Writers & Company

Terrance Hayes examines race and politics in the age of Donald Trump in his new poetry collection

The American poet spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his latest collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
Terrance Hayes is an American poet and author. (Kathy Hayes)
Listen to the full episode57:28

In his provocative new collection, American poet Terrance Hayes responds to the election of Donald Trump and tensions in the current social climate in the United States. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a powerful examination of race, politics and masculinity, described by the New Yorker as "a diary of survival during a period when black men are in constant danger." The book is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry.

Hayes previously won a National Book Award for his 2010 collection Lighthead. He is also the recipient of numerous other awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award and a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship.

Terrance Hayes spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York City, where he teaches at NYU.

Poetic practice

"As part of my daily writing practice, I wanted to write poems of a shorter length. I had been writing long poems... so this was a way to compress some of that literary expansiveness. It felt like a good little box for holding a lot of different feelings about recent elections, the aftermath of elections and also the passing of poet Wanda Coleman, who had been writing these types of American sonnets herself. All of these things sort of happened at the same time. I began trying to write in that spirit.

"I'm happy writing and talking about poetry as an everyday thing. That's pretty much how I live. But the U.S. election in November 2016 created such a shadow and noise around my daily practice. I had to clear my head. I decided that I was just going to write into that noise. These poems tap into the spirit of black bodies, female bodies and artistic bodies being under threat."

Writing from a dangerous moment

"When Barack Obama was president, I was still an African-American man moving through the world. But my writing at the time was not; I could write in a way where that was not going to be my subject matter. But the election of Donald Trump has changed things. Those fears about the sort of America we would have with him in power have already become real. It's a hard thing for me to now travel and read these poems that grew out of that terror, that awe and that surprise about this new America and my place in it.

"My initial goal was to continue to write these sonnets until he was out of office. I assumed that would take four years. But here we are now, midway into Trump's first term. I have this book but have to contend with the fact I still feel the same way. It's like reading a poem about drowning while the boat is sinking. I have to contend with what to do next as a writer who just wakes up every day trying to write. We're still very much in the moment." 

Looking toward a better future

"There are so many points of injustice that are allowed to exist in America right now, that it almost has a normalizing effect. Everybody talks about it in terms of how to raise children in this environment and how to teach them right from wrong with someone like Trump in charge.

"But America is a place where imagination is unbridled. Right now I'm trying to imagine a better America."

Terrance Hayes's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: Three Keys performed by James Booker