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For Hayes, Pittsburgh and Poetry Are No Strangers

April 24, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Terrance Hayes is the author of three books of poetry and is a professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University. He discusses life as a poet in Pittsburgh, "where no one is a stranger," and shares some of his work.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The life of a poet wasn’t always the path before Terrance Hayes.

As baby he grew up in South Carolina, and basketball was his first passion, playing in high school and college. Then came painting, which he continues to work at today. When he did start to write, not even his parents knew.

TERRANCE HAYES, poet: I always thought that was enough that I was a painter and they didn’t need me to be a poet as well. So it was private in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: But encouraged by a professor, Hayes came to a graduate writing program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Today, he is the author of three books of poetry, most recently “Wind in a Box,” winner of numerous awards and himself now a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon. We talked recently of his work and his adopted home.

TERRANCE HAYES: Since I took my first poetry classes in Pittsburgh and I realized my first community of poets in Pittsburgh, this became initially the real — the locus for a lot of my poems.

So that when I think about what sort of poet I am or what sort of landscape it is that interests me, for a long time it has been the landscape of concrete, and the landscape of rivers, and the landscape of the sorts of people that I’d meet riding the buses or walking through some of the neighborhoods.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you, you came to poetry and to Pittsburgh sort of together.

TERRANCE HAYES: Simultaneously, that’s right. The interesting thing about that is, because I was somewhat of an outsider, I was instantly sort of uncomfortable with just being a graduate student.

So I found myself wandering through the neighborhoods, wandering sometimes even outside of the city for basketball games, for circles of artists.

Pittsburgh

is a fat lady jabbering at the bus stop.

She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,

For a native son of her gray industrial breast.

She blesses her Bucs, her Steelers,

Her father, God rest her soul, was a Hornets fan.

She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,

Her blue scarf twisting like the broad Monongahela,

Her blue face lined like a jitney’s street map.

I’d tell her I’m not from this place:

These severed tired neighborhoods,

These ruthless winter tantrums,

But her long winded stories numb me.

She is persistent as snow, as boot slush & Thinsulate,

As buses rumbling like giant metallic catepillars.

She lights a Marlboro and it means

Spring will burn quick and furious as a match,

Summer will blaze.

When she tells me No one is a stranger in Pittsburgh,

do I believe her,

My frosty fairy foster-Mamma,

My stout rambling metaphor?

TERRANCE HAYES: I wrote that poem as a graduate student, perhaps my first year in Pittsburgh. I mean, I moved away for a couple of years. I came back. When I returned to Pittsburgh for a job, I had a wife, I had a child. And the first time I got on the bus, the woman who was the subject of that poem was on the bus.

JEFFREY BROWN: The same woman.

TERRANCE HAYES: The same woman. And so it’s interesting to think that somehow that line was coming back to me, “No one is a stranger in Pittsburgh.”

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it about this place that both made you feel comfortable as a person, but also as a poet?

TERRANCE HAYES: I can talk about it in terms of actual landscape of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is several hills. There’s lots of hills. I think everybody knows about the three rivers.

But one of the hills in the middle of the city is the Hill, which was a well-known African-American community. There’s also Squirrel Hill, which is predominantly Jewish. There’s Polish Hill. There’s Bloomfield Hills.

And each one of those hills has a different sort of cultural dynamic. And so there’s people that come through, but they have a clear notion of self in those places. I like the idea of being able to travel from one hill to the next.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of your work seems to be about negotiating your way as a man, as a black man, among the different cultures that you find.

TERRANCE HAYES: When I came to Pittsburgh, I was no longer the basketball player in the community. I was no longer the artist. And so some of my initial run-ins in terms of race were here in Pittsburgh.

And it was just — it was more about difference. It wasn’t even threatening.

In fact, when I moved to Pittsburgh, I moved into a sort of old steelworker side of town. And most of the people in my department and my peers said, “Don’t move there.” The name of the neighborhood is Greenfield. I liked the landscape. I thought it was close. It was close enough for me to talk in about 20 minutes to campus.

But there were skinheads in the neighborhood and, you know, young white kids with tattoos. And so I thought, “I think I’ll be all right.” But inevitably, I was coming home from the bus, getting off the bus at about midnight, and this young kid rode by me on his bike.

And he looked sort of — you know, he was a young white kid, but he still — he was looking at me the wrong way. So he passed me. And I walked down the hill, because Greenfield is also a hill, and he circled around, and he came back. And I felt him coming.

And I said to myself, “This is it. Everybody told me that I was going to get in a fight or get jumped if I lived in this neighborhood. And now it’s going to happen.”

So I steeled myself, and he rode up next to me, and he looked at me and he said, “You’re the poet, right?”

JEFFREY BROWN: “You’re the poet,” huh?

TERRANCE HAYES: And I said, “Yes, yes, I’m the poet.” And he said, “You write some good stuff.” And then he rode on. And it was like midnight in Greenfield.

And so, you know, that memory for me was a defining sort of memory about, “OK, I think I’ll be all right in this place.” And even the dynamic, that sort of surprise about, again, how people interact and what it means to be African-American or blue-collar, son of a coal miner, or whatever kind of dynamics you’re thinking about, all the wrinkles again in those relationships are what interest me.

ROOT

My parents would have had me believe

there was no such thing as race

there in the wild backyard, our knees black

with store bought grass and dirt,

black as the soil of pastures or of orchards

grown above graves. We clawed free

the stones and filled their beds with soil

and covered the soil with sod

as if we owned the earth.

We worked into the edge of darkness

and rose in the edge of darkness

until everything came from the dirt.

I found an axe blade beneath an untamed hedge,

its edge too dull to sever vine and half expected

to find a jawbone scabbed with mud,

because no one told me what happened

to the whites who’d owned the house.

No one spoke of the color that curled

around our tools or of the neighbors

who knew our name before we knew theirs.

Sometimes they were almost visible,

clean as fence posts in porch light;

their houses burning with wonder,

their hammocks drunk with wind.

When I dreamed, I dreamed of them

and believed they dreamed of us

and believed we were made of dirt or shadows:

something not held or given, irredeemable, inexact,

all of us asking what it means to be black…

I have never wanted another life, but I know the story

of pursuit: the dream of a gate standing open,

a grill and folding chairs, a new yard boxed in light.