Episode 64

DIY Sestina: What Would You Ask the Artist?

by Terrance Hayes

 

Terrance Hayes reads ‘DIY Sestina: What Would You Ask the Artist?’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

So To Speak

So To Speak book cover

Available from:

So To Speak is available from:

The publisher: Penguin

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Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

DIY Sestina: What Would You Ask the Artist?

by Terrance Hayes

DIY sestina table showing keywords

Dear Painter, can you share how you made the blue we
Find in certain of your paintings? Sometimes I catch it
Throwing a Godish glow over everything in the eye
Of a storm covered in lightning. I fear without you
The color will not be seen again except perhaps inside us
Where the bones hold its mercurial shades in them.

Matisse, sir, did your brushes have the blues in them?
Where else might the remains be found? We
Sometimes find the color in denim when rain dampens it.
Once or twice, making love, when I closed my eyes
I found myself in a tabernacle of the hue you
Have left hanging on the walls around us.

Hello, GOAT, Master of the Show, I have very little use
For blueberries, blue jays, skies, sapphire & the hems
In the garments of policemen, but the lines we
See hand-painted on porcelain come close. I might use it
On a Ming vase or in cases of chaos or rapture & if I
Fell into darkness, I would gaze upon it & thank you.

Mid-fall, Icarus shows how a misstep expands behind you,
How one can come to a conclusion using the wrong calculus.
The man who covered his coins in honey before eating them
In “Gooseberries” also turned a distasteful blue. The ennui we
Wish to cover & uncover & free & contain. As in how hard it
Is to describe your own accent. As in the way The Bluest Eye

Has so much Blackness in it. If people born in a season of ice
Are usually crawling by summer, how much do you
Suppose that determines their general disposition? Above us
Are constellations a soul needs for guidance, the anthems
Of sawdust & approximation. As if in matters of our bodies we
Are the least reliable witnesses. You find upon exit

The tubes of desuetude painters used in the exhibit.
I was born for this moment because this is the moment I
Was born, you say. It is always the color of history. Can you
Share how you made the blues outlast & outline us,
How long did you swim or drown or float or swallow them,
Esteemed Ghost, Henri, if I may, ennui, Henri, ennui?

Envoy of Picasso’s Blue

The first drawing Pablo Picasso made as a toddler,
With a single blue crayon on onionskin,
Made his father, an average painter, weep

And weep again showing the drawing to Picasso’s mother,
Who also wept. The drawing was said to have been lost
After the death of Picasso’s sister, Conchita, of diphtheria

When the family moved to Barcelona, but it
Reappeared years later somewhere you’d never expect.
To truly grasp any of Picasso’s later work you should know

Whether the sister’s death conjured a bird’s- & bull’s-
Eye view of loss & faith & if the experience
Instilled a constant mysterious feeling in him,

Whether everything that happens to the artist before
Age nine or ten or even before nine or ten a.m. influences
Whether an instrument is held like a tool or weapon.

Loss, like desire, is always in the eye
Of the maker & beholder. Picasso, of course, grew
To make many more haunted perceptive scenes,

But the stranger who found the drawing had no idea
Who’d made it, only that the lines in blue crayon
On onion paper conjured a mysterious feeling in him.

“It looks somehow like a perfectly drawn landscape,”
Said the neighbor, resting his wiry hand
On his garden fence, thinking the stranger showing him

A drawing in the middle of the day slightly stranger than
He’d thought before. Returning to his dirt when the stranger
Left, the neighbor felt something come over his eyes:

The quixotic quaking in all his blind spots
He spent the rest of his days trying to describe.
It was a depiction of the body’s geometries, the eye doctor

Replied when the stranger asked his opinion. He sent
The stranger home after an inconclusive eye exam & then
Went home to bed himself. The doctor closed his eyes

Around his tears & slept for six or seven days dreaming
Of nudes posing before a surgeon with a palette knife.
When the stranger got home & showed the drawing

To his wife, she said it was clearly a portrayal of liberty.
The artist marking the presence of God, she explained,
Pausing over the thickest of the lines, “and asking why

And which heartbreaks can conjure the opposite of faith
And time.” Her hair, the stranger noticed, was no longer
As it was when she was his bride. “Blind spots always leave

A stain,” the wife said after dinner, though the stranger
Had long put the drawing away. She kept trying to describe
What she’d seen. “How not to disappear completely,

She said, lying in bed while her husband, the stranger,
Saw the drawing burning in a nightmare. It was clearly a tale
About slaves. The artist was suffering a notion of color.

