Terrance Hayes Reads “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin”
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of September 11, 2017. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On The Poetry Magazine Podcast we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Terrance Hayes’ most recent book is How To Be Drawn. A few years ago, we had the title poem of that book in the magazine, and we think we have the title poem of his next book in the September issue.
Lindsay Garbutt: Actually, it’s going to be hard to say which is the title poem of his next book, because all the poems bear the same title: “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin”. We asked him to explain.
Terrance Hayes: So I’ve been writing all these poems since Trump got elected. Although, they’re not all about him, but the question in every poem is what is an American sonnet and who is the assassin? That’s it, otherwise they have nothing to do with each other. It’s like a bunch of poems called the rose.
Lindsay Garbutt: He did say though, that behind all the poems is an implicit threat and a question.
Terrance Hayes: I think this dude is trying to kill me. Can I still love him? Can I write a sonnet to my assassin? That’s really what drives all of them.
Don Share: We have four of these poems in the September issue, and we’ll hear two of them now. The first is the one where Terrance Hayes says he’s coming closest to saying what an American sonnet is.
Terrance Hayes: I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
Lindsay Garbutt: I kept thinking about those last two sentences, “It is not enough to love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed”. This pairing of extremes and finding something in between them recurs throughout the poem. There’s the prison or panic closet, music box and meat grinder for the sonnet. And then the assassin is both gym and crow. Neither of these things can be contained by these oppositions, that the sonnet and the assassin are both bigger than any pair of things he can use to describe them.
Don Share: Technically, it’s marvelously interesting. This is what Terrance Hayes is so good at. The pairings that you’re talking about have to do with the way the lines in a poem meet up and by definition have to differentiate themselves. So one line leads to another, but of course it’s different from the one that came before. If there’s a rhyme or some other kind of resonance, it’s both a similarity and a kind of dissonance. He literally says … because people usually know at the end of the sonnet you get a change. That’s where he says …
Terrance Hayes: … voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor.
Don Share:… the poem is meticulously constructed, but more than that, here’s a poem that’s listening to what’s going on. The result is a volta of acoustics, it’s like a change of the way you hear and then think about things which is leading to the change in the way he writes about things, which is to issue these sonnets like bulletins, one after the other, which is kind of how we’re keeping up with what’s happening. Another pairing, which is what you were saying, is instinct and metaphor, that’s sort of the poet’s job. Yes, the ending is devastating. “It’s not enough to love you. It’s not enough to want you destroyed” are words that come back to me over and over again as I sort of see the news even at the present moment. The poem, especially a sonnet, is a way to sort of pull back, think about it, but at the same time lift us off the page. It’s kind of a call to action. It’s not just oh, that’s a nice poem. It’s filled with activity. The first line; “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, part panic closet”. That claustrophobia induces us to want to break out of the prison, break out of panic, break out of form into something that can’t be suggested. You have to imagine what to do in these times. It’s a combination of feeling locked out or locked in, and the freedom that we’re obliged to have to do something.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, he makes that really explicit in the poem I think because he repeats that action, I lock I lock I lock, three times. And then it shifts to become “I make you both gym & crow here”, “I make you a box of darkness”. So instead of locking things in, he is creating. There’s this tension between containment and creation throughout the poem.
Don Share: And in dark times, and what times aren’t dark times, that the poem is a box of darkness with a bird in it’s heart is a perfect formulation.
Lindsay Garbutt: I think that’s a great transition into the next poem. Let’s hear another “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin”.
Terrance Hayes: Inside me is a black-eyed animal
Bracing in a small stall. As if a bird
Could grow without breaking its shell.
As if the clatter of a thousand black
Birds whipping in a storm could be held
In a shell. Inside me is a huge black
Bull balled small enough to fit inside
The bead of a nipple ring. I mean to leave
A record of my raptures. I was raised
By a beautiful man. I loved his grasp of time.
My mother shaped my grasp of space.
Would you rather spend the rest of eternity
With your wild wings bewildering a cage or
With your four good feet stuck in a plot of dirt?
Don Share: What really grabbed me about this poem was that phrase “wild wings bewildering a cage”, because to me it’s right out of Yeats. Yeats says, “And what if excess of love bewildered them until they died”. And that’s from Yeats’ great poem “Easter 1960” also about a time of change and dread and violence. Most people know the other lines of the poem, for instance “a terrible beauty is born”. I think there’s a lot of Yeats at the back of this poem. Where he says "As if a bird could grow without breaking it’s shell”, the violence there is sort of productive, that there’s a way that you have to push through to get out into the world and then be vulnerable in it. Which this poem is about; “I was raised by a beautiful man. I loved his grasp of time. My mother shaped my grasp of space”. Launched out into the world, what do you do? What’s really wonderful to me about this particular poem is that when it asks “Would you rather spend the rest of eternity with your wild wings bewildering a cage or with your four good feet stuck in a plot of dirt?”, that’s an essential question. But it also acknowledges the sort of eternity that’s in a poem, the eternity that’s in our willingness to continually engage with something. It creates time and makes it productive, but it’s a dangerous process. It’s dangerous to people who go out into the world and must do something or just live in it and get by. It’’s also an indication of the dangerous violence that imbues every step we take.
Lindsay Garbutt: I’m glad you brought up the Yeats too, because I think it’s really interesting to think about what are the precedents for this series that Terrance is doing? And what does it mean to write an American sonnet verses an Italian sonnet or a Shakespearean sonnet. Obviously, John Berryman is very famous for his sonnets as an American poet.
Don Share: And Lowell, also writing in a time of war, the Vietnam war era.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yep. But I think this is also explicitly drawing on Wanda Coleman, because she wrote a series of poems called American sonnets, and in Terrence Hayes’ last book he wrote a poem called “American Sonnet for Wanda C”. So I like to think about this poem series that he’s doing now growing out of a previous poem he wrote maybe just as a one-off and then realized there was so much more he wanted to do with what does it mean to write a specifically American sonnet?
Don Share: He even says here, I mean to leave a record of my rapture. That is a very bold stroke. Instead of leaving behind a lament or a prayer, or the many possibilities. But what he is committed to is what the greatest poets are, which is to leave a record of raptures, which has a religious dimension to it too. What happens as we approach an end of a kind of history, if that’s what it is? What do we think is going to happen, and what record is going to be left of it?
Terrance Hayes: … With your wild wings bewildering a cage or / With your four good feet stuck in a plot of dirt?
Don Share: You can read four poems by Terrance Hayes in the September 2017 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four September episodes all at once in the full length podcast on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], write a review in the iTunes store, or mention the podcast on Facebook or Twitter.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox, with help from Catherine Fenalosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.
The editors discuss two poems by Terrance Hayes called "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin" from the September 2017 issue of Poetry.
- American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous”]
- American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison”]
- American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Inside me is a black-eyed animal”]
- American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Why are you bugging me you stank minuscule husk”]