Last night, I had the great fortune of attending a Q&A session with this year's National Book Award winner Terrance Hayes for Lighthead. He's guest editor of current issue of Ploughshares (Winter 2010-11 issue, available now), and was scheduled for this Q&A and reading at Emerson College before the NBA hoopla, I'm sure.
Reading at the Paramount Center in Boston, the session was led by Emerson professor, author, and Basic Black host Kim McLarin. Fresh off of the NBA frenzy (or maybe still in the middle of it), he talked openly about the attention that comes from winning such a prestigious award. When asked if he worried about success and how it might affect his writing, he said, "When everyone's asleep ... the only person I have to worry about is my shadow," meaning at the end of the day, the only person he has to please is himself.
Terrance talked about the layers of pressure an award brings, but he's been receiving accolades since his first book, Muscular Music, was published in 1999, followed by Hip Logic (2002) and Wind in a Box (2006). He regularly tells his students that, "To write something for everyone is to write something for no one." When asked about the many musical, artistic, and social references that enter into his work, he talked about how complicated artists are, but fortunately "... we live in a moment [of time] where we are influenced by everything." What comes out on the page is "... the surprise of the mind in real time." Poetry has the ability to absorb these ideas.
I asked the last question of the evening, about Terrance's poem (and my favorite in this collection) "The Golden Shovel," after Gwendolyn Brooks' famous poem "We Real Cool." The poem is written in two sections, with Ms. Brooks' poem used as the end words of his poem. Just brilliant. Turns out it went through many different drafts, and if Terrance had it to do over again, he would have included only the first section in Lighthead. (NOTE: I encourage you to click on both links, AND listen to Ms. Brooks reading "We Real Cool.")
The talk was very well-rounded. Terrance spoke on a range of topics from revision and sending poems out to the poet's ability to trust his/her own sense of what is good in a poem. I'm just sorry I couldn't stay for his reading later in the evening. But I did get to spend a few minutes after the Q & A with Terrance, catching up a bit and wishing him continued success.