The wife cried herself to sleep that night & dreamed
She was being covered in waves of salt water & gold,
The ephemera of souls lost between African & American

Shores, a blue between the sky & shark parlor,
Lovely as the loveliest of the sisters to leap
Into the waters & live free as the bride of the sea.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Terrance, where did this poem come from?

Terrance: Well, I believe some years ago I was in France and I was at the Centre Pompidou? I can’t remember what that modern museum of contemporary art is. And there’s a…

Mark: Pompidou, yeah.

Terrance: Pompidou. There’s an amazing Matisse there. And it’s actually, not the one I’m thinking of in this poem. The painting that I’m thinking of is a collage, Icarus. But that piece that I initially saw in the museum, it was just such a striking blue that I just continued to follow that colour through all of Matisse’s work and inevitably wanted to write this poem about that particular colour of blue, which cycles throughout what’s happening in the poem.

And then after having written that poem in the form of a sestina, I began to meditate on Picasso’s blue because of the relationship between Picasso and Matisse, both in my own sort of interest in art, but also in art history. So, I thought it only fair to kind of also meditate on that part of it, but in a different sort of way, a looser, less formal way, which is, again, something about my understanding of the two artists.

Mark: And what is Matisse – I mean, I know you’ve written it in the poem – but, I mean, why did you home in on that blue, do you think?

Terrance: Well it was very much just an emotional, aesthetic response, which is why I say the piece or the colour that initially triggers the poem isn’t actually in the poem. The poem actually makes a direct reference to the Icarus piece cut out and that kind of blue, which I believe Matisse maybe even trademarked.

Mark: Oh, really? Like the Coca-Cola red?

Terrance: Yeah, that’s right. But it was just such a striking colour. I wanted to just think about it. And so part of it was a kind of a study in the colour blue. And so the sky, the dusk, denim, sapphire, rain, it becomes a meditation on blue, but it does start with where he got that blue from. Like, where did he see such a colour?

So, how about this? Even the title of the poem sort of goes right to, what would you ask the artist? Which sometimes I look at that title and think I probably should have called it something else, like, just ‘Studies in Blue’, ‘Two Studies in Blue’. But that really is the impulse of the poem is: where did you get this blue from? Matisse. I mean, that’s what it comes out of.

Mark: So, almost, like, the poetic form gave you the opportunity to have that conversation or to start that conversation with Matisse?

Terrance: Yes. The poetic form, because of his sort of… I think of it as a kind of prismatic form with these rules of six. So, it just meant that I was going to also meditate on at least six shades of blue as I thought about it, rather than sort of thinking about the primary stimulus. I was very much interested in letting the poem take this notion somewhere else. And the shape of the sestina, the obsessiveness of the sestina form allowed me to do something like that.

Mark: Okay. So, firstly, for folks who don’t know, could you just enlighten us about what a sestina is? And then also, I’m curious about, did you know from the beginning that this was going to be a sestina?

Terrance: Yes, I did. In this book, there are actually three of them. There are two that are meditating on paintings. One is on this South Carolinian painter, William H. Johnson. The other is actually on Octavia Butler, and it’s almost all visual.

Mark: Yes.

Terrance: It’s a fully visual system…

Mark: Yes. That’s extraordinary, that one.

Terrance: I mean we can talk about the actual historical form, which goes back to the troubadours, I believe it’s French. Or we might talk about it, just sort of the obsessive architecture of the form, which is six lines, six stanzas, six words repeating.

And then after you’ve done that six times, which is 36 lines, you will have a 3-line ending, which is almost like a kind of concluding envoy, what it’s typically called, and that would be just, you have to use all of the 6 words that have been kind of cycling through the poem in that concluding stanza. Is that clear? Do you follow what I’m saying? Should I tease that out a bit more?

