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Terrance Hayes Speaks To American Racism In Latest Collection Of Poetry


The poet Terrance Hayes first arrived on the scene in 1999 with a book called "Muscular Music." Since then, he's won a huge number of literary prizes, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. He now has a new book out called "American Sonnets For My Past And Future Assassin," and here to talk with us about it is our reviewer Tess Taylor. Hi, Tess.


SHAPIRO: The most striking thing about this book when you open it up is that each poem has the same title. Each one is called "American Sonnet For My Past And Future Assassin" - almost identical as the title of the collection. What's going on here?

TAYLOR: Yeah. It's really inventive, right? I mean, I can't actually remember another book that does this, where every single poem has the same title for an entire collection. And then, yes, as the title suggests, every single poem is a sonnet. There are definitely 14 lines per poem, so that's that sonnet form that you may or may not remember from your 10th grade English class.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right. You say it's really inventive. Is it also a little gimmicky (ph)? I mean, he could've just given the book that title and called each sonnet one, two, three, four, five or the first line of the poem. I mean, what does he accomplish by doing this?

TAYLOR: The sonnets themselves have all of these different contents within them, but he's basically pointing to the force of American racial violence and sort of how repetitive it is. And there's a way that it changes slightly, and then there's a way that it's kind of relentless. And I think that that - this relentless title comes back to the relentlessness of, you know, the American racism that we live with. And...

SHAPIRO: We should tell people that Terrance Hayes is a black poet, and blackness - and maleness comes up a lot in these poems.

TAYLOR: Yeah, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: It seems like some of these poems are really grounded in American life today. Like, one of these sonnets begins, (reading) a remix of "Pony" by Ginuwine plays while half a dozen beautiful black men strut on stage wearing translucent black housecoats, then pause with their backs to us before a slow twerking as half a dozen beautiful black women walk on stage in sharp alabaster tuxedos and surgical masks. It goes on - really specific, really concrete. You've got the music. You've got the soundtrack. And then there are poems that are really - what's the word I want? - abstract.

TAYLOR: Yeah, that raise questions. I was just at one on page 37, and it ends in the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot. (Reading) A barn shootout endangering the farm life - I live a life that burns a hole through life that leaves a scar for life that makes me weep for another life. Define life. And the poem opens out into this big question - define life.

SHAPIRO: Define life. Yeah.

TAYLOR: And then there's these other moments where it's really unclear who he's talking to. Like, sometimes he says something as mysterious as, (reading) assassin, you are a mystery to me, I say to my reflection sometimes. You are beautiful because of your sadness, but you would be more beautiful without your fear.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think it's important that he calls these all-American sonnets?

TAYLOR: Well, again, it's interesting in that poem that I just read where he says, assassin, you are a mystery to me, I say to my reflection sometimes. So suddenly, it's as if he himself is the assassin. That figure is just moving around. This figure of something violent keeps moving around this collection, and it doesn't stick to any one thing. And somehow, I think it's a form that is able to capture and refract, like, the mysterious forcefulness of American violence right now.

SHAPIRO: And the fact that he refers to my past and future assassin suggests that this is something perpetual in America that won't go away.

TAYLOR: Perpetual - yes. It's like he's made these sonnets to try to contain something uncontainable.

SHAPIRO: Tess Taylor sharing Terrance Hayes's new collection called "American Sonnets From My Past And Future Assassin." Tess's most recent book of poetry is called "Work And Days." Tess, thanks so much.

TAYLOR: Ari, always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "THE DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.