Vehicles of Awareness: On Terrance Hayes’s “So to Speak” and “Watch Your Language”
By Jeevika VermaOctober 29, 2023
Watch Your Language by Terrance Hayes
So To Speak by Terrance Hayes
This is not to say that Hayes sees no value in traditional forms; on the contrary, the poet’s 2018 National Book Award–nominated American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a collection of sonnets, a form he has relied on quite often. Critics have pointed to the fact that the volta—the sudden turn near the end of sonnets—is what draws the poet; it is the change, and finally a recognition of that change, that makes the sonnet so comfortable, yet so moldable, for Hayes. At first a shield for uncertainty and anxiety (in American Sonnets, this was mainly the anxiety around the Trump presidency), the sonnet gives Hayes a secure container to work within, ultimately helping him cope with the state of the world.
In fact, So to Speak, Hayes’s first poetry collection since American Sonnets, kicks off with a signature Hayes sonnet, titled “American Sonnet for the New Year.” At first glance, it’s a playful poem riddled with repetitive adverbs, but it quickly appears to loop around a very troubling state of affairs:
Things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
Things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually Things got ugly unbelievably quickly
Despite this obsessive loop, the poem ends on a note of conviction—“Things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully”—indicating a cautious optimism that sets the tone for the rest of the collection.
The simultaneous release of Hayes’s two new books invites us to consider how they speak to and provide context for each other despite their obvious individual merits. Working with traditional and experimental form respectively, So to Speak and Watch Your Language both respond to an American reality that tends to forget, undermine, and attack the Black experience. In So to Speak, for instance, Hayes, born in South Carolina, considers the Negro Act of 1740, which made it illegal for enslaved Africans to start and build a community. Both books call upon Hayes’s unique personal lens as part of a historically rigid literary tradition, while acknowledging the vast history of Black artists who have already expanded, challenged, and invigorated the tradition.
The poems in So to Speak are broken up into three sections: “Watch Your Mouth,” “Watch Your Step: The Kafka Virus,” and “Watch Your Head.” This command to “watch” sounds like a call for the reader’s attention, but throughout the poems in So to Speak, the call evolves into a more subtle but much-needed reminder of our individual and collective consciousness. Each section represents another vehicle of our awareness for the poet to tackle: our communication, our physical health, and our mental health. In relation, Watch Your Language reads like a fourth and larger section of So to Speak, one that tackles the vehicle of ancestry, especially through the way in which language is passed down from poet to poet.
Hayes calls upon both lived and inherited memories in his latest poems, many of which were written in 2020 and during the pandemic. Consider the poem “George Floyd” from the first section of So to Speak, which begins: “You can be a bother who dyes / his hair Dennis Rodman blue / in the face of the man kneeling in blue.” Hayes wrote these lines against the backdrop of the first New York City protest incited by Floyd’s death. Hayes has said in multiple interviews that the word “bother” was actually a typo in his initial submission of this poem; the word was meant to be “brother.” When Hayes caught the typo later, he chose to leave it, leaving it up to the reader to hear the echo of either word, or both. This choice intensifies the poem’s last lines: “Emmett till / the river runs dry your face / the music of the spheres / Emmett till the end of time.” Hayes points to an American history that keeps on repeating itself, and keeps calling for our attention.
If Watch Your Language is an extension of So to Speak, it is more in message than in form—So to Speak reads strictly as a poetry collection, whereas Watch Your Language is a book of prose. In the preface, Hayes writes that Watch Your Language “maps a landscape of literary, cultural, and personal influence.” With sections dedicated to poets Toi Derricotte and Yusef Komunyakaa, the book lays out glowing introductions to several other influential writers such as James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez. If his poetry has traditionally used, blurred, challenged, and invented new forms, Hayes’s latest prose work similarly blurs and multiplies genre. A textbook, a collection of lyric essays, a journal—most of all it is an homage to the Black poets of the last century. Examining a century of poetry through his mentors, the book becomes a conversation between students and teachers and a meditation on influence and devotion.
With several award-winning collections and countless other contributions to the contemporary academic world of poetry, Hayes is widely considered an elder in the field himself, so it is particularly striking to see his emphasis on collaging voices. Just as he refuses to be boxed in as a poet by honoring traditional forms while manipulating them, Hayes also integrates many authoritative voices in his prose while refusing to define their relationships to each other or the hierarchies among them. In one chapter, he writes, “Should a poet bother claiming a style? (No.) If categories are unavoidable, does it make more sense to categorize the style of the poem and not the style of poet?”
