Saturday, November 1, 2008

Terrance Hayes, and messing about with identity

Here's a link to the interview I did with poet Terrance Hayes on Thursday, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast series. Hayes is the kind of interviewee I like best--quick on his feet and willing to engage any kind of question with enthusiasm (even with, as was the case here, a bad cold). He's the author of three books of poetry and the recipient of half a dozen awards. The books are really excellent; I recommend them without hesitation.

We talked about the evolution of poetic rhythm in his work, the power in repetition, and the lure of popular culture to the poet...but maybe the most interesting stuff he said was on the subject of identity. One of the things I like about Hayes's work is that it creates certain expectations based on what we know about the poet, and what we expect his subject matter to be, and then does a neat little pivot and dumps the reader into uncharted territory. Specifically, he's African-American, and he intentionally employs certain words that allow us to make assumptions about what's to come, e.g., we assume "Hip Logic" will be about hip-hop, and "The Blue Terrance" will be about the blues.

And indeed they are. But the poems in Hip Logic are also about the body (with the hip as its fulcrum), and about the notion of coolness; and the "Blue Terrance" series of poems also turn out to be about sadness, and self-definition, and painting, and other things. He draws you in with safe subjects and then leads you to dark and unusual places, which is where, as a reader, I often most enjoy being.

Anyway, I see Hayes as a member of a new generation of black writers, along with people like my colleague and friend Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon and the novelist Colson Whitehead, who are exploding the racial pigeonhole they might happily have nestled in, in order to create something really new and exciting. They manage to turn readers' narrow expectations into a vehicle for exuberant experimentation. A neat trick, that.


john said...

Thanks for this post. I do not know Terrance Hayes's work, so I appreciate the recommendation.

I wonder what you think of identity as a centering force for academic departments--women's studies, Native American Studies, etc. Do you think that identity is more or less a static thing to be challenged, believed in, attacked, supported? Do you believe in a core to these types of identities?

Thanks for this post. I think the issues that it raises are very difficult and very exciting ones.

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