Alumnus profile: Terrance Hayes


If Gwendolyn Brooks was right when she said the poem doesn’t belong to anyone but the… If Gwendolyn Brooks was right when she said the poem doesn’t belong to anyone but the reader, then the readers of Terrance Hayes’ work should consider themselves to be very rich indeed.

Hayes is a poet who earned his Master of Fine Arts in 1997 from Pitt. The alumnus has become one of the premiere poets in the country, and he has gone on to receive such awards as the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Whiting Writers Award and a Best American Poetry selection for his works.

But for the kid from Columbia, South Carolina, who entered college on a basketball scholarship and majored in painting at Coker College, writing as a career was not always a clearly defined ambition.

“When I started out,” Hayes explained in a recent telephone interview, “I wasn’t a writer. I was doing other things. My joy of reading – that was the one thing I was proud of.”

It was a painting professor of Hayes, who himself had graduated from Pitt, who encouraged Hayes to check out the University’s graduate program in poetry. Having applied and been accepted to other schools like Johns Hopkins University, it was the English department’s response to Hayes that attracted him to Pittsburgh.

“I got phone calls from the department, the chair, the secretary. That’s what made me decide to come,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I was taking a risk.”

As a graduate student at the University, Hayes became an assistant to well known poet Toi Derricotte. He specially worked with her as an administrative assistant for Cave Canem, a summer workshop program that intends to enhance African-American poetry specifically.

The program holds a special place in Hayes’ life because it is where he met his wife. And although he was never actually a fellow with the program, Hayes joined the board of directors about two years ago to help oversee the program’s continual development.

“I’m not that far in age from many of the fellows,” Hayes explained, adding that many of his colleagues on the board are older. “It allows me to bridge that gap.”

Hayes uses his experience and position in the field of poetry to bridge gaps in other ways as well. He currently teaches in the English department at CMU.

“I had a professor when I was an undergrad who thought I would be a good teacher, and I knew I liked just sitting and talking about books,” Hayes reminisced. He enjoys the opportunity that teaching allows him- to constantly impart and discuss new books that surface to his attention.

“That is the thing that excites me. I don’t know what other job would allow me to sit around and talk about books all day,” Hayes added.

Hayes had the chance to teach in rural Japan for a short time right after he graduated from Pitt. “I initially just went because my wife had a teaching gig. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he explains. “But it was a good experience because I couldn’t rely on personality – it doesn’t translate. It made me better as a teacher; I had to figure out other strategies.”

In addition to his teaching, Hayes gives readings around the country, about one per month during the school year and at conferences over the summers.

“My favorite readings are group readings,” Hayes emphasized. “When I co-read with a person, it is often more fun. I enjoy sharing the stage.”

On the website for the National Endowment for the Arts, from which Hayes has received a fellowship, he states that he considers it a great reward to be able to give readings and present poetry to people who would otherwise not have the chance to be exposed to the art form.

Hayes has published three books of poetry to date: “Muscular Music,” “Hip Logic,” and “Wind in a Box.” On an interesting note, the cover art for all of his books are works painted by Hayes himself.

As a multi-talented artist, Hayes explained that he never really contemplates how his different disciplines of poetry and painting overlap.

“I like the non-literary quality of painting,” he said. “I do consider myself a painter in that regard, but I have a theory about being a poet: The only time you can be a poet is when you’re writing a poem. As soon as you finish, you move on, and it’s the same relationship to art. I’m a painter when I’m painting.”

But no matter in what aspect Hayes’ expression comes forth, for him, it always comes back to his love for reading.

When asked, as a successfully published poet, what advice he would give to aspiring young poets, Hayes simply replied, “Be a healthy reader. Be a disciple of other people who [write] and you will see how difficult and challenging it is to add to the world … I still get more excited about what I read than what I write.”