Terrance Hayes’ new collection of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, was recently shortlisted for one of the most prestigious awards in British poetry – the TS Eliot Prize. Written during the first 200 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the collection of sonnets tackles American politics and social issues which have dominated the early 21st century, including discrimination, hate crimes, and a hope for a better future.
The Manchester Literature Festival welcomed Hayes to perform some of his 70 poems and it truly was an enlightening and powerful performance, followed by an insightful Q&A session.
Kayo Chingonyi, winner of the 2018 Dylan Thomas Prize, hosted the evening at Manchester’s Central Library, introducing Hayes as one of America’s most innovative poets of the last decade. Hayes then began reading 14 of his poems from the collection, all identically-titled ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’. The title for every sonnet is the same in the way that all Mondays have the same name but “they’re all different”; each poem is different in various ways despite their titles.
Hayes, during the Q&A session hosted by Kayo Chingonyi, answered questions relating to the sonnet form and inspiration for his collection. The idea for the project was inspired by LA poet Wanda Coleman, who coined the phrase “American sonnet” and who he dedicates the collection to. Hayes half-jokingly said that this term allowed him “to do anything” because it was “American”.
Hayes does not stick to rigid conventions of traditional sonnets. Hayes’ sonnets all are made up of 14 lines, but he abandons the rhyme schemes of Shakespearian sonnets, opting instead for “voltas of acoustics, instinct and metaphor”. A volta is the poetic term for a change, or a shift. And, for Hayes, there must be a volta, whether it be in writing or life. A sudden turn or change in direction, mindset and course of action – or more, the ability to change – is vital in a social climate where black men’s lives are at risk.
The “assassin” referenced in Hayes’ titles takes on many forms: from Donald Trump to stinkbugs, and even ourselves. The collection is Hayes’ own response to the “chaos” of the political system and media around him. Each poem is distinct, contrary to their identical titles, and the “assassin” is apparent in all of them. Some address Trump explicitly — “Humpty-Dumpty” and “Mr Trumpet” — while in others it is not as clear.
Using humour and portraying compelling stories and images to shine a light on political oppression in relation to race, gender, and the family, the evening reminded me how different yet important it is to hear poetry compared to looking at a page and trying to decipher the black and white text. It simply does not compare.
With his new collection of poetry, Hayes boldly highlights the painful links with a “past assassin” of racially-motivated violence and hatred, and how the “future assassin” is an obscure manifestation of our own fears, prejudices, and outlook on a society deeply divided. He candidly holds a microscope to such ills and delivered a moving, energetic performance.