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“I think you can see that from my work, that I try to put everything I know in there and everything I don’t know. I’m looking for stuff that I don’t know, in that pursuit of, like, a daily practice.”
Terrance Hayes is fascinated by creating records of daily life. With a background in visual art and poetry, he has a nuanced understanding of what constitutes writing and reading across mediums. His work as a teacher also touches everything he does.
In this episode, hosted by Getty Research Institute associate curator Dr. LeRonn Brooks, Hayes discusses his creative practice, as well as the possibilities of radical imagination in recording one’s life.
Hayes is professor of creative writing at New York University. He is the author of the National Book Award finalist How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015) and Lighthead (2010), which won the 2010 National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His numerous honors include a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, United States Artists, the Guggenheim, and the MacArthur Foundation.
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LeRonn Brooks: Hello, I’m LeRonn Brooks, Associate Curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series about poetry and visual art.
Terrance Hayes: I think you can see that from my work, that I try to put everything I know in there and everything I don’t know. I’m looking for stuff that I don’t know, in that pursuit of, like, a daily practice.
Brooks: In this episode I speak with poet and artist Terrance Hayes.
When Terrance Hayes was growing up, everyone thought he was going to be a painter. But after college, he turned to poetry. For Terrance, visual art and writing are closely linked—both are a way of storytelling. He thinks deeply about creating art with staying power, art that makes people return to it again and again, and how to radically record one’s own life. Terrance is a professor of creative writing at New York University and is a recipient of numerous awards and honors including the MacArthur Fellowship, the Whiting Writers Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.
In this episode I speak with Terrance about the power of poetry, visual art, and teaching.
Hey, Terrance, how’s it going?
Hayes: Good. How you been?
Brooks: I’m great. I’m great. You know, I was thinking about something that you said, and I wanna start from this particular quote. You said, “The advantage of poetry is that you can come in and out of shadow, in and out of metaphor.” What did you mean by that?
Hayes: Well, it’d be like the advantage of poetry versus other genres. You know, we can talk about the advantage of poetry versus visual art, versus music. But it sounds like, in that context, what I’m talking about is probably language. And so the advantage of poetry versus long prose, maybe even a newspaper, is that it is a kinda quick spell.
You know, if you find the right poem, you can certainly get caught into a spell very quickly. I think that about, like, Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening, right? If you say that poem once or twice, you’re in it, you know.
Brooks: The concision of poetry is not really concision because the words have a longer— You have to digest them. Every word is chosen, and a word next to a word could be a book in and of itself, just in terms of the suggestion. And so I guess even prose, it may be book-long, right, may be hundreds of pages, but a poem, a haiku, can outstretch that, in terms of meaning. ’Cause concision isn’t really concision.
Hayes: You’ll see in this conversation how I’m always just saying he same thing, so things connect up really easily. But I will say to you, I mostly try to visualize that for people. So I say, you know, figurative language. That means it has shape. If poetry is essentially figurative language, beyond diction, diction is figurative language, that just means language with shape. So however you wanna shape it, in whatever literary tradition, the idea is, it’s gonna throw some kinda shadow. It’s gonna have enough body when you play with it, to throw a shadow.
Not true for the newspaper, and maybe not true for a lotta prose. Not true for, like, menu items. So the sense that there’s something else happening, you can think of it as subtextual or even, you know, the essential notion of negative capability as a way of reading. So poetry will always suggest there’s something between the lines that’s happening.
So that you can find a sentence like that inside of Toni Morrison, where you know that sentence is casting more than one shadow. It’s meaning something more than what it’s saying. That’s poetry to me, you know, kinda the frequency of that inside a language or inside of a linguistic text is poetry.
Brooks: And it’s steeped in a certain kind of knowing. You know, you bring up Toni Morrison. I was rereading Sula. And there’s such a knowing in a lot of that language, right? And so there’re the things that are said, but then there are things that are unsaid that connect to your own knowing, that make you really think about the language. But you can’t take simple language simply.
And to think about poetry and the editing of poetry, or even the relationship between poetic prose and what is considered to be concisely a poem, there are bridges there. And I know that you work along the bridges, or you work within these intersections. What came first, your love for visual art or for the word?
Hayes: Well, I can say pretty quickly it was the visual. Even in the third grade, but maybe before that, that’s what people sorta thought I— my gift was. And even now, if you talk to certain people from my, even college days, they would say, ‘Oh, we thought he was probably gonna be a painter.’
