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Try Me: Beneath the Art of Terrance Hayes

Poet Terrance Hayes’ work as a visual artist offers an essential lesson for our own lives: everything is practice.

We make universes each moment we breathe, scratch our head, or consider the magic of a hot air balloon or the mystery of a pot of boiling water. When we remember a loved one who has passed or imagine a life beyond the one we have, it is our beautiful, brilliant imagination at work. We live in our heads, and our hearts remind us of our breathing—how fragile our emotions and the skin that covers us. Though we plot and pursue, plan and execute, tomorrow is a dream—an imagination—until we get there. Ask Terrance Hayes, a Pittsburgh-based 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for poetry. His poems strip language down to what is less than dirt, and then zip it up again in its sexiest, sleekest black. Yet if we lean only on what Hayes has created in his poems over the past sixteen years since the publication of his first book, Muscular Music, and not his work as a visual artist, we miss an essence of the artist that we need in order to understand something drastic about our own lives: everything—everything—is practice.

Terrance Hayes - Nina Simone

“Nina Simone” by Terrance Hayes

When Hayes paints, he is a man alone with his heart and his mind and all the things that make him a force of boundless creativity. He becomes lost. He is not thinking of you, himself, or any “next” thing. His fingers are drawn to the blankness before him, as humans are drawn to light or shelter. When he finishes, beneath the painting we can see is the one he has painted over. The images beneath have history as private as a man alone in his basement dreaming of worlds.

“I remember the first painting that made an impression, which was in high school,” Hayes says. “It was acrylic. I had never bought a canvas before, so I had gotten a canvas that someone had already painted something thick on, so there was a lot of texture. I covered the texture with white gesso. When I did that, I thought it looked like wrinkles, so I painted an older woman on it. And I was thinking about the surface, the wrinkles, and her. I realized instantly there was something I could do with painting that I couldn’t do with drawing, which was to make texture. It never went away.”

For Hayes, a poet of considerable fame, what’s the relationship between practice and failure? “If you think about it as all practice, then there’s never failure,” he says. “But it’s good to always be practicing. All I have to do is find a pen or pencil. The paintings are products, and they’re finished. I can be excited about [paintings] because they’re big, and I can do a lot more with them. But drawing is what I do most often. It’s the more intimate thing because it doesn’t have the same stakes. When I finish a painting, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with it or whom I might give it to. With drawing, its just practice. ” For a long time, Hayes and his son, Aaron, took a tin of pencils to restaurants and would draw before the food arrived.

Terrance Hayes - I Think Imma Nina Simone

“I Think Imma Nina Simone” by Terrance Hayes

Hayes shows me two new paintings, both of Nina Simone, inspired by photos of the classical pianist. In one, her hair is wrapped in white fabric pulled away from her brown face. Her eyes are closed and lowered. The canvas dazzles with white and flashes of color that play like lightning. Hayes has made her look even more tender, more vulnerable, but somehow, like a conqueror, too. She appears younger than the original image, in which her hair is wrapped in a towel, and her face instantly touches me. In the other, Simone holds a bouquet of pink carnations. Yet there are flowers where her eyes should be, and all the paint runs down, as if Simone’s face and the flowers—the very canvas—are weeping or melting. The image is horrific and tragic, yet Hayes manages to capture the celebrity and glamour of the moment. In the original photograph, Simone has been given flowers at an airport and wears a white, mohair coat and sharp, leather gloves. Though she is adorned like a diva, she looks dazed and vacant, as if she is slipping away.

“There are layers in discovery,” Hayes says. Beneath the painting of Simone with her head wrapped in a towel, there is another painting Hayes has covered. “I have simple goals when I’m setting out to work. And because of those simple goals, I can just cover up something if it doesn’t work. I don’t think I have really ornate ambitions in terms of stylistic stuff.”

Hayes has painted mug shots of music legends James Brown, Tupac, and Prince. “Tupac in the mug shot is much more interesting to me than the image we would see on an album cover,” Hayes says. Of his interest in painting musical icons he admires, Hayes says, “I’m trying to make tangible my relationship with them, like I would my mom or my dad or my friend in a hallway.” In most of his work, Hayes begins with a photograph. “If I could have a library of shapes of noses, shadow, and shapes of body parts, maybe I wouldn’t be as compelled to always follow images. For me, it’s very practical. An image shows me where shadow falls. I can’t remember if I’ve ever done just a straight face that I’ve seen. I do in a drawing. But those drawings never become paintings. Maybe once or twice I’ve made a painting without an image.”

Always, Hayes is seeking a story. It’s not just fame he is drawn to or pain. The images he chooses are alive with intensity and emotion. “I do faces and bodies and even skin color that suggests narrative. I have to work so much harder to make that tangible as a poet. If [the image] communicates some kind of narrative, that’s what draws me to it.”

