The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Terrance Hayes about his latest collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, playing Scrabble, and his attempt to define the “American” sonnet.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight. It sounds like you’ve been quite busy with the release of this book.
Terrance Hayes: Yes, book tourture 🙂
Brian S: I haven’t seen that before. That’s good
How has the tour gone so far?
Terrance Hayes: I see emojis don’t work in this program. That’s gonna be tricky.
Picture crying shrug sigh emoji.
Folks have been nice, though. Appreciate the interest in my work.
Brian S: It was one of those moments where I picked up the advance copy, read about five pages, and said “I want to do this for the book club,” and then I read the rest.
Terrance Hayes: Thanks. I’m still figuring out how to talk about the book. How to read from it without sweat.
Brian S: I know the sonnet is a bit of a departure for you stylistically speaking, and that this is a nod to Wanda Coleman. Can you talk some about the power you found in the form and how it drove this book?
Terrance Hayes: Well, there have been sonnets in every book. In Wind in a Box there were six sonnets titled “Wind in a Box.” The form has always felt like that: wind in a box. Though How to Be Drawn is mostly made of long poems, the shortest is the sonnet to Wanda Coleman. So somewhere in my mind I was looking this way before I realized it. Maybe.
Brian S: It’s always been an interesting form to me because of its compactness and flexibility. I remember when I first started studying them years ago wondering what a person could do in just fourteen lines and yet…
Terrance Hayes: In my second book there is a poem titled “Sonnet.” Every line is: “We sliced the watermelon into smiles.” It scans and rhymes perfectly. I’ve always enjoyed bending—without breaking rules.
I am still trying to define the “American” sonnet. I know it concerns rule breaking, bastardizing… Resistance, contradiction, irregularness, pain, joy, life, death, and pursuits.
Brian S: Side note: I want to talk about so many of the individual poems in this book but I have no idea how to identify them outside of page number or first line.
Terrance Hayes: Lol. And I don’t have the book handy so page numbers will fail us, too.
Brian S: Yeah, rule-breaking especially stands out to me. Abandoning some part of the whole—the meter or the number of beats per line or the rhyme, something. The one thing that seems to always be there is the number of lines.
Terrance Hayes: And the title. Insert wink emoji.
Brian S: And the volta, though even that changes places from poem to poem.
Terrance Hayes: Yes. But I wince to hear I have written a book of sonnets. I wrote a book of poems.
Brian S: Does calling it a book of sonnets make it seem more self-important or something? I hadn’t considered the difference until you typed that.
Terrance Hayes: They are poems before sonnets.
Brian S: Right. And a piece of writing can be a sonnet without being a poem. I’ve written more than a few of those in my life.
Terrance Hayes: Zactly
Brian S: In the first poem, you write: “In a second I’ll tell you how little / writing rescues.” And I think that sets a strong tone for the book, in that writing can only ever do so much and not always for good. Can you dig into that a little more for us?
Terrance Hayes: If you believe poems ask questions, speculate, then even a direct statement has the halo of a question. Did writing rescue Plath? Orpheus? Does a love poem rescue love? All questions in that sentence.
Brian S: And then the poem ends with an issue of translation and how impossible it is at times. Orpheus sends “his beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it. / He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant / I never want to see you again.” Which kind of illustrates the possibilities of a poem for each reader. And then to end on “It is possible he meant that, too.” just amps up the ambiguity of language even more.
Terrance Hayes: Yes, I hope so. I hope that what’s expressed there.
Brian S: This is a little inside baseball, but is the book ordered chronologically? I’m asking mainly because of the short time frame in which these poems were written.
Terrance Hayes: No, I ordered them in the index. I could determine the first poem for each of the five sections, but just played with “suggesting” poems thereafter. I am a daily Scrabble player. I used the Scrabble part of my brain. I wanted the index to suggest five additional poems. The order would have overwhelmed me otherwise.
Brian S: I imagine you’re a hell of a Scrabble player.
