My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes

Hanif Abdurraqib

We are talking about Wanda Coleman again, as the darkness falling on Great Jones Street becomes richer, nighttime beginning to flood in through the windows. “I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman,” he tells me, picking apart the catfish on his plate. “And I sent it to her. We exchanged letters, and then suddenly she was ill. She died in 2013, and I registered that, and then,” he pauses, “and then around the election I decided to do something else.”

Hayes says he had a “reaction” to the election, and I understand instantly what he means, as I felt it too. For all of the “now more than ever” tropes about writers and poets being needed at this particular moment—particularly writers and poets of color—the election did create a sense of urgency for many, not necessarily to share all of their work at once, but to establish a legacy of work, something that might be left behind, if there would be nothing else left of us. If things got “real bad,” whatever that meant. For Hayes, though, the week of the election also had another emotional touch point: Wanda Coleman’s seventieth birthday would have been on November 13, 2016. 

“I had this obsession with writing these shorter poems, because I had been writing long poems,” he says, referring to the work in his last book, How to Be Drawn, which included a number of multiple-page poems such as “Who Are the Tribes” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” He continues: “And I thought I could do this for her. I thought to myself, ‘Can I access the thing I most love about what she did, in these times?’” It became something he chased after relentlessly. “Also,” he smirks, after I ask him what other motivations existed for his use of the form, “I like a volta.”

It seems, at least to me, that a volta is defined best by the hand that crafts it, and so therefore a volta can be anything. Formalists will define it as the turn, or the rhetorical division, the shift, between the sonnet’s first eight lines and the final six. For Hayes the volta is in the project itself, tethered to his always shifting definition of the assassin in the work. “I’m trying to go in one way and come out another way. So, yeah, I’m trying to see how many turns I can fit into a poem, but also I like the sonnet as a way of addressing an idea: How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love?” After a long pull of his drink, he adds, “I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”

A love poem for an enemy or a foe is largely about restraint, I suppose. Which makes the project of the book and the restraints on the poems themselves even more fascinating. The central conceit is this: How can I reach out and gently touch that which might not be so gentle toward me? And how can I be sure that in honoring these foes with love, in my turning to face them, they won’t change?

Sometimes the foes are invented, and sometimes the foes are direct and predictable—country, or president, or racism. But the book is most interesting when the foe is Hayes himself. “I’m in a different phase of my life now,” he tells me after we talk briefly about what it is to want to love yourself when you are your own enemy. “Having been married and not being married [now] also bears on the sonnets,” he says, staring into his drink. Hayes is recently divorced from Harvey, though they remain on good terms, he insists, raising their children, a son and a daughter, shuttling between Pittsburgh and New York. “I haven’t talked…. People been asking this shit, but I don’t wanna talk too much about it. But what I will say to you is that sometimes the assassin is you, or sometimes the assassin is a beloved, and that role feels transferrable. It’s like the stuff in the book about Orpheus and Eurydice.” He pauses here, which is rare for Hayes when he gets into a stream of conversation. He is talking about a series of poems in the book that detail the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The poems are decidedly distinct from the others, in both tone and what they are attempting to unravel. They are the poems in the book in which Hayes is hiding the least, taking himself to task, or taking the idea of love to task, or taking the idea of forever to task. 

In one of the sonnets he writes:

I tried to tell the woman

Who sent me songs, it’s departure that makes company 
Hard to master. I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser
With time. I love poems more than money & pussy. 
From now on I will eat brunch alone. I believe 
Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse
Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.
As if what you learn making love to yourself matters 
More than what you learn when loving someone else.


“Most of that is me tying back to a different kind of relationship,” he says. “Who is the assassin between Eurydice and Orpheus? Who is the poet between those two? I’m thinking about…what does it mean to be married to a poet? What does it mean to be married to a motherfucker who’s gonna be playing his music no matter what? He’s a poet. It’s what he’s gonna do. But there are consequences to that. And so you might say, well, maybe she’s the poet then. I’m just…I’m wondering about the beloved as an assassin.”

This sits between us heavy on the table, the most open Hayes has been to this point in our talk. We leave it there, untouched.

I write the poems so I don’t have to talk about this shit,” Hayes tells me when I ask him which part of the response to his work he values more: his playfulness and precision with language or his sentimentality. He is not saying this to dismiss me, and we both understand this. It’s a moment in the conversation when he is talking to me as a writer, someone who he knows has likely had similar responses to questions like this. “Anything I say in a poem, I mean it,” he says. “Feeling and intuition is the only important thing to me. You can persuade someone through logic that perhaps what they’re thinking is wrong. But you can’t persuade someone that their feelings are wrong. You can’t tell a motherfucker that they ain’t hungry if they’re hungry. No words in the world can do that. So I trust feeling as a bedrock thing. Can you want to kill a motherfucker and simultaneously love them?”

