We Can Yelp, Woof, and Moan: A Conversation with Lynn Emanuel and Terrance Hayes
In March, 2010, both Terrance Hayes and Lynn Emanuel published new collections of poetry. While very different works, their books share an urgency of voice, something Emanuel characterizes as “social rage.”
At the center of Emanuel’s Noose and Hook is a series of “mongrelogues,” or short dramatic scenes in the voice of a dog. The dog keenly observes the American landscape with a bitterness offset by flashes of humor. He quips, “We iz livin in mid evil an medicated times…make the best uf it.” and “R yew that dogg/ the countree iz goin’ to?”
In Lighthead, Hayes also inhabits personas conjured through idiom. With a tenderness rooted in complexity, he confronts issues such as war, racial violence, and history. He writes, “Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self./Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires/ upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction/of the earth.”
On March 17th, we gathered at Make Your Mark Café in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood to talk about their new works, the differences between politics and poetry, and the importance of humor.
As you were reading each other’s books, were you seeing connections between them?
Emanuel: I thought what connected our books was a kind of social rage. When I was writing my book, I was obsessed with money—who had it, who didn’t have it. What does money sound like? What does it not sound like? There is a lot of social rage in Terrance’s book. There’s a kind of biting commentary in the poems.
Hayes: It’s hard to think about connections because Lynn was my teacher so whenever I look at what I’m doing I think, now, did I get that from Lynn? With Lynn you really get to see how the mind works and how language is opening up.
In both your books there are highly voiced poems in which you create entire fictional characters in a short space.
Emanuel: Absolutely. There is this line in Terrance’s “For Brothers of the Dragon,” “Tell my story, begs the past, as if it were a prayer/for an imagined life of a life that’s better than the life you live.” I feel that about all these poems. There’s a kind of fictional shimmer to the work even when it pretends to be autobiographical.
Hayes: That’s good. Because that’s what Lighthead is—it’s the illumination of the imagination. In “All the Way Live,” two boys are lynched, so it’s also the fire of being lynched.
When you write these characters, do you also imagine to whom the speakers are talking?
Hayes: I always feel like I am bearing witness. I don’t feel like I am in conversation with the characters I write, rather that I am privy to their minds, which are like little mechanisms in glass jars.
Emanuel: I always want to be turning my face to the reader. And you do that too, Terrance, there are poems where the narrator swivels around and speaks directly to the reader.
Lynn, your book contains a series of poems in the voice of a dog. Can you tell us how you started writing in that voice?
Emanuel: Dogs started in Alabama where I was a visiting writer at the university there—the same position Terrance has now. I had never lived in the South before. The heat was like God; the cockroaches were as big as hummingbirds; if you stepped on a grasshopper it crunched like a seahorse; the plants grew up to heaven; and as soon as I opened my mouth I was the Yankee other.
I felt like I was in another country. Southern speech has a kind of playfulness and metaphorical quality. I was listening to the radio one night and some guy called in and said “Would you play ‘Hunk of Burning Love’ ‘cause I got that.” The DJ said, “If you’ve got a hunk of burning love you need a penicillin shot.”
I was living in the house for visiting writers, and there was a weird library of stuff people left there. One was a book of poems by this old newspaper columnist Don Marquis in the voices of an alley cat and a cockroach. I thought, I can’t talk but I can yelp and I can woof and I can moan. So that’s what I am going to do. I started writing the dog in Alabama, where I felt like a dog.
Lynn, when I saw you had poems in the voice of a dog, I thought, uh-oh, because it could easily tip over into the cute or the precious. What was so exciting to me was the precariousness because it never tipped over but that danger was there.
Emanuel: Thank you for saying that! It was a huge risk. Especially choosing a dog. Because everyone thinks I am a dog person.
Hayes: It’s audacious!
Emanuel: I have a restless sensibility and I get bored. I think you are a restless sensibility and you get bored.
Hayes: It’s because I am obsessive compulsive. That’s why I am obsessed with changing forms, because all my poems are about the same thing.
I am interested in what Lynn said about social rage and it seems to me that there is a lot of anxiety among American poets regarding political poetry. Where do you think that comes from?
Hayes: There’s a lot of baggage to the term “political poet.” The term for me is more “social.” Is the poet socially engaged? It just leaves more room to deal with things.
Emanuel: Poetry is a kind of communal activity so there is a place for butterflies and moths and a place for a politically or socially engaged poetics. Political poetry is a way to persuade, and persuasion is a different activity than being culturally enmeshed in a way that is more complex.
Hayes: The complexity is where the excitement is. It’s impossible for me to be clearly on one side, because the imagination wants to look over and see what’s on the other side. Thinking the impossible is really the exciting part, but once you pick a side there are just places you’re not allowed to go. The richest work is the kind of work that humanizes Stalin, while we critique him.
Emanuel: I don’t know about humanizing Stalin!
Hayes: That was an example! What can you discover in that space between the sides? That makes it difficult to say where are you in the fight. The writers in exile in City of Asylum maybe face more pressure to choose a side, because there are things at stake and you don’t have the luxury to be in the middle. We worked with some of the writers in exile when we did Jazz Poetry in 2008. I was anxious for folks like Horacio Castellanos Moya and, the following year, for Khet Mar. But they were so comfortable. You couldn’t put me on stage in another country and say, OK, read your poems … and the audience may or may not know what you’re doing.