So in that regard, I always saw my talent as a painter as a kinda public phenomenon. So I was drawing, journaling even, and writing poems privately, too; but that never seemed like a public phenomenon. It just seemed like, you know, a prayer. Somebody could hear it, but that’s not why you’re doing it. And then I wound up on a fellowship for poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, studying with Toi Derricotte, who you know, went on to found Cave Canem, and has really been a mentor through most of my life.
And I sort of was like, ‘Well, I’ve never taken a poetry class.’ I hadn’t taken any poetry classes before I went to graduate school. And so part of the shock in that space was how quickly people were writing, because I had worked on a paragraph—really, a prose poem, but it was really a paragraph—for four years. And I thought that was fun to work on.
So what I’m gonna say to you is like, even now, I’m often just thinking about, like, drawing is a kind of writing. So when you say, like, which came first, I’m like, well, that’s like for the caveman, too, drawing always comes first, as the first writing. So if I was drawing in third grade, whatever I was drawing, I was writing.
Likewise, I even think about that in terms of reading and saying, like, well, is all looking reading? Is all kinds of seeing a kind of reading? And I think probably, probably so. And so a lotta my work, you know, is around that kinda nexus of what it is to write and what it is to read, the teacher as a bridge between those two things. I think I know at this point, that that’s what I’m mostly interested in.
Brooks: Yeah, you know, you bring up the example of the caveman and cave drawings. And you know, when I think about that people leaving a record of existence. As someone who deals with archives, I walk into these spaces and there are these boxes that are records of existence. So like, in Cave Canem, I remember just the power of the I, the personal, the witnessing.
And so, I’m thinking that the intersection between your life as a visual artist and your life as a poet— I mean, both speak to your desire to leave a record of the sort of multiplicity of your existence. It seems to be a lot to carry, in terms of getting what you know into the hands of people to actually communicate that feeling.
Hayes: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s probably true, and probably something I try not to think too much about, any of these sorta outside questions or the impulses of it, if I am just trying to keep a record for the sake of record keeping. Again, the quickest way to talk about that would be how I would talk to it with my students. So be teaching in Florida, in I think it was, like, West Palm Beach or something, and to have a class of, like, old, white, retired folks who could take that class at that time’a year; and to have a couple of scholarship students who are people of color, people of interest; and to have my white students say, you know, “We don’t have anything to write about.”
And then I say to them what I would say to you about the record keeping, it’s like the record is the writing, man. I mean, nobody asked you about subject. I’m saying if you live in a white house with white shoes and a white dog and a white sky and you’re keeping a record, that’s interesting. It’s sorta what do you notice in that particular existence? That is of importance.
Likewise in drawing, I say, you know, to my kids and to my students, anytime I’ve had drawing classes, you know, “It’s right because you made it. Like, that line that you made is the correct line.”
And I try to have the poems imagine my way into those things that I believe, so that hopefully, there’s always a relationship between these sorts of philosophies. But yeah, I say, too, I’m just keeping a record. I try not to decide if it’s an art piece or a writing. I’m just always trying to keep track of this one life that we have. You know, every moment feels valuable. So again, even beyond genre, the notion that I’m trying to get something of what every day feels like is right.
It’s why I’m not, like, really great in food, because I sorta feel like as a culinary art, the work that goes into food, it goes away too quickly for me to find that that’s worth investing.
Brooks: And food is fleeting. A lot of in the preparation, a lot of it is in the…
Brooks: … sort of the mixing of the flavors. But then on the backend, it’s gone.
Hayes: That’s right.
How ’bout this, too? I think that there’s something so specific to taste that— It works out when I’m talking about how one makes poems. But how one reads poems is like how you eat. Like, you just can’t really control how a person thinks of something that’s spicy or not. So that since I cannot determine the quality of your taste, it actually keeps me from being, like, hyperpolitical or hyper-oriented towards even a notion of, like, poem as a motion for change. Like, I think it kinda can, but it has to be the people that have you taste.
I mean, I don’t think you can convince people of what their taste should be. You know, what music they should like, what food they should like. You could make a thing for five years, and then serve it to ’em and they’ll be like, ‘This tastes terrible.’ Work on poem for five years, I’d be like, ‘Hey, I worked on it for five years; I don’t care what you think,’ you know. And so it’s something that lingers, versus the five-year meal that gets eaten and then discussed.
