“Language is just music without the full instrumentation,” says Terrance Hayes.
Music is a constant touchstone in Hayes’s poetry. “I’m chasing a kind of language that can be unburdened by people’s expectations. I think music is the primary model—how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition with no words communicates meaning? It might be impossible. Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.”
Hayes started his education and career as a visual artist and almost no one knew he was writing poetry until his first book was published, not even his parents.
As Hayes told Lauren Russell at Hot Metal Bridge, he isn’t interested in “perfect poems”:
If you think about an animal, there’s no perfect animal. Most people think of poems like they’re machines. I’m thinking of something more organic and human that exists the way it needs to exist, more like a baby or child. How do you achieve that? I think of myself as a person who likes to be in control of everything. So how do I surprise myself? For so long I’ve been this person who’s been too in control, so how do I relinquish control? Some of it’s about line breaks, narrative. I like the poem to look a certain way in terms of line breaks, but how do I release control? Some of it is subject matter. The poet wants to be liked in the poem, but what does it mean to not always chase some kind of appeal? Discomfort, vulnerability, rawness that come up in a poem—that also has to do with perfection, the absence of perfection. That’s hard to teach, but if you make people more generous in the workshop, then you can get it. You say, “Oh, it’s not a perfect poem, but it’s pretty good; we’ll take that.” It creates generosity if you aren’t chasing a perfect object.
If you ever have an opportunity to hear Hayes in person, take it. A few months ago I heard Terrance read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, and he kept me on the edge of my seat.
I have two poems by Hayes to share today, and was thrilled to discover this MoMA recording of Hayes reading “New York Poem.” I’ve included it here so you can follow along and listen to Hayes’s poem in his own voice.
Enjoy your Sunday!
New York Poem
In New York from a rooftop in Chinatown
one can see the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of buildings where there are more miles
of shortcuts and alternative takes than
there are Miles Davis alternative takes.
There is a white girl who looks hi-
jacked with feeling in her glittering jacket
and her boots that look made of dinosaur
skin and R is saying to her I love you
again and again. On a Chinatown rooftop
in New York anything can happen.
Someone says “abattoir” is such a pretty word
for “slaughterhouse.” Some one says
mermaids are just fish ladies. I am so
fucking vain I cannot believe anyone
is threatened by me. In New York
not everyone is forgiven. Dear New York,
dear girl with a barcode tattooed
on the side of your face, and everyone
writing poems about and inside and outside
the subways, dear people underground
in New York, on the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of New York, on the rooftops of Chinatown
where Miles Davis is pumping in,
and someone is telling me about contranymns,
how “cleave” and “cleave” are the same word
looking in opposite directions, I now know
“bolt” is to lock and “bolt” is to run away.
That’s how I think of New York. Someone
jonesing for Grace Jones at the party,
and someone jonesing for grace.
Listen to Terrance Hayes read “New York Poem” here:
(If you cannot see the audio recording in your email, click here to listen on the Gwarlingo website)
CHAPTER I. THREE MODES OF MANAGEMENT
First, I would like to have with 248 women from the world’s
248 nations 248 children, then I would like to abandon them.
I know it’s not that easy. But when I am home, I can’t wait
to get moving, when I am moving I can’t wait to get home
again. Part of me loves when I’ve got no place to be.
CHAPTER II. WHAT ARE GENTLE MEASURES?
For the occasion she learns she will have no father
my Sri Lankan child will have to imagine, difficult as it is,
the depth of history, how humanity endures because it is,
at most, an idea. This scenario is also for my mother flirting
with a man twice her age and for the lonely child in me.
CHAPTER III. THERE MUST BE AUTHORITY
I will have a son named High Jinx, and a son named 44,
and a son named Mary. Some of my sons will wear bags
on their heads. Some of my sons will wait their whole lives
to board an ark called American Beauty.
CHAPTER IV. GENTLE PUNISHMENT OF DISOBEDIENCE
Mothers, various retributions should be divvied in the light
of each child’s sins. My children will not always be godly.
You have my permission to punish them as you would like
to punish me. (Your hands and knees must be bloodied.)
CHAPTER V. THE PHILOSOPHY OF PUNISHMENT
I would like to abandon the child of a mother who dies
in a Luxemburg train wreck, and a mother kidnapped
by banana farmers in Belize; a mother taking refuge
alone in a mountain cave during a Peruvian flood.
Goddamn, I want to be as hardcore as my daddy.
CHAPTER VI. REWARDING OBEDIENCE
Thinking of me two or three myths their brains devise
will begin to divide in them, the tangible cells untangling
themselves until my absence seems to recede. My children
will find grease on their fingers after touching pictures of me.
CHAPTER VII. THE ART OF TRAINING
Sometimes I want to catch the hand of a child and go
“Life! Life! Life!” Sometimes I imagine an old naked woman waiting
as her tub fills with water. Or a knock-kneed girl using her face
as a shield. But I will not claim to know other people’s loneliness.
