Life and Work
Terrance Hayes was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. Throughout high school, he played basketball as well as taking art classes because he “thought it would be a way to get into college” (qtd. in Smith). His athletic skill led to a scholarship to Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he played on the Cobras basketball team and achieved the Academic All-American award.
While at Coker College, Hayes studied both English and art. He acknowledges two of his professors at Coker, Lois Gibson and John French, for influencing his decision to pursue writing: “With the exception of Dr. French and Dr. Gibson almost no one at Coker knew I wrote creatively … In fact, English wasn’t my major until I realized I had nearly enough credit hours for an English major. I’d pretty much been taking any course Dr. French taught, and it was Dr. Gibson that suggested I apply to graduate programs for English” (“Award-Winning Writer”). Ultimately, Hayes received a bachelor of arts degree in English with a minor in fine arts in 1994. Three years later, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a master of fine arts in poetry.
After college, Hayes taught English at several institutions, including schools in Japan and Columbus, Ohio. From 1999 to 2001, he taught for Xavier University in New Orleans. In addition to these positions, Hayes has taught classes at the Cave Canem Retreat for African American Poets. Both the Breadloaf Writers Conference and the Provincetown Summer Writing Program awarded him with fellowships.
Hayes is a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, where he has taught since 2001. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Yona Harvey, a poet, and their two children. He admits the decision to leave Xavier University to come to Carnegie Mellon was a “very difficult decision to make” because he “lived in New Orleans for two years and … taught at Xavier, a historically Black university, and that was the hardest part of leaving” (Hayes, “American Voices”). When asked if he feels anxiety about being one of few Black professors in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon, Hayes says, “This question–about teaching at Princeton or Carnegie Mellon, the notion of the poet in academia–I just feel like teaching is raceless, the problem is what the students will allow and what they’ll resist” (“American Voices”).
Hayes’s poems have been published in several journals and anthologies. He has also published three books of poetry, Muscular Music, Hip Logic, and Wind in a Box. Of his work, Hayes says, “I’m infinitely interested in poems that explore the intersections and tensions of Autobiography and Culture. Lately this interest has revealed itself in a series of poems that reimagine/reinvent the personas of male artists and icons” (English Department CMU 6 Feb. 2004).
This interest in masculine identity appears in several of the poems from Hayes’ book Hip Logic. In “Ars Poetica #789,” the speaker lists all the different fathers he has had throughout his life, fathers with “voices / like bachelors, like castigators & crooners” (11). These fathers who have been in jail, who get in fistfights, and who tell bad jokes sit and watch an action film full of violence and gore with their son. Neither the fathers nor the images presented in the movie seem to satisfy the speaker’s need for guidance.
Hayes also explores how the media portrays masculine identity. One of the male icons he writes about is Mr. T. In the poem “Mr. T–,” the speaker asks, “What were we, the skinny B-boys, to learn from him?” (14). The speaker is looking for a male role model, but the violent icons presented by society do not apply to his life.
While father figures and the male icons in the media do not provide the speakers in Hayes’s poems with the role models they seek, Black figures in history give them some inspiration. In “For Paul Robeson,” the speaker praises Robeson for his voice that, in a reference to Robeson’s famous rendition of “Old Man River,” sounds like a river. Robeson uses this voice to speak about “gospel or the blood’s spirit,” and he is not afraid to cry (40). This Black male figure is not the violent, tired men the speaker sees on television and in his home. This man has a powerful voice that he uses to stir the hearts of his audience.
Another positive Black male role model appears in the poem “Broken Dangerfield Newby Villanelle.” The poem describes how Dangerfield Newby, who participated in John Brown’s raid, is beaten to death by ordinary men including a farmer, a carpenter, and a butcher. Yet in the poem, Newby focuses not on the violence but on images of faith, love, and beauty. He hears a church bell, imagines his wife and child, and “sense[s] [his] own beauty” before he dies (43).
In addition to exploring Black historical figures, the speakers in Hayes’s poems examine the importance of the women in their lives. In “Fire,” the despair caused by a burning home is balanced by a mother who “turned her tears to rice / & as long as she wept, there was food” (75). In “Hearththrob,” a mother and son are stranded on a highway when their car breaks down. The son, thinking about the westerns his mother watches, hopes to be saved by some anonymous hero out of a movie. The mother does not wait for a man to come save her, but becomes the hero of her own western when she rides into the hills to chase down the father who abandoned his family.
