Terrance Hayes Talks Trump, Teaching at NYU

At the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House, the award-winning poet and NYU professor read published and unpublished work from a series he started after the 2016 election.

Terrance Hayes, poet and NYU professor, gave a reading at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House last Thursday. (Courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

Terrance Hayes, poet and NYU professor, gave a reading at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House last Thursday. (Courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

Alex Cullina, Books & Theater Editor

Terrance Hayes, the acclaimed poet and NYU Creative Writing professor, came to NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House on Thursday for a discussion and reading of some of his recent work. 

In her introduction, Deborah Landau, the director of NYU’s Creative Writing Program, called him a “virtuosic master of form, both received and invented.” 

At the intimate space filled to capacity, Hayes read work from a project he began after the election of Donald Trump that evolved into his 2018 collection “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” in which he set out to write a sonnet for each day Trump was president. 

Each poem in the collection is identically titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Not all of these poems directly address Trump; Hayes said that the titular assassin was often different poem to poem.

He also described the book as a general record of the period of his life during which he wrote it, completely infused with himself. 

“The book is also very much about being divorced,” Hayes said. 

As he realized that Trump would remain in office for longer than he had originally guessed, Hayes decided to bring the project to an end, if a bit reluctantly.

“Even today, I was working out syllables,” Hayes said.

Writing within the syllabic confines of the sonnet, the work Hayes read was both broadly political (“If there’s a miracle, federal, state, and local charges,” ends one poem) and achingly personal (“Seven of the ten things I love in the face of James Baldwin,” opens another) often within the same poem. There is play with rhythm and language that is truly delightful (“The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk”) but also deeply emotional (“I only belong to longing”).

After the reading, Hayes and Landau discussed his work before taking questions from the audience.

Explaining his attraction to the sonnet, Hayes mentioned his almost lifelong love of Keats and Shakespeare, and the inspiration he’s found in the work of the poet Wanda Coleman, from which he drew his book’s epigraph.

“They usually show up when I’m stuck,” Hayes said about the form. 

Hayes also talked about the joy that he finds in teaching, and the attention that he finds is important to give to his students.

“I want everyone to feel like they’re my favorite student,” he said. 

The last poem Hayes wrote, published last month in the New Yorker, was the only one with a unique title: “American Sonnet for the New Year.” As he finished his Trump project, Hayes looks forward to the future with a mixture of hope and skepticism. “Things will get less ugly, inevitably, hopefully,” the poem ends.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 4 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]