Terrance Hayes - James Baldwin & Etheridge Knight

“James Baldwin” & “Etheridge Knight” by Terrance Hayes

In art class, his teacher and friend, Patrick Daugherty, passes his canvas and observes how different it looks than it did just an hour before. He suggests Hayes document the ways his paintings change, what lies beneath them with such privacy, what is hidden.

Hayes shows me a photo of his half-brothers, and then a video he created, similar to an animation, capturing what he has crossed out, erased, and drawn over to reimagine the photo and sketch it. In the original photo, one brother’s back is to the camera, and the word “Momma” is tattooed broadly, as if his skin is canvas. It is at once tender and distant. I wonder about his mother’s name and all “momma” means to him, for better or worse. At the end of the video, I want to touch my heart.

If you think about it as all practice, then there’s never failure.
As Hayes draws, undoes what he has drawn, creates shadow, and writes words that are crossed out, I feel pain. There is something lonesome and frightened in his brother’s image as Hayes has recaptured him that immediately makes me think of the fragility of Black lives in this America. And yet I am as transfixed by his brother’s power as I am with our collective will to survive.

This past year, Hayes’ obsession with failure has hinged, in part, on a 244-page poem about his half-brothers that he does not believe is “any good,” though he has salvaged a few separate poems from it. To hear a poet of his talent and renown own this difficulty is humbling, but I look into his face and realize how much he means it. “Again, is it failure, or is it practice?” he asks. “I wondered should I write about the image or draw it. It’s a provocative image that has a narrative. I decided to do both.” Hayes explains that by tracking what lies beneath the face of a painting or drawing, he is actually tracking failure.

Terrance Hayes - Walt Whitman

“Walt Whitman” by Terrance Hayes

“Underneath a poem, there might be 244 pages of work to get to that point. I’m trying to work past failure to get to something substantial. This is my practice, in the same sense of a doctor’s practice.”

Why is failure such a loathsome word, I wonder, as I listen to it roll off Hayes’ tongue with as much fullness and acceptance as we might say the words success, pride, or joy. But he has been contemplating and writing about failure and its layers in relation to art for some time now, in commissioned essays and lectures, like the one he recently delivered at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hayes recounts a moment from Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, a documentary about the genius jazz pianist and composer, in which Monk says, “Every time you pick up your instrument, its practice.” Hayes has pondered the quote for as long as he’s owned the documentary, for over two decades.

Throughout his first four books, Hayes enjoyed that his poetry and visual art were separate, and he added music, another love, to the mix. “Just to be on the piano…to push the keys and hear music come up, is enough. When I’m at the piano doing a thing I’m not trained in, I don’t have to think, ‘How does this inform my poems?’ Just like when I’m painting, I’m not thinking about writing.”

Yet with his latest collection, How to Be Drawn, nominated for the National Book Award, Hayes was curious about the connection between poetry and painting after treating the two as separate his entire life. “I wanted to be able to ask, ‘Is it true that they’re totally separate modes of expression for me?’” He points to the two Simone paintings and adds, “When I’m painting both of these things, at no point does poetry come into it. And I find that refreshing. Because otherwise, language is all I live. In my painting class, I have a completely different persona. I get there early—I get everywhere early. I put my headphones on and then I paint. People come talk to me, and I reluctantly talk. It’s not because of anything other than that I don’t want to be talking. I just want to be [there] painting. The physical act of painting has always been totally unrelated to language. But because it has always been so seemingly unrelated, I thought that for the book, it would be fun to investigate the mental, emotional, intellectual, imaginative, and abstract relationship between those two.”

When I’m painting, at no point does poetry come into it.
In the poem, “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” Hayes writes, “The way you get to anything/is context.” Present in all his work is a looming belief that he will not live long. “For most of my life,” he says, “I’ve always thought, ‘Well, any day now. This is gonna be it.’ It’s not relevant whether that’s true or not—though I think it is true—because it has informed my sense of urgency with my work. That means usually, when I have a thing I have to do, whether it’s a painting or poem, I don’t let a whole bunch of time pass before I try it.”

Hayes is in his forties, though you would not know it to look at him. His face is young, his features statuesque, his skin bronze-brown and clear, not even a whisper of a wrinkle in sight. When he hits a birthday, he does not believe he will see the next one. He thinks only what must be done now, which is the painting of his half-brothers on a huge canvas, perhaps the largest he’s ever done. “I don’t think I am a person who can plan very far ahead. I have never imagined what a 50 year-old Terrance looks like. I’m a real-time person.”

Amid a sea of success, there is failure beneath the canvas. Yet Hayes embraces it as part of what it means to be an artist. This is the way Hayes moves: as if the next breath is not promised, as if he is moving against the wind.

Tameka Cage Conley & Terrance Hayes

Tameka Cage Conley & Terrance Hayes


For a gallery of Hayes’ visual art, visit

About the Author

Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the August Wilson Center. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines. She is at work on a first novel and poetry collection.


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