Brooks: So one of the things that I think about when it comes to your work that you experiment a lot with narrative structure. You know, sometimes the— what looks like the end is the beginning.
There are moments in which you dig into specific narratives of family. You talk about the everyday. So when you mentioned your students in Florida, it sounded to me like they didn’t consider that their lives, even the minutia of their lives was important, to the degree that it would actually be something that people could read about and learn about on the page.
Hayes: That’s true, but they’re responding in an environment that says Black lives matter. And so I know that’s true. And you want them to know it’s true, but also to be able to be expressive. So it’s not like a random comment that they say to me, “Man, we’re just white people; what we gonna write about?” You know? “We ain’t queer, we ain’t foreign or whatever, we ain’t dark.” I mean, that’s really what they were saying to me.
And I said to them, “It sorta doesn’t matter.” This is funny, to think about this next to what you just said. I’m not so interested in, like, subject, necessarily. I’m interested in, like, expressivity. And I’m certainly interested in stories; but what’s the difference between, like, having a story and having a subject? Well, I sorta feel like that story could be so personal and so idiosyncratic and intimate, so that, like, one’s notion of beginnings and endings still, like, in the context of someone else’s idea of beginnings and endings. You follow what I’m saying to you?
With myself and others, I’m trying to get them to that, something beyond, like, the right-and-wrong questions, or the good-and-bad questions to something like, you know, it’s right because you said it, but just, did you say what you mean? You know, that’s what you’re asking yourself all the time. But if you said what you mean, it’s right because you said it.
Brooks: Terrance, you mind reading a poem?
Hayes: Sure. So you know, what I do think about—on that spectrum between, like, the poem as a phenomenon and the poem as a mode of expression, the poem as an exercise versus the poem as a record, even, I’m often playing with those two things. Because yeah, I’m trying to write every day, as an exercise
And then there are these moments where you are trying to make it more than, like, a ritual or more than a habit. And where those things overlap is where my poems show up. So in this one, I just had this thing in my head about adverbs. I must’ve carried this sentence around for half a year, thinking about “things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly.” That was the line that was in my head.
And so I say to you, it was the exercise of, like, playing with adverbs, which I had been told, you know, not, not to. And then really feeling a certain way about, you know, Trump. I wrote it before COVID, but same— the feeling about COVID. And then reading the poem to you know, I’m thinking like, do I still feel the same way, or do I feel like now we’re turning a corner?
So this poem is called American Sonnet for the New Year.
Things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly.
Things got ugly embarrassingly quickly, actually.
Things got ugly unbelievably quickly, honestly.
Things got ugly seemingly infrequently, initially.
Things got ugly, ironically, usually often carefully.
Things got ugly unsuccessfully, occasionally.
Things got ugly mostly painstakingly quietly, seemingly.
Things got ugly beautifully infrequently.
Things got ugly sadly, especially frequently, unfortunately.
Things got ugly increasingly obviously.
Things got ugly suddenly, embarrassingly forcefully.
Things got really ugly regularly, truly quickly.
Things got really incredibly ugly.
Things will get less ugly, inevitably, hopefully.
Brooks: Thank you. Yeah. That adverb, and playing with that, is a muscular experience there. I mean, that’s lifting weight, to actually think about where that sentence, or where those stanzas will end up, because those are meanders, right, that you actually push forward and push forward.
Can you talk about the work of being a poet?
Hayes: As I said earlier, I think I’m always just saying the same things. So the notion of practice versus the game, even. If we are lucky enough to get to places where people want us to perform the work, to publish the work, that is so less common; much less common for us that have that good fortune, and obviously, for the people who don’t. So what’s left, mostly, is Emily Dickinson writing a bunch’a poems with dashes, don’t even put the titles on ’em, shove ’em in drawers, throw ’em up under things. Because she’s like, “The writing is the practice.”
The writing is the practice. That’s it. I mean, what you’re writing, why you’re writing it, not so important. Because we’re still going back to this notion of the document and the record and the witness. So for me, that’s enough.
I try not to worry too much about, like, getting finished. I know it’ll be finished. I’ll also send you back to that first comment, which is, one of my great joys from college was that I was working on a paragraph for four years. And so I’m often trying to make sure that I have something that I’m working on. So it’s almost like, you know, I don’t wanna finish it.