Terrance, do you find you face a kind of pressure to “take sides” as an African-American poet?
Hayes: I did a reading at a community college in Houston, and the audience was predominantly Hispanic and black. Afterward this guy came up to me and asked, “What do you think if your poems make black guys look bad?” And I said, “I am usually the one who looks bad, so I don’t have any problem with that.” The conversation veered toward obligation. I eventually said to him, if you are rigorous with a poem it will be righteous. If it fails to illuminate and make things complicated, then it’s not done. I don’t go into a poem saying this is the side I take but I know I have to work through them, so they become righteous and virtuous. Writing into a moral stance is the object of craft.
Emanuel: That’s an interesting idea, that poetry should be virtuous in some way.
Hayes: Well, what does art do? Does it bring on evil or does it bring on good? Bad art might bring on evil.
Emanuel: I think Robert Lowell embodies an indigenous American poetry. He had a way of being a really complex political poet.
Hayes: No one talks about Lowell as a political poet, but he was engaged. He refused to go to dinner at the White House. He’s the kind of poet—just like Lynn—where you just get to see the mind engaged. You see him processing all these things that are going on around him. It becomes political because politics floats into his consciousness. That’s what I want to do in my own poems: float between those spaces instead of just writing a poem about one thing. Instead I want to look across and get Obama and French fries.
Emanuel: Lowell absolutely implicated himself in everything. He was in a privileged position because he was a Lowell. He could have just partitioned himself behind gorgeous writing and disengaged. But he never did that. He knew he was implicated because he was a Lowell and because he was a white male. I don’t think enough poets do that.
Hayes: That stance won’t work in politics. Imagine a politician standing up and saying, “I’m what’s wrong, I’m what’s wrong.” It’s the right position but then people are going to say, “Hey, I’m going to follow someone else.”
Terrance, you have a series of poems in the pecha kucha form. What is that?
Hayes: It’s a Japanese form that’s a cross between a PowerPoint and a slam. The premise is you bring in people from lots of different backgrounds and give them a particular topic and provide the images. You basically have 20 images that last for 20 seconds. I like the way it is tangential but also organized around a single idea. It’s another way to show the mind at work.
Lynn, what drew you to the form of a two-act play?
Emanuel: I didn’t know I was writing a play. I was just writing small scenes with a central character. Then I realized I had the context of an urban space in my mind.Then I decided on the play form.
Right now poets are in a global village formally, so we can write in a Japanese form or in a play. And then there can be those purists, who are only interested in the sonnet for the rest of their lives.
Was there a kind of freedom that broke open for you when you found the play form?
Emanuel: There was a freedom in being an animal. I had to invent an idiom for an animal. Two things informed that, and one was the cartoonist George Harriman who did the cartoon “Krazy Kat” during the 1920s and 1930s, a beautiful and ominous comic about a cat, a mouse, and a jail. The language is completely Elizabethan. The second was that I took a class in Middle English, that’s before English was an imperialist language. It was the language of a people who couldn’t win if their lives depended on it. I wanted to write the dog poems in Middle English! It was when I got to the idiom that it broke open. Then in a sense, it didn’t matter what happened. If I had a voice I had everything else.
Hayes: The answer is still about form, about finding that voice and that freedom.
How do you think living in Pittsburgh has informed your work?
Hayes: I don’t feel like a Pittsburgh Poet the way Gerald Stern is or Jack Gilbert is. But being here has made me think more about being Southern.
Emanuel: I don’t yet feel like I have a right to write about this city. There is a special culture here that I am still on the outside looking into. This city is the most interesting city—geographically, architecturally. It’s like a hallucination. There’s always some bridge or some body of water, and you’ll get lost somewhere that looks like the place time forgot. Then suddenly you’re in some stainless steel hallucination of what a building should look like.
Hayes: I feel that way too. Of course, I don’t get lost. I wanted to talk about humor. There is a lot of humor in both your books.
Emanuel: I think we come by it naturally. You can’t fake it. If you do . . . boy, that would be embarrassing. Humor for me comes out of a certain rage, from when you are really afraid or really angry. It’s a coping mechanism.
Hayes: The kind of humor I shoot for is an uncomfortable laughter. The kind where you’re laughing, but you’re also thinking something deep.
Emanuel: The interesting thing about humor is that it can change really fast. It can really twist a reader around. It is also a way to guard against being sentimental. It’s a ballast against sentimentality.
Emanuel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is the recipient of numerous awards including the National Poetry Series Award and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. Noose and Hook is her most recent work. Her other books are Hotel Fiesta, The Dig, and Then Suddenly—.
Hayes is a Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Alabama. Publishers Weekly named his book Wind in a Box one of the 100 best books of 2006, and Hip Logic was the winner of the 2002 National Poetry Series Open Competition. Lighthead (Penguin Poets) is Hayes’s fourth collection of poetry.
Read Elizabeth’s bio.