really speaks to me.)

    “Black in voting booths are
    Blacks in boxes” ;)

    I’ll have to get to the rest of the links and your essay a bit later. Just wanted to say thanks for putting me onto this guy (your plan worked, I guess.)

    Peas,
    Nine

  2. Nice essay. Some great findings, especially the continents that are breats and the hyphen metaphor. The “linked by a hyphen” one made me laugh out loud. ;)
    I also like how he effs with people’s minds by talking about his GF who’s Jewish-American-African. Which do you stress? Jewish, but not just Jewish, she’s black, too. But he uses her as “America”, ignoring the other discourses around hyphen-Americans.

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