Pitt alum wins National Book Award

By Larissa Gula

Despite being young — just turning 39 — Pitt alumnus Terrance Hayes received a National Book… Despite being young — just turning 39 — Pitt alumnus Terrance Hayes received a National Book Award for poetry, succeeding over four other poets.

The National Book Awards are a series of prestigious literary prizes given to writers since 1950 in categories for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s fiction. Hayes won with “Lighthouse,” his fourth book of poetry.

His success has caused excitement in the Pitt community, particularly the English department, and the Carnegie Mellon community,  where he works as a professor.

“People in the writing program have been talking about it a lot,” said Pitt professor Lynn Emanuel, who taught Hayes in Pitt’s Master of Fine Arts program. “We’re all thrilled. It’s an honor to win the Book Award. It’s an exceptional honor to win it so young.”

Emanuel served on the panel of judges for the same award four years previously, so she understands the challenges of judging as well as winning.

“During deliberations, we talked about the way it’s hard to give the award to a single volume of poetry when there are so many that contain a life’s work,” Emanuel said. “For a single volume by a young writer to win the award is extraordinary.

“I’m not sure what the impact will be for Terrance, aside from the fact that he will be very busy and get job offers and who knows what. But I think it’s exceptional that this happened to someone as young as he is.”

Hayes earned his master’s degree in writing from Pitt in 1987. He currently teaches English at CMU and keeps busy teaching workshops and classes to students examining poetry in the public sphere.

He makes time to write on a daily basis and always challenges himself in his writing, according to fellow professor James Daniels.

“In each book, he’s challenged himself and his readers with fresh, innovative work,” Daniels said in an e-mail. “Stylistically, he’s very inventive. Nobody out there is writing like Terrance, and I think the distinctiveness of his voice makes him stand out. His work reaches across many of the groups that make up contemporary poetry.”

Hayes said in an e-mail that he considered himself a reader long before he became a writer and remembers reading poetry along with fiction at a young age. Though he never strongly considered making a career out of poetry, now that he is a writer, he can’t imagine doing anything else.

He also believes Pitt professors had a large impact on his style.

“I remember my three poetry professors: Ed Ochester, Lynn Emanuel and Toi Derricotte,” he said. “They were three distinct poets and teachers. Each was encouraging and engaging. I try to be a poet that combines all they taught me about mind, body and spirit.”

Emanuel remembers Hayes in her classes as a young man who was “finding his voice.”

“He was sort of going back and forth between writing about African-American superheroes and his family,” she said. “If you think in terms of his current developed work, it was a kind of interesting sign of what would happen later.

“His poetry is in some ways rooted in the real, domestic world of the family. In other ways, it is also very socially conscious and very interested in both stereotypes and characters from African-American literature and music. I think he was already working in that direction even when he arrived.”

Although there are people who don’t appreciate poetry or read it regularly, Hayes considers the art small but thriving.

“No one gets rich and famous writing poetry, but there is no shortage of passionate audiences,” he said. “These audiences include students and teachers, of course, but you’ll also find regular people who somehow discovered a poem or poet. I think there’s something for everybody in the form. No one says, ‘I don’t like music,’ because there are so many kinds of music. The same is true of poetry.”

Emanuel also feels that poetry, one of the oldest forms of literature, carries a historical weight with it, making it a powerful class topic for all her students, past and present.

“It has an incredibly complex body of knowledge attached to it,” she said. “I think the other thing that an instructor does is invite a student to enter this long, complicated conversation by writing. I think every student in a MFA, certainly any at Pitt, is very aware of some kind of historical and cultural burden pressing down on everything they write.”

With the award came a reassurance for Hayes that people still care about the art form.

“Winning the National Book Award only confirmed my belief that people still care deeply about poems,” he said. “I’ve heard from people across the social spectrum who are curious or encouraging about what I do. I’ve been excited and a bit overwhelmed by all the attention.”