This interview was recorded on April 10, 2018 in Baltimore, the day of Terrance Hayes’s Turnbull Lecture, “Ideas of Influence,” at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Dora Malech: I’d love to start by talking about influence and your new book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. You bookend the collectionwith Wanda Coleman’s words, starting with an epigraph from one of her own American Sonnets and ending with her explanation of how she conceives of her American Sonnet form. You’re foregrounding her significance, but when I go looking in anthologies and elsewhere for the history of both American sonnets and “experimental” sonnets, there’s often an omission of Wanda Coleman.
Terrance Hayes: I don’t even think she’s in the big one that Phillis Levin edited [The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English]?
DM: No, she isn’t.And so I was excited just to see you highlighting her work and to see this project coming out of that influence. I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about Wanda Coleman’s work as a catalyst for your project and ask if you have an explicit sense of boosting her work along with yours or her voice with yours.
TH: Definitely. So, I always have two answers. I feel like most of people’s decisions, scholarly and otherwise, start close to home. Most of my work does, and I do try to teach that way, too. Which is to say, I have a relationship or had a relationship with Wanda Coleman. Before I ever met her, I liked the work. I liked her American Sonnets, and I always followed them, and I liked the wildness of them. And then I met her. In How to Be Drawn, I wrote one for her, “American Sonnet for Wanda C.” And it was just, like, I put it in a letter. It was that kind of thing: “I’m going to do this and send it to her and then we can laugh about it.” She wasn’t an easy person. She was definitely difficult. Imposing. The first time we met, she told me off and came at me.
DM: How did she tell you off? I remember her negative review of Maya Angelou, and her catching a lot of flak for that.
TH: Yeah, she fought back with that, too. Breaking stuff. And people were like, “You can’t come into our store.” She was a really interesting person. So I haven’t said an official answer, I just get excited talking about her, and that is really the baseline answer. Which is, I’ve always found her captivating as a fellow poet. I can sort of tangentially talk about her the way I would talk about Amiri Baraka, also a difficult figure. And what I would say is that poets have a right to be both wrong and difficult, not just wise and a psalm-thrown-up-to-heaven kind of stuff. But in this era, it’s harder for a troubled poet to make it, I think.
I don’t think of myself that way—I have things I can do to keep me from being a maniac. But certainly, because of where I come from, I’m drawn to a certain extreme character. And I thought coming into the poetry house was the place we wanted to be. It was either here or the asylum. Baraka has some of that in his personality too—provocative and super-charming. He actually passed the same year as Wanda Coleman. Their memorials were on the same day. And I went to hers instead of his, though I knew him as well. We hung out and talked and disagreed about a bunch of stuff, like not revising. He came out of the Beat aesthetic, out of that “first word, best word” tradition, and so he felt like that. So, anyway, that was our relationship. And similarly with Wanda Coleman, but adding that she was West Coast, and a woman, and she grew up in Watts. She was in workshops with Bukowski. She also worked for the soap operas. I mean, an interesting life. As with Etheridge Knight—different lives, but both lives that don’t have a real record in terms of our literary history. I mean, black people got Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, which is just not enough. And so that’s part of the answer, to get back to that question you were asking. There are these interesting figures, and for me they’re sort of guideposts, but in a broader sense, in an “American sonnet versus African American sonnet” sense, clearly they’re putting something in the water of our literary history. And I’m just honoring that, whether anyone cares or not. This is a person whose influence, Wanda Coleman—I want to engage her. So, you know, I got poems about Baraka, David Bowie, Frank O’Hara. You can see the people I care about. And so that’s where it starts.
So now here’s the other answer. Being around, and talking a lot, I can devise more sophisticated answers about Wanda Coleman’s influence, like her really challenging the whole notion of a sonnet. She really started writing them because she was trying—
Our mutual friend, Amber Tamblyn, she’s a huge Wanda Coleman fan. So we were just talking because her papers were lost. Her husband, Austin—
DM: Coleman’s papers were lost?
TH: Yeah. Her husband had put them in storage and we were trying to find the place to get them in an archive. The Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture], that kind of thing. And then he died last year, and I found out just two weeks ago that no one was paying for the storage unit. So it’s just really basic stuff, but terrible. So they put her papers out on the street, apparently. Eventually someone found out about it, and then it got back to me. I think, actually, Amber Tamblyn’s parents live in the area. So it’s really basic stuff. But it’s huge. This is like saying, I mean it’s not exactly like this, but for me, it’s like Shakespeare’s papers, or Faulkner’s papers, or—
DM: Just sitting by the curb.
TH: Yeah! So, there’s that. But, I guess, if I’m trying to get back to a straight answer, I wrote her the poem and I wanted to honor her, and then the election happened, and she’s always on my mind. Her birthday’s on November 13.
DM: You guys are both Scorpios.
TH: Scorpios! Yeah.
DM: Poet Scorpios. That’s terrifying.
TH: So I felt like, oh, this is what I want to do. I’m going to write them because of the intensity. So the story I didn’t finish was, she had been trying to get an NEA grant, and was maybe a bartender at this point, doing some other crazy stuff. She was still publishing those big books, like Bukowski. They were publishing those big books like that to make money, and there was some kind of rule with Black Sparrow about the thickness of it. What that meant for her, as it meant for Bukowski, is that a lot of it’s uneven. Who can write that much poetry and be published every two or three years? But this goes back to overlooked things. Like, I have to keep citing Bukowski, because people know who Bukowski is, even though he’s not nearly as interesting as she is. But he’s had a movie and people know his reputation, and she was a peer of his, they worked together. And they were pressmates. The point is—
DM: And he was difficult, too. I mean, so it’s hard not to—
TH: Yeah, can you imagine them in a workshop together?
