Carnegie Mellon University

Poet Q&A


Terrance Hayes Writes "One Project, One Poem, One Idea at a Time"

English Professor Terrance Hayes, won the 2010 National Book Awards for his latest book of poetry "Lighthead." For more on the honor check out the press release.

HHayesayes, who teaches in Carnegie Mellon's Creative Writing Program, has published three other poetry books, "Wind in a Box," "Hip Logic" and "Muscular Music." His honors include two Pushcart Prizes, four "Best American Poetry" selections, a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others.
This article appears in the November 2010 Piper. Watch a video of Hayes reading poetry from "Lighthead" at

What was your inspiration for writing "Lighthead?"

Many people think of poems in terms of inspiration. I think of them in terms of obsession and joyful work. I write poems every night in my office. They're the result of routine, more than inspiration.

With "Lighthead" I had been thinking about the imagination as a sort of lightheadedness and also of a "light head" as a head on fire. Fire is a source of warmth or passion, but it's also a source for destruction. It illuminates, it burns. This became a guiding principle for the book. It's organized around positive and negative, internal and external images of fire.

Which poem won was selected for The Best American Poetry 2010?

The poem is "I Just Want To Look," but it isn't in "Lighthead." In one sense it's about a poet as witness or as bystander. I'd written this poem about going downtown to the courthouse to see an event. The poem is this surreal moment where everybody in the audience is turned to the person who has come to witness and watch. It would be the same if a reporter showed up with a camera, and everybody pulled their cameras out and took pictures of the reporter. If the poet is busy looking and watching, how much is he really participating?

Which poem is expected to be published in the New Yorker by the end of the year?

A poem called "New York poem," but it isn't in "Lighthead" either. That poem is in the spirit of Frank O'Hara, one of my favorite poets. Unlike "I Just Want To Look" which grows out of an idea, "New York Poem" is fairly grounded in a real experience.

How does receiving all of the awards and recognition affect your writing?

I try to separate accolades from actual work. I'm not that interested in putting my finger on what it is that makes the poems appeal to other people. I just try to surprise myself and have a degree of integrity about my work.

But, I feel pretty lucky and I don't take it for granted. There are many great poets who haven't got the sort attention I've received. It's not always clear to me how that happens, but I'm aware of the good fortune of having people reading your work.

What's next for you and "Lighthead?"

I have a few minor projects. I've been working on something for quite a few years on the poet Etheridge Knight, which involves interviews and a little bit of prose. But I don't know from one night to the next what my new project is going to be.

If I know going into my office what I want to do, it cuts that moment of surprise. Since "Lighthead" came out in April, I'm still discovering what it really means and what it is. Sometimes it takes a few years before you really know what the book is doing. Sometimes I can sit down in an interview and hear myself saying things that I didn't realize about the book.

So that's mostly where I am. One project, one poem, one idea at a time.

Shilo Raube