In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is terrancehayes.com.
AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate?
TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work.
AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence?
TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”:
“Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”
I am trying to find the sense in a sentence: its sense of rhythm, its sense of verbs and nouns, its sense of thought and sound. I work in units of sentences as often as I work in units of line and image.
AMP: Cool, those connections that you draw between a sentence’s musical properties and its meanings....
“Rhythm” is a term that I tend to fudge when I’m discussing sound and sense; it’s such a difficult concept. Maybe I can ask you to consider an example from Frost, and talk a little more about rhythm.
In “West-Running Brook,” Frost observes of the water:
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
I think that one way to read these lines is as a discussion of rhythm, the riffles in the water “contraries,” as Frost calls them elsewhere in the poem. Would such a metaphor be consistent with your use of “rhythm”? Or are you thinking of the rhythm of a sentence in another way? Could you elaborate upon your use of the term?
TH: The word “rhythm" is fluid. Sometimes I’m thinking about varying the length and speed of a sentence. As in the first poem in my collection Wind In A Box. (Is it self-important to refer to one my own poems?) That’s sort of an exercise in staccato sentences. And in the ways punctuation impact a sentence. A series of periods, some slashes, a dash:
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet—. This cry. This mud.
But most times I’m thinking of rhythm as a kind of pattern. As in the ways subordinate clauses and repetition can expand a sentence. Especially the way lists can expand a sentence. The catalogues of Whitman and his Beat progeny, for example. Ginsberg spins wildly creating a fog of image that first long, elastic sentence of “Howl.” That first sentence is one of the most technically dazzling dimensions of “Howl.” I don’t know if that answers your question. I agree rhythm is a difficult concept. Because it is such a personal/intuitive concept.
AMP: Now that we’re talking about sentences in your work expressly, I’d love to hear you comment upon one or more of the poems in your latest book, How To Be Drawn. In light of this conversation, I’m especially interested in the formal play in “Who Are The Tribes," the “Portrait of Etheridge Knight…," and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh”—all of which use words inside boxes and/or charts. Care to dig in a bit?
TH: The notion of “formal play” is on the mark. What it suggests is I’m just playing—or trying to play outside my given tendencies. Since sentences are my default inclination, the poems you mentioned are instances of trying something different. Of trying to shift my focus. They are genuine, intimate experiments. Meaning I don’t see them as natural extensions of the sentence. Though you’ll find maybe some syntactical play, the attention is given to form. Not that I’m Jordan—I’m no Jordan, but it’s akin to asking Jordan the relationship between his dunks and his work on his jumper or his defense. He was, when he developed his jumper and defensive prowess, only trying to broaden his skills…
AMP: So what’s next, in terms of formal play? Is there a kind of poem you’re working on, that you haven’t been able to write?
TH: Great question. I’m mostly/usually concerned with the last poem and the next poem. The last poem was accompanied with drawings. The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape. The poems of late have been pretty long. The poem before the last poem was over 1200 words. So I’ve been trying to work my way back to compression via sonnets lately. But I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing.
AMP: I’m going to highlight a phrase from your latest excellent response, and take the conversation in a slightly different direction.
You write, “The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape.” Do you think this is true—that phrases, or scraps, or oddments, are “waiting to find a shape”? Maybe the shape is yours, and you have certain shapes internalized that wait for the scraps you collect by writing? Or… maybe there are shapes waiting to find scraps… in the culture? Care to comment?
TH: Yes, I mean scraps waiting to find a shape. As in what I suspect happens in quilt making. I’m just gathering bright bits of thoughts and conversations, imagery in my notebook. Waiting to stitch/thread something compelling together. Usually the brightest bit becomes the poem’s heart, its engine.
AMP: You mention your notebook. Could you talk a bit about how your process might elucidate the quest for “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in the syntax? How do you handle, literally, the writing, so as to facilitate in the composition process the ambitions you identified earlier?
TH: I have to talk about basketball again here. I can’t say I’m handling the writing so much as continuously practicing with it. I am trying to broaden my facility with it. I am practicing form, of course, but I am also practicing thinking and feeling. It’s all practice. That’s what Thelonius Monk says. For me, poetry is all practice. Occasionally practice pauses for a game—which is to say, some of my poems get published— but my habit is practice. I’m practicing to sustain my strengths while strengthening my weaknesses. I like a long sentence, for example. So I have to push myself towards new challenges with long sentences. One of my challenges/experiments in How to Be Drawn was to push myself into longer poems. These days I’m trying to work my way back to the sonnet. It all takes practice. One can fail in practice. One can experiment and scrimmage. There is intimacy and measure. Practice is a laboratory, a workhouse, a habit. For me, poetry is the practice of language. —June-September, 2016