DM: Oh, lord. But it’s hard not to say that some of her being overlooked is that she’s writing as a black woman.
TH: A lot of it. As opposed to Bukowski, this white male figure, though they’re both West Coast. And just being a West Coast poet is already going to make you marginalized if the literary center is New York and the Eastern seaboard. She felt marginalized throughout most of her life. So there was that. And so she was aggressive to everybody, even with me, but her distrust and aggressiveness went away immediately as soon as I started quoting “Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead,” talking about her books and just knowing who she was.
But, essentially, she started writing the American Sonnets because that’s how she thought she would get an NEA grant, if she wrote sonnets. That’s the bottom line. She felt like she was too wild, too Bukowski-esque, she was too West Coast, she was too black, she was too female. So she said, “Oh you know what, next time I apply for this NEA grant, I’m going to write some sonnets.” And she sprinkled them through her books; she saw it as almost a critique of what she was supposed to do and what she was supposed to not do. And so I wrote out of that, taking that as a charge: let’s see what it is. So I don’t think of myself as, really, making something up, I think of myself as writing them as she visualized them. And, of course, Gerald Stern has written “American Sonnets,” and even Billy Collins has a poem called “American Sonnet.”
DM: And Ted Berrigan didn’t call them American, but wrote his experimental sonnets that I think of as very American. Your recent work has inspired me to think about that tradition of the American sonnet, and I keep coming back, obviously, because you do, to Wanda Coleman and this idea of American-ness as a subversive element.
TH: Yeah, that’s right.
DM: Like as much a thematic element as a formal element.
TH: You know what’s so funny about that—I don’t think I have ever thought of it. You are learning stuff when you’re on the road with a new book, and a lot of stuff, I feel like either I’ve said it a million times, or I’ve never said it. And then there’s a middle ground, which is super exciting. So when you say, “thematically,” I think, “Oh yeah!” I hadn’t even—I know that’s crazy. I only see it as a challenge—American sonnets—as a formal thing, if you follow—I haven’t thought about the subversive nature of it applied to the shape, I guess, of the sonnet.
DM: They’re definitely formally subversive, and I know Wanda Coleman had somebody come back to her saying, “You’re writing ‘jazz poetry.’So she came back and said, “O.K., if that’s jazz poetry, then these are jazz sonnets.”
DM: But in that sense, that, yeah, it seems like that thematic American-ness comes from her. And so, as I read your American Sonnets coming out—in terms of their publication history, what should I call it? A blossoming? Barrage? Somewhere between, it’s like there was an outpouring of your sonnets in the world.And at first I thought, “This is an exploration of American-ness.” Then I thought, “No, this is an exploration of the term ‘assassin.’ No, this is an exploration of past—no, future—no, this is an exploration of the sonnet.” It’s all of those things.
TH: Right. It is.
DM: So it seems like, as there always is in your work, there’s this formal experimentation and subversion but there also seems to be this wrestling with what all these terms mean in our political moment. So in that sense, first you have this outpouring of work, and then you’re crafting it into a book. Did you find yourself going, “O.K., I need to go more toward this particular conception of assassin, or this sense of Americanness,” or how did that crafting of the book itself come together?
TH: So this is why, when someone says, “Will you answer these questions,” I would draw a picture instead of writing it out. Because I, I mean inside, and I think we all know this, it’s just the official-ness of interviews changes that, but I always try to underscore that, again, all I’m doing is writing poems. I mean, retroactively the smart person can look back at what you’ve done and figure out what it meant, so I do find myself doing that, so that’s part of what even this process is. But it’s still early enough. And by the time I know what I’m doing, it’s why I don’t read from the old book. Like, I know How to Be Drawn. If I’m talking about that book or reading from that book at this point, I’m not surprised, and that just doesn’t interest me. Even if everybody in the audience, they’ve never met me and they’ve never read a poem and now I’m telling them about it for the first time. For me, that’s just not gonna be super interesting. So I know that’s selfish, maybe even narcissistic, but I do like to be in a real conversation, not a rehearsed conversation. So I’m saying that before I answer that question. Because what I would say is that, I really was just writing them, like . . . November . . . her birthday . . . my birthday. Being in New York with zero distractions where I could get—
I mean, I could tell you side stories, like for my birthday, all I did was write a poem. I woke up at 9 a.m. and I went to bed at 2, and I didn’t go anywhere. That’s generally what I do, I just write. So again, there’s a scholarly answer, and then there’s the answer that comes from a person who just says, “All I want to do is write. Period.” That’s really always my answer for everything.
So with this, I sort of couldn’t stop. I think once, my record was like three in one day. So that kind of thing, for a person who revises six months to a year, works on poems, that was the kind of thing. So I was just sort of muscling through and not really, you know, I don’t really show the poems to anybody. So I wasn’t even . . . I knew that it was enough that they were in conversation with Wanda Coleman, whether they were good or not, is what I would say.
But then I did an interview with Rachel Zucker on her podcast [Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (And Other People)]. And in that conversation, she asked me what they were, and I was like, “It’s like a music box in a—”
DM: Meat grinder.
TH: “Meat grinder.” But I had not written that poem yet.
DM: I was wondering that, I was wondering if you had written that yet: “a form that is part music box, part meat grinder.”