Sometimes it gets shapely enough to show up for peopl. And I try not to put too much pressure on myself about, like, the end results of any of those modes of expression.
Brooks: You know, I’m writing something on the painter Ed Clark right now. And the idea of what is modern painting. The idea that the paint is the paint; that the paint has its own life. So there’s your intention, or there are your intentions, when you apply the paint to canvas; but there’s a life outside of your intention that the object has. You just make me think about, you know, that as an aspect of what modernity or what’s considered modern painting is.
Hayes: Well, yeah, it is that brushstroke. You know, the brushstroke versus the thing that has been made from that brushstroke. I mean, this is, theoretically, the appeal of somebody like Jackson Pollock. But I think it’s true, too, for, you know, Rothko, with his relationship to color. Which is to say, it’s right because you made it. You know, the idea.
That comes back to sort of even into why diversity would be important. Which is to say, nobody’s saying that, like, white dudes weren’t making the right marks. I mean, certainly, for even Wallace Stevens. Like, I love the freedom that he has, as a white man with that kind of wealth, at that point in America. He had to be one of the most free people ever. I’m interested in that. But I’m interested in that for everybody.
So I say to you, everybody’s brushstroke has some interest to it. What you have is, like, the mechanization of that, and a lotta other people imitating brushstrokes. But you know, the baby’s brushstroke, the baby’s song, the native brushstroke, the native sound is all trustworthy.
Brooks: You make me think about the Black Arts Movement and how art needed to be useful. Like going back to Du Bois, right? Art as propaganda. You have someone like Ed Clark, who dealt with abstraction; but at the same time, laterally, you had the Black Arts Movement. And they were talking about forthright Black representation, in terms of the figure. What is useful?
And so thinking about the ways in which especially Black poets are working, there is always this history of what is this useful for? And who is this useful to? Is it indulgent? Or can I use this in a very, sort of, aspirational way to find some kind of affirmation. And so in terms of making poems, do you consider, or is it even a consideration, that your poems need to have some kind of use—if I can even say use— in terms of political, affirmational tool?
Hayes: I just think that the people who believe in education—let’s just start there—I could say art and expressivity, but the people who believe in education, the people who believe in knowledge, and the people who believe in wisdom do not think that.
Obviously, it’s a political thought; like art for art’s sake versus art for the people. The art-for-the-people side, man, is the side that’s rhetoric; that’s the side that’s political; that’s the side that’s organized, the art’s for the people. It has to be, if it’s art for the people, because we know that art is not for the people. Art is what you’re doing in your crayon by yourself, and maybe your mom and daddy like it; maybe they don’t. You follow what I’m saying?
So art for art’s sake is, again, like the birds singing in the trees. So that is not to say that art for the people is not a thing. I just say to you, it, to me, is secondary. You have to have that inherent expressivity that creates emotional intelligence that leads us to wisdom.
What is the function of it? The people feel good, they feel entertained. You know, they feel good when they read poems; they cry sometimes when they read poems. And I say, enough. That’s enough.
At this moment, in this historical moment, with technology and attention spans, I say to my students just to hold them for a little while. If people are in the practice of reading everything once and they read your poem twice, that’s an achievement.
Hayes: You want ’em to read it more than that, but it’s contextual, you know what I mean? So I’m not demanding that people study and explicate and analyze poems in the way that we have historically, especially if it’s not something that they’re, you know, interested in. But I do say to the maker of those poems, like, you just want ’em to engage it. You ain’t trying to change nobody’s mind; you just want them to engage it. And then maybe you’ll change their mind or have something happen to ’em.
Brooks: You know, I used to say to my students that education comes from conflict, often. That the person you were when you entered the gates of the university is not the person that you are in this classroom. Because education is a matter of exposure. What you take in is what you take in, is kind of what you were saying, right? You read the poem twice, you’re taking something in. You read it once, it’s just exposure, kind of.
And so thinking about your poetry and visual art as a way to actually process life, if they choose that door, visual art or a poem. So as an educator, as a teacher, what is the importance of exposing your students to art that they may not consider to be useful?
Hayes: Oh yeah. It’s such a big answer around that one. ’Cause I know I’m talking so much about teaching. You know, they’re reciprocal, in terms of what I do as a writer and what I do as a teacher around those questions. So let me say this thing about what I think I value in the reading and writing of poems is, again, a kind of development of emotional intelligence. I still am talking about this idea of developing one’s emotional intelligence as my job.
