Hayes Discusses Sonnets, Gwendolyn Brooks

By Abby Wargo and Katy Shenk
Student Life Editor and Elm Staff Writer

As he introduced award-winning poet Terrance Hayes, Dr. James Allen Hall, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said, “We seem to be living in a time of hard news. But every line of Hayes’s illuminates the way forward.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 1, Hayes, the current poetry editor  at the New York Times Magazine, read from his most recent publication, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.”

The volume, which will be released in 2018, includes 70 sonnets, all with the same title as the book.

There are five indices: one for each set of 14 poems.

Though he usually begins by reciting the sonnets immediately, Hayes prefaced his reading with a brief description of his work.

“There is some paradox, trouble, and other stuff,” he said.

The sonnets range in topics from “Doctor Who” tributes to lamentations about President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

“I’m writing directly to deal emotionally with what’s going on,” he said.

Hayes likens his style to Wanda Coleman’s, a poet known for her politically charged language.

His sonnets are modeled after Coleman’s numerous “American Sonnets,” and the whole book is dedicated to her, he said.

“His poems concern love and family, race and gender, and marry high and pop culture in a way that remakes all of those things anew,” Dr. Hall said. “His work is important to many people because it gets out what it means to be American, and what it means to live with agency and dignity in a time when those things are denied to people at the margins, especially African American people.”

Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes read from his newest work "American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin" at the Rose O'Neill Literary House on Wednesday, Nov. 1. He returned the next day to honor the late author Gwendolyn Brooks.
Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes read from his newest work “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin” at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Wednesday, Nov. 1. He returned the next day to honor the late author Gwendolyn Brooks.

Hayes uses sonnet form because he said it allows him to dance in a straightjacket.

“I ask myself, what can I do with language in a shackle?” he said. “It’s a way to break rules.”

The next day, Hayes returned to the Literary House to celebrate the life of Gwendolyn Brooks, whose centenary is this year.

Brooks, who was born on June 7, 1917 and died on Dec 3, 2000, was a prolific poet and the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

She was Illinois’s poet laureate from 1968 until her death, and she received numerous awards throughout her lifetime, including the 1995 Medal of Arts, which was presented to her by then-President Bill Clinton.

“These poems give us a world of wisdom. They do so in a voice Brooks crafted, one that is searing in its images, and musical in its language, so that when the ear receives them, it is pleasure and shock and awe and rush that we feel,” Dr. Hall said.

Brooks was, and continues to be, Hayes’s greatest influence. He first read her poem “The Mother” when he was an 18-year-old painting major on a basketball scholarship.

“A girl that I dated in high school had had an abortion, so when I saw that poem, I broke down. I thought, painting never made me do that, so I decided to become a poet,” he said.

Hayes described how, during the 1960s, Brooks nurtured and encouraged young poets during times of cultural and political upheaval. She learned from them— she changed her hairstyle and her editor, and, during that time, she wrote the poetry book “From the Mecca.” He referred to her as “the mother of poetry” because she helped so many poets grow in their work.

“For me, this is what it means to be a grown-up poet; to be a teacher, to be generous, to be open to anything that comes to the door, to love people, whatever their challenges, to say, ‘If you’re interested in poetry, I will have your back.’ She’s the best model for that,” Hayes said.

It was out of Brooks’s most anthologized work, “We Real Cool,” that Hayes unknowingly developed a new form of poetry, the golden shovel. Golden shovel poems take a line or lines from a Brooks poem and use them as the last lines in a new poem written around them.

Hayes said his original poem doing this was only meant as a writing exercise.

“I saw the words running down the page in a column and decided to write a poem into it. The scene for the poem is a pool hall in Chicago, and the poem I wrote has a scene in a pool hall as well,” he said.

This form took off unexpectedly, and inspired many other poets to write golden shovels as well. The end result was the book “The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks,” which included works by Billy Collins and Sharon Olds.

“Gwendolyn Brooks is always a guide, and I’m glad we have an anthology that celebrates her influence across the board,” Hayes said.

In 1982, Brooks came to WC through the Literary House and gave a reading at the Bethel AME church in downtown Chestertown. Two former WC professors shared their firsthand accounts of that event and read her poems “The Mother” and “A Song in the Front Yard.”

Senior Caroline Harvey also read a Brooks poem, “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” during an open reading portion.

Robert Earl Price, a local poet, shared how he met Brooks at a reading at UCLA and was able to hand her a draft of some of his poems. She mailed them back to him with edits and notes two weeks later. He wrote a poem praising Brooks in the 1970s that was placed in a Brooks-inspired anthology, and he read it at the event.

Hayes closed the event with a Brooks quote, “poetry is an emergency of language,” that he found to be “interesting, wise, and succinct.”

Dr. Hall said that he hoped the attendees had learned more about and felt inspired by Brooks’s works.

“I’m glad we could have this time and fill up this space with the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, who was a Gemini,” he said.

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