TH: I hadn’t. I hadn’t. So, for me, that was the meaning of that entire interview. And that got me thinking about it in a more serious way, our conversation. So I started sending them out. And I still wasn’t going to do a book, but my editor, we were talking, and I told him what I was doing, and maybe at this point I had enough. And he was like, “You should put them out.” But my goal was just to write them. This is sort of why I’m stuck now. I was just going to write them for as long as the dude [Trump] was in office, really. And so I was having debates with people about how long that would be, but he was just on my mind. And that’s how I was coping. And my intention was to just “Dream Song” it, so to speak, like Berryman—as long as he’s around, I’m going to do this. And then I had maybe 200 of them and my editor was like, “Yeah, you should do something with that.” I was like, “I think I could get—” it was either going to be 84, 70, or what’s the next one, 54? 50? 56.
DM: Is that so the lines add up to 14 in the index?
TH: Yeah, so I knew I wanted to do that, like have a made-up sonnet in the index. You know, certainly they’re not all good, and I don’t even know about those 70, but that means there are a bunch on the floor. A bunch that I’ll burn. That may or may not be interesting. I can’t keep up, really, all the way. There were three I think in The Boston Review and only two of those are in the book. So somebody was asking me about one, and I was like, “Yeah, I pulled that one.” So that’s uncertain for me. But not a terrible thing, to still even feel like I do find some power in that, just not knowing. I just prefer that space. So have I answered the question? I just . . . I was sending them out and my editor was like, “Make a book,” and I was like, “Alright.”
It’s still super soon for me. I knew I had the other essays coming out [To Float In the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight, Wave Books, 2018], but I just had to do something with them [the American Sonnets]. Like I felt, if I sat on them too long—which goes back to the beginning, as January came around, I just started shuffling them out—if I sat on them too long, I would fuck with them too much. Which I have been doing. I think, I mean, again I don’t know, I think probably too much. But initially I would just write them and not revise. And if I had a thing that I needed to work out, then I would fold it back into the next poem and try to fix it. So that created interesting refrains across it, but I just wasn’t—I couldn’t fix a poem, I could only write the whole poem again the next day. So that’s also how you can get to 200.
DM: So that’s where the refrains come from, this sense of, “O.K., not quite, and now I’ll rework that same line into something else.”
TH: Yeah. The most challenging one—and I had gotten into trouble with this poem, I read it last month, and people were O.K., but there’s a poem where the closest I come to saying Trump’s name is “Trumpet.” And so, uh—
DM: Is that the one with a lot of orange in it?
TH: No, no, it’s the one about sex. So there’s an image in this poem about, like, perhaps the first being was a woman, and her clit was swollen and big enough to become a penis. And this evolved into a . . . So you know, that was a hard thing to get out, like in 14 lines, so I kept trying to write it and get it right, and get it right. And you know, you can’t really, if you get it wrong, that’s gonna be a problem. And so I read that one out in Seattle and got some interesting conversation, some feedback from people on that one.
So things like that. There are other lines. The “black male hysteria” line, I just kept trying to work out. I think I must have written probably 10 or 12 or those. Just trying to get that idea, whatever that idea is, which I still, again, at this hour, don’t quite know. And actually, I like not knowing.
DM: It’s interesting you should say that, because I kept going back and back to it. It’s a line that’s so potent that I don’t want to write about it wrong.
TH: Right. Right.
DM: But there’s something—and I don’t think I fully understand it, even though I get a kind of thrust, like the emotional thrust of it. And so that’s interesting for me as a reader and as someone who’s engaged in your work to think about from your perspective: “No, it’s not something that needs to be unlocked.”
TH: Right! Well, like the whole thing, I mean . . . And again, it will be, for me, because I will just, someone will ask me something and I’ll think of a kind of good answer, and that will become my answer. I’m still doing the two-hand thing, if you follow me.
DM: I was wracking my brains before this, for a question someone couldn’t possibly have asked—but I kept coming back to form and content. It seems like the book itself is made up of attempts to surprise yourself or surprise yourself about the form.
TH: Absolutely, that is the bottom line. So yeah, I don’t know what it means. I’ve written two more. One of my big ambitions—here’s a nerd thing—was: can I do a one-sentence sonnet? So I had all these things I was working out. Sometimes it was different kinds of formal stuff, voltas, there’s one where the lines—it’s seven up and seven down. Half the stuff I’m doing to get a poem done that day. I feel like most of that won’t be on people’s radars. But that’s fine.
But one such thing was, could I do a one-sentence sonnet? And have the sentence be regular? I don’t think I ever did it. So there are one-sentence, kind of lyric, fragmented things that move through it, and even in the index, you can kind of . . . Well, maybe, I don’t know. But I did, in February, I did write a one-sentence sonnet.
DM: What was the one-sentence sonnet?
TH: Well, I . . . It ain’t in the book. I mean, this is the thing. It’s just somewhere. Because there’s a point to that story: now I kind of have to stop. You know, like I . . .
DM: And when you say a one-sentence sonnet, you mean, as in there’s no break in the syntax?
TH: It’s just a long sentence that’s broken into 14 lines.
DM: I think there is one in the book.
TH: There are a couple, but . . .
DM: But this one was particularly special.