And so understanding tools in poems and understanding the history of poems is sorta just evidence so I could be like, “Look, I can read something that’ll blow your mind, first of all. And I can show you how, like, that came from another thing that somebody had read. And then maybe you can try it and see what your response to that is, whether you like it or not.” Like, that is the teacherly thing, because that’s often what I am doing.
I always talk to people about Prince. Like, all the different ways that Prince was in the world, when he was in the world. You can just, like, look at the hairstyle, first of all. Like, what other artist changed the hairstyle as much as Prince? But I even go to the voice. But I think that that objective of variety inside of oneself is the ambition. Not stylistic consistency, which is something that comes from the marketplace, but something that’s more maybe a little unstable, a little particular and hard to evaluate.
It helps you listen to yourself better. It helps you read yourself and others better. So that’s why you wanna be doing this.
Brooks: Art, the saying art is an education in the emotions, right? And I really understand what you’re saying is, art allows access to emotions you didn’t realize were valuable sometimes.
Brooks: So a poem that actually values the complexity of the human experience and hones in on the value of a particular emotion. Emotions versus feelings. Right?
Hayes: Right. Feeling versus thinking, you know, even is the real thing.
Brooks: Feeling versus thinking. Yeah. Feelings ain’t facts. Right?
Hayes: But still, you know, important, you know.
Brooks: But still important. Exactly.
So you said, here’s a quote, right, from you. You said, “if you can get at the language correctly, you can say anything you want.” What did you mean by that?
Hayes: Well, here’s the thing, if you’re gonna line it up with the conversation, that is a question about, like what your frequency is. If you can get it to be your language, whoever you are—random, you know, Caucasian person with a lotta money living in Florida—like, there are a lot of frequencies here, and you can find it if you can, like, again, listen to yourself in a certain regard or value certain kinds of rhythms and images and perspectives. And one’s own language, having heard and received it, if you can kinda hear that thing, that’s it. That is the work. That is what you’re doing.
I had a student today who was born in Shanghai, and maybe she’s gonna have to go back after graduation. And I just kept saying, “But why are you writing only in English? It’s great stuff, but I know you got more languages than that.”
Like, I’m always like, “All the tools you got in the battlefield, you gotta use ’em. Just ’cause I ain’t got no knife doesn’t mean you don’t have to have a knife.” So that is to say, like, bilingualism, multilingualism—regardless of what I know, as one reader, you should always be using all your languages. They all bear on each other. So I’m not saying just bring a poem in in, like, Mandarin and expect all of us in the class to get it; but I am saying, no evidence, though, in any of the things, that that would be a tool-slash-weapon.
I mean, I think you can see that from my work, that I try to put everything I know in there and everything I don’t know. I’m looking for stuff that I don’t know, in that pursuit of, like, a daily practice.
Brooks: You know, sometimes everything that we are isn’t always welcome in every space. And it sounds to me like you’re making an invitation, or you’re sending an invitation to say, “You’re welcome here.” You know, every part of you—the languages—every part of you is welcome on the page. Right?
Hayes: That’s right. That space, that creative space, that’s the page, yeah. That’s right.
Brooks: And that’s radical activity.
Hayes: You know, the thing that complicates that, if we do, like, the political conversations— the problem with every conversation about art is that it’s in a system of capitalism. So you’re trying to always convert the value of art to something like the marketplace or some kinda other value that I just don’t think it has. I don’t think that it’s inherently about that kinda value.
So what I’m really trying to do with people, in my work and in the conversations, it’s like, but it ain’t really about can you get rich off’a this shit. It ain’t really about will somebody buy it and make you me? I’m like, “I make my living as a teacher, man. I would never wanna make a living as a poet. Because my poems ain’t about that kinda money.” I would never want my poems to be converted.
You know, even my paintings. How ’bout this? You know, I’ve been painting forever. But I give everything away, you know. I think I got fifty dollars one time, for a painting. I mean, this is, like, a Terrance Hayes, you know, folklore story, but it’s true. In my senior year, I was cleaning out my art bin. So everybody knew. I did murals on the school, I did t-shirts for people. I got arrested one time, when I painted the judge. So when I say everybody thought I was gonna be a painter, you know, they really did.
