Keeping up with Terrance Hayes
The poet, professor, and MacArthur grant recipient on what it means to follow your bliss
Terrance Hayes '94 is often asked for advice. When you’re an award-winning poet teaching college classes in creative writing, it kind of comes with the territory.
His favorite response is short: “Follow your bliss.” It’s a popular Joseph Campbell quote, and those three simple words really resonate with Hayes. “If you do the thing you love, success will always follow,” he says. “Of course,” he adds, “you’ve got to really love it.”
So far, it seems this philosophy has served him well. A professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, Hayes is also the author of four award-winning poetry anthologies. His second, Hip Logic, won the 2001 National Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, while his latest, Lighthead, won the National Book Award for Poetry. His other honors include a Whiting Writer's Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Most recently, Hayes was one of 20 to receive a coveted MacArthur grant—one of the most prestigious individual development grants in the world. Informally called “genius grants,” they’re awarded each year by the The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to individuals who show promising creativity. Along with prestige, each grant comes with $625,000.
Despite decades of success as a poet, the MacArthur was a shock for Hayes. The thing is, he never really planned on becoming a poet. “Poet” is only one of his many identities. Poet, painter, professor, son, husband, father—of all his descriptors, perhaps the most accurate would be “artist.” Hayes may not have always been a poet (in fact, hardly anyone even knew he wrote poems until his first book was published). But he has always felt the need to be expressive. “I really didn’t think about how I was being expressive,” he says. “I just wanted to be expressive.”
Born in Columbia, SC, Hayes came to Coker on a basketball scholarship and studied visual art for three years before switching his major to English at the last minute. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1994, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
“He was always very inquisitive,” says Dan Schmotzer, head men’s basketball coach at Coker and one of Hayes’s college mentors. Schmotzer was never surprised by his success as a writer—he always knew Hayes had a lot more going for him than basketball. “Terrance had a vision of what he wanted to do,” he says. “Terrance is one of those guys ... when he says something, it’s profound.”
At Coker, Hayes found the freedom to express all facets of his creativity. He took classes in everything from Chinese literature to religion to philosophy, and, looking back, he highly values his liberal arts education for allowing him to explore his many interests.
Hayes says he found some of his most enlightening experiences in those unexpected classes—for example, a particular philosophy class with professor Jim Lemke. “With Lemke, I was always challenged,” he says. “He recognized that I could write, but he wouldn’t let me just get by as a good writer. He really pushed me to be a thinker. I remember that was a big shock—distinguishing between good writing and good thinking.”
But it was a freshman creative writing class where Hayes first imagined a future as a writer. With encouragement from Professor Emerita of English Lois Gibson, Hayes eventually decided to pursue graduate school in creative writing. “He took both his art and his writing seriously, and he asked for criticism,” says Gibson. “Over time, he became more confident that he knew what he wanted his work to do and to say, and he developed a sense of his audience. His voice grew stronger.”
His voice only grew stronger from there. Hayes earned his master’s degree in 1997 from the University of Pittsburgh, and he’s spent the following years traveling, teaching, painting, starting a family—and writing. He writes about race, family, sexuality, and fatherhood. He explores what it means to be black; what it means to be an artist. Themes of masculinity and music frequently emerge throughout his work. In other words, he writes what he knows. It’s important to Hayes that his work be accessible. After all, the ubiquity of language is a large part of what drew him to poetry in the first place. “Not everybody has pens and oil paints and brushes, but everybody has language,” he says. “It’s always around us. Hip hop or Bob Dylan or even commercials ... you hear figures of speech that are the basis of what poetry is. It’s in our anecdotes, our euphemisms, our cliches.”
The challenge, then, is how to take something as common as language and use it to create something new and worthwhile. “You have to hear it as a poet, and then do something with it,” he says. “It’s about being open and listening.” And that’s exactly what sets Hayes apart. He possesses a unique ability to translate the mundane into artwork; to see poetry where others see banality.
It didn’t take long for his talent to begin drawing praise. Says author Cornelius Eady: “First you’ll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turns of phrase. Then you’ll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world.”
Hayes takes in the world through the eyes of an artist. Whether he’s walking down the streets of Pittsburgh, playing pickup basketball, or enjoying a quick game of Scrabble with his kids, Hayes sees poetry in everyday life. Writing isn’t so much a task or a job as it is a necessity—a lifestyle. “As long as I’m talking, I’m writing,” he says. “Everything that comes out of my mouth has the potential to impact my poems.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that it all comes effortlessly. Hayes espouses a life philosophy that manages to balance dreamy, “reach for the stars” ambition with grounded pragmatism. He’s careful to point out that following your bliss doesn’t mean eschewing hard work. “Think about it as the joy of practice, not the joy of performance and success,” he says.
In particular, Hayes has a lot to say about the concept of inspiration. “What inspires an athlete?” he asks. “You don’t really ask those questions of athletes. You just know that they get up and they practice. Whether you have a good game or not, you still get up the next day and you practice, and I approach art the same way. It’s more than being inspired. You hope that you do have inspiring moments—but in the meantime, you practice. I work and I produce, and I dig through the stuff I produce and look for the magical moments. But I don’t wait on inspiration.”
As an example, Hayes mentions a series of essays he’s currently working on—all prose, which is a challenge for a man who thinks in poetry. He wrote a full 24 pages before he even realized what he was trying to say. “I couldn’t figure out what it was about,” he says, “until one day I was in the shower, and suddenly I thought, ‘Oh, it’s about vulnerability.’“The inspiration can come at any moment, but you’re still working until you’re standing in the shower and saying, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been working on.’ If I had waited until that moment, I wouldn’t have had 24 pages,” he explains.
As a professor, these are the lessons Hayes tries to share with his students every day. He avoids discussing his own poetry or his personal work process during class—he says keeping his life as a professor separate from his life as a poet is what gives him the freedom to be creative. He understands that his day-to-day livelihood helps keep him grounded.
But more importantly, he loves being a teacher. His favorite is his freshman introduction to creative writing class. “Each week I try to bring in things to shock them and amuse them and challenge them. What I really love is just that moment where people are like, ‘Wow, this is something I’ve never thought of,’” he says. “That’s what I chase. That moment when you can share something with them that’s new.”
Hayes encourages his students to explore their interests wherever they lie. But he particularly encourages them to explore the humanities, just like he did as a college student. “What I’m saying to students, whether they’re business students or engineers … the humanities isn’t something you can put on the back burner,” he says. “If you’re human, you should be studying the humanities.”
Hayes never set a goal to become an award-winning poet. He simply worked hard and followed his bliss—his need to express—and this is where he ended up. In the future, he plans to keep doing the same. As a matter of fact, his upcoming book, titled How to Be Drawn, was inspired by the parallels between his life as a poet and as a painter.
As for the MacArthur grant, Hayes doesn’t know yet what he’ll do with the money. What he does know is that he will continue teaching and writing just as he always has. “I would hate for something like this to disrupt the way that I’ve been able to produce work in the past,” he says. “That would be my biggest fear.”
This is a sensible move, of course—why mess with the formula that’s brought him so much success already? But for Hayes, it’s not about the success. It’s about preserving his integrity as an artist. He is first and foremost an artist, and he found success by staying true to where that led him.
Wherever it leads him next, the rest of us will be lucky to follow along behind him.
For more information, contact Laura Hoxworth - 843.857.4103