TH: Yeah, it was like the thing I was trying to do in an interesting way. But I looked at it, and it was like, “Well, now what the fuck am I going to do with this?” But I have been tinkering with that, even that. They gave me the galleys and I made some more changes and then I said I wouldn’t anymore. Because this is what I meant about like, I worked on them without looking at them too closely to kind of start picking at them, which is my habit. But since it’s been in the book form, I look and say, “Oh, that should be ‘death,’ it shouldn’t be ‘assassinate.’” It’s that kind of thing.
And so I continually sent them in and I did . . . There is a poem in there that I . . . what’s this poem? I don’t think it’s the hidden male hysteria, but it is about the N-word. And that was one too I couldn’t get right. It’s like, “It feels sadder when a black person says ‘nigga,’” that’s the line. So I kept working it, working it, working it, and I couldn’t get it right and so I sent it and then, between my editor getting maybe even the second version of it, or third draft, and maybe between this and the galley, I got it the way it needed to be. So I had just accepted that maybe I would fix it, but maybe it wouldn’t be in the book. So that’s—I’ve written three since then and maybe one of them, the one-sentence one, if I had to do it, maybe I would put it in. But I just stopped.
Because those are just separate issues. I wanted to write a one-sentence sonnet and I did it. So it doesn’t really need to be in the book.
DM: You know that you have done it.
TH: Yeah. So what it means, though, just to come back to the poet stuff—I’m stuck. And I feel like maybe this happens all the time after books, but I just, I’ve been drawing and trying not to . . . So even on the train today, I hear lines and I know, because I was so deeply engaged in that process, it just had to be a line or something. Every day I would go out and just wait for something. And it was a good way to live and I thought it was the right way to live. Just, everything around you is going to be poetry. But now that I got this book thing, that, again, I wasn’t really thinking it would be out so soon, it has thrown a monkey wrench in that process.
DM: Could you see those sonnets that you keep writing appearing elsewhere? I mean, you were talking about Dream Songs, there’s a sense that—
TH: But that was that, though! He did 77. That was great.
DM: Should he have quit while he was ahead?
TH: He should have stopped. Yeah.
DM: I see. So, I mean, when you’re talking about the one-sentence sonnet, or the seven up, seven down, these kinds of things, I see in this book, in your work, this tendency to find some formal constraint that kind of motors you and gets you going and allows you to tap into poetry. But then, I know, in a past interview, you were talking about that Gram of &s series in Hip Logic and you were a little bit dismissive of it—maybe, in the sense now, I realize you’re just kind of done with the poems of the past.
TH: Right. Right.
DM: But in that sense, you had this word game that allowed you to anagram end words from the poem’s title and you were saying that it was something to keep you writing and to keep you fluid while you were working on these other narrative, maybe more difficult narrative poems.
TH: Sure, that’s right.
DM: And so I think when I read that, in my mind I started to maybe see a dichotomy in your work between the kind of formal conceit poems and the longer narrative poems. But this seems to walk the line in between them. So was the process more like, were you writing other longer narrative poems while this was happening, or was all your energy going into American Sonnets?
TH: O.K., again this is an answer that I’ve given. Before the book, I’d gotten to . . . Actually, I think I was saying this to Rachel, that’s how I’ve given this answer before, I was writing super-long poems. So the last poem I wrote and finished before I fell into these was this long—it was like 1,200 words—poem about my Frederick Douglass T-shirt.
DM: I remember you saying this, that it’d just gotten so long that then . . .
TH: Right, and then I read it, and I guess it was O.K. I’d read it out at my first reading at NYU. And I knew after I finished that long poem that I needed to stop. Because on the other side of that, even the poem that was in The New Yorker, “Ars Poetica with Bacon,” I would even include “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” and the pecha kucha poems, even. I had sustained an interest—and I think I still have it—in a long poem. I had explored all I thought I was pursuing over those, I guess it would have been five years, of what is a long poem. So when I got to that Frederick Douglass T-shirt, I was like, “O.K., this is too much. I’ve crossed the line. Now I’m a maniac.” After this, it’s going to be like a novel in verse, which I would never do. So I decided I should do something short and I was like, “Oh, I think I’ll just do sonnets or something like that.” And it was really that casual, like a little something to put stuff in. So Trump has not been elected, I haven’t thought about Wanda in any kind of extended project kind of way, it was just a basic thing that I think now I should try something different. So that’s all it was.
So then, you know, the election happens, and the form does help, you know, it does help in a great kind of containment way. So half of me does think, “You know, would it be wrong just to keep going?” Because I don’t know what’s on the other side of it right now. What I’ll say, is I usually, even with the long poem, I am working something out, like I’m usually, whether it’s a formal exercise or an emotional exercise, I don’t . . . I mean, every poem is a thing whether it fails or not, there are stakes, for me personally, in every poem. Because I—I could get really profound with you—I just always say, and I’ve said this probably since I was 12, it’s not like I think I’ll be dead tomorrow, but maybe in six months. You know what I mean? So my attitude has always been, I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, certainly I think I probably won’t be here in six months. And so that’s just my—that’s even the Past and Future “Time Lord” kind of stuff, I’m very, very, super, super-maniacally obsessive about time. And so most of my projects are connected to time constraints or . . . yeah, yeah, even a long poem, can I sustain it over, how long can you do this? Those kinds of things come down to that kind of question.
