Rubbed By Light

Terrance Hayes has written, “What we break is what we hold,” and his poems reveal things that are broken, lives that glow.

His work consistently attracts acclaim, including a National Book Award. Last year, the poet won another exceptional distinction and $625,000 to do whatever he likes.


Most late nights, the husband, father of two, and full-time professor escapes the “jam of life’s traffic” by walking the 14 steps to his third-floor study. Here, cradled amid his wall of books and self-drawn canvases, he shuts down the noise of a thousand thoughts and goes into the quiet of listening to himself.

He could spend hours here. It’s the chamber where he finds focus, a chance to corral his roaming imagination. 

If he can get just a solid 15 minutes of clarity, he can scrawl, write, create—begin the craft of spinning words into ideas and ideas into poetry.

But poet Terrance Hayes is at peace with it now, the notion that 15 minutes is all he might get out of 24 hours. Now, he seizes those 900 seconds and immerses in them. He no longer frets that in any single day there may not be more creative time.

That wasn’t always the case. “For a long time, I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to get it all, to get more,” he says. “I felt deep anxiety about how much I was missing. It’s like Arghh!, I haven’t read enough books, and I said something really smart an hour ago but now I have forgotten it.” Even in his sleep, he fretted. The anxiety over what he might be missing sent waves of frustration and fragments of ideas crashing into his dreams.

But then he had a breakthrough. “I just decided to take what I could get,” says the poet. “If it’s a really, really great idea, I’ll put it in my phone or jot it down. I’m trying not to feel too guilty about what’s lost and, instead, reflect more on what’s gained, because you can never get it all.”

Whatever Hayes is channeling, it’s working. What the lanky, 6’6” writer has been able to accomplish with the scraps of time he has gathered over the years is what some would call … well, genius.

In September, Hayes was named one of 21 recipients of a 2014 MacArthur fellowship, a much-heralded honor more commonly known to the public as a genius grant.

The MacArthur Foundation avoids the “genius” word, instead emphasizing that the selected fellows are individuals of exceptional creativity. The foundation describes them as people who have the “drive and ability to make something new or to connect the seemingly unconnected in significant ways so as to enrich our understanding of ourselves, our communities, the world, and the universe that we inhabit … producing works that broaden the horizons of the imagination.”

No doubt, the fellowship is a bright light. And for nearly two decades, the warmth of other creative suns has also shined on Hayes.

His efforts have consistently produced award-winning volumes of poetry. Muscular Music (Tia Chucha, 1999) won the Whiting Award in 1999 and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 2000. Next, Hayes was a 2001 National Poetry Series winner, which resulted in the publication of Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006) earned a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. His collection Lighthead (Penguin, 2010) won the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry. His latest volume, How To Be Drawn (Penguin), was released in March.

The awards are one measure of creativity, but Hayes’ exceptionality has always been evident, says Toi Derricotte, Pitt Professor Emerita of English and a renowned poet with her own slew of honors, an award-winning memoir, and more than 1,000 poems published in anthologies, journals, and magazines.

Derricotte met the curious and striving Hayes about 20 years ago. He was an Academic All-American basketball player at the small, private Coker College in South Carolina, and she was giving a reading not far from his campus. Hayes went to her presentation, and when Derricotte finished, he approached the poet.

He told her: “I want to write.” 

She remembers that Hayes wasn’t sure of the path to follow to get started. However, she recalls him as an earnest, impressive young man who spoke with passion about what he wanted to do with his life. Derricotte invited him to apply to the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate program in writing.

Within a few months, Hayes arrived in the city of Pittsburgh.

“I can remember getting here and having not even decided what my genre was,” he says. “I just said I wanted to study creative writing.”

Suddenly, the young man from the South who had primarily seen himself as a jock and a visual artist was thrust into Pitt’s Gothic tower of lively classrooms and lofty conversations with other writers. It was a strange new place, and Derricotte recalls Hayes as being uneasy, initially, about where he fit in. The poetry track offered support and a place to explore all of his feelings.

Hayes was humble, Derricotte observed, but he was also someone who built community among his fellow students and within the larger English department by arranging readings and supporting other writers. Perhaps what she was witnessing early on was the truth-telling, generous spirit that would come to define Hayes and his work—inviting, challenging, always drawing people toward the light.

Hayes grew up in Columbia, S.C., a creative spirit who loved language and arts. His mom, a prison guard, and his father, who built his career in the military, bought him art supplies and sent him to art camp. He sketched his friends and painted murals, toyed with the piano, made T-shirts, and, when night fell, spun his adventures to his cousins, turning what should have been slumber into story time. As a youngster, he spent much of his time in the warmth of his grandmother’s kitchen reading to her, and, as he got older, visiting the local library, wrapping himself in the words of his favorite writers.

“The scope of his imagination is limitless,” says Samuel Hazo, an award-winning author and poet laureate of Pennsylvania from 1993-2003. He founded the Pittsburgh-based International Poetry Forum, which, for more than 40 years, hosted some of the nation’s and the world’s best poets. Among the artists featured at the forum were Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich.And Terrance Hayes.

