My second conversation with Terrance Hayes failed to record properly. The logical response would be to chalk this technical malfunction up to the device itself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Hayes’s hyperexpressive, all-encompassing energy had interfered with the batteries. His is a remarkable presence, alive to his interlocutor and to whatever atmosphere he finds himself in.
Hayes was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1971, to a teenage mother named Ethel; she married his stepfather, James, when Hayes was a toddler, and had Hayes’s brother, Spanky, when he was four. Given his parents’ schedules—James was with the military and often stationed abroad; Ethel worked at night as a prison guard—Hayes learned, as a youth, to entertain himself, and he still finds that long stretches of solitude suit him personally and professionally.
As a teenager, Hayes went to a largely white high school before securing a basketball scholarship to Coker College, also in South Carolina. By then, with the encouragement of a teacher who supported his love of reading, Hayes, who’d always drawn and painted, had begun composing poetry, and was eventually admitted to the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program. He went on to teach at that university, and to write four of his now six volumes of poetry, as well as a book-length essay about the poet Etheridge Knight, while living in Pennsylvania.
Presently a professor of creative writing at New York University, Hayes lives near the school in a small, neatly kept fourth-floor apartment, where the majority of our talks took place, over the course of a year. (He left Pennsylvania in 2016 after separating from the poet Yona Harvey, with whom he has a daughter, Ua Pilar, who is twenty-two, and a nineteen-year-old son, Aaron Robert.) A record player, with a collection of favorite albums, sits next to a Yamaha digital upright; Hayes, a lifelong music fan, is inspired by artists from David Bowie to Miles Davis, and by the Scrabble tournaments he watches on YouTube. Looking out his sitting room’s glass door, one could see a playground past the terrace, and—when it was early enough—hear children playing in it. Their urgent voices seemed to amplify Hayes’s own, which was especially passionate when it came to discussing his students, his daughter and son, and the necessity of poetry. One gets the sense that Hayes encourages the young people in his life to express themselves freely, in contrast to his own strict Southern upbringing—and that he delights in the difference.