So anyway, the folklore is, you know, so when I was throwing everything out on my senior day, you know, everybody came, my coaches came. It was just like a line’a people. It was like ten, fifteen people standing around getting my art outta the trash can. This was the stuff that I was just, like, “I can’t take it home.”
And so that moment always lives with me. It’s like, you know, what people’s expectations were for me, as a visual artist. But again, I just sorta felt like the money that went into being an artist, and my understanding of what it took to be an artist, which is like I was gonna have to be selling stuff, instead’a, like, giving it away. Or even letting people take what they want, for nothing. And for my whole life, I’ve had that relationship with art. I do it for gifts, I do it on the holidays. My cousin passed away; I did a painting of her. And that keeps me going, and it makes the art serve a function.
Remember talking about this function thing? It does. I know it’s gone somewhere, but I would never want money for it. And I feel the same way about my poems, you know. I write poems for people’s birthdays or whatever, send it to ’em. But I make my living as a teacher.
Brooks: You know, what did they say in Dada? You know, “We’re making things irrational to undercut reason.” But even that’s being sold. Right? But they were reacting to the First World War. They were reacting to a reasoned— quote/unquote, “reason-based political system” that ended up with millions of people dead. They really had to consider how their participation in capitalism, to your point, led to this kind of destruction.
But even that art will be sold, eventually, because it’s creating historical meaning. And that’s what sells, right?
Hayes: Having said that there’s other value systems, even though we are often in the water of a certain kind of value system where people are asking us to, well, value our art; to decide who’s a better poet, who gets what prize and who doesn’t. That’s the reality. So I’m saying to people, after first saying, “You know, the people that win those prizes are not really playing that game.”
Again, it’s game theory. I literally said that today, too. Like, this just comes from me an athlete, that I think about these things, ’cause the parallels are the same, about competition. You know, competitiveness in the marketplace. Those principles are sports principles. Even though they’re unrelated to art, I still know what they are, right?
And so thinking about how your strategizing around those kinds of moments is how I spend a lotta my time, as a person who’s sorta not inherently of this place, you know. And I don’t even really go into that too much.
Brooks: Right. You know, I said to Claudia Rankine, who is also on this podcast, that my parents are segregated baby boomers. And what does that mean? That means you need to get up and be useful. There’s no sleeping late, there’s nothing, right? Because they’re dealing with histories of trauma, but they’re not telling me what the trauma is; but they’re definitely living out life in the ways that you know it’s coming from a place.
Hayes: Oh, yeah.
Brooks: Right? And so I’m thinking about being raised by them and having a certain kind of ethic. Work ethic and what have you. And also political ethic.
But that making does not necessarily mean that I will live that way my whole life. So what does it mean to sort of bloom into who you are, right? ’Cause I’m also a kid raised in New York. They’re from Alabama; I’m from New York. So they passed me something. And it’s like language.
You passed me something, but it’ll live similarly and differently through me. And so I don’t listen to rappers under twenty, ’cause how someone heard The Sugar Hill Gang and then how someone heard Rakim, and then how, you know, Nas heard Rakim, how I heard Nas, but then how the next generation will live out that continuum is something that’s really interesting. And so when you’re telling your student, “Live with all your tools out there,” I don’t even understand half of your tools, but they’re yours.
Hayes: Let me do that around trauma, to go back to those things you said about segregated baby boomers. Like, the phenomenon of the Black baby boomer has a key element in it of trauma that— I learned this through Yusef, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyaka. I thought about this in my thinking about Yusef. And again, talking about the arts opening worlds up, I now think it about my parents and Patricia and everybody else. Which is the Emmett Till thing.
So there is a kind of Black existence that we maybe no longer have access to. Like, maybe my Grandmama, who’s eighty-five, can remember what that world was like before Emmett Till was killed or before she encountered the notion that, like, a Black child could be killed.
So we knew it was happening, but I’m talking about the scale and visibility of the Till moment, right? So you know it’s happening, as a kinda folklore and as a kinda like reality; but still, as a very specific reality. It’s sorta like how often Black men get stopped by cops. So not everybody gets stopped. It’s enough for you to know it’s happening. You see the parallel I’m making here, about the phenomenon of lynching?