But, there’s always that moment when the book is just done, or I’m in this space where I don’t think I can do it again. So, what I do, even sitting on the train today, I think maybe I can keep going? I feel like it’s the only way I could think, it felt like the rightest way to think. So this book wasn’t planned. I don’t plan them, but I certainly don’t—I used to think it’s reasonable if I can get, if I write every day, and if I write seven days a week, and if I get one poem out of that, I’m really happy. So that’s maybe a poem a week, maybe two. So if I’m saying I wrote three poems in one day, and I think all three of those poems are in the book, maybe two of them, then that’s like, my world is shattered because I have a certain kind of strategy. So I do still think of this as like an accidental pregnancy or something like that. But then it’s like, well, I don’t think I want to keep writing like that, because I don’t know if I could sustain it outside of the form. I don’t know if I could be that wild.
DM: And it’s a little bit strange, getting back to what you were saying about Wanda Coleman and Black Sparrow publishing these thick books. It is a little bit artificial. I mean, a baby comes out and you know it’s a baby. But this is a little bit . . . I don’t think it’s premature, I think it’s a great book, but there is a sense in which it is maybe kind of a false ending. The way in which we think in terms of books sometimes.
TH: Yeah, yeah. Because the thing is that, even if the poems eventually got to other subjects, the initiating subject is like, where are we? What is this place, America? What the fuck is going on? That question is there every day, every time I turn on the television or talk to somebody or see something. And so those were the things that were initiating the poems, because it was so much heavier than it had ever been in terms of just being in the country, I guess. So yeah, that’s still there, and I feel like now, I just don’t know what to do with it. I look at it and I—I said I draw, I draw stuff and kind of cope that way. So I guess, if you hear what I’m saying, there is a book, and there is a professional trajectory, and there’s a, “Oh, you know what you’re doing” kind of thing that people say to me, and I say, “I just kind of figure it out, though.” I mean, I do know, I trust that I will be able to know later, but I don’t go in knowing. I just go in saying let’s see what happens. So I feel I’m in that kind of weird space now, is what I would say.
DM: And I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it seems like in the poems and in the book projects, it seems like you’re hungry for conversation. And maybe a lot of it is conversation with yourself, but you seem to always be talking to influences, other poets, songs, et cetera. And then the fact that this was so quick, so many of your American Sonnetsout in the world. You weren’t saying, “Give me feedback,” but it seemed to be kind of creating this conversation in our climate. At the end of How to Be Drawn, you have this link to references, like, “Come engage, listen to what I’m listening to, think about what I’m thinking about.” So do you feel like that’s the case, do you feel like poetry’s this conversation? And I guess the sub-question is, I don’t think you’re thinking, “Oh, these American Sonnets are going to change the political climate,” necessarily, but do you see poetry as playing a role in these kind of larger conversations, like national conversations?
TH: I mean, you know, yeah, I guess. I mean, I do, sure. I must. But again, I just don’t, I don’t know what that has really to do with a poem, though. I mean, it does. I think . . .
DM: But when you’re sitting down to write a poem, you’re not saying, “O.K., I’m going to communicate this idea.”
TH: No. I mean, I write—especially now, like part of going to New York was just, life changes. So to go from, like, having a full-time job and being a full-time dad and a full-time spouse to all of that changing, which it did.
I am a loner. I am a person who . . . I was thinking about it for Easter—I’m getting hot as I’m starting to talk about this. Like, Easter Week, I was working all week and then somebody invited me out to get grape leaves. And I was like, I hadn’t talked to anybody in a week and a half. So, that would be difficult to be in a family. So I was very present with everybody, but when the time came for me to work, that’s sort of what I did.
So part of the New York thing was like, I don’t sleep that much, so I could wake up and work from like seven to about three or four every day, so I mean if you can do that, you could finish a poem a day if that’s how you’re working. But, for me last week, I talked to my dad for his birthday—I also don’t talk on the phone, so this is like my first time talking to him on the phone all year. And so, he was like, “You know, you gotta get out, you can’t just be working.” But I was like, I’m just drawing and writing poems. If I left that, I would be doing work. That isn’t my work. But I also knew what he meant about doing that too much.
So I will say to you, the American Sonnets are very much in conversation with everybody, but I also do it because I don’t actually want to talk to you.I wrote the poem so I don’t have to talk to you.
DM: That’s kind of what I was wondering, because it does, it seems like a single-minded output but always calling out into the world in this other way.
TH: Yeah, yeah, dead people, alive people, future people. I was thinking that the other day—the difference between people after you and the people behind you. Or the people after you, or the people in the future. You know, it’s weird. But I was thinking in terms of, those are different groups, but I think I’m interested in those two groups, one is future, one is past, but they’re almost the same.
DM: You mean in terms of who you’re talking to?
TH: Yeah, yeah. Like I sort of think, maybe I’m just talking to the people behind you, maybe I’m not really talking to you, even though you’re there in the middle. But I don’t know if I’m actually talking to you, I might just be talking . . .
DM: Which is sort of fascinating to be talking about in this context where we’re talking to each other and yet we’re also in conversation—and this interview is sort of an example of exactly that.
TH: So that’s why things are always hidden in all of the books. So if I’m saying to you, yeah, a lot of the formal stuff—and it’s not just formal stuff, I feel like half the stuff, like Jóhann Jóhannsson, this dude, he’s born in Iceland, great musician. And I found out yesterday, maybe two days ago, that he passed. He was 48, he passed away in February. And I was like, holy shit, I don’t even have anybody to call. Like I’ve never talked to another person about this dude. He’d recently started doing movie soundtracks, so that’s cool. But, like, Fordlandia, I think . . . Anyway, interesting dude and I didn’t have anyone to say, “Hey man, this dude passed away.” Same thing when DJ Rashad passed away, no one knows who he is either. Footwork dude.
