We are pleased to present, after a long delay, Terrance Hayes reading an original poem, “How to Be Drawn to Trouble.” We think you’ll agree that he gives a commanding reading. He was gracious with his time and expertise and answered a few questions from RiffPub contributing poet Ciara Shuttleworth. His responses are insightful, thoughtful, and interesting for anyone curious about how music influences his work. Enjoy.
My ambition as a poet is to let people know that poetry is as diverse and as broad and as fluid as music is.
CS: When you read, you have a distinctive cadence—it goes beyond your voice…it is a rhythm you easily swing back into if you stumble over a word. Is this something you developed consciously?
TH: I’ve been told I have a distinctive cadence or rhythm when I’m reading my words, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a conscious thing. I mostly concentrate on trying, first of all to be natural or consistent so I don’t have to remember a certain rhythm and I mostly want to be responsive to the poem so that sometimes the reading is measured and slower and other times it has a bit more of a kind of a lilt to it. I think that’s a response to the poem and of course it’s just a response to who’s in the room as well, whether it’s a young audience or an older audience, whether it’s two people or twenty-two people or two hundred people. All of those things impact what I think of as my sort of rhythm and delivery method. But I would never say it’s, ah, it’s pre-determined, but I would say it’s natural. I just try to do what I always do without too much conscious performance.
CS: Do you listen to music while you are writing? If so, how does that influence the poem?
TH: I don’t really listen to music so much when I’m writing. I get that question quite a bit. If I’m responding to a piece of music I will. You know I have the James Brown reference in a poem. In that poem, I guess the poem grows out of first listening to the music and sort of being struck by a certain intonation and then trying to respond to that. But generally I don’t listen to music. If I’m going to listen to something in would be like Burial. I like this sort of, I mean he’s not dub-step, he’s more kind of electronic or tonal, the music that he does. There are kind-of-words but they’re not narrative. Before burial, you know, maybe it was Miles Davis when he’s doing Kind of Blue, so something fairly mellow. But generally, no, I don’t think that I have to have music on or that it’s something that I think about when I sit down to write; I just mostly want to sit down to write.
CS: You bring up David Berman’s 1999 book, Actual Air, in interviews and during readings. Do you listen to his music as well? Do you see the two (his poetry and music) connected? What in this book has kept you talking about it for 15 years?
TH: David Berman (SP) is a poet who I have talked quite a bit about since his 1999 book Actual Air. And he remains of interest to me, primarily because I just think of him as someone with this very audacious imagination and I think some of that emerges in the music. I’ve taught his music with the book in a class that I taught on music in poetry, but I’m really more interested in him as a poet and I first came to him as a poet. And now, you know, after fifteen years I know him a little bit and I, like everyone, am just waiting for him to publish some of these new poems that Ive heard over the years. We’ll see, we’ll see what happens.
…if I never send [a poem] out that just means it’s not good enough to be a gift, it’s not a worthy gift yet.
CS: You’ve said that once the poems are published, they belong to the reader. Are there poems you never let go of, never publish, to keep them “yours”? Are there poems you wish you’d never published so they still belonged to you?
TH: When I’m writing my poems, I think of them as my poems, but once the poems are published I do think that they are [owned by] whoever bought them. When you buy my book of the bookshelf and you hand over your money, how you engage the work is really your business more than mine. I sort of say that as a way to let the poems go, to not have so much control over them. If I never send the poem out and it’s never in a book, does that mean it’s mine? I think that means it’s unfinished. So the ambition is to always get the poem into the world and a large part of my revision process is thinking about the reader who will someday own the poem, and if that reader never sees it, if I never send it out that just means it’s not good enough to be a gift, it’s not a worthy gift yet. But the ambition is to always make a thing that is mine a gift for others.
CS: Can poetry have a universally agreed upon emotion like music can?
TH: Can poetry have a universally agreed upon emotion like music? I think poetry is music: I think that poetry is music where the primary instrument would be the breath, the mouth, the body. I think you probably could say this about dance as well, that the primary instrument in dance is the body. But I think of voice and I think of speech as an even more fluid instrument, an instrument that is even closer to what we think of as a conventional instrument, a horn instrument, a wind instrument. So I think if that’s true, if the instrument in poetry is the voice and the breath, then I think it can convey a lot of the same ideas and lot of the same kinds of suggestiveness, same kinds of tones that we get in music, but the thing that sort of be an impediment to that is narrative.
I don’t think we only rely on narrative music, music that tells a story, obviously there are whole genres–there’s classical music, jazz–whole genres of music that aren’t tied exclusively to narrative. So, my ambition is to get poetry, and to get language, to work as music without words works. So that’s mostly what I’m working towards, it’s not just telling stories, but having a certain kind of tone be communicated without narrative.
CS: How does the role of the poet differ from the role of the musician?
TH: I am a storyteller, I guess, I do like stories. But I think part of my ambition as a teacher, and perhaps as a poet, is to really convey the very different ways we can tell stories, rather than thinking that poetry and storytelling and fiction, novels, cinema, that those things are so closely related. I really don’t of them as all that necessarily related. I mean obviously there is a relationship but my ambition as a poet is to let people know that poetry is as diverse and as broad and as fluid as music is. You never hear a person say ‘I hate music,’ but you hear people say ‘I hate poetry’ or ‘I don’t understand it’ and my response is always ‘but, you know it is music.’ So it’s just about being exposed to enough of it to fully appreciate it. It’s really not about dismissing a whole way of being in the world.
Learn more about Ciara Shuttleworth and her work at CiaraShuttleworth.com.