A Conversation on Poetics in Terrance Hayes’s To Float in the Space Between and American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin

Terrance Hayes takes on the task of articulating poetic influence in To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight (Wave Books, 2018). This is not a biography, but rather “a collection of essays as speculative, motley, and adrift as Knight himself.” Here, Hayes constructs a view of Knight through the act of “reading between the lines of photographs, interviews, letters, maps, scraps of details.” He also includes his own artwork as an accompaniment to his imagining of Knight as a man full of mystique. Readers are able to see the ways in which Knight has been influential for the National Book Award-winning poet. Hayes’s aim is to articulate influence, which he admits is an impossible task—but not as impossible as he might believe. In his latest collection of poems American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books, 2018), Knight’s presence is laced throughout the work. The sonnets speak to Hayes’s vision of Knight in terms of how he has reinvented the sonnet from his nuanced perspective, and how his poetic innovations have roots stemming from Knight’s poetry.

Little has been written about Knight, whose most popular book, his debut poetry collection entitled Poems from Prison (1968), was written while serving an eight-year prison sentence for armed robbery; his second collection Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He experienced notoriety during the Black Arts Movement, writing well-crafted, politically-charged work that engaged issues of race. However, Knight’s identity is problematic, plagued by myth, and defined by the prison poet stereotype. A crucial focus of To Float in the Space Between has to do with belief and what it means to be a poet’s poet, obsessed with the process of craft. Hayes talks at length about several poets important to his creative development, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Amiri Baraka, but he considers Knight to be his “mirror poet.” Early on in the book, Hayes shares his experiences as a high school student attempting to educate himself about Langston Hughes for a writing assignment:

My Hughes research paper had about as much insight as an encyclopedic entry. I wrote it, made, I think, an A, and moved on to your typical high school fantasies of sexual and athletic conquests. Nothing I read or wrote made me think I, the bastard, undereducated son of the South could be a poet. A black poet was respectable, prolific, light-skinned.

Hayes recounts an opportunity he got to meet Knight when he was a freshman in college, but was unable to follow through due to fear: “My coming-of-age story was about a road I did not take…I was not dreaming of a life as a poet before I became a poet. Maybe we can say the same of Knight.” Knight’s work holds complex depth for Hayes, in regards to his tone and use of poetic devices, and how they serve to communicate his experiences with oppression. Hayes believes in Knight the Poet. Sometimes all a poet needs is a mirror poet to function as an inspirational guide during the challenging moments of living a creative life. Through his storytelling and authentic voice, Knight has served this role well for Hayes.

Hayes points to vernacular music in Knight’s work as a primary element of influence. In “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” Knight packs his lines with language that describes a lobotomized man who has just been returned to the general population:

The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn’t a mean nigger
Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
To see if the WORD was true.

Hayes makes special note of this poem for its strengths in image and diction. However, texture is the underlying element that drives this poem. According to Hayes, “Texture suggests touch; pattern suggests observation. Where pattern suggests arrangement and design, texture suggests roughness, imperfection…” Words like “bored,” “cut,” and “shot” are used to describe the violent act of lobotomy, accompanied by “handcuffed” and “chained” which are also suggestive of violence. Images like “freshly gelded stallion” and “herd of sheep” are metaphorical; the slang phrase “the WORD was” adds personal voice to the poem. All of these language elements create a visceral reading experience. The big turn of the poem: “He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things / We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do…,” solidifies the poem for Hayes because of its movement into more poetic language; it points to the devastated feeling of a dominant force stripping an oppressed group of its power and dignity.

This same level of language-based texture is a major feature of Terrance Hayes’s work. He is a language-driven poet; his wordplay feeds off of a similar kind of edge that Knight exhibits in his work. The poems in American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin are no exception. The sonnet on page 25, written like a Want Ad, begins:

A brother versed in ideological & material swagger
Seeks dime ass trill bitch starved enough to hang
Doo-ragged in smoke she can smell & therefore inhale
And therefore feel. Must ride shotgun pouring fountains
Of bass upon the landscape.

Words like “ideological” and “material” contrast with “swagger” and “dime ass trill bitch,” followed by “starved” and “hang”—which mirror Knight’s work in their weight, tone, and suggestive nature. The words that follow: “smell,” “inhale,” and “feel” are grouped together to evoke a movement into sensory depth. The heaviness of “shotgun,” “fountains,” “bass,” and “landscape” solidify the complex variation of sound/image in the sonnet. Much like Knight’s work, the textured layers of language in this sonnet create a stimulating reading experience that climaxes with the rawness of the final three words: “Who want it?” This is a metaphorical proclamation not unlike “He had been our Destroyer.” Hayes’s ending phrase is just as transcendent, expressing a feeling of willful pride.

Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” is another poem Hayes discusses because “it takes the profane…and recalibrates it to song, to lyrical texture.” This is Knight’s most skillful poem; it employs all of his poetic strengths at once—lyric, vernacular language, voice, and rhythm. But it also uses something Hayes refers to as Lyric Time: “a crisis of narrative—story spiraling out of control. It makes the structure of desire revolutionary—with that word’s dual connotations of subversiveness and circularity.” The first stanza begins with language play and deep emotional stress: “dope death dead dying and jiving drove / her away made her take her laughter and her smiles / and her softness and her midnight sighs.” Knight uses rhythm and repetition to intensify emotion in the second stanza:

fuck coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom […]

In “Feeling Fucked Up,” Lyric Time blossoms in the above stanza with a listing of nature images and political figures punctuated by the intense repetition of “fuck.” Lyric Time deals with a specific moment in the poem where the speaker breaks away from the crisis at hand and attempts to communicate complex feeling through metaphor. This complex feeling usually involves desire. According to Hayes, “desire can make time stand still. Desire can turn time around. Desire can obliterate time; it can in essence fuck it up.” Lyric Time is momentary; the poem concludes with two simple lines: “all i want is my woman back / so my soul can sing.”

The urge to communicate desire exists throughout Hayes’s poetry. However, the sonnets in this collection take on deep lyrical complexity and emotional power, particularly the sonnet on page 26, which deals with intense longing for a beloved:

But there never was a black male hysteria:
As if you weren’t the spouse of Toni Morrison,
Forced by love to watch her flower, as well as
Literally expand. The locks of her hair prevented
Your skin from ever touching her skin. You never
Smelled the nape of her neck, though you glimpsed
It when her head cocked to illuminate paper.

The sonnet form suits Hayes well because of the volta, which acts like Lyric Time in the sense that it stimulates a shift in the sonnet. Here, he complicates desire by turning it back on the addressed “you” in a beautiful lyrical move: “Often you offered / Your measure, but she preferred her own song. / As if to make your blackness more strange, / More elaborate, more characteristic, fine-tuned / And refined.” In this poem, desire is more controlled than in Knight’s work, but the intentions are similar: how can passionate desire be represented in poetry?

To Float in the Space Between is about Terrance Hayes just as much as it is about Etheridge Knight. His drawings, personal anecdotes, and poetics show readers a poet who is highly accomplished, but still has plenty of room to grow. As for American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin, a reading through the lens of Wanda Coleman—another major influence for Hayes—would be incredibly beneficial. She is quoted at the beginning of the book and her strategies for sonnet-writing are cited in the notes section. Hayes is a solid poet, but he is not a fixed poet. He moves through a variety of poetic schools, but here, they all swirl around Etheridge Knight, whose poems show that he was much more than a prison poet, and like Hayes, full of aesthetic power and ingenuity. 

October 15, 2018