Certainly if you’re up north. This is still the Emmett Till thing, too. Still, it’s folklore. We know it’s happening. But I’m marking a reality that one lives before it’s public and official, right? So there’s my grandmother’s generation. But what I thought about around that was, like, Yusef is the same age as the boy that James Baldwin is writing, born in ’47, in the, you know, letters to— It’s the thing that Ta-Nehisi’s basing his piece on, Letters to his Nephew? I can’t remember what that piece is called. But the boy who’s fifteen is born in the same year as Yusef.
So now we’re talking about the Black baby boomer, to remember. To say that, like, there’s a generation of Black people who grew up always with the most public thing they first remember, at ten, at five. So you see the connections I’m making.
And I think about that in terms of everything. I would say for son, I think about, like, having been born in the wake of September 11th, and now a generation with the pandemic—that’s twenty years. So I don’t know what that name’s gonna be, but it’s gonna be a name, and it’s gonna be in the work of everything that everybody does.
What’s in our work? I don’t know. Like, we got around the war. I’m thinking about the generation X-ers. We do have September 11. But I’m still thinking about, like, the foundational things. It’s like the space shuttle Challenger. You know, we could talk about it. But I’m saying everybody, in their generation…Remember what I said? We could think about it as trauma; but it ain’t only that. The zeitgeist is shaped by kinda collective experiences. And I’m interested in how that gets into the work or doesn’t get into the work.
I think Yusef’s work is totally traumatized all the time by Emmett Till, in a different way than, say, like, Reginald Shepherd or people younger. Or Tim Seibles. A different kinda relationship to race. Tim is the first generation of, like, being able to go to integrated high school. You know, he didn’t start out that way, but by high school, in the seventies, they were integrated. Different kinda poet. You follow what I’m saying? Like, those adjacencies of, like, cultural phenomena and what that does for one’s work is what I’m often asking students.
Like, it’s there, whether you know it or not. And that’s sorta like if you ain’t tracking it, ain’t nobody’s gonna be tracking it, like, how you felt, in the sixth grade, [inaudible]. What was your teacher wearing and those kinds of questions over the next day feel like are, if you don’t put that down, it’s not gonna be put down. So I’m just trying to make that case for people, in terms of, like, living in the world that you are in, and trying to get a sense of that, because it’s only your world. If don’t, it’s just gone.
Brooks: It’s interesting that that essay by James Baldwin, second-person, right? Ta-Nehisi Coates, second person.
Brooks: In thinking about the use of second-person as a way to be in it and not in it; in it, but also a witness as narrator. You’re in it, but you’re also a wisdom giver of experience. You know, the way that you can sort of sit in language that is not totally the I. Just the I-ness.
And I’m thinking about someone like Kerry James Marshall, and the ways in which his work translates this idea of Blackness that is—like, ivory black; you have mars black; and sometimes it takes all the colors to make that black. But also, there is this sort of deepness to it that does invoke the trauma of Blackness, ’cause it’s so deeply black. And the metaphor for what it means to have a sort of irrational black skin, if that makes any sense.
But at the same time, it’s built up of everything, in and of itself. And what that means as, you know, a fifteen-year-old looking at that, a ten-year-old, or a sixty-year-old. And they may go through the language of the transitions. My father was born colored. Before him, there were Negroes. They came into Afro-American and that was defined. And then African American. And so there’re ways in which that those things are, in their own way, you, right? Because they’re not permanent; they’re always in flux; they’re always in transition. And how we understand these terms that categorize our lives connects to sort of the challenge as moments, right, that also help categorize our lives.
I had this really interesting experience, if you can indulge me for a moment here. And so I was in the Ebony-Jet, the Johnson Publishing archive. And I was looking through a box labeled Emmett Till. And I pulled from that box, things that I didn’t know retraumatized me. I got— I went back to my hotel; I was sick. I was sick. And so there’s a way in which this kind of thing reoccurs. But how I live that trauma is somewhat different, but there are things that reoccur, right?
And so looking at the blackness of a Kerry James Marshall, I’m brought to the ways he understands, and through his paintings, that we are obj— You understand what I’m saying?
Hayes: I’m so happy to talk a little bit about art. I love Kerry James Marshall’s work. I’ve followed it or a long time. I try to stay, in my own way, abreast of what’s going on in art. But what’s so fun is, you know, to have these conversations with myself. I’m not friends with a lotta painters.
