Poet Terrance Hayes: Anything but Invisible

Studio 360

Terrance Hayesmight be the only person ever to win a MacArthur fellowship, a National Book Award, and to be named one of People Magazine's Sexiest Men Alive. By any standard, that's a lot of recognition. But in the poetry world, it's even more impressive. "Art is not the kind of thing where you get what you put into it all the time," Hayes tells Kurt Andersen. "So I learned to not expect anything, other than the sort of joy of having a poem in front of me."

Hayes's latest book of poetry, How to Be Drawn, came out earlier this month. His poems reference pop culture with surprising agility, showcasing his ability to draw inspiration from pretty much any source, high or low. Sylvia Plath, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, and Billie Holiday have all received nods in Hayes' poetry. One poem, "The Carpenter Ant," plays with the song "His Pain" by BJ the Chicago Kid, featuring Kendrick Lamar:

I would love to shape, as Perumthachan,
the master sculptor, carpenter and architect
of India is said to have shaped, a beautiful tree

into the coffin in which I am to be buried,
I know whatever we place in a coffin, the coffin
remains empty, I know nothing buried is buried,
I don't know why God keeps blessing me,

I don't know why God keeps blessing me.

Bonus Track: Terrance Hayes reads"The Carpenter Ant"

"Music is a great marker for me in terms of breadth," Hayes explains. While his musical references range far and wide, Hayes keeps his thematic material closer to home. Hayes grew up in South Carolina, where he was one of the only black students at a very preppy high school. But he says that race didn't define him as a kid. "I was a basketball player, and I ran track, and I was a visual artist. So an anonymous black kid would have had a completely different experience than I did."

With all his accolades, invisibility hasn't been too much of an issue for Hayes. But as a theme, it's certainly present in his work. His poem "How to Draw an Invisible Man" plays with Ralph Ellison's take on black invisibility in the eyes of white society. "The thing that I've decided is, I don't want to be invisible, but I'd like to be transparent. I want people to see what I'm thinking and see through me," he says. "I'm about 6'6''. You know, I don't have trouble walking into a room. I would prefer to be more invisible, in fact, than I am."

Bonus Track: Terrance Hayes reads"How to Draw an Invisible Man"