Award-winning Pittsburgh-based poet Terrance Hayes, who was one of 21 recipients of a prestigious MacArthur genius grant in September 2014, is the subject of an in-depth feature story in The New York Times Magazine.
In his article, Galaxies Inside His Head, writer Stephen Burt showcases the acclaimed American poet and educator who is a professor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Hayes, who received his MFA from Pitt’s writing program, was previously a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, the poet Yona Harvey, who is also a professor at University of Pittsburgh, and their children.
Author of four poetry collections, Hayes has received numerous awards, including a 2010 National Book Award for Poetry, 2005 Pushcart Prize for Best American Poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Born in 1971 in Columbia, SC, Hayes received his B.A. from Coker College.
Burt’s extensive article begins by stating that “Terrance Hayes uses poetry to show that there is more to him, and to anyone, than what you expect.” He accompanies the renowned writer to Woodland Hills High School, where Hayes is working with 50 local students, as well as on a visits to The Andy Warhol Museum and the Highland Park restaurant Park Bruges.
“Fifty students sat at bright white desks in concentric rows in the sterile new computer center at Woodland Hills High School, their eyes on the poet Terrance Hayes. At 6-foot-5, Hayes, who is 43, is easy to see from anywhere, and he seemed eminently approachable, neither teacher nor teen: bluejeans, a black sweater, a leather cellphone case clipped to his belt. He had come to the school, in a racially mixed district that serves several disadvantaged communities in Pittsburgh, to read poetry. The students — Goths, hip-hop fans in giant sweatshirts and jocks in sports jerseys — grew quiet, ready to listen.”
Hayes tells the students: “A poem is never about one thing. You want it to be as complicated as your feelings.”
The article details Hayes’ childhood in Folkstone, an African-American neighborhood outside of Columbia, SC, the college basketball scholarship he received and his decision to switch his major from studio art to English. Burt goes on to analyze some of the poet’s celebrated writings, while also sharing Hayes’ journey to Pittsburgh, his important work with Pittsburgh-based poet Toi Derricotte and Cave Canem and his move to Pittsburgh in 2001 after accepting a job at Carnegie Mellon.
“There is a buzz about his name,” wrote poet Jason Koo in The Missouri Review. “Many people who have not even read his books or, indeed, any contemporary poetry at all, have heard of him — or claim to have heard of him, so as not to appear uncool. Poets I know who cannot agree on anything agree on ‘liking’ Hayes. He’s kind of a poetic Rorschach.”
The poet Shara McCallum, a friend of Hayes’s, said: “Famous poet’ seems like an oxymoron, but Terrance seems to deliver something for a lot of people.” When she saw him at a crowded writer’s convention two years ago, she said, “it was like groupies with Mick Jagger.”
Burt describes Hayes and his creative practice further: “His work explores multiple identities and multiple forms of masculinity — how to be, or become, various kinds of men — but it is also an art of evasion: To become a full-time poet, Hayes had to leave a house of prison guards. Hayes works to escape not the African-American identity but the demand that he (or anyone) express that identity in the same way all the time.
At Woodland Hills, “the students swarmed Hayes after his talk. A.P. English teacher Lisa Silverman praised his work in multiple traditions, in conventional poetry and spoken word, Shakespeare and hip-hop. “He’s the Langston Hughes of their generation,” she told Burt, before turning to Hayes to tell him that he set a good example. “You are definitely comfortable in your manhood,” she said.