Poet Terrance Hayes, a former college basketball player, prepares for all of his readings as if they were basketball games.
“I have got to bring my A-game,” he said. “If you score by making dunks, or even if you are playing great defense, people can be appreciative of what you are doing if you are doing it in an exceptional way.”
On Tuesday, August 7, Mr. Hayes brings his A-game to Martha’s Vineyard as part of the Pathways Poetry Festival held at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs.
When describing his work, Mr Hayes said, “I don’t think of myself as particularly unique, but rather as particularly alert. I try to be present. I try to be a person who is engaged with who [or what] I come in contact with: news articles, with media or the person in the grocery store.”
His “alert” poetry is inspired by social issues, current events and the human experience. It’s the work of an expert observer of self, of people and of American culture.
Justen Ahren, an Island poet who organizes the festival, met Mr. Hayes briefly eight years ago at a mutual friend’s.
“I really enjoy his use of language,” Mr. Ahren said. “I love how modern his voice is. He will use a lot of slang . . . it’s almost street or city language and there’s a real human sensibility.
“Another reason I really wanted to go after Terrance is that he is a younger poet,” Mr. Ahren said. “He’s really on the rise, and has been receiving a lot of accolades for his work. It’s exciting to get someone who hasn’t quite made a name for themselves.”
Not made a name for himself? In 2010 Mr. Hayes was awarded the National Book Award for his fourth poetry collection, Lighthead. On Tuesday, he will read selections from Lighthead, but mostly he’ll focus on new work that’s not been published.
“I’m usually more interested in the last thing I wrote,” he said.
Mr. Hayes spends the year teaching creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and traveling to promote his poetry. The National Book Award has opened doors to new audiences and new places. But he often feels conflicted because he is asked questions about poetry he doesn’t feel authorized to answer.
“When I think about the National Book Award and these kinds of big questions, those questions are really for someone like Toni Morrison who can give complicated and rich answers,” he said. “I really do try to maintain a degree of uncertainty and a sort of apprentice relationship to subject and craft . . . I’m 40 years old and I still feel like a young poet. If you asked a seasoned poet what can a 40-year-old poet know, they’d say . . . they’ve still got some learning to do.”
But he works hard to write poetry that will resonate with readers. “I hope an audience can be as engaged with a person who is working through stuff as with someone who has all the answers,” he said.
Mr. Hayes was born in Columbia, S.C., and moved to Pittsburgh to attend the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon. Before he started writing poetry, in addition to playing basketball, he pursued visual art (one of his oils appears on the front of Lighthead). His work is saturated with emotion, and some of his poems express a strong sense of protest. The more somber content, such as frequent references to racism and war, are only a manifestation of his thought patterns, he said.
“Poems are a form of thinking . . . [it’s like] having someone be able to look down on your head, and see what thinking is happening . . . in a way I am trying to communicate with myself.”
Mr. Hayes’s thinking often centers around identity and place, he said. “I’m often thinking a lot about culture, being an American, being an African American, family, love, passion . . . gender, identity, what is home, patriotism, what is place. My ambition is to sit down and make my understanding of those subjects clear.”
Much of his poetry is autobiographical, but his use of evocative imagery and metaphor plunge the reader into a sort of alternate reality. As he writes in Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy, the first poem in Lighthead, “Not what you see, but what you perceive:/ that’s poetry . . . ”
In Lighthead, he experiments with form, using lists, repetition and even a form called Pecha Kucha, a presentation format used by Japanese business people. His work also contains implicit homages to poets and musicians he admires.
Mr. Hayes’s reading on August 7 begins at 7 p.m. Having never set foot on the Island before, he doesn’t know what to expect from a Vineyard audience. But he’s not too anxious about it.
“I have read for every kind of audience there is, from convicts to priests and nuns,” he said. “When I see them sitting in their chairs, I assume they want to be there. I’m just happy to have bodies present.”