So knowing that, I write that way too, I know a lot of the references maybe nobody’s going to get. But that’s sort of O.K. A lot of the formal stuff, nobody’s going to get also. O.K.
DM: Can I ask—we’re talking a lot about these sonnets as public, and you’re talking a little about the personal. So my new book, Stet, I wrote during a time when I was going through some transitions in my life, and I really didn’t want to write in a confessional mode. Partly because I didn’t want to throw other people in my life under the bus and so I ended up going into this very contained sort of formal mode to process a lot of those changes. And so I was curious, there are moments in here where I feel like I’m seeing some of that, potentially some of those personal things coming out. But was this a release? Was there some sense in which this kind of public mode of dealing with the public was either a way to process or turn away from that potential private mode? And do you think there’s kind of a private mode on the other side of it? That’s a lot of questions, sorry.
TH: I think I hear that question, but I think my answer’s still the same, which is that I don’t think that many people pay attention.
DM: You mean to poems?
TH: Yeah. So in fact, I’ll say this, this is a theory that I have and actually it maybe is a release, and this might be true—I don’t know how you think about form or these things in your own work—but I sort of feel like the only way that people are really going to get it is if it’s taught. But you’re not writing books for them to be taught. I am writing a book for either you or one person behind you. It’s not for a roomful of people. It is a one-to-one, as I understand it, conversation. And yet I do feel like, when everybody’s, certainly if it’s a bunch of poets, but even undergrads, if you put the book in front of them and you started talking for an hour, then maybe somebody’ll be like, “Oh look, the poem actually runs all the way down, I didn’t know that’s what he was doing.” But I don’t—it’s not like a big deal for me, because, again, it’s just a result of, I wrote a poem. Same thing with Sonnets, I would say they’re poems first. Someone said to me, “Are your Sonnets sequenced?” the other day, and I was like, “Oh shit. Is it that? Don’t call it that, that sounds so boring.” It’s gotta be a good poem first, sonnet or not, it’s just gotta be a good poem. So that’s really how I chase those things.
Secondly, and this is funny because it was one of them I think I pulled, and I’ll say this because I do think you’ve seen them, but I don’t know how well you’re tracking them. So the Orpheus stuff, all the way through it, is me, that’s mostly personal stuff. So when I laid them all out, I pulled a lot of those.
DM: Where Eurydice is the poet, as opposed to Orpheus.
TH: Yeah, that comes up, that was an idea I kept trying to circle through, too. So I think there’s a couple of those. But there’s longer ones. And I think there’s one, like I said, I don’t really look at them, but I’m pretty sure there’s one, if not two, in the Kenyon Review that are not in the book. Because what I thought, and it wasn’t even about, like, ex-spouses or anything, I think she would be fine with it, it was just I don’t necessarily want it to be too much of that. I don’t want it to be, like, a Trump book. I don’t even want it to be exclusively a Wanda Coleman book. I don’t want it to be like a divorce book. I mean, none of that. It is just what it is. And so I only try to keep those kinds of things from overwhelming it and then sort of seeing—you know, still putting a book together, obviously, I’m very conscious of what threads emerge. But I was aware of that, when I had all, let’s say it was maybe a hundred of them, or maybe two hundred, out in front of me, and I could see that as a kind of recurring theme.
But I could remove it and then say to everyone, “Yes, but the question of, like, maybe Eurydice is the poet because she’s the one that stays behind and is locked up and forced to imagine things while he’s on the isle of Lesbos and stuff.” Like, that’s a worthwhile idea, even if it grows out of thinking about, what does it mean for a male poet and a female poet to be married, and what kinds of sacrifices happen, that sort of thing. But, yeah, certainly there’s a—
There’s other stuff, to get super-real with you, I don’t even know how to frame that without it sounding like alarmist, but . . . I’ll just say, depression stuff, mania stuff. That’s all I’ll say. There’s all kinds of stuff in it. But that will be buried and that’s certainly never been in any of my other work. Like, you wouldn’t look through my work, necessarily, and be understanding some of the, you know, suicidal tendencies or whatever. But because the title is the same, I can put that stuff in there, and again, only maybe if a classroom of people were looking at it, would a bunch of people’s detective work figure it out, but I don’t write like that, so I don’t actually expect people to figure half the stuff out that I’m really working out inside those poems.
DM: And it seems like this is sort of beautiful in that sense, because it’s hiding in plain sight. It’s like this very public-looking book and people are going to talk about Trump, and you can kind of—
TH: I can do Wanda Coleman, I can do Trump. And yeah, but it is that, and that was sort of the evolution of it. Again, why I could write it with that same title, it just meant that I didn’t know what was going to happen if I was going to always have that as the title and dig into it that way.
Again, I don’t know what to do after that, is what I would say to you. The dilemma is, if I figured out a way to get pretty close to the way my head works on a daily basis, and that’s kind of, more than anything else, that’s what that is. I don’t know whether to do another side of that, so I’m just sort of drawing and waiting to figure out . . . And you know, I guess that will happen, but I felt that after How to Be Drawn, too. Like, “Man, I can’t do this again. I guess I’m done.” So that’s kinda how, I sit here saying, “Maybe I sit, man, maybe I’ll just draw.” And I made a little poetry video last night. Maybe I’ll do that.
DM: I’ve seen some of those little poetry videos.
TH: I like making little videos and stuff.