So to Speak also explores this relationship between the poet and the poet’s history by honoring those from whom Hayes has learned. In one poem, he recalls visiting the Belgian town where Marvin Gaye lived in self-exile for a few years (before his father killed him in Los Angeles). He writes:
there was no sign Gaye had ever been there
I could not find the inn he stopped in
after dragging nothing but baggage
back from the underworld
But upon speaking to an “ancient barkeep,” he learns that Gaye would sing—
to melancholy women
who were something more
than wooed by the miraculous now
nearly forgotten sound
This act of revisiting the sadness of a man who sang to the sadness of others (and then writing about it) is a reminder that, in many ways, our elders wrestled with the same world we wrestle with today.
In addition to poetic forms, Hayes examines boundaries through illustration, a medium he has often used to aid or even deliver his poems. In Watch Your Language, the poet’s drawings pepper his tributes to and reflections about other artists. Hayes draws the likeness of each poet he honors throughout the book, but he also includes more experimental illustrations (such as his board game–style review of former Virginia poet laureate Tim Seibles’s latest collection, 2022’s Voodoo Libretto). In another chapter, “The Renegade Poetic Fortune-Telling Machine,” Hayes illustrates his own tarot cards, presenting them as imagined poetic influences, like the “Tarot of Voices card,” or the “Tarot of Mentors.”
This visual dimension is essential to Hayes’s powerful animation of poetic history. In both new releases, Hayes includes visual exercises for the reader to contemplate (DIY sestinas inspired by influential artists like Octavia Butler or Jacob Lawrence appear in both collections). In one poem from So to Speak titled “Maps of States,” illustrations of “maps” live alongside verses that describe them. The maps appear cartographic at first, but when you look closer, you see that they are actually abstract: paths circling or crisscrossing, the opposite of an easy-to-follow guide. In one verse, Hayes writes: “A map indicating a state of inertia may / Be indistinguishable from a map / Indicating a state of flux.” His use of the map, not only to clarify the text but also to complicate it, serves as a reminder that what we know is never absolute, and what we see on the surface is never the whole truth.
The power of ongoing practice is also central to both collections, which is surprising and rewarding given how established Hayes is. In an early chapter of Watch Your Language, he writes, “I used to think practice was preparation for the game, but now I believe the game is what happens between practice.” He gives the example of a summer when he suddenly dunked a basketball during practice, and no one was around to see it. This becomes a metaphor for exploring the practice of creative writing, which for Hayes is really synonymous with creating or even thinking creatively (it seems to include reading, drawing, even observing and reflecting).
Hayes celebrates failure, which again liberates us as readers and potential writers and thinkers. We don’t have to approach his work as perfect or even finished in order to appreciate it. “In poetry I have failed so often I have come to accept it is failure I am practicing,” Hayes writes. He suggests that the most powerful part of art is its crafting—how that act makes us pay attention and expand our awareness—rather than any arbitrary sense of success or failure.
Spread across Watch Your Language are 250 exam-style questions Hayes poses to the reader, inviting us to be critical participants in this highest form of artistic conversation. These questions range from very specific, such as “Which canonical poets wrote best about class?,” to personal, as in “When you brush your hair, do you use a mirror to see all the sides of yourself?”—even to rhetorical: “Who cares about an American poem?” Some questions we may not have the same answer for, let alone an answer at all, but having the answer is not the goal.
In both his new poetry and his new prose, Terrance Hayes reminds us that the answer is always shifting, partly because it exists in many mediums. Perhaps this is a good lesson for understanding poetry, a genre that so many fear not understanding: we must look beyond singular answers to gain greater awareness of the overlooked poet along with the canonized, the failure with the success, the poem on the page with the reader in the mirror. It is only with this full-spectrum awareness and acceptance that poetry can truly guide us.
Jeevika Verma is a poet, journalist, and audio producer.
Jeevika Verma is a poet, journalist, and audio producer. Her work has been in BOMB Magazine, Electric Literature, NPR, Adroit Journal, Ploughshares, and more. She has poems in SAND Journal, Levee Magazine, Ninth Letter, Cleaver Magazine, nether Quarterly, and others.
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