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American Sonnets (Part V: Hayes in His Own Words)

[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part IV: As American As…)”]

Hayes himself confirms some of the contextualizing ground I’ve covered in the past few posts in talking about his new American Sonnet poems with Rachel Zucker on Episode 18 of her interview series Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People); the series will appear in book form, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, forthcoming from Penguin in 2018. The conversation was recorded at the end of November 2016, and posted on January 20, 2017 – politically charged dates, to say the least. In the conversation, Hayes notes that he has been writing these sonnets “pretty much every day” since the election, which means that the series, as envisioned as a series, was still less than a month old at the time of the recording.

Hayes’s conversation with Zucker is long; it clocks in at around two hours. Zucker and Hayes don’t discuss his American Sonnets, or even the sonnet in general, for the whole two hours, of course. The wide-ranging conversation touches on family, upbringing, activism, politics, grace, vulnerability, teaching, intimacy, intuition, painting, Cave Canem, practice, risk, permission, power, indulgence, offense, transgression and transcendence. At one point, Hayes asks rhetorically, “How do you turn your vulnerability into power?” It’s a question that reverberates throughout his American Sonnets and cuts to the heart of why any of us might write. (In another more recent podcast conversation with Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt of Poetry, Hayes says that the question in each of these poems is, “What is an American Sonnet and who is the Assassin?” he continues: “I think this dude is trying to kill me . . . and can I still love him? Can I write a sonnet for my assassin? That’s really what drives all of them.”)

Hayes starts out the episode by reading an American Sonnet that begins “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous darkness.” It’s a different – longer, and I assume earlier – version of one that begins the same way and appeared in the September 2017 issue of Poetry. He then reads a version of one that subsequently appeared this year in APR as well, followed by two that I can’t find in print.

When Zucker asks if he wrote all of them since the election, Hayes immediately references Wanda Coleman, as I have been doing in my previous posts on the series. He clarifies:

They were sonnets but I didn’t know they were “American Sonnets” . . . I wrote the first two I read, and then Wanda Coleman’s birthday came around on the 13th . . . November 13th . . . She’s a Scorpio, which I am too . . . and so I was like “Oh wow, I think I’ve been writing American Sonnets.”

He notes that he and Coleman were friends, that he has taught Coleman’s American Sonnets for a long time. He doesn’t elaborate here on what makes an American Sonnet, exactly, but he compares the process of writing his American Sonnets first to a meat grinder, then to a music box, which made me think of William Carlos Williams’s introduction to The Wedge, in which he writes “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” Perhaps Williams also came to my mind because Zucker and Hayes endeavor together to accurately quote the William Carlos Williams lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

To complicate matters in invoking Williams here, he also wrote in the introduction to The Wedge, “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.” And “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention.” What would he have made of the formally inventive sonnets of Hayes and Coleman? Of course, it seems that formal invention and the sonnet were not as mutually exclusive for Williams as his sweeping statements would lead us to believe; in introducing the now little-discussed poet Merrill Moore’s Sonnets from New Directions in 1938 (Moore wrote tens of thousands of sonnets, calling his home office his “sonnetorium”), he wrote:

Merrill Moore’s sonnets are magnificent. Never in this world did I expect to praise a living writer because of his sonnets but these have been a revelation to me. For years I have been stating that the sonnet form is impossible to us, but Moore, by destroying the rigidities of the old form and rescuing the form itself intact . . . has succeeded in completely altering my opinion. The sonnet, I see now, is not and has never been a form at all in any fixed sense other than that incident upon a certain turn of the mind. It is the extremely familiar dialogue unit upon which all dramatic writing is founded: a statement, then a rejoinder of a sort, perhaps a direct reply, perhaps a variant of the original – but a comeback of one sort or another – which Dante and his contemporaries had formalized for their day and language.
What Moore has done is more or less what we have all been striving to do in America since Whitman’s famous “Me, myself”; he as broken through the blinding stupid formality of the thing and gone after the core of it . . . It’s not a matter of destroying forms so much as it is a matter of observation, of resensing the problem, of seeing, of comprehending that of which the form consists as a form, of rescuing the essence and re-forming it.

Forgive me for my tangent in quoting Williams here at length; I think some part of me pretended he was describing Coleman, or Hayes, when I re-read this – a form “incident upon a certain turn of the mind” recalling for me the turning crank and cylinder of Hayes’s meat grinder music-box, the “rhythm” of Coleman’s “places and devices.”

To return to the conversation between Hayes and Zucker, Hayes provides a few more details about his project. He says he’s not keeping the dates of the American Sonnets, rather, that he “shuffles” new sonnets into the series where they seem to fit; I wonder if Hayes has encountered another recent sustained sonnet project, Eléna Rivera’s Scaffolding (Princeton University Press, 2016), a book-length sequence of “sonnets written over the course of a year, dated and arranged in roughly chronological order.” Hayes is currently in New York, teaching at NYU, and he tells Zucker that his environment is in some way shaping these poems. Perhaps the city itself doesn’t manifest in his American Sonnets as explicitly as the city shapes Rivera’s sonnet sequence (Michael Palmer’s endorsement of Rivera’s book notes that “Scaffolding represents a vibrant, exploratory addition to the venerable and diverse New York tradition of ‘city sonnets'”), but New York can feel both music box and meat grinder as well.

One more digression: speaking of New York City and sonnets, check out the short poetry-films of the New York Shakespeare Exchange’s still-ongoing Sonnet Project (154 sonnets, 154 NYC locations, 154 actors), if you haven’t already.

And one last note on the Commonplace conversation; the Commonplace site shares a list of links to “Other Writers, Artists and Musicians Mentioned In the Episode.” This list for Hayes’s episode reads: Yona Harvey, Lynn Emanuel, Amiri Baraka, Patricia Smith, Dean Young, Gertrude Stein, Eddie Murphy, and Young Thug –  a terrific list indeed, and accurate, except for one omission: Wanda Coleman. I’m sure this is simply an oversight on the part of whoever compiled the list (perhaps someone will fix the omission if they read this post), but oversights are interesting. Again, the story of the American Sonnet includes both the presence and absence of Wanda Coleman.

[Continued in “American Sonnets: Part VI (Hayes in His Own Words)”]