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Interest in people brings diversity to Pitt professor's award-winning poetry

| Friday, July 24, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
University of Pittsburgh professor and poet Terrance Hayes
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
University of Pittsburgh professor and poet Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes' life didn't perceptibly change after winning the National Book Award for poetry award in 2010.

The recognition for his collection “Lighthead” was gratifying, of course, but the audience for poetry “was already in the water,” he says.

In his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, however, he's become a rock star among poets, particularly since being awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last year.

“What's funny about that is it could only happen in Pittsburgh,” says Hayes, who appears on July 28 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Writers Live @ CLP.

“When I'm in other places and people say that, ‘poetry rock star,' I say, ‘It's poetry so it's an oxymoron. It's impossible,' ” he says. “But it's true in Pittsburgh. I have actually gone to the dry cleaners and met people who've said ‘Oh, I read your work.' But it's not just me. I think people here read poetry and are aware of it and respect it.”

In awarding the $625,000 grant, the MacArthur Foundation said, “Terrance Hayes is a poet who reflects on race, gender and family in works marked by formal dexterity and a reverence for history and the artistry of crafting verse.”

Because of the high demand for tickets, Hayes' appearance has been moved from inside the main Carnegie library in Oakland to the adjacent Carnegie Lecture Hall, which seats 600.

Drawing large audiences — at least, by poetry standards — has become commonplace for the South Carolina native.

“I've had the fortune to twice host Terrance Hayes for readings at the East End Book Exchange,” says owner Lesley Rains. “Both times have yielded audiences upwards of 70 people crammed into our little store.”

Hayes, 43, who lives in Highland Park and is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, constantly pushes the boundaries of poetry.

His new collection, “How to be Drawn” (Penguin Poets, $20), features a mix of traditional poems and works that subvert traditional forms. “Who Are the Tribes” includes a grid, and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh” features text in boxes with broken line borders. “Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report,” as the title states, is written as a crime report.

Hayes admits these poems are difficult, if not impossible, to read aloud. One of the reasons he concentrates on poetry instead of fiction or essays is the opportunity it affords to stretch the limits of the genre and to explore how form influences content.

He calls adhering to traditional constraints “ break-dancing in a straitjacket.”

“It's always going to be more interesting to break dance without a straitjacket,” Hayes says. “I want form to influence my content, I want it to make my language do things that it might not have otherwise done.”

Hayes writes poems that have “unexpected shapes,” says Elizabeth Alexander, a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, who teaches at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“In this way,” Alexander says, “not only does he make utterly original and inventive poems, but he also inspires other poets — like myself — to feel similarly liberated in our own art-making.”

At least three of the poems in “How to be Drawn” resonate with recent events in Charleston, S.C., and Baltimore. “Black Confederate Ghost Story,” “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades” and “Antebellum House Party” directly speak to the current zeitgest regarding race and how to talk about it.

Alexander thinks because Hayes understands these racially charged events are not isolated, it makes his “poems of the moment seem prescient.”

“He is, also, a poet with his finger to the wind in the sense that he is porous and keen in his tuning into what Ralph Ellison called the ‘lower frequencies,'” Alexander says.

Hayes admits he pays attention to the news. But he's also interested in “the people in my house, the people in the coffee shop … I'm supremely interested in people.” If that means addressing politics or race or religion or anything that can be deemed as controversial, so be it.

“It is true that I have interests as a black man walking up and down the street,” he says. “As a Southerner living in the North. As a father. So, all of these things impact me. I don't keep anything out of the poems, anything that can fit into a subject. In fact, I look for those surprises.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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