DM: They’re cool. Was it a little stop motion one?
TH: This one was—oh, I can’t explain it. It was a poem for somebody who’s retiring. It was fun, but—Anyway. I guess it was worth it. I could have been doing something else, but that wasn’t a bad eight hours.
DM: It’s interesting, when you’re talking about having something formal where maybe only a classroom would find it. You’re in a sort of interesting position, because as public as poetry can be, you’re kind of in a public position. And I think about that in terms of the “Golden Shovel” poems. To have a form like that where you invent this form that is both theme and content. This is this form that functions as a sort of acrostic with the end-words but it’s also an homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, this particular figure. And then it kind of takes on a life of its own in the culture, which is beautiful and fascinating, and there’s an anthology.
TH: It has nothing to do with me, though.
DM: Well, that was my question! Do you feel that still doesn’t change the writing process for you?
TH: No, no, I mean, it’s been happening, even with the anagram poems and Hip Logic, someone was like, “Oh, we should put an anthology together,” and I said, “Yeah. You go ahead, man.” And then same thing with pecha kucha and the Lighthead book. There are a couple of people who wanted to do that form, and again, I’m not proprietary, so I was like, sure. All my shit comes from somewhere, so go ahead, do what you want to do. So then someone came, same with that form. And of those three, this, to me, certainly nobody’s going to be interested in that?
So then when they came along with this idea, I was like, “Eh, O.K., sure.” I’m still not going to be involved. And they looked around and they found some folks. Patricia Smith got involved with it. And then I was like, “O.K., I’ll do the foreword.” And the foreword was really just about where it came from, which was having my kid. I memorized that poem [“We Real Cool”]. And then my writing habit, just writing it down in a column. But the thing which I said to them which underscores this question, I think, I can’t undo it despite how popular it becomes, is I’ve already done that, essentially you’re asking me to go backwards if you’re asking me to meditate on or continue to write a thing that just so happens that people are now interested in.
So you know, I didn’t have anything to do with it, and then they had a thing at the AWP in DC, which I—I had been to the Boston one, so was that five years? I was doing every three or so years. And so I went. They had me doing something with Rita Dove on the last night, too. So, I was terrified—
DM: And it was terrifying just because it was so much pressure and people?
TH: Too many people! Yeah. I can do, like, small groups. Classrooms are my ideal size. After that . . . And being on a stage, that’s almost like a classroom. But the AWP stuff? That’s too much. So I don’t generally go too often to that. So I went to that because of that, and it was fine, and it was great to see—that was the first time where I was like, “Oh, look at all these people doing this thing.” And I felt great that they did it and it was, again, perfect because it was, I could put it on Gwendolyn Brooks. But my response, as I said, is like, “Well, I’ve already done it. Why would you be asking me to dwell on that, to push that in any kind of . . . It ain’t that kind of product.” It’s not that kind of thing for me. The poems, the yield of the poems is the yield of the poems. Anything else that happens around that is kind of the business of the poem and the people who are reading it, it’s not really my concern, my concern is like, “Where’s the next poem?”
So that was cool that they did it, but the great thing is that, I just think it’s a great Gwendolyn Brooks thing. Someone else who sort of hadn’t got quite enough love.
DM: That can bring me to a last question, when you’re talking about signal-boosting Gwendolyn Brooks and signal-boosting Wanda Coleman, and when we think of influence, there’s the Harold Bloom idea of the anxiety of influence—
TH: Yeah, I think the opposite.
DM: That’s what I was wondering. Almost all the examples he uses are this kind of agonistic relationship between a white male and with a forebear who’s a white male. So I don’t want to over-assume how you’re thinking about influence and why, but I notice—there’s some of that agonistic relationship, like in a poem like “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” or even with Amiri Baraka where you’re sometimes working through this relationship, but more often its these homages or sense of influence where it’s Gwendolyn Brooks or it’s Wanda Coleman or it’s Harryette Mullen or it’s Lucille Clifton. And so in that sense it seems to be both a different way of thinking about influence and a different way of choosing—I know we can’t always choose who our influences are, but it seems to be often these amazing poets who are black women who maybe haven’t got enough attention. So is there anything conscious there, or is it more intuitive?
TH: There’s just more of them! Actually, I don’t want to go too far. There’s a lot of overlooked black women.So there’s just, if I’m reading a lot, that’s just going to be . . . So I would say it’s not super-conscientious, because all I’m looking for is good work.
DM: Just great poetry.
TH: Yeah, yeah. And so, maybe the parallel is music. I don’t care who it is, if it’s gonna stick, then I’m happy that it sticks.
DM: I’ve created all these theories in my own head, because people often talk about your work in terms of masculinity. And you’ve mentioned it too, like in your MacArthur video, you talk about masculinity. So it’s not something you’re shying away from. But at the same time, I’m always calling back, “Well, he’s talking about masculinity because he’s undermining it!” So, in that sense, I love that even the references, the people you’re choosing to be in conversation with, are often these matriarchs instead of—and it seems to be the warmest relationship. And also the relationships are often embodied in your forms, whether it’s Wanda Coleman in American Sonnets or whether it’s Gwendolyn Brooks in the “Golden Shovel.” You have a “Golden Shovel” for Elizabeth Alexander too, don’t you?
TH: Yeah, that’s right.
DM: I suppose that isn’t even a question, it’s just me saying that I think it’s really interesting and moving in a lot of ways to see a different model for influence.
