Q & A

POETRY: Your poems balance vital living voices with the formal diction of poetry. Can you talk about how you reconcile and balance these — and tell us more about characters like Big Trend, Stick, and especially Orpheus, whom we know as the poet in mythology who could charm wild beasts, get rocks and trees to dance, and even divert the flow of rivers with his song?

TERRANCE HAYES: I keep glancing over the poems here for clues to their meaning. (I rarely know what I've written until I read it.) Should I be talking about meaning? I shouldn't be talking about meaning. Poetry is the language of suggestion not the language of meaning, everybody knows that. But maybe these poems are actually about meaning . . . Four of the five here (“New Folk,” “Stick Elegy,” “Ode to Big Trend,” “Cocktails With Orpheus”) are set in a very meaningful, very made-up world. They're built around a tilting rhyme scheme (for example, in “New Folk”: Hemped-when-tempers-intended-simple-end-temple) which acts as the scaffolding for their tilted visions: their imaginary nostalgia and memories of the future. Poetry-loving laborers like Big Trend, blues journeymen like Jebediah, and former high-school B-ball stars like Stick live at the crossroads of the possible and impossible. They sit in neighborhood bars as Orpheus does considering parallel lives. Looking into his eyes the speaker sees something bright and scorching, a fire that is both blinding and enlightening. I think of Orpheus as a figure paralyzed by both imagination and reality.

P: “Mystic Bounce” is an angry poem; the rhyming of “ascension” and “Christian” brackets it. The poem says, “at this pitch who has time for meditation”; can you talk about how, in a sense, these poems enhance lyrical meditation with what Ralph Ellison, whom you've quoted elsewhere about the blues, might call “sheer toughness of spirit?”

TH: Unlike the other poems, “Mystic Bounce” was stitched and Lego-ed from several lines over several months and moments. Though it's the least narrative of the batch, I consider it the most grounded in daily-hood. It's a marriage and collision, a collusion of the spiritual and social, the meditative and political. Maybe it explores the struggle to reconcile peace (deer, seascapes, emancipated skylines) with people (building makers, presidents, Christians). The issue of free health care, for example, is in our lives. I believe in it. Or I believe, as the poem says, there should be free physicals for everyone. There are always questions sleeping next to any of my beliefs. For example, what sort of existence can people dragging slavery's shadow around hope for? In his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition Fred Moten asks: “Have you ever suffered political despair, despair at the organization of things?” This feels like a good place to mention that.

Tone may be a better word than meaning. Tone in “Mystic Bounce” feels tangled and tangential, abstract and blue — but not without pleasure. Where the other poems involve the realities of dream, it involves the jagged dream of reality. I think my work vacillates between these two poles. One foot permanently buried in the mud, the other permanently levitating an inch or two above ground. Though this straddling / teetering approach to poetry is fraught with anxiety, I like the possibilities it offers. It allows me to give a shout-out to the great guitarist Elizabeth Cotten or to pen an ode to an imaginary friend like Big Trend, on the one hand; it allows me to say “Fuck the deer” on the other.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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