Courtesy of Meghan O’Rourke

On Wednesday, the Yale Review hosted poet Terrance Hayes as part of their series “Writing in an Age of Crisis.”

Hayes — who has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award for Poetry — performed and discussed a variety of his works, including poems from his collection titled “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.” More than 200 people attended the Zoom webinar to watch Hayes’ talk and the Q&A session that followed.

“What is an American sonnet?” asked Hayes. “For me, I’ve said this many times, it’s just about changing your mind. That volta [a turn of thought in a traditional sonnet] that just happens once in the Italian sonnet and the English sonnet, is happening all the time in the American sonnet because that’s where we live. Like s— is so crazy, it’s just a bunch of voltas all the time.”

Hayes said poet Wanda Coleman inspired his work. It was from Coleman and her collection, “American Sonnets,” that he drew the name for his own poems. Coleman’s spirit, Hayes said, has helped him get through the current trying times. He also referenced the 2016 presidential election as an impetus for his collection, which he started writing almost immediately after election day.

Hayes took advantage of the talk’s virtual medium by incorporating visual elements in his talk. For instance, Hayes was able to present his poetry on Jasper Johns’ flag paintings alongside photos of the paintings, as well as a series of small, delicate drawings alongside his poem, “Map of States.” Hayes wrote “Map of States” this year, as a graduation present for a Yale student. It will be published in the Yale Review next spring.

Hayes concluded his talk with a few videos, one of which commented on police violence in the United States by tying together drawings Hayes had created after the 2014 shooting of John Crawford III with a more recent poem written for George Floyd, who was killed this May at the hands of police.

“I was so struck by how Hayes spoke about the process of coming up with ideas,” said Lily Weisberg ’21, a fellow of the Yale Review. “He talked about resisting what one is supposed to be thinking about — such as politics and news — in order to stay in touch with oneself creatively. He spoke about the difficulty, especially now, of resisting not only certain topics but narrow interpretations and analyses.”

In an email to the News, Yale Review Editor Meghan O’Rourke ’97 — who interviewed Hayes during the event — described Hayes as one of the most interesting and wide-ranging poets at work today. According to O’Rourke, Hayes embodies both “formal rigor” and “remarkable emotional responsiveness” to the “lyric predicament” of living right now.

O’Rourke, a colleague of Hayes at New York University, was particularly interested in Hayes’ work in relation to the series’ theme of writing in an age of crisis. O’Rourke recalled watching Hayes’ earlier reading of his poem about George Floyd at NYU, which she found “a fascinating example of an artist responding in real time to the unfolding racial reckoning in this country.”

At the start of the event, O’Rourke also described changes occurring within the Yale Review. The publication is launching a new website in January 2021, with a podcast and online-only content. In her email, O’Rourke described this as part of her mission to transition the publication into the digital age.

“This relaunch is not a pandemic-related project, though we … began publishing online essays on our temporary website during the pandemic, because as editors and writers we felt an urgent need to respond to the unprecedented moment” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke added that the “Pandemic Files” project, hosted on the Yale Review’s website, resulted from that urge to respond to the moment. The files will be released as a print anthology with Yale University Press later this fall. The publication is also offering a new fellowship training program for graduate and undergraduate Yale students.

The next event in the Yale Review “Writing in an Age of Crisis” series will feature Jericho Brown on Dec. 3.

Isabelle Qian |

Isabelle Qian covers Yale's graduate and professional schools. She is a sophomore in Pierson College and comes from Seattle, WA.