Pitt poet wins more than half a million, named a genius


By Dale Shoemaker / Staff Writer

Terrance Hayes has come a long way from being a starving artist. He is now considered a genius.

Last week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its 2014 class of fellows to receive a MacArthur grant. Hayes, a nationally recognized poet and professor at Pitt, was among the 21 selected.

The award, commonly referred to as the “genius grant” recognizes exceptional individuals in their respective fields who show the potential to continue to produce great work. Joining Hayes in the 2014 class are a cartoonist, a physicist and a criminal lawyer. All fellows receive a $625,000 stipend, doled out over five years. The foundation calls each recipient individually to inform them of their fellowship. 

Hayes, however, learned he received the fellowship a week late. 

“I received this phone call from Illinois,” he said. “It was first on my cell phone and then on my home phone, but I didn’t know the number. I didn’t recognize it, so I didn’t answer.”

A week later, they called again. He was in a coffee shop with his wife.

“I looked at [my cell phone] like who’s this calling me? A bill collector? Is somebody harassing me? So I let it ring, then dialed it back. No one answered. I was still clueless as to who it was,” he said.

Hayes thought that someone was playing a joke on him. Then, they called him a fourth time. This time, he answered. The voice on the other end told him he had been named a MacArthur Fellow.

“I was wondering who this was,” Hayes said to the caller.

The newly dubbed genius has published four collections of poetry and has already won multiple awards and honors for three of them. His style is improvisational and humorous, and it combines the past and present with poems focusing on subjects such as history and hip-hop with references to artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Tupac. 

Hayes often writes about gender, family and race in post-modern America, like in his “Black Confederate Ghost Story.”

“Hello black accomplices and accomplished blacks. / Hello Robert E. Lee bobblehead doll on the handyman’s dashboard whistling Dixie / across our post racial country. Last night / I watched several hours of television and saw / no blacks. NASDAQ. NASCAR. Nadda Black.”

The selection of the MacArthur Fellows is secretive — while the process is known, the names of the nominators are never revealed. 

Each year, The MacArthur Fellowship program chooses new nominators to select candidates. According to the MacArthur Foundation website, the nominators are chosen “on the basis of their expertise, accomplishments and breadth of experience.” They are encouraged to nominate anyone in their field or any other field who they think demonstrates exceptional creativity. At any given time, there may be 100 or more active nominators.

Once all nominations are in, an independent selection committee evaluates candidates. The selection committee is a group of roughly a dozen leaders in the arts, sciences, humanities and for-profits and nonprofits. They consider the nomination letter, each candidate’s current work and expert evaluations in a thorough review. They then send their recommendations to the president and board of directors of the MacArthur Foundation. The board selects 20 to 30 of the candidates for fellowship. To date, the foundation has named 918 fellows.

“I had no idea,” Hayes said. “I’ve nominated poets before, but none of [them] have ever gotten it. It’s a complicated process. It’s like you get nominated [for a fellowship, and] that’s like coming in on the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning. You’re trying to get to the top floor.” 

Now that he’s a fellow, Hayes said he hopes his nominees will receive more attention.

Hayes might have been left temporarily unaware of the fellowship awaiting him, but the missed connections had one positive: less time trying to keep it a secret.

When Hayes received the phone call in the coffee shop, he was told he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone except his wife. The Foundation said he had to wait until the official list was released two weeks later. 

When he later called and told his mother, she was ecstatic.

“My mom is drunk with excitement right now,” he said.

His wife and friends were less than surprised.

“[My wife] just said ‘Oh, I thought it would happen sooner or later,’” Hayes said. “Actually, a lot of my friends said the same thing, ‘We know you’re brilliant, and now everybody else does too.’”Don Bialostosky, professor and chair of Pitt’s English department, said he and the rest of the department are proud of Hayes’ fellowship.

“My colleagues and I in Pitt’s English department are delighted that the MacArthur Foundation has recognized our colleague, Terrance Hayes, with its distinguished award,” he said in a emailedstatement Tuesday.

To Mark Kemp, an English writing advisor and friend of Hayes for many years, Hayes was an obvious choice.

“I think he’s totally deserving of the MacArthur Fellowship grant: Because he is one of the best young poets in the country, because he’s an excellent ambassador for American poetry, because he’s a really fine reader and speaker,” Kemp said in an email.

Before Hayes was a teacher at Pitt, he received his Masters of Fine Arts in poetry from the University. Poetry, however, was not Hayes’ first choice. He initially wanted to pursue visual art but didn’t think he could afford it.

“I thought, ‘I don’t think I can afford to go to graduate school for visual art, but poetry, that seems pretty easy, all I need is a pen and a little paper, that’s pretty cheap,’” Hayes said.

During this time, he house-sat for an elderly woman and lived rent-free. He described himself then as “a starving artist.” When he graduated, he started teaching and publishing his poetry. In 2001, he began teaching at CMU where he taught for 12 years. In 2013, he joined Pitt’s faculty.

One of his former students from CMU, Jeremy Philipson, said he was grateful for Hayes’ influence.

“He was my last professor of my undergraduate studies. He is kind, a brilliant man and poet who helped me channel my inner turmoil into external art,” he said.

Despite the praise, Hayes hopes the excitement will die down soon.

“I like to have a little anonymity,” he said. “What I hope happens is that this sort of recedes, and I can go back to my normal friends.”

Even with $625,000 coming his way over the next five years, Hayes said he isn’t going to do anything drastic. Before he learned of his fellowship, he was planning a lecture tour with stops at the Library of Congress, Harvard and NYU. Hayes also has a book of poetry titled “How To Be Drawn” slated for release in March. 

He plans to follow through with both of these ventures and continue teaching at Pitt. 

“I’m not inclined to use the money to take off of work. That’s not my first impulse. But there’s always a number of nonprofits that are struggling. Maybe there’s a way to contribute to those,” Hayes said. 

He also said he has a 244-page book of poems in his archives that he would like to return to. One fantasy he said he had, though, was pursuing a visual arts degree. Hayes has designed all of the covers for his four books of poetry.

Regardless of what else Hayes decides to do, he said above all, he will keep writing. 

“I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I don’t have to go around and behave in a different way or value my work in a different way,” Hayes said. “I told myself, ‘You got this for what you do, so you’ve got to keep doing that.’”