My Poetry Corner July 2020 features sonnet 13 from the poetry collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) by African American poet Terrance Hayes. (Note: The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection.) Born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina, Hayes is a national award-winning poet and university professor. After receiving his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997, he taught in Japan, Ohio, and Louisiana before returning to the University of Pittsburgh where he worked for several years. In Pittsburgh, he gained local fame as co-director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics.
Hayes moved on to New York University to take up his current post of Professor of English. In 2017, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and now serves as an ex-officio member of the Academy’s Board of Directors. The divorced father of two children resides in New York City.
Hayes’ featured sonnet 13 is one of seventy freestyle sonnets, all bearing the same title and length of fourteen lines required for the poetic form. Written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, the sonnets in this poetry collection are mostly political poems about life, love, and death of black men—haunted and hunted by violent racism.
In his 2018 interview for the Poets & Writers Magazine, Hayes tells interviewer Hanif Abdurraqib why he chose the sonnet: “How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love? I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”
He further expands on his poetic choice during his interview for The White Review Magazine in January 2019. In trying to express all the complications of love and politics, “I have to change my mind, because it’s a sonnet, because of the volta,” he tells interviewer Rachel Long. “Otherwise, it’s just a box. Something has to give. So whatever I go in with, I have to come out with something new.”
In sonnet 7, the poet alerts (lines 1/2//13/14):
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
Voltas of acoustics, instincts & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
In the following eight sonnet, the poet pour[s] a pinch of serious poison and merciful panic into [the] river for assassins like James Earl Ray, Dylann Roof, and others named in the poem. On the volta (lines 11-14), he then affirms:
Love trumps power or blood to trump power
Beauty trumps power or blood to trump power
The names alive are like the names in the graves
In the featured thirteenth sonnet on my Poetry Corner July 2020, Hayes describes all the ways in which the black male is silenced and erased by violent racism.
The earth of my nigga eyes are assassinated.
The deep well of my nigga throat is assassinated.
The tender bells of my nigga testicles are gone.
You assassinate the sound of our bullshit & blissfulness.
Hayes commentary on Trump’s rise to the presidency in sonnet 26 (lines 1-4) resounds loudly today:
America, you just wanted change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own…
He asks in sonnet 30 (lines 4-6):
Is this a mandate for whiteness, virility, sovereignty,
Stupidity, an idiot’s threats & gangsta narcissisms threading
Every shabby sentence his trumpet constructs?
“…I ain’t mad at you, / Assassin,” Hayes writes in sonnet 53 (lines 12-14). “It’s not the bad people who are brave / I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid.” (Emphasis mine)
To read the complete featured thirteenth sonnet, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” and learn more about the work of the poet Terrance Hayes, go to my Poetry Corner July 2020.