CHAPTER VIII. DELLA AND THE DOLLS
When my Korean daughter falls for the man who dresses
his lovers like dolls, I will not be there to say, “Being a doll
is as close as a toy can come to slavery,” I will not say “Isn’t it
exciting: the noon teas, the personalized songs and cradling?”
CHAPTER IX. METHODS EXEMPLIFIED
Children, here are some my favorite things: the tiny tongue
painted inside a doll’s tiny mouth, a phonograph record
spinning like a girl in a black skirt. Also the family drawing
one of you made though the father in it looks nothing like me.
CHAPTER X. SYMPATHY:–I. THE CHILD WITH THE PARENT
My little Belgian boy in a hat decorated with buttons
pulled from the shirt I left behind, my little Syrian girl
with a shoebox waiting for birthday cards she will not receive,
my farm boy with the tomatoes he tried selling to neighbors
who wanted pears. I plan to never keep photographs of them.
CHAPTER XI. SYMPATHY:–II. THE PARENT WITH THE CHILD
My mother had me when she was 16. The angle of her teeth,
she can barely shut her mouth, may have been inherited
from her father before he ran away. She told me, “If a strange man
ever appears at your door, kick him in his grin, Baby.
Kick him even if he begins to sing to you about me.”
CHAPTER XII. COMMENDATION AND ENCOURAGEMENT
Let’s praise everything that spurs the spirit to creativity.
The tin cup my father rattles until its poison spills,
how easily a mouth erupts with belief. Let’s praise
how much we love without loving, how little we sing while singing.
CHAPTER XIII. FAULTS OF IMMATURITY
We can try to praise the light blue powder of family
because it is not made of stone, it is not mist. You can’t hold it
long, but this is true of many things. Somewhere
in this brain is also my father’s misery. And whether it is better
to forgive or let yourself be forgiven eventually.
CHAPTER XIV. THE ACTIVITY OF CHILDREN
My child with no one to teach her how to skin a Bolivian goat
or make a necklace of Tanzanian wolf teeth, my kindergarteners
in Madagascar and Cuba, my daughter whose step-father
will die in a Kenyan coalmine, my daughter whose boots will fail
to warm her in the Ukrainian snow: their lives will be better without me.
CHAPTER XV. THE IMAGINATION IN CHILDREN
This is a wish for the child sleeping in grass that has wilted
a little, for the child lazing in the pool of a Beachside hotel.
This is for the child who overhears his mother cry
into the phone: “Don’t you put the bad mouth on me!”
CHAPTER XVI. TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD
Sometimes my prayers begin: “Darkness, is that you
at my skull?” Because that’s one version of pain,
I’m always like “Angel, leave me the fuck alone.” I’m like
“Blame the devil of longing.” I have said I am in love with beauty,
but my heart is so mangled, it spills blood on everything.
CHAPTER XVII. JUDGMENT AND REASONING
In the high schools where the janitors speak French,
in Swaziland and Switzerland, on the small islands
where nuns show their knees, in places the word for “Father”
means nothing to me. Their lives will be better without me.
CHAPTER XVIII. WISHES AND REQUESTS
I would like to leave you to the moody cruelty and nurture
of your mothers, Children, to the complex rites and rituals
of your countries, to God gazing like a cop on a bike, to cocoa
and buzzards and crap inventions and the gospel of possibility.
CHAPTER XIX. CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
The bald headed mother dreaming through cancer of the sprawl
of highways and the wide open wilder Wilderness, the fluid
Holy light she can put her hand through, the rain beating
“I am” “I am” all over her body: it’s got nothing to do with me.
CHAPTER XX. CHILDREN’S QUESTIONS
At each door I want to slip on my shoes and say to each woman,
“Do what you do, Mother Goose.” And should one of you find me,
Children, I’ll downright lie and snap, “Shadow, why do you follow me
so? Ain’t you a long way from home too?” You don’t need me to know
what it means to be lonely. I won’t look back. I won’t look back at you.
*The poem’s title and section titles are taken from Jacob Abbott’s 1871 book, Gentle Measures In The Management And Training Of The Young; Or, The Principles On Which A Firm Parental Authority May Be Established And Maintained, Without Violence Or Anger, And The Right Development Of The Moral And Mental Capacities Be Promoted By Methods In Harmony With The Structure And The Characteristics Of The Juvenile Mind.
About Terrance Hayes
Hayes is the author of Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006), Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002) and Muscular Music (Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Classics, 2005, and Tia Chucha Press, 1999). His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
About his work, Cornelius Eady has said: “First you’ll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turns of phrase. Then you’ll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world.”
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! 100+ Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and $10,500 of the $15,000 goal has been raised. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards here on the Gwarlingo site.
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All poems © Terrance Hayes. All Rights Reserved. Terrance Hayes was originally commissioned by Hugo House to write a new piece on the theme of Gods and Monsters. “Gentle Measures” was the result of this special commission. “New York Poem” was originally published in The New Yorker. These poems were published with permission from the author.