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Terrance Hayes: Poet’s advice to read and write

Poet Terrance Hayes won the National Book Award in 2010 for his collection,“Lighthead.” Hayes almost won the award again this year when his newest collection, his fifth, “How to Be Drawn,” was named a finalist. Hayes, who is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, speaks at the Museum of Fine Art at 6:30 on Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets are $32 for museum members, $40 for nonmembers.

BOOKS: What are you reading now?

HAYES: Most of my reading is directly related to my writing. When people ask me for secrets to writing I say, “Read to write.” I have been doing more prose work so that has led me to some of my favorite essayists, who are often poets, like Denis Johnson. I’ve also been reading short stories, like Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return.” I don’t care much for his poems, but I like his novels and short stories. It’s weird to think that his sense of himself as a poet allows him write those airy, plotless stories.

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BOOKS: What else are you reading?

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HAYES: I read several things at once and don’t want to carry five books around so I use a Kindle — except for poetry. I’m looking at the German writer Robert Walser’s “A Schoolboy’s Diary,” which is a bunch of short prose pieces. I have “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James. I have a collection of letters by Vincent Van Gogh. I’ll read a few letters, be happy, and move on to something else.

BOOKS: Who are some of the poets you read regularly?

HAYES: Larry Levis, who has a new book coming out, “The Darkening Trapeze.” I always turn to Frank O’Hara and David Berman’s “Actual Air,” which came out in 1999. He’s a poet I haven’t tired of.

BOOKS: Is there a poet you wish was better known?

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HAYES: Etheridge Knight. He did time for about 8 years and published his first book, “Poems from Prison,” in 1968. Poets know who he is. Once people discover him they get pretty excited.

BOOKS: Is there anything you would change about yourself as a reader?

HAYES: I’m always looking for more people to talk to about what I’m reading. I have a few friends for that, but it’s a hodgepodge. For example, I have my Bolaño friends, but they won’t be my Larry Levis friends. Everybody wants to talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” It’s exciting when you have a book everyone wants to talk about.

BOOKS: Has any book been especially pivotal for you?

HAYES: I grew up in South Carolina in a small town. There were not many bookstores, and the library was not super sophisticated. The summer I got to Pittsburgh for graduate school I house-sat for a PhD student who had a lot of books. One of the books that I found was “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. That was eye opening. I’ve probably read it every other year since my 20s.

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BOOKS: Growing up in the South, were you well read in Southern literature?

‘I read several things at once and don’t want to carry five books around so I use a Kindle — except for poetry.’

HAYES: When I was in high school I remember writing a research paper, and the teacher said I should write about Langston Hughes. I felt as if I was the only black dude who didn’t like Langston Hughes. He didn’t seem as dark and layered as someone like Flannery O’Connor. I discovered her in the 8th grade and decided to read everything she wrote. At some point I encountered “The Artificial Nigger.” I was 14 or 15. I was mystified. I didn’t feel comfortable going to my teachers about it. My parents weren’t readers. My father was in the Army. My mother was a prison guard. The story didn’t turn me off just because it’s not explicit why she titled it that. By college I figured that out, but the point of this story is that I learned to appreciate that feeling of something that does not have an easy answer, which is something I’ve gone on to create in my own writing.

AMY SUTHERLAND

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