We’re in Try Thai, a two-storey cocktail-pink restaurant I discovered a few years ago when visiting my sister who was studying in Manchester. Following our respective readings at Manchester Literature Festival, I convince Terrance Hayes, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Kayo Chingonyi and Sarah Perry to follow Google Maps from Central Library through a few dark alleyways to Chinatown in search of ‘this great Thai place I know’.
Have you ever confidently remembered the food somewhere being great but suddenly − in certain company − you worry the whole walk there they’ll be like ‘great food?’ and forever you will be known as the one who makes bad dinner suggestions…?
Terrance Hayes: I refuse to answer any serious questions.
Rachel Long: I’ll have to make all this up then.
TH: Yeah, make it up. I’d be more interested in reading a made-up interview than a real one.
RL: OK. Why do you wear two watches?
TH: I’m a timelord. Umm, my daughter got me this one [left wrist] when she was seven, and then when the iWatch was invented they all got together and got me this [right wrist]. So two watches.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley: Whereabouts do you live in New York?
TH: In the village. Pretty much NYU, but a little further out – in faculty housing.
RL: So, you’re like roomies with Sharon Olds?
TH: Yeah, we’re in the same building. I was in the elevator the other day and I felt this… like I felt rather than saw her. Sharon Olds is a Scorpio too, so I could just feel this energy, this ball of pink and white. Her white hair. Yeah, she’s in the building. Last time I saw her she was talking about cats, and spiders. I can tell you a story like that about Zadie [Smith] too… It was my first time meeting her in person. I knew who she was, of course, but as soon as I met her I was like… she’s a Scorpio.
RL: Is this the wine list? Who’s for wine? [Deciding chatter. We decide on white. A Gavi.] You’re sure no wine?
TH: Only tequila. Expensive so no risk of hangover tequila. [The restaurant doesn’t have one suitable. They stop at something Gold. TH wants higher, a Resposado or an Anejo.] You wanna know why though? I’m an old man. I’m too old for all that hangover stuff. An old man hurts when he drinks too much wine. I only want to engage with stuff that treats me well. [He orders some samosas, some tempura, spring rolls and a pint of lemonade.]
VAB: I have a question. It’s a very important question. I need to establish — grits? What are grits?
TH: Oh wow, grits! Have you ever had polenta in a Mexican restaurant? It’s like that, it’s corn.
RL: I thought it was a writing question.
TH: Ha. It’s a great question though. You know there was just this one place in SoHo that sold grits, so every Saturday I went there for brunch. Poets & Writers wanted to do a piece on me and they were like, where do you want to go, and I was like, where I get my grits. So, we did, and I met the owner properly. I’d been going there every Saturday for years and suddenly the owner and his family were like, who is this dude being interviewed? Because, of course, I would never really talk to them, I’d just show up every Saturday, say hey and have my grits. So, P&W set up everything, they took pictures and the month that they ran it, the restaurant closed down. I was like, what happened? Was it because of all the attention? But it wasn’t. The dude died — the owner. So, now no grits. I don’t get grits in New York.
RL: Is living with another poet [Yona Harvey] hard?
TH: Uh, yeah… We are no longer together [half laughs]. That was one of the big challenges. Being writers together. And we were together, like, eighteen years.
RL: But why is it such a big challenge – particularly so it seems for us as poets? If say, two accountants get together, or two social workers… Why it is so hard for poets to stay together?
TH: Oh, so this is what we gonna talk about? OK cool, well… I will say [pause] I am essentially a loner. Before I got married I spent long hours by myself and I really enjoyed it. I think for a lot of writers it is particularly terrible for their writing, for their discipline, to be with someone else so much of the time…
RL: So, it is possible to stay cool after separating?
TH: Absolutely. We wanted to separate in the healthiest way. I would really like to write a book with Yona about it. A memoir about our marriage, because it was a great marriage. She hasn’t said no yet. I’m not a pessimist about writers being married because I think we were successful, we just never quite… Maybe my reclusiveness was a problem, I don’t know, but I do think asking these questions is helpful. I don’t have the answers, that’s why I want to write a book about it.
RL: That’s a very American thing to say about marriage. How has the divorce affected the writing?
TH: I started writing American Sonnets [for my Past and Future Assassin] in November 2016 − my first semester as Writer-in-Residence at NYU. Heaven for me is not having to do shit. I woke up on my birthday and said I don’t want no cake, no bubbles, no presents, I just want to write a poem till it’s finished. And so I did that. I kept doing that. I just wrote one sonnet a day each day. This is what I do now in New York; I wake up, I teach, I write. I don’t go out. Writing poems all day is all I want to do. So the effect of the divorce was the book. It is the book.
RL: You wrote a sonnet a day?
RL: Each of them in one day?
