- A Conversation with Terrance Hayes
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Terrance Hayes is the author of 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, the Kate Tufts Discovery [End Page 58] Award, a National Poetry Series award, a Pushcart Prize, two Best American Poetry selections, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. His poems have appeared in a range of journals, including The New Yorker, Fence, Tin House, The Kenyon Review and Ploughshares. He is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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INTERVIEWER: Let's start at the beginning: Where did you grow up?
HAYES: Columbia, South Carolina. I grew up there and went to college about two hours away at this small liberal arts school, Coker College. It's in the country, surrounded by cotton fields. I majored in painting but took English classes by a professor I really liked. I wound up with enough for a double major, but mostly I was just taking painting classes.
INTERVIEWER: That's interesting. I've always thought of your poetry as being heavily influenced by music, much more so than the visual arts. But now you're saying painting was actually what you went to school for.
HAYES: Yeah, though I played basketball. I was on a basketball scholarship, which meant I could take anything I wanted to take. I was also in the chorus. I never tell people that, because I was a "jock." I thought briefly of majoring in music because I'd done chorus in high school, but I changed my mind pretty quickly—the "public performance" of singing was too much.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any formal experiences with art or literature when you were younger?
HAYES: Well, no one in my family graduated from high school. My mom dropped out of school when she was sixteen to have me, and my [End Page 59] dad dropped out of school to go into the military (he's my stepdad). We lived at first on military bases, and then when I was eight we went back to my mom's hometown in Columbia. You know, my parents were encouraging, but mostly I was an enigma. They let me do what I wanted to do because I made good grades and I played sports. Everybody knew that I was an "artist," but there were no art classes over the summer, no poetry camps. I would ride my bike to the library and I would read all the books in the house. And my parents let me be. They didn't discourage me, and I don't even think they knew how to encourage me really. They had no sense of what it would mean to encourage something like that.
INTERVIEWER: When was your first experience of writing in particular?
HAYES: The first time I heard anything about creative writing was when we took those standardized tests in middle school. I wrote an essay about a friend, and the next year I was put into this special English class. I couldn't figure out why. But something in my scores indicated that that's where I belonged. That was eighth grade. Then I went to high school, and from then on the English teachers paid attention. And I did write poems—when I gave a student body lecture at my high school two years ago, one of my former English teachers brought out the school literary journals and showed me the first poems I'd ever written. But again, I didn't tell people about this; I didn't tell my parents; I just thought, okay, cool, I don't mind doing this.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember particular books you read when you became more conscious of writing as something you wanted to do?
HAYES: I remember reading short stories by Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. I would ride my bike to the library and find all of these short stories by people whose names I didn't really know, but I knew...