TH: So, again, I’m going to give you this answer, I would leave that answer as it is and just say, “Yeah, that’s totally right. We can stop.” And then I would say to you, again, if I just, without getting too deep and personal in stuff, go back to the primary Orpheus and Eurydice story and if I say, “Oh, you know, if a black poet was married to a black woman poet,” and they were the same in terms of their capacity for work. Regardless of success, you would be very aware, you would be hyper-conscious of all black woman poets in the landscape and saying, “Well, I know that there’s a consequence and I live with it, and I see it everywhere.” So let’s just say that was sort of a thing I lived with. I certainly would read more tenderly other black women.
But I would also say, I’m just looking for good work. Like, I won’t talk about bad work. There’s a lot of bad work. So I just mostly am only responding, as I said, to the stuff that I can get hot about. So that would also be Wallace Stevens, you know, it would be Keats, it would be other folks, too. But I maybe would only make that as a distinction. So I would say, if you strip away that distinction, of something like, what happens in your house, or in your bedroom, I would say I actually don’t care. I just read and, as I said, I’m waiting for something to hit me, because most stuff doesn’t. And so that means I have to kind of consume a lot to get it. It is very much like drugs. You gotta take on a whole bunch to get the high you’re looking for.
But, the parallel would be music, like could you break down music the same way if you were looking at what I was doing? “It seems like you like this kind of thing?” I would say, probably not. And I’d think, broadly speaking, that would be true for poetry too. I don’t go in saying, “It’s gotta be a woman, it’s gotta be a man, or a white man,” or anything like that. It’s gotta be good.
DM: And this may be somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Like, personally, I am hungry for somebody to be holding up the work of these particular poets. Because I love Wanda Coleman, I love Gwendolyn Brooks, I love Harryette Mullen, and I get excited to see someone holding them up. And maybe I see other people in your poems who, I’m interested in their work . . .
TH: No, you’re right, but I’m sort of . . .
DM: Like Stevens, whose work I like, but I’m not like, “Oh thank goodness someone’s paying attention to this writer.”
TH: I would also say, connected to that, I’m just really . . . As I said, I’m just writing into my own interests. I lost an idea, there was something else I was going to say connected to that. But I guess I’ll just, I’ll leave it there. It’s just a reflection of who I am, that’s what I’d say.
I know what I was going to say. Inside the poems, even working that idea out, I would say at this point, probably more than any book, anything you ask me, I could probably tell you something in the book that’s thought about that. So the thing that comes up in the book, and it comes up a few times, but the thing that jumped into my head when you said that, is like Prince. So he’s not a woman, he’s a dude, but my comment on Prince, in the poem, in the book, is every man has to have a beautiful woman in him. Or even, the poem I mentioned about the, where the penis came from. In that poem, I am saying on the turn—I’m talking about me and my mother, my mother in me. So that notion, if I start with the sensibility question, of saying, “Yeah, I do believe that, probably God, if there is a God, its consciousness is female,” and if I think that’s what we got from Prince. So that question does feed back into why I wouldn’t . . . Of course I’m interested in these poets and I find this a problem that they’re not better known, but at the root of that, if I just go beyond scholarship and sensibility stuff, it is, obviously, women—is that not the highest form? It can’t be a dude. Dudes can’t make babies, that’s not going to be the highest form of the universe! So just sort of chasing that idea, if that’s true, what would a man have to do if he is not the supreme, if he is not like God’s best creation, if it is a woman, what would a dude, walking around women, have to do? Well, I guess I gotta become a woman. I guess I gotta incorporate all the things that a woman psychically does in the world to reach her full God-potential, or whatever.
So that’s just me sitting around, like watching television. That’s not, you know . . .
DM: But that is something that’s come up again and again. I mean, in How to Be Drawn, in the, I think it’s in one of the early poems, where it says, “I’ve got a lot of my mother’s music in me,” or the poem with the deer, where, “I could become a machine with a woman inside.” It definitely seems like a theme that comes up again and again.
TH: I’m saying that to go back to your point, which is that you’re right. That there is a thing that is female, certainly, an African-American female also, inside the work that’s rooted to a thing that just doesn’t go away for me, like a way of just seeing the world. Like red is red, blue is blue, and this is also true. Like, I do chase that. But I would separate that again from the basic desire to find something good, can’t have any limits on it, though. So I will take joy wherever I find it, even if I believe that . . . I’m hoping. . . . Again, I said, there’s just a bunch of women. So I don’t know, I’m trying to distinguish those two things, if you hear me. Like the desire to fulfill this certain kind of belief about how people work but also saying, pleasure doesn’t necessarily work like that, though. I wouldn’t let that desire infiltrate my basic desire to go into any space and be moved by a song or, you know . . .
DM: Pleasure can’t be didactic?
TH: Which is not to say that’s not a moral question. Like, if a murderer wrote a good poem, I’d be like, “Well, he murdered somebody.”
And I’d think about that. But I would still look at it, though, I would still read. If someone said, “Well, you can’t read it because he’s a murderer,” I would have a problem with that. But I would think about it after I read it. I guess I’m making those two distinctions.
Like I don’t believe that you should police your joy, or your curiosity. But I do believe that you’re responsible for it once you’ve acknowledged what gives you joy, and if you’ve answered the questions around your curiosity, you should try to bring some shape to it. But before you shaped it, I don’t think you should have too many walls around it, too many barriers or limits. Racial, gender. Economic. You know, whatever. Whatever you think of as your hang-ups, you would hope that you would let your curiosity be unbridled.