TH: One day. I’m still so in them, from working on them so intensely and now reading them at events, so what I’m writing now is still coming out as sonnets. I wrote a poem the other day called ‘The Side Effects Include’, and it listed cold feet, paranoia, blueness, whiteness, redness, discolouration. I started prodding, poking it around a bit and now it’s a sonnet. Another sonnet! I was like, I’m not writing another book of sonnets! So I put it away in a drawer. I’m just waiting for the next thing to happen… Also, the country is still the same, the trigger for the sonnets is still the same, so I’m contending with my emotional desire to work things out in this form and to not continue the poems in the same form. My editor came to one of my readings in New York last year and I said to him, I have like two hundred of these, I’m writing one each day for as long as he’s president so that I don’t become a maniac, and he said, I think you got enough [half laughs] but I’m continuing them. They continue even though I don’t want to.
Sarah Perry: At the talk, you said the sonnet is always a love poem, I found that interesting. Especially that you were, and are still, writing into the form of love whilst coming out of a relationship.
TH: Each poem is a record. Remind me in a minute to tell you how little writing rescues. In the first poem [of American Sonnets…] some people think I’m dogging Sylvia Plath (‘My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned/And skittery, she thought her poems were ordinary/What do you call a visionary who does not recognise/Her vision?). Sylvia Plath is writing through crisis but of course, as great as she is, she still killed herself, violently, so the question is: does writing really save her? Can she write through her illness, can she write through broken-heartedness? Maybe not. So, now I’m going to look into that and see if writing will restore a broken heart, fight oppression. All of the Orpheus references in the book are really about me and Yona. I’ve never really said that before… All everybody else knows is I’m writing about Trump, and I am, and Wanda Coleman also, but Yona too, and the end of our marriage. So, at the end of that first poem Orpheus is alone when he invents writing and sends a message to his beloved by drawing a picture of a cross through an eye. He wanted to communicate: I am blind without you, but at the heartbreak when you haven’t really got that intimacy you once had, all those messages are confused − as they can also be in love − so Eurydice receives the message and thinks Orpheus is saying I don’t want to see you again. But maybe it’s both. Maybe I am blind without you and I don’t want to see you again. The poem is trying to get to all the complications of love. So yes, the sonnet gives me that, it makes me turn that way. I couldn’t have written these in any other form… But that’s what happens politically too, throughout all the poems, I have to change my mind, because it’s a sonnet, because of the volta. Otherwise, it’s just a box. Something has to give. So whatever I go in with, I have to come out with something new.
RL: Would you call yourself a formalist?
TH: Some of it is circumstance. My dad was a soldier. He was a good soldier. His measure of time is solid. In the book, he is the bull, he stays in his stall, he’s rooted, and you can rely on him, but you know you want to get off the ground sometimes. All of the birds in the book are my mother. She’s caged. She’s moving around, she got all this energy, but she can’t get herself out. I grew up watching them both working those things out, and I’m working those things out in the poems too. I don’t know if that answers your question, but the form allows me to work both these people out and change my mind. My relationship to form is that of a bird inside of a cage, moving around. Put it this way, if you were in a breakdancing competition against yourself, but said, OK, I’m going to do everything with a straitjacket on, you are automatically going to win because you are doing all the moves but now you have another barrier, and us watching you can see you being less free shows us your skill – just how free you actually are. Forms allows me to get freer. I know what I’m pushing against and I need that otherwise I’m a bird out of a cage. I’m like wind that’s not in a box. I don’t know how to anchor myself otherwise. Is that sensibility or is that training though? I don’t know. I have only recently started thinking about that, about what it would mean to be raised on a farm – with an early notion of expanse, of freedom. I think about my childhood on military bases all over, and everybody thinking I was weird, but I was a weird kid within a controlled environment. So when you ask if I’m a formalist, I don’t know but I do think I have grown up contending with form, and pushing against it.
RL: This is your sixth collection. What’s changed for you from Muscular Music (1999)?
TH: Last poem and the next poem. I try to focus on that. I hope that I’m changing all the time. Constantly asking myself, how can it be different from the last? I like having something to work on. That’s how my head is. I have to do something new. Something different each time.
RL: How does having a step-father in the military inform your Americanness?
TH: In the sonnet I’m exploring vulnerability as a kind of power. And I am saying that to people who are in power. How do you change your vulnerability as a soldier into power? Or as a president? I don’t tell anyone how to do it, but I’m proposing that there is a power in doing so – in change. I’ve seen every kind of soldier so…
RL: What is the link for you between your poetry and your painting?
TH: I was thinking more consciously about that in How to Be Drawn, and in my other book that come out recently about Etheridge Knight [To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight]. There are drawings in that. I don’t really have a theory. I explore them both. I don’t ask myself too many questions when I’m swimming. Last poem, next poem. Last drawing, next drawing.
RL: I saw one of your paintings on the front cover of Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. It’s stunning. That painting really opened these sonnets up for me. Was there a crossover of you painting that and writing the sonnets?
