American Sonnets (Part VI: Hayes In His Own Words)

Dora Malech
December 7, 2017
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[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part V: Hayes In His Own Words)”]

Terrance Hayes’s conversation with Rachel Zucker, discussed in my previous post, is certainly not the only conversation in which Hayes has touched on his interest in the sonnet. In a 2014 conversation with David Lehman for The Best American Poetry, titled “Sonnets and Fast Breaks: A Conversation Between David Lehman and Terrance Hayes about The Best American Poetry 2014” (Lehman as series editor and Hayes as guest editor of the collection that year), Lehman asks:

Lover of wordplay that you are, do you think verse forms, traditional or ad hoc, are making a comeback? You and I both do variants of the “golden shovel.” Sometimes I suggest that aspiring poets take an Auden sonnet, retain the end words, omit the rest and fill in the blanks.

Hayes responds:

No, I don’t think traditional forms are making a comeback, but that’s only because I don’t think they’ve ever really gone away. We all need something to push against or outgrow or reinvent, and I believe all the old fashioned forms are where we start and sometimes return to… I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein’s bed we’ll find a sonnet or two.

Hayes then uses Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Carrion Comfort” (to my great delight) as an example of “the linguistic equivalent to a Lebron James fast break.” And Hayes notes that there have been sonnets in all of his own books, saying:

It’s the form I return to most often. It’s a centuries old box always waiting to be reshaped, adapted, filled with new words. I love to see what new things poets do with the form . . . Subversions and appropriations of form are always of interest to me.

The Hayes-curated 2014 BAP anthology even opens with an unconventional sonnet by Sherman Alexie, a kind of sonnet / prose poem hybrid, “Sonnet, with Pride.” Alexie’s poem is an “American” sonnet in so many ways: its unconventionality and subversion of form, and its subject matter, the first of its fourteen numbered parts beginning: “1. In 2003, during the Iraq War, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid.”

In Brian Brodeur’s terrific interview series about poetic process, How a Poem Happens, one of the questions posed to each poet about their poem is, “What is American about this poem?” Thinking about Hayes (and Wanda Coleman, Merrill Moore, etc) in the past few posts, I’ve been echoing that question. What is American about this poem? And what makes this poem a sonnet? What exactly is an “American Sonnet,” as envisioned by Coleman and then re-envisioned by Hayes? What is American? What is a sonnet?

In my last post, I mentioned a recent podcast conversation between Terrance Hayes and Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt of Poetry. In that conversation, Share says that the first poem Hayes reads is the one of which Hayes says “he’s coming closest to saying what an American Sonnet is.” Appearing in the September 2017 issue of Poetry, the poem begins:

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.

You’ll recognize those figures (“part music box, part meat / Grinder”) from the conversation with Zucker I discussed last post. Had Hayes already written this poem by the time he talked to Zucker? Did the poem come out of their conversation?

Lindsay Garbutt asks, “What are the precedents for this series that Terrance is doing, and what does it mean to write an American sonnet versus an Italian sonnet or a Shakespearean sonnet?” Garbutt mentions Berryman and Share mentions Lowell, and then Garbutt continues:

But I think this is explicitly drawing on Wanda Coleman, because she wrote a series of poems called American Sonnets, and in Terrance Hayes’s last book, he wrote a poem called ‘American Sonnet for Wanda C.,” and so I like thinking about this poem series that he’s doing now growing out of a previous poem he wrote maybe just as a one-off, and then realized there was so much more he wanted to do with the idea of what does it mean to write a specifically American sonnet, what are the politics of that?

In a September interview conducted by Ann van Buren for the Katonah Poetry Series, Hayes said that the whole project is dedicated to Wanda Coleman, and when asked what makes Coleman’s American Sonnets American, Hayes says:

Well that’s the thing. Each poem is its definition. They’re as diverse as the American . . . Just like each person, five Americans, six Americans named George . . . if you meet one and say what is the definition of George, that person will tell you one thing, this is who I am, and the next George will tell you another . . . I’d say that, even in terms of the adjective American sonnet – we know of course, the Shakespearian sonnet – also called the English sonnet. There’s the Petrarchan sonnet. But what is an American sonnet? This is a country of diversity, the melting pot . . . I don’t think I’ve solved what an American sonnet is, or what it means for us or what it means for our country, right now, in this place we’re living in. My notion of what poets do is not that we are answerers, we’re askers, we’re explorers . . . [Sonnets] can’t start in one position and end with the same position. That’s the most interesting thing about the sonnet . . . There has to be a turn . . . I know that I’m trying not to say anything I already know before I start writing the poem . . . The most interesting thing about the entire project about the sonnets is the idea that at some point they did have to turn from a thought to another kind of thought.

And one more thought on American-ness from the Katonah Poetry Series interview (it’s a great interview). Hayes talks about the blending of tradition and American-ness, saying, “I like Whitman, and I like Dickinson too. I’d hang out with either of them . . . Everything in American poetry pretty much grows out of those two traditions.” Van Buren then asks, “If Dickinson and Whitman are the parents of American poetry, who are the brothers and sisters, today?” And Hayes replies:

For me? Well you know, in real life, I’m a bastard. I don’t say that in any kind of pejorative way. I think it’s great to be a bastard. That means that everybody is potentially related to me. I read that way . . . I literally try to live that way . . .
Instead of saying “I don’t know who could be my brother,” you can say “Anybody can be my brother” . . . I’ve always wanted to move between circles. There is natural empathy, but I had to learn it, through the poems.

Since I started writing about these poems here at The Kenyon Review blog on October 24, a new “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” was published in The New Republic on October 31st and another in Tin House on November 2. Read them here and here.

[Continued in “American Sonnets (Part VII: Close-up on Coleman)”]

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