Terrance Hayes: In my reading copy, I have punctuated the index. Sometimes I think that would have been fun in the actual book. But didn’t want to be to forward with something so random.
Scrabble calms my nerves.
Brian S: I do crosswords for the same reason. I like Scrabble as a challenge for finding words, but I find myself losing games because I went for something clever instead of what scored the most points.
Terrance Hayes: Sure, that happens to me in live games. Not so much vs. the computer. Which is how I play everyday.
Brian S: I read the piece Hanif Abdurraqib wrote about his conversation with you for Poets and Writers, and I really agreed with what you said about Berryman and The Dream Songs. Seventy-seven was enough. I didn’t need the rest of them. How many poems (roughly) didn’t make the cut for this book? (I think it’s safe to assume we won’t be seeing many of them.)
Terrance Hayes: There are a few online. One is in Boston Review, I know. And in Kenyon Review. I still have doubts about four or five I cut and maybe two or three I included. I used a few as the basis for a libretto that Carnegie Hall in April. I think anything I dug made it out of the house. Maybe not into the book. And the rest are resting in peace and pieces. I used a few bits for a series of drawings. Will maybe use other parts for future poems. And then, man, a lot of it just ain’t worthwhile.
Brian S: Yeah, every couple of years I do that poem-a-day thing in April, and if I get six or seven usable drafts out of it I’m happy.
Terrance Hayes: You know, I’ve never done that in any official way.
Terrance Hayes: I mean one hopes to be doing it everyday anyway. The poem-a-day thing sort of foregrounds the pressure I always feel.
Brian S: I can’t say I recommend it. At some point I find myself writing just to meet the quota I’ve set for myself and it’s almost guaranteed to be garbage. But I go through writing slumps and it helps me bump out of them a little.
Terrance Hayes: Sure. … who wouldn’t want to write a poem-a-day, every day? I want to. Sometimes it happens.
Brian S: Which poems are the ones popping up in your readings right now? I have my book open to page forty-eight which starts, “The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk,” and I really want to hear that out loud.
Terrance Hayes: I don’t think I’ve given the same reading yet. I always/usually include the poem on the back of the book. I wrote that when I was trying to define the American sonnet in a very direct way. I tried it a few times. There are two attempts in the book. Anyway, I just try out different readings sets. Keeps me anxious in advance of the readings. Anxious keeps me alert.
Brian S: I was just looking at the poem on page fifty-eight which starts, “Why someone would crowd into a church is beyond me.” And that kind of sums up my feelings on it, having been raised a Jehovah’s Witness and not been one for about twenty-one years. But I find it interesting the way the poem progresses from there, into the implications of language and history and winds its way back to church, but at a funeral.
It had me thinking about how much churches are a part of the fabric of our lives even if we don’t belong to one.
I just realized I don’t have a question there. Sorry.
Terrance Hayes: Right… I was sitting here thinking what I often think in these interviews… “I hope the poems speak for themselves.” This I do because it’s part of my job. And because I love a good question. I’m enjoying your insights.
Brian S: They do speak for themselves. They fit into that William Carlos Williams quote, “I wanted to write a poem / that you would understand. / For what good is it to me / if you can’t understand it? / But you got to try hard —.”
These poems reward close reading, and multiple readings, and I hope people sit with this book a long time.
Brian S: I know you have another book coming out soon from Wave Books. Can you tell us a little about it in the few minutes we have left?
Terrance Hayes: I’ve been collecting interviews, making drawings, writing poems and prose about Etheridge Knight, for many years. I shaped them into lectures for Wave’s Bagely-Wright lecture series. Then when they suggested makes the lectures into a book, the forthcoming book happened. It’s a strange book. Over a decade of work.
Brian S: I have an advance copy of it on my to-read pile, and I plan to dig into it soon.
Thanks so much for joining us tonight in the middle of your very hectic schedule. And thanks for this terrific book as well.
Terrance Hayes: Thanks for taking the time to do this. The poems put us in conversation. That’s how they reward me. Thanks.
Photograph of Terrance Hayes © Becky Thurner Braddock.