Poetry served as an important coping mechanism for poet Terrance Hayes after the 2016 presidential election, he said at a book reading and discussion Jan. 21.
The event was hosted by the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice as part of the center’s Readings and Talks Series and Symposia, which brings poets and writers to Georgetown University to share their work. During the reading in Copley Formal Lounge, Hayes discussed his poetry and the inspiration behind some of his published works.
As someone who was deeply impacted by the 2016 presidential election, Hayes used writing as a coping mechanism. After the election, Hayes began work on his book of poems “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” which won the 2019 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry.
“I started writing these poems in November of 2016, and I thought I was going to need these poems for just the next four years as a way of coping,” Hayes said in the discussion. “Too much language, too many questions, too much noise. But I still write them because we’re still here.”
While many poems published in his book reflect Hayes’ reactions to the 2016 election, Hayes still stressed the importance of writing even if the works are not published.
“I think maybe one or two of the poems that I’ll end with tonight have been published,” Hayes said. “If I only write for the book then we’re pretending that somehow we’re past it and we’re not.”
Hayes criticized the current practice of sharing writing via platforms like Twitter, alluding to tweets from President Donald Trump as an example of the lack of substance behind such forms of writing.
“If you live in a culture where everybody’s writing and no one can write, that’s Twitter,” he said, provoking laughter from the audience. “To me, that’s apocalyptic, even before, you know, tweeting presidents.”
Since his inauguration in 2017, Trump has written more than 11,000 tweets, according to The New York Times. Trump sent out 142 tweets and retweets on Wednesday alone, marking his all-time highest number of tweets in a single day since becoming president, according to Factba.se.
Hayes is also known for his books “To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight,” which won the Poetry Foundation’s 2019 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism, and “Lighthead,” which won the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry. Aside from writing, Hayes currently serves as a professor of English and artist-in-residence at New York University.
All of the poems in his book “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin” share the title “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Hayes said he gave all his sonnets the same name so he could focus on the writing of the poems.
“Once I called them all the same thing, I could do anything,” Hayes said. “It actually was very exciting for me to not have to be, like, naming them anymore, to say, ‘no matter what I write,’ and you can see that in the poems. It means I can concentrate on the poem, not the superficial, you know, naming.”
Readers can find meaning from his poetry, regardless of whether they agree with the political inspiration behind it, according to Hayes.
“Forget about everything else; forget about Trump; forget about books, audiences,” Hayes said. “Whether you agree with it or not, I’ve already told you everything’s got a bunch of sides, so if you’re with that then you might be flexible to whatever I might propose to you.”
Hoya Staff Writers Sophie Haber and Harrison McBride contributed reporting.