Terrance Hayes Wins National Book Award

by    /  November 20, 2010  / No comments

Terrance Hayes reads one of his poems at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 4th annual Jazz Poetry Concert. It was part of a commissioned work, scored by composer-jazz musician Oliver Lake, called “What is Home?”

The poet Terrance Hayes is “bringing the National Book Award home to Pittsburgh,” as he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Hayes’ Lighthead beat out the works of four other poets, including established writers such as C.D. Wright. The award was announced at a ceremony at the Cipriani ballroom in New York City on Wednesday, the eve of Hayes’ 39th birthday.

The National Book Foundation has organized the award since 1950, which is for the best book published last year by a United States Citizen. Winners are chosen by a five-judge panel.

Hayes attributed his winning, in part, to the “writing community of Pittsburgh.”

Here is an excerpt of a conversation between Hayes and fellow Pittsburgh poet Lynn Emanuel posted on Sampsonia Way in May.

Terrance, do you find you face a kind of pressure to “take sides” as an African-American poet?

Hayes: I did a reading at a community college in Houston, and the audience was predominantly Hispanic and black. Afterwards, this guy came up to me and asked, “What do you think if your poems make black guys look bad?” And I said, “I am usually the one who looks bad, so I don’t have any problem with that.” The conversation veered toward obligation. I eventually said to him, if you are rigorous with a poem it will be righteous. If it fails to illuminate and make things complicated, then it’s not done. I don’t go into a poem saying this is the side I take but I know I have to work through them, so they become righteous and virtuous. Writing into a moral stance is the object of craft.

Emanuel: That’s an interesting idea, that poetry should be virtuous in some way.

Hayes: Well, what does art do? Does it bring on evil or does it bring on good? Bad art might bring on evil.

Emanuel: I think Robert Lowell embodies an indigenous American poetry. He had a way of being a really complex political poet.

Hayes: No one talks about Lowell as a political poet, but he was engaged. He refused to go to dinner at the White House. He’s the kind of poet—just like Lynn—where you just get to see the mind engaged. You see him processing all these things that are going on around him. It becomes political because politics floats into his consciousness. That’s what I want to do in my own poems: float between those spaces instead of just writing a poem about one thing. Instead I want to look across and get Obama and French fries.

Emanuel: Lowell absolutely implicated himself in everything. He was in a privileged position because he was a Lowell. He could have just partitioned himself behind gorgeous writing and disengaged. But he never did that. He knew he was implicated because he was a Lowell and because he was a white male. I don’t think enough poets do that.

Hayes: That stance won’t work in politics. Imagine a politician standing up and saying, “I’m what’s wrong, I’m what’s wrong.” It’s the right position but then people are going to say, “Hey, I’m going to follow someone else.”

How do you think living in Pittsburgh has informed your work?

Hayes: I don’t feel like a Pittsburgh Poet the way Gerald Stern is or Jack Gilbert is. But being here has made me think more about being Southern.

Emanuel: I don’t yet feel like I have a right to write about this city. There is a special culture here that I am still on the outside looking into. This city is the most interesting city—geographically, architecturally. It’s like a hallucination. There’s always some bridge or some body of water, and you’ll get lost somewhere that looks like the place time forgot. Then suddenly you’re in some stainless steel hallucination of what a building should look like.

Hayes: I feel that way too. Of course, I don’t get lost.

I wanted to talk about humor. There is a lot of humor in both your books.

Emanuel: I think we come by it naturally. You can’t fake it. If you do . . . boy, that would be embarrassing. Humor for me comes out of a certain rage, from when you are really afraid or really angry. It’s a coping mechanism.

Hayes: The kind of humor I shoot for is an uncomfortable laughter. The kind where you’re laughing, but you’re also thinking something deep.

Emanuel: The interesting thing about humor is that it can change really fast. It can really twist a reader around. It is also a way to guard against being sentimental. It’s a ballast against sentimentality.

Read the entire interview.

Read Elizabeth’s bio.

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