Tina Li, Contributing Photographer

Terrance Hayes said that he approaches reading and writing poetry from the perspective of an interior designer. 

Hayes spoke this approach last Thursday as the English department held its 2024 Foundational Courses Lecture at Alice Theater under the Humanities Quadrangle. For 45 minutes, Hayes read his work and walked the audience through his creative process, weaving in nuggets of poetic wisdom throughout. The event was full, with some guests standing in the back or sitting in the aisles. Among the crowd were students ranging from first years to seniors, as well as professors and faculty members.

Stefanie Markovits, the English department’s director of undergraduate studies, opened the event with a brief history of the department’s foundational courses.  

In 2017, the English major foundational requirements shifted from a mandatory two-semester sequence of major British poets, Markovits said, to a series of four courses of which students must take three. The two additional courses respectively cover American and global Anglophone literary traditions. 

According to Markovits, this change diversified the options that students had in their introductory courses as well as broadened the scope of what belongs in the English literary canon. Markovits said that the main drawback of the change is that students majoring in English no longer share the same experience in what they have studied. 

That is where the annual lecture comes in, Markovits said in an interview with the News. All students majoring in English, she wrote, will have experienced the same poets throughout their four years, and “will be able to talk about them, to argue about them, to reference them.”

Every year, Richard Deming, the English department’s director of creative writing, kickstarts the process of selecting a guest speaker to invite. His expertise in contemporary poetry allows him to brainstorm a diverse range of candidates, Markovits explained. Then, Markovits, Deming and English department chair Jessica Brantley come together to deliberate. Once the speaker is invited and accepts, the departmental staff takes over the logistics.

Part of this logistical effort is to distribute the guest speaker’s books. This aspect of the lecture began during the pandemic as a way to more directly bring the poetry to isolated students. In the months leading up to the lecture this year, the department gave out copies of one of Hayes’s most recent poetry collections, “So To Speak.”

“These are books to be read now and reread later, and we hope they will carry with them the memory of today,” Markovits told the crowd at the event. 

Professor Langdon Hammer then went up to the podium to introduce Hayes. 

Hammer and Hayes previously spoke at the Beinecke Library’s 2021 Beinecke Biography Symposium in a conversation called “Contemporary Biography: Writing about Writers.”

Hayes has published seven poetry collections that feature both traditional and contemporary poetic forms. He said that he particularly loves the sonnet and the ghazal because they provide him with neat boxes into which he can pour his emotions. Hayes also invented the golden shovel, a poetic form that riffs off of and pays homage to a pre-existing poem. 

“All those roles, all those things … that I do,” Hayes said, “You know what the connecting tissue is? Teacher! I came up here, and I said: ‘I’m gonna get y’all to write.’” 

Hayes, who is a creative writing professor at New York University, first constructed a definition of a poem for the audience at the event. He used to see poems as cars, he said, but now he prefers to use the metaphor of a house. 

The poet addresses the reader in the living room as they reference context from the attic and hide subtext in the basement, he said. He added that poets then cook up tactile imagery in the kitchen, infuse their writing with a dream-like quality in the bedroom, and unveil a bit of their vulnerable, private side in the bathroom. 

Hayes knows the craft of poetry like the back of his hand — but he is not afraid to venture into uncharted, unconventional territory.

“Does time and clients rhyme? I think so! With an accent,” Hayes joked. “Sad and outlawed, I’m like, D rhymes with D! You see what I’m talking about? Not following the rules, but bending them. This is my relationship with form. Pushing right up against them.” 

Sometimes, Hayes said, he transcends convention and form so much that he enters rooms in the metaphorical house that are mysterious even to him. After reading one of his pieces, “Ars Poetica with Bacon,” a bizarre meditation on poetry itself, he set the book down and dryly quipped, “I don’t know what it means either.”

Will Sussbauer ’27, who took one of the English department’s foundational courses this year, praised Hayes’s interactive lecturing style. He also said that he found that Hayes’ writing modernized poetic forms he has studied in class. 

Sussbauer said that the class he is in read Hayes’s “Carp Poem,” which he said was one of his favorites. 

“He makes everything so conversational and casual, yet you know that if you ask him directly, he would have a whole philosophical treatise,” Sussbauer said. 

Interspersing personal anecdotes and wisdom, between poems Hayes also performed readings of his other poems, including “American Sonnet of the New Year,” “Muscular Fantasy,” “How to Fold,” “Canto for Ghosts” and “George Floyd.” Occasionally, he would cut himself off as he suggested different writing prompts for the audience that popped into his head. Following the semi-workshop nature of the lecture, attendees were encouraged to bring in paper and pencils that were available outside of the lecture hall. 

He then left the audience with a series of writing prompts to consider. 

“Let the poem do what it wants to do.” Hayes said.

Past Foundational Courses Lecture speakers include Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Natasha Trethewey, Louise Glück and Tracy K. Smith.