TH: Cool, that’s cool you noticed that. Yes, there was.
RL: When you wake up, do you know whether it is a writing day or a painting day?
TH: Well, on Saturdays, I go to a figure drawing class. I was just telling someone the other day, cos you know, I ain’t getting out that much, on Saturdays, I’m like, I’m gonna see a naked woman today. There’s not usually a lot of eroticism in the class and I’ve been going every weekend but two Saturdays ago the model was late, so she had to run the whole way from the subway. Maybe she ran like three blocks, so when she came in she ripped her clothes off and she was dripping with sweat, and I was like… that’s really erotic, and I started to draw her but that whole class I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t draw for shit. You really need to not be distracted to figure out what you’re seeing, what you are really seeing. When you’re distracted you’re idealising, you’re drawing out of eroticism. What’s interesting to me is to not draw something you desire because that’s a common way of seeing things. I want to be able to see it for what it is and then see what I make.
VAB: Rachel invited a Black model in for a special Octavia life drawing class. We wanted to explore whether it makes a difference drawing a woman who resembles us. It was strange for me in that I hadn’t really seen a Black woman naked like that. OK, maybe I have but often in violent ways… For me it felt like seeing a sister. Because I hadn’t really seen many Black women naked apart from maybe, and rarely, my sister. I think I even wrote that, are you my sister?
TH: Oh, wow.
RL: I think that was a beautiful session, but an uncomfortable session. In a way we were seeing and drawing ourselves. Her nakedness, our nakedness. I wondered if she felt differently in that space with us — fifteen other women of colour — than she did in other rooms she sat for. We wrote poems from her body then halfway through the session, we put down our charcoal, picked up our pens and wrote from her body. It was a difficult thing to do. My hand kept wanting to draw rather than write the line. Have you ever written from your drawings?
TH: No, they’re very separate for me. I like not using words in that particular space. I want it to be not words. I have them in my head all the time. I got enough of words, so I know, at least once a week I can go somewhere and be quiet for three hours. And I need that, but this sounds great though, your exploration of figuring yourselves through drawing the Black woman’s body. This should be in the interview.
RL: No, the interview has to be about you.
SP: Perhaps that’s why there’s such stunning work about break-ups − because you’ve finally got some perspective on the desire? You can see the shape of the thing more clearly…
TH: This book has allowed me to write some complicated love poems sometimes whilst pretending I’m writing about Trump throughout. I’m doing both, and it’s the same. Trump is a wounded person too, clearly. I’m saying to Trump, you’d be much more interesting if you weren’t such a coward. Clearly you are afraid. The hair, his tweets, it’s all fear, it all indicates cowardliness. So, I’m like, man, if you got over that you’d be interesting. He’d still be fucked up. He’d still have a poor moral centre but more interesting, at least. Writing out of that leads me to really interesting places…
SP: After your event at the Southbank Centre tomorrow, do you have any plans while you’re in London?
TH: I might explore the bookstores. I like to do that, map a city by its bookstores. It gets me out. Sometimes I forget to leave the house. Sometimes I’m like, why go out when there’s so much happening in here? New York is a great city to explore via its bookstores. And parks. London too. Some days when I’ve been in the house all day, I’ll Google and see what’s happening that evening. It means I might get to check out a new bookstore or listen to a reading of someone I might not know of. I’ll walk there − we gotta exercise, right? Especially when we stay in so much – and I’ll turn up half an hour late cos I got a little lost. Do y’all know Eve Ewing? She was doing a reading in a tiny bookshop in some far out place in London a few months ago. So Eve’s like, we’ve never met and you’re here, in London. We’re friends now. You can find your people, in another city. Poetry.
RL: OK, before we go. I have to tell you something.
RL: My partner had a dream about you.
TH: About me? OK cool, tell me.
RL: When I told him that I was doing this interview yesterday he said, ah, so that’s what the dream was about. I said, what dream? He said he’d had this dream about you months ago. I’ve written it here so that I can remember it all exactly how he said it… Antosh’s dream: You were driving a car. A maroon seated car.
TH: Is your partner a writer too?
RL: Yes. So, he was in the front, with you. I was in the backseat. It was broad daylight. Not a cloud. We were coming up to a curve on the freeway, so we must’ve been in your country not ours. The whole city began to curve into view. Between the tall buildings was a large moon. Rising. We had been asking you questions. You were answering them whilst watching the moon rise.
TH: That would be true.
RL: From the front seat, Antosh turned to you and observed that this might be how a poem happens in your head. How accurate is this dream? Is this how a poem happens for you?
TH: Isn’t that what happens in everybody’s head though?
RL: Like a moon rising? I don’t think so.
TH: No, like paying attention. I think it means paying attention to what’s happening whilst driving, whilst living, you know? That’s what I hear. I hear it as a story of me being in the middle of a conversation but also noticing the tattoo on the waitress’s finger… Paying attention is all.