To trust one’s feelings can be all-consuming, especially if those feelings are brought into a harsher light by a mess of a political moment. Hayes is invested in his obsessions, even if his obsessions are about the nation unraveling. 

There are poets who are slow and deliberate speakers, working to make sure every sentence holds weight. But Hayes is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway. And in this moment the topic worth expanding on is Donald Trump. 

“Everything I do has to be in service of poetry,” he says, with a little more excitement in his voice. “I can’t be waking up and thinking about Trump all day. And if I do, I have to do it in service of a poem, or else he’ll be a block.”

He is talking about boxes and how every box, like every poem, has multiple sides through which it can be entered. He decided to put Trump in a box and kept turning the box until his truth looked different from every angle. He found this to be more interesting than it would have been with, say, Barack Obama. 

“Obama is super interesting to me, but I already know some of the sides to that cube. He’s a six-sided truth, but I know about half of those sides. As a brother, as a dude who loves basketball, as a dude who got old. To look at something and see yourself in it is easy. I’m not moved by that. With Trump it’s about power and the way his power has a bearing on everyone else. I can meditate on that for at least six months.”

The restraints of the sonnets have been liberating, he tells me. This is only interesting because of how the book wrestles readers inside of it and gives them little room to move within it. If anything, a reader then becomes a part of the interior of the box, which Hayes is turning around in his hand. I don’t mean this to sound negative: One of the book’s strongest points is how readers have to fight their way into and then out of it. Like all of the work Hayes has offered in his career so far, it is both inviting and asking a reader to earn enjoyment of it, in this case through a means of discomfort with the repetitive nature of the poems and their aim.

Hayes tells me he has become so obsessed with the project that he can’t unravel himself from it, which makes sense. He is conflicted, because he knows he can’t do another book like this, but he also knows that he isn’t done with the fascination. “I mean, I got seventy good ones, and I don’t want to overdo it,” he says, blending his usual cool and confidence with the anxieties he holds. “It’s like [ John] Berryman, right? He put out 77 Dream Songs, and then later he put out all of them. And like, there were some all-right ones in there, but shit. I was good with seventy-seven.”

It is political, in some ways: Hayes is surviving the world by writing against it. When I ask him if the work has made him feel any better, he matter-of-factly states, “Well, the shit is still going on, you know?”

There are other ways out, Hayes says. He draws, going to a class once a week and trying to improve his hand as a visual artist. Hayes has experience in the craft, receiving a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he studied both English and painting. His drawings and paintings provide the artwork for the covers of his books. It’s easy to get lost in the visual form, but he keeps returning to the sonnets. Twisting a forkful of mashed potatoes around, and up toward his mouth, he pauses.

“There’s no law that says an obsession can’t continue beyond the production of the obsession, you know?”

It’s getting late, and the fish over the head of Terrance Hayes has begun to droop its long face lower. This is a trick of the eye, I’m sure. Perhaps Hayes is growing taller, more excitable with conversation, and the fish is shrinking in the face of that. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is playing through the café’s speakers, and small crowds of revelers have started to filter in, the way one might expect as a night stretches its palms wider. It is perhaps late only for me. Hayes insists he doesn’t sleep much. “I go to bed around two or three in the morning and wake up around seven. I’m good with four hours a night,” he tells me, as my body involuntarily trembles at the prospect of such little time in bed. He does his best work in the hours after these, when even the revelers beside us begin to lose steam (“I like a nap, though,” he insists). This disclosure makes for an interesting moment between us: me winding down, and him warming up.

Hayes and I find ourselves in the golden hour of our conversation, too. The talk about poems and craft has perhaps drawn all it can draw from the two of us, and now we’re just talking about basketball. Hayes was an Academic All-American basketball player during his time at Coker and has remained attached to the sport. Throughout the conversation Hayes insists that he is always thinking about poems, no matter what else we’re speaking on, but he seems at ease here talking NBA. The plates are cleared off the table, and he has leaned over his drink, swinging his massive palms in one direction or another as he makes a point. An athlete and sports fan and writer, Hayes has an intimate relationship with the game. Like me, he is in it for the narratives, which I do suppose means that even in our talk about basketball, we are talking about poems. 

“LeBron James shoots free throws every day,” Hayes tells me. “And you gotta think, ‘Why is this dude shooting free throws every day if he gets paid to shoot free throws?’ He’s doing that shit with no one watching, because he’s after something different.”

I nod, and Hayes continues.