But to say to you, about Kerry James Marshall, that I’ve always thought of him as a writer. So those paintings are amazing, the notions of color. Obviously, he likes text, too. But I do, I think that the poems are like poems. They’re such, like visual narrative phenomena. So the skins of color is just another kinda part of the poem that I’m just constantly reading with great joy. And it is probably because I’ve never taught it or had to give a lecture on it.
So there’s something about the language of that kinda visual line that is connected to illustrations in books. But so that’s undergirded. But I’ve never read it anywhere, that anybody talked about, like, the kinda writerly impulse that drives how one understands his work. You know, and maybe I think that a little bit about Bob Thompson; but I don’t think it about a lotta people. I don’t think it about none’a the Abstract Expressionists, you know. I don’t think it’s just about, like, representational art, either. I think it has to do with that language. It has to do something with his relationship to Blackness, too, that you show up already in front of those paintings with some story already happening, always.
And I think that he is writing. You know, he’s using paint and a paintbrush and a canvas; but totally, that brother’s a writer.
Brooks: Yeah. You know, the genealogy for that can back to Langston Hughes, right? What, 1926? The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.
Brooks: You know? If they like it, great; if they don’t like it, so what? Paraphrasing here.
Hayes: Words of a person under thirty. I think he was like—Was he twenty-six when he wrote that? You know, a young person. That’s like, you know, Keats talking about negative capability at twenty-four, so— They can be right about some things. We’re talking about, like, manifestos that whole generations have built things on. That’s true for negative capability and The Negro and the Racial Mountain. Like, you know, old people are saying that this was right, so I’m always like, “These young people can get stuff right.” They can be wise, too. It’s a vote of confidence, when you think of how young he was, to have gotten on that.
Brooks: But there’s something in it. You know, I’m gonna go back to something else you said. You said, “Anything can be said, if you say it right.”
Whatever you’re going for is right; but sometimes it can be said beautifully, sometimes it can be said in very raw ways, sometimes it can be said metaphorically.
Hayes: Right. Again, remember the line break, though, right? Because you made it. Because you know, the debate is around rightness. The judgement, the evaluation, is around rightness. And that’s when we get into kinda marketplace competition, moral competition.
I always have to add that what we’re really trying to figure out is, like, what’s right for you. Not what’s right for Jesus, not what’s right for Black people. What’s right for you, as a human being, with all the value in that—that’s what we’re really chasing. So it always has to be said. But yeah. And I think, you know, that’s the full sentence.
But it leads out of that notion of first believing that your mark is valued, if you can get your actual mark down and not the mark somebody else has told you is valid.
Brooks: Well, you know, that Baraka, the Amiri Baraka generation, the we—we shall, we shall. You know, every stanza’s a parade of people.
Hayes: We Real Cool.
Brooks: We Real Cool. Right? To say that you are empowering individuals who will speak their truth. I mean, that, in and of itself, is a radical notion because you’re saying the individual witness has the power of a parade of people. Right? That the individual witness can speak his, her, or their truth, and that, in and of itself, is radical activity.
Hayes: I’m also saying— I mean, I’m poking a little bit here. Like, I’m also saying the words that we use, like, has the power— I would be like, as poet, what is power? You know. That’s why I keep saying the things I often say to my students about, like, value systems. It’s like we’re in this water. This is David Foster Wallace. Do you know this, It Is Water, this keynote address?
Brooks: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Hayes: Totally what that is. Like, the older fish going by the two young fishes, “Oh, the water’s cool today.” Like, what the fuck is water? And I feel like that old fish all the time with people, saying like, you know, “We’re in a certain kinda water, but it ain’t the only substance that surrounds us or may surround us.” And so all’a those questions still go back to, like, even the notion of power for an individual is not the same notion of power for a people, even though we use those as interchangeable terms, you know.
Brooks: Yeah. It’s that it’s not just outside of you, right? So even though you may write poems, poems don’t live, necessarily, as a thing in and of themselves; but they are tools for living. If you engage them properly, right?
Brooks: Terrance, thanks you so much for talking with me. Really appreciate it.
Hayes: It’s been great to be here. It’s always good to talk to you, LeRonn.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, write to us at email@example.com.
Thanks for listening.
LeRonn Brooks: Hello, I’m LeRonn Brooks, Associate Curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series about poetry and visual art.
Terrance Hayes: I think you can see that from my work, that...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824