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Poet, artist speaks at Museum of Fine Arts

Terrance Hayes turns life experiences into artwork

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Poet, artist speaks at Museum of Fine Arts
Terrance Hayes (Photo: Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Page through any of the five poetry books by Terrance Hayes and it seems that when he puts a poem together, anything is possible.

A visual artist as well as a poet, Hayes lets the shapes and forms of his poems talk, along with the words. Alongside traditional -looking poems composed of stanzas and lines are others that frame words in charts and grids. A poem titled “Portrait Of Etheridge Knight In The Style Of A Crime Report” does just what its title states: In the boxes of a police report are phrases evoking the complex life of Knight, a distinguished poet who published his first book while serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Like Knight, one of his muses, Hayes freely draws on everyday language. A 34-line litany begins each sentence with the phrase “If you are addicted to…” In another poem, Hayes compares himself to a Hummer. A crossed-out paragraph titled “The Antidote for Invisibility” is a potent visual pun.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston two weeks ago to speak about turning life experiences into art, Hayes began his talk by invoking jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. The musician’s emphasis on practice, said Hayes, applies to poetry as well as other disciplines such as law and medicine.

A gem glinting in his ear and elegant in a sport jacket, plaid shirt and jeans, Hayes looked the part of a former athlete as well as a man whose distinctions include a “People” magazine nomination as Sexiest Man Alive along with a MacArthur Fellowship and the 2010 National Book Award.

His melodic voice inflected with a southern accent from his childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, Hayes, 44, kept a tag team of two nimble-fingered sign language interpreters working hard to keep pace with his fast-moving talk.

Showing slides while talking at the podium and occasionally reading from hand-held notes, Hayes had a congenial manner, often smiling as he spoke of his approach to making poetry. Although some of his poems are restless, searing first-person conversations with the reader, at the podium he appeared to be having a tremendous amount of fun.

Author: Photo courtesy of Terrance HayesThe piece “Where do your poems come from?”

Multiple venues

A persuasive advocate for his craft, Hayes has conducted writing sessions in prisons as well as high schools. Standing 6’5″ tall, Hayes was an Academic All-American in basketball at Coker College, where he studied painting and English. He earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, where both he and his wife, author Yona Harvey, are professors of English. The couple and their son and daughter live in Pittsburgh.

Playful and purposeful in choosing the forms his poems take, Hayes borrows from unlikely sources. He described one of his innovations, a 20-stanza poem that mimics the format of business presentations in Japan, where he taught for a few years. The format, called a pecha kucha, requires the presenter to display 20 images and comment no more than 20 seconds on each one. When reading one of these poems aloud, he timed himself to follow the rule, which also influenced the word count of each stanza.

Free ranging and voracious in his tastes and interests, Hayes invokes in his poems such varied muses as Aretha Franklin, Vladimir Nabakov, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Jones, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Leonard Cohen and Mark Rothko.

Commenting on his varied sources and inspirations, Hayes spoke of “The Arcades Project,” a 1,000-page volume by French intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) that explored how glass-roofed emporiums of small shops changed the street life of Paris. Hayes described his own project to build an encyclopedic “literary scrapbook” that continuously seeks connections and associations across disciplines and subjects — not unlike an open-ended Internet search.

His books direct the reader to his website for “notes, references and inspirations for the poems.” Links vary from a video clip of James Brown wailing “Please, Please, Please” to artist Ellen Gallagher’s grid of 60 prints, “DeLuxe” (2004-05), based on vintage ads for skin whiteners and hair straighteners.

Calling himself a “chameleon” and “shape-shifter,” Hayes said that he prefers “to absorb rather than to close up.” Pointing out that he favors “and” rather than “or,” he said, “I always try to put things together.”

Among the sources that Hayes spoke of were his search for gaps in family history, a process that has moved him to translate autobiography into art. At age 33, Hayes met with his biological father, whom he had not seen since he was a toddler.

Family ties

Hayes spoke of how his search led him to the MySpace postings of the man’s sons, whom he regards as his half-brothers. Presenting a surreal dose of raw autobiography, Hayes showed a news clip of a poker-faced newsman reporting the older half-brother’s arrest. Hayes then showed a video of his half-brother, who strongly resembles him, standing in a convict’s jumpsuit before a judge. Hayes followed these clips with a fast-motion video of his hands sketching a charcoal portrait of his half brother that then dissolved into a striking, expressionist-style oil painting.

Turning life into art, Hayes gave his biological father the name “Butch,” and wrote a poem about the encounter, “Arbor for Butch.” He composed the poem as a pecha kucha and headed each of its 20 stanzas with the title of a wooden sculpture by artist Martin Puryear.

In a gripping performance, Hayes read the poem aloud and then showed photographs of Puryear sculptures that give the stanzas their titles.

Hayes concluded his talk by returning to his theme of practice and “product making.” Transforming life experiences into art, Hayes suggested, is an activity that is empowering — and available to all.

Quoting a line from “Arbor for Butch,” Hayes said he hoped to teach others how to “build a shelter” for themselves with words, “like the bird who uses the bones and feathers of other birds to build its nest.”