While the speakers in these poems struggle to find Black male role models despite the often negative experiences they have had with men in their lives and those presented by the media, the last poem in the collection, “The Same City,” ends on a hopeful note. The speaker is stranded on a cold night. His father attempts to jumpstart the car while the speaker sits in the vehicle and feeds an orange to a baby girl. Although this child is not his daughter, the speaker says, “I … wish she was mine” (89). The speaker describes the baby as “small / & holy,” and he connects these feelings with the moment described in the poem (90). The speaker’s father is not his biological father, but he, like the speaker, chose to take responsibility for a child that was not his own.
In Wind in a Box, Hayes continues to explore themes of identity and culture, but takes his interest in voice, especially “the transformative nature of persona, which he shapes through language,” up a notch (Potts). “Ultimately I’m interested in a Whitmanesque notion of poetry,” he explains. A poetry open-armed and dangerous. A poetry that says as Whitman said: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’” (English Department CMU 20 Sept. 2006). According to Keith Tumba, with this collection, in which Hayes is “really taking chances with pushing poems in surprising, twisting, serpentine directions,” he has indeed established himself as “one of the two or three most exciting young African-American poets of his generation, and one of the four or five most exciting poetry period,” (qtd. in O’Driscoll 25).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- Muscular Music. Chicago: Tia Chuca, 1999.
- Hip Logic. New York: Penguin, 2002.
- Wind in a Box. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- African American Review
- Antioch Review
- Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters
- Cream City Review
- Green Mountain Review
- Kenyon Review
- Southern Review
- Henderson, Bill, ed. Pushcart Prize XXIX, 2005: Best of the Small Presses. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart, 2005.
- Muldoon, Paul, ed.; Lehman, David, series ed., The Best American Poetry, 2005. New York: Scribner, 2005.
- Rowell, Charles H., ed. Making Callaloo: 25 Years of Black Literature, 1976-2000. New York, St. Martin’s, 2002.
- Tuma, Keith, ed. Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry: Poems and Essays from the Diversity in African American Poetry Conference. Oxford, OH: Miami UP, 2005.
- Young, Kevin, ed. Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. New York: Perennial, 2000.
- Red Brick Review Award, 1999
- Whiting Writers Award for Muscular Music, 1999
- Chester H. Jones Foundation Award, 2000
- Claremont Graduate School Award for work by a promising new poet, 2000
- Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music, 2000
- National Poetry Series Open Competition for Hip Logic, 2001
- Outstanding Young Alumni Award, Coker College, 2001
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 2005
- Pushcart Prize, 2006
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- “Award-Winning Writer and Former Student to Speak at Coker College.” Coker College. 7 Nov. 2004.
- Contemporary Authors 2002. Gale Literary Databases. 24 Oct. 2004.<http://infotrac.galegroup.com>
- English Department – Carnegie Mellon University Terrance Hayes. 6 Feb. 2004. <http://English.cmu.edu/people/faculty.html>
- English Department – Carnegie Mellon University Terrance Hayes. 20 Sept. 2006.
- Harris, Adrian. Rev. of Muscular Music. Crab Orchard Review 5.2: 230.
- Harris, Duriel E. and Kelly Ellis. Rev. of Muscular Music, Black Issues Book Review (Nov. 2000): 53.
- McCallum, Shara. Rev. of Muscular Music, Callaloo 25.2 (Spring 2002): 693-94.
- O’Driscoll, Bill. “Writing in the Margins: Local Poet Terrance Hayes Breaks with Literary Convention.” Pittsburgh City Paper 26 Apr. – 3 May 2006: 24-28.
- “Poet-Professor Wins Coker’s Top Young Alumni Award.” Coker College. 7 Nov. 2004.
- Potts, Jonathan. “Poet Explores Race, Identity and Culture in Wind in a Box.” Carnegie Mellon Today 21 Mar. 2006. Carnegie Mellon University. 18 Sept. 2006.
- Smith, Lynn. “‘Strong, Distinctive Voices’ Take Circuitous Routes to Poetry, Carnegie Mellon.” Carnegie Mellon News Online. 5 Dec. 2001. Carnegie Mellon University. 7 Nov. 2004.
- Williams, Tyrone. Rev. of Muscular Music. African American Review 34.3 (Autumn 2000): 558-59.
- “American Voices and the Cakewalk of Language: Yusef Komunyakaa in Conversation with Terrance Hayes.” Black Renaissance 5.1 (Spring 2003): 113-24.
- “The Poet in the Enchanted Shoe Factory”: An Interview with Terrance Hayes.” By Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 27.4 (Autumn 2004): 1068-81.