Q&A: To Robert Hayden

The epigraph is from Hayden’s poem “The Mirages;” a bit more of the quotation“Less lonely, less/lonely then,//the stranger said.” Tell us what Hayden means to you and how his work has given yours an impetus.

Robert Hayden is one of my keystone poets; I turn to his work for guidance and inspiration. His poems are models of precision, musical phrasing, pictorial refinement, and dictions that reflect and transcend the particulars of his life. I shouldn’t admit this in public, but I sometimes sleep with his Collected Poems under my pillow. I want some of his greatness to seep in!

Who is the “you” in the poem? Would you say that the poem is a kind of elegy? Or, given lines like “Face down, eyes shut,” and so on, an erotic poem? Also, there seems to be a loneliness in the poem. Can you tell us about this?

I don’t think of the poem as an elegy. It’s a love poem. The “you” in the poem is Hayden. The “I” of the poem is a male lover. Hayden never publicly acknowledged his struggles with his sexuality. Arnold Rampersad’s introduction to the Collected Poems touches upon this reticence. The scholar Pontheolla T. Williams in Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry mentions the “wracking trauma that Hayden suffered as a bisexual.” I understand Hayden lived in a different time. Sometimes it was not possible to live as a gay/bisexual man. But Hayden also seemed to believe his sexuality was a sin. He believed the cancer that claimed his life was a punishment for his orientation. As an out-and-proud gay man, this saddens me. This sadness overwhelms me each time I read his work. To counter this sadness, to claim Hayden as one of my queer forefathers, I wrote a poem in which Hayden has an intimate encounter with another man. Not a stranger, but a man he already knows. The pin in the shape of an ampersand speaks to this familiarity. Hayden, in this poem, doesn’t fear or detest his desires. This comforts me as a gay man and as a poet who adores his work. 

What does the ampersand mean to you? 

Brenda Hillman once described the ampersand as a pregnant woman doing yoga. &. How great is that? In an ampersand I see tenderness and love—I see a pietà. Can you see it? A mother holding her dead child. Tenderness and love. I wanted these feelings in the poem, to counter the hate and the oppression gay men have suffered. Also, I got a kick out of placing such a holy “image” in a homoerotic poem. What can I say? I’m a bad Catholic.

What kind of ring did the speaker in the poem toss? Was it a wedding ring? A class ring?

The speaker is a married man. I wanted a speaker with something to lose. In my imagination, the intimate encounter between Hayden and the speaker takes place in the sixties. During that time men were jailed for acting on their desires. Gay bars were often raided and shut down by police. The speaker and Hayden are aware of this oppression, this danger. Anxiety shadows their intimacy. 

The last lines are poignant and intriguing—a flight of the imagination that constitutes the poem’s climax. Can you tell us more about the figurative language at work here?

I’ve read that married men caught in stings set up by vice squads were treated more brutally than single men. That’s why the speaker takes off his wedding ring, to lessen his punishment if caught. But the speaker and Hayden desperately want to be in the hotel room. Together. In each other’s arms. The last simile does one simple but important thing. It allows the speaker of the poem to remind Hayden (and the reader) that it’s impossible to deny the body what the body wants. The body begs and begs for intimacy. 

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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