Answering unanswerable questions through poetry

Hayes speaks from podium

Widely recognized poet Terrance Hayes read from his latest published works, offered previews of works still in progress and offered his thoughts on writing and the creative process during a recent visit to SUNY Old Westbury.

During a session titled “Sonnets for Donald Trump’s America: Poetry, Race, and the Future of Democracy,” Hayes read a number of pieces from his latest book, “American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin,” as well as works from the late American poet Wanda Coleman.

“I’m searching for definitive answers to questions that might not be able to be answered,” he told the audience of nearly 200. “But I don’t see myself answering big questions or speaking for any population in general because I only know individuals."

Having won such prestigious honors as the National Book Award for poetry (2010) and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship (2014), his writings address issues of race, gender, politics, and music. He is currently a professor at New York University and serves as the Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.

During the question-and-answer period, Hayes, who played Division II basketball while in college, likened his writing to his former pursuit.

“I just started thinking about what I really liked in college was practice, even more than the games,” he said. “There is so much more time in practice, and you need to fail in practice. I don’t talk about inspiration -- I talk about practice.  You need to work on your form, and some days that might only mean one sentence, and I’ll take that because I’m just practicing for a different kind of game that will come later when I release my work.”

Held in recognition of Black History Month, “Sonnets for Donald Trump’s America: Poetry, Race, and the Future of Democracy” was sponsored by the English Department with additional support from the Office of Academic Affairs, the American Studies Department, the Office of First Year Experience, and the Office of Student Affairs

Along with “American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin” (Penguin 2018), Hayes’ recent works include “To Float In The Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight” (Wave, 2018), the winner of the Poetry Foundation’s 2019 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.  “American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin” won the Hurston/Wright 2019 Award for Poetry and was a finalist the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry, the 2018 TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, and the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.