“I think about that versus someone like [Philadelphia 76ers rookie] Ben Simmons, right? Ben Simmons should be a huge star right now, and he’s perplexed by that….”

I take the opportunity to interject that Simmons isn’t a huge star yet because he can’t really shoot, but Hayes is off, sprinting a mile a minute to reach the end of his thought. 

“Yeah, but Kobe Bryant struggled with that same shit too, right? Kobe had to fight through the same thing of doing the things that should make you famous and expecting fame. But it ain’t about the fame, though.”

In many ways, I know what’s coming next—Hayes the speaker is rarely separate from Hayes the poet—but I let him draw back the curtain with his own language. “It’s about the glory. There’s a difference in fame and glory. Fame is when everyone else is peeping what you’re doing, but glory is when your peers recognize the work you’re putting in. Glory has to be number one. Glory has to be number one, because no one else has to be there.”

I ask the obvious question, the one about whether or not an artist or an athlete or a parent or a construction worker can have glory without fame. Because this is the thing with Hayes, who is undoubtedly famous and has basked in his share of glory. It has created a mythology around him that he seems equal parts thrilled to revel in and sometimes uncomfortable with. Minutes before the conversation took this turn, we were speaking about pressure, and in the middle of a response, Hayes shook his head and said, “God forbid I ever start writing bad poems,” and one ear might hear I know all of my poems are good, but to another, the poet is saying I don’t know what I would be without my insistence on living up to my own standards. So I wonder out loud how you survive at the intersection of fame and glory, or if you can cut one off in service of the other. Hayes takes a moment.

“Yeah, I think so. On the days I’m writing and I’m in a good groove, I hit moments where I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s the closest I can get from this,” he says, gesturing toward his head, “to getting it together on that page. And that’s glory. I’m doing that for me, with no one watching, knowing that the people I’m writing for—poets—are doing the same thing. And it only happens a few times, but when it happens it feels good. I did a 360 dunk once, and I was alone in a gym. No one saw it but the other guys on my basketball team, and those are the only people I cared to see it. A 360 dunk is fucking hard. I want the people who know how difficult the work is to bear witness to the work.”

The red light above our heads has only become more aggressive in its lapping up of the darkness, and by now we are both radiating in its shine. Hayes casually regales me with a tale of watching basketball with former NBA player and coach Phil Jackson last April, a story that few poets would have in their back pocket. “We talked about Buddhism and shit. You know, it was a good afternoon,” he says in an “Isn’t New York wild?” kind of way, to which I nod, thinking about the times I’ve been to this city and felt tiny. The gist of the story is that during their first basketball-watching excursion, Jackson insisted that Hayes not mention LeBron James, whom Jackson had found himself feuding with over a Twitter debate. When the 2017 NBA Finals came around, Jackson invited Hayes to his Manhattan apartment to watch them with him, and Hayes balked. “He invited me back to watch the NBA Finals and told me I couldn’t talk about LeBron James!” Hayes says, half-yelling and half-laughing, as energetic as he has been all night. “I can’t talk about LeBron James during the NBA Finals? I like LeBron James! So I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’ I watched the Finals alone.”

It’s the kind of casual story told by Hayes during which one realizes that he moves through multiple worlds in a singular way, something that can’t be said for many of his peers, though he is still very much among them and often in service to them. He blurbs books vigorously, he reads poems endlessly, and until recently he served as the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine. (Rita Dove took the reins in June.) He derives great pleasure from teaching—during our conversation he is most excited when talking about the ways his students show him to and through poems. But he is also someone who pens work for operas and has his face in an airport and casually watches basketball with one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. And it all seems simple to him, something he has been working toward since he began working. Both fame and glory.

We are talking about death and isolation again, Hayes and I. It’s a fitting end to our time together. Hayes says his true inclination is to stay inside; he likes New York because he feels like he can do that here, and not many other places. He tells me he both loves and hates the way the city folds around him—loves it for its many options and hates it for its many options, all at once. 

When we get to the topic of rap, Hayes is succinct, melancholic. “I think when it comes to rappers, Biggie Smalls is closest to my sensibilities,” he insists, spinning the last bit of ice around in his drink. “He scares me, and the consequences of his art, too…. The consequences of his art informed his life. I think of this like Sylvia Plath. The fact that Sylvia Plath would write ‘Ariel’ and then put her head in an oven, or the fact that Biggie Smalls would say he’s ready to die and then die. There’s something closer to the truth for me. Closer to my understanding of the consequences of what we do. The body’s relationship to the art’s consequences.”

I nod, and look at the time. When I look back up, Hayes is looking outside, while the street, drenched in sirens, howls. 


Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and critic from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photos: Tony Gale)