Hazo describes Hayes’ work—provocative reflections on race, gender, and family—as “unforgettable.” He praises Hayes’ bold verse and experimentation with form as being filled with a vast acquaintance with literature, as well as historical and sociological insight.“He is an American poet, but he transcends place,” says Hazo.

Most of what we hear with poetry is communication, a recording of fact or feeling, explains Hazo. But Hayes’ poems, he says, put the reader personally, deeply in touch with both subject and author. It is more than communication, it is something closer to “communion,” says Hazo. “With Terrance, every poem is like receiving a letter from your closest friend.”

Beyond this intimacy, Hayes’ poems also reflect the echoes and realities of history. The African American poet’s work sometimes has the sepia-toned glow of familiarity, as though some of the moments had come before, yet still live and breathe.

In the late 1890s, a son of freed slaves began writing poetry. His verse soon gained national and international acclaim and the statesman Frederick Douglass heralded the poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, as “the most promising young colored man in America.”

By the 1920s, a generation later, Langston Hughes’ poetry would be attached to the artistic and intellectual awakening known as the Harlem Renaissance. Its themes of pan-Africanism and pride formed new identities for Black people and made Hughes a beloved figure.

Today, Hayes’ bold work and distinguished reputation are building a similar legacy.

“What Terrance shares with Dunbar and Hughes is that each is an African American man, writing about his life. That’s what poets do,” says Derricotte. “But he writes differently because he lives in a different time and his work reflects the language, rhythms, and emotional history of his time. He’s living in a different world, carrying that history. He does not leave it behind.”

Derricotte, who was elected as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012, is especially pleased to see Hayes find this layer of success. She remembers when he was a student struggling to find his place in the writing world, her graduate assistant, and a staffer—getting coffee, welcoming guests—when she was cofounding, with Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem, a national poetry organization that cultivates the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. Now, she considers her student, mentee, and friend “one of the great poets of the 21st century.”

Shortly after the announcement of Hayes’ MacArthur honor, Derricotte gave a reading at the Carnegie Library. “Everyone there,” she says, “White, Black, old, rich, poor—knew of Terrance. All parts of the community. It is a rare gift to have so many have goodwill toward you.”

The years that Hayes (A&S ’97G) has studied, written, and/or taught poetry have been a journey into finding himself, using his art to breathe and explore themes of race, class, identity, and gender. Now, he finds poetry everywhere: the woman on the bus chatting about the Steelers, meeting his biological father, or even in his home, making the trek from his second floor to the third, where he says there are “14 steps—seven, a landing, then seven more. The same number of lines in a sonnet! I should paint some Shakespeare there.”

In 2013, Hayes joined the University of Pittsburgh as a professor of English after 12 years on the writing faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. He is married to poet Yona Harvey, a Pitt writing professor and author of Hemming the Water.

Those who know Hayes in the classroom describe him as a gracious teacher. He does not so much grade one’s work as listen to it, telling his students there are a “million ways to fix” a poem, and that they have to do the hard work of deciding which of those ways to choose.

For someone who first wrote to impress eighth-grade girls or teachers, Hayes is now largely motivated by his engagement with the language. “The joy I get out of reading is that it continues to be a kind of spark to my own writing.”

Recently, much of his creativity has focused on examining masculinity and the influence of the male gaze. They are themes covered in his  latest book, How To Be Drawn, where he delves into the language and expectations of what it is to be a man. “What can a man say and not say”? asks Hayes. “What can a man feel and not feel? I thought this was a space worth exploring.”

He’s as comfortable in a new tuxedo, hobnobbing in one of Manhattan’s luxurious Cipriani establishments while accepting the National Book Award, as he is in blue jeans, sitting in Kelly’s bar in Pittsburgh’s East End while talking to a former student about writing. In March, he was profiled in a New York Times Magazine feature story.

He is also grappling with the weight of the MacArthur honor. The grant provides $625,000 paid out over five years, and Hayes can use the money any way he sees fit. Because of the monetary value attached to the grant, it overlays “genius” on whomever it is bestowed upon, a magnitude Hayes at first seemed uncomfortable with. “I can easily name five other people who deserve this,” he says.

But he’s coming around. He feels good about the outcome because it puts him in the fellowship of other MacArthur artists he greatly admires: visual artist Mark Bradford (2009) and photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems (2013). The thought of being compared to what they’ve accomplished gives him a special sense of pride. He’s mulling over how to gift portions of his grant to help causes he deeply cares about. He does not yet know what he’ll do, but he speaks of wanting to do something “heroic.”

Perhaps that’s already happened. Hayes has what poet, scholar, and his former student Tameka Cage Conley calls “endless relevance.” She still trembles when she reads Langston Hughes’ classic poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and she says, “I think Terrance Hayes’ poetry will have the same effect. It will resonate until there is not a world anymore.”

Meanwhile, Hayes is searching, as always, for the quiet moments at the top of those 14 stairs. The moments that set his poetry-making in motion; 900 seconds, a world without end.

Written by Ervin Dyer. This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Pitt Magazine. View the issue in Zinio Player »