Professor finalist for National Book Award

Credit: Tommy Hofman Credit: Tommy Hofman

“Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state, I am here because I could never get the hang of Time,” reads the first line of “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the first poem in Terrance Hayes’ latest work, Lighthead. This year, the National Book Foundation has chosen Carnegie Mellon’s Hayes, a professor of creative writing, as one of five finalists for the National Book Award in the Poetry Category for this book of poetry. The nominations by the National Book Foundation honor authors who have encouraged the growth of American literature.

Lighthead’s poems, as described by the National Book Award website, investigate experiences of both dreams and reality within historical, personal, and political stories. They also incorporate cultural personages such as Harriet Tubman and Wallace Stevens, and a Japanese business-presentation style of poetry known as Pecha Kucha. A Pecha Kucha consists of a PowerPoint presentation where people speak alongside images with a time limit of 20 seconds per slide of the PowerPoint. The format originated in Tokyo in 2003 and was created by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein-Dytham Architecture.

Of his inspiration for Lighthead, Hayes explained in an e-mail that “our social and cultural landscape often informs, if not infiltrates, my work. For Lighthead, our nation’s wars and tragedies over the last years threw an unavoidable shadow over my usual themes (gender, race, family) and passions (music, literature, art).” Hayes privately began to write poetry in high school and continued through college. Only upon publishing his first book did his family discover his talent. “Even when I wrote in private, I think I was not inspired as much as I was obsessed by ideas and images,” Hayes said. This same “obsession” still often serves as an inspiration for Hayes today.

Hayes’ previous books of poetry have won numerous other awards, including the Best 100 Books of 2006 by Publisher’s Weekly for Wind in a Box, winner of the National Poetry Series Open Competition for Hip Logic, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, among others. Upon learning of Lighthead’s recent prestigious nomination, Hayes experienced “absolute joy followed by the absolute terror of having to wear a tux. Since then, I’ve been thinking mostly about how terrific the finalist reading ... will be.”

Hayes also expressed interest in the other authors’ works that will be presented the night of the reading.

Reactions across the campus have been positive for the poet, as his works provide a valuable message to students about the value of hard work as well as providing an enjoyable read. Professor Jim Daniels, the undergraduate director and Thomas Stockham Baker Professor of English, first met Hayes at a University of Pittsburgh poetry reading, while Hayes was in the process of completing his MFA.
“Just from knowing Terrance, taking classes from him, students can see that he’s a regular guy who works hard at what he does, that it’s not some kind of magic that happens. I think they can take inspiration from that in terms of their own writing,” said Daniels.

Marci Calabretta, a senior in the creative writing department, said, “[Hayes has] stories about meeting nearly every famous poet alive, and his poetry is so chill. It’s inspiring.”