National Book Award Poetry Winner Terrance Hayes Reads And Delivers

By Sadaaf Mamoon


Our beloved school did a few things right this week. Early Tuesday morning, NYU reached a peaceful agreement with its graduate student union. And yesterday, Global Liberal Studies hosted über-poet and 2014 MacArthur Fellow (aka “Genius” Award recipient) Terrance Hayes for its Global Lecture Series.

“Don’t charge me if I knock it over,” Hayes says, wearily eyeing the microphone, “I’m not the most graceful person.” Could’ve fooled me. The 43-year-old South Carolina native is rangy-handsome, like an NBA player off-court. He sports a sleek tie, sleek vest, sleek fade. His writing is anything but–the grit gets in your eyes. You cry, but you’re happy about it, ’cause you’re crying about something real, for damn once.

“I’ll read the poems I know well, since I only have one contact in,” he starts. And he does–read the poems he knows, that is. Few people know their stuff like Terrance Hayes knows his stuff. He has a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship under his belt to prove it.

Hayes uses dark humor and musicality to weave lines about race, culture, sex, self. His voice has the heady verve of a pleasant fever dream. Few catch the references to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, David Bowie and Kendrick Lamar. His newest offering, a collection called How to Be Drawn, intersects visual arts and poetry. All of it is wonderful.

He reads from “Talk,” from 2006’s Wind in a Box collection. It’s not about him, he says, but someone like him, “Talk like a nigger now, my white friend, M, said / after my M.L.K. and / Ronald Reagan impersonations, / the two of us alone and shirtless in the locker room, / and / if you’re thinking my knuckles knocked / a few times against his jaw or my fingers knotted / at his throat, you’re wrong because I pretended / I didn’t hear him.”

Next he reads from Lighthead, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2010. “People ask if Lighthead’s a person, but I describe it as more of a way of being.” Lighthead is an authority on life, gently cautions, in “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights / out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.” Hayes reads from “Lighthead’s Guide to Addiction,” “If you are addicted to infants, try reliable contraception.”

He strikes the realest of chords, balancing bitterness with love, struggle with vanquish, “chasing a sound that isn’t all about satisfying people’s expectations.” He has a fondness for terza rima and the passage of time. He closes with a resounding, “I appreciate your being nice to me.” Ya done good, Liberal Studies. So, go read some Terrance Hayes now. You won’t be sorry.

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