Mark: Well, it’s clear for me, because I know what it is. I think…

Terrance: It’s a big, towering, obsessive, repetitive form that’s daunting because you have to figure out the way, for those that don’t know what we’re talking about here, because of the way you have to kind of incorporate these six words into it. So, I think it does require a little bit of ingenuity on the kind of basic premise. For me, I wanted to kind of up the ante and just sort of bend the form.

So, there’s several words or several notions that are repeating six times throughout the poem. So, I say, ‘Sir’, ‘master’, ‘painter’, ‘ghost’, ‘Matisse’, ‘Henri’. And of course, as I said, this sort of notion of blue. So, there’s actual… If you’re hearing the poem, I’m talking about blueberries, and blue jays, and the hem, and the garments of policemen, and denim, and rain. So, I’m deliberately using six different shades of blue cycling through the poem.

And finally, this will sound really, like, a total nerd comment for people who wonder where poems come from. I also wanted to repeat six pronouns in it. So, the pronouns are ‘I’, ‘us’, ‘we’, ‘it’, ‘them’, and ‘you’.

And a pronoun like ‘I’, I will say to everyone, this gets down to, like, the traditionalist versus the sort of experimentalist inside a form. For that ‘I’, the pronoun I, I sometimes will do ‘e-y-e’ as a kind of visual ‘eye’. So, I’m massaging all of the rules to kind of see where it will take me as I’m meditating on its colour.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty dense and complicated form. I wanted to both make it overwrought so that I could loosen it up, if that makes any sense. I wanted to kind of just make the obsessiveness somewhat ridiculous even.

Mark: Yeah. I mean, I really love the way you’ve captured the spirit of the form because it’s not just about the rules, is it? It’s the fact that you’ve got… So, in the traditional version, which is a bit easier, I think, than what you have done, you’ve got these six words, well, they end each line. There’s no escape from those six words. They’re always coming back. So, it can be very claustrophobic, very obsessive as you say.

Also, I love the word you used earlier, ‘meditative’. I hadn’t really thought about it in that sense. It could be contemplative, which is kind of less fraught and anxious, I think, than a lot of sestinas.

Terrance: I think I probably think of it that way. How about this for information? I started writing the sestinas in the April of the quarantine, April of 2020, because I was supposed to do an event at the… It wasn’t the Smithsonian, but it was a museum in DC, Phillips Collection, a fairly well-known museum in DC. They have a pretty good art collection.

And quarantine meant that I couldn’t be there physically so that even before I had shown up, I was very much thinking about the sestina form in the quarantine and in the museum as a place for meditation, as you say, certainly, as a way of not being able to kind of get around the art. And I was trying to underscore that obsessive-looking part of the artistic process. So, when things didn’t happen I did try to construct an additional form so that people could write it themselves, which is why the poem is called ‘Do-It-Yourself Sestina,’ because I had orchestrated a way where maybe we could even write them together in the space and then the quarantine happened. So, I never did the reading, but the people who would have been there still had access to the poems. And I imagine somewhere out there, they might’ve tried to write their own sestinas around art.

Mark: Right. I want to come back to the DIY aspect of it in a moment. But one thing I really want to just underscore here is, if you’re listening to this and you’re new to sestinas and your mind is feeling a bit blown, that’s normal because the sestina itself is hard enough. It’s claustrophobic. It’s constricting enough.

But what Terrance has done is made it even more challenging by adding… And if you go to the show notes on the website, you will see there’s a graphic. It’s like a chart: he’s got of the six end words, but he’s also got another three sets of six words that appear in the poem. And so he’s adding constriction on constriction. So, there’s that aspect of it. But it’s also really interesting to hear that you were writing it at a constricted time, claustrophobic time when people were in quarantine and lockdown.

Terrance: Yeah. So, the form maybe, again, it’s sort of how I think of most form. I think of the sonnet this way too, is that it’s a box that holds a lot of the chaos. You need a box in a time of – sort of, things seem a bit unsettled, you know, or claustrophobic.

So, I do think form, for me, I mean, it is a question sometimes over here in the States, people will say, ‘You’re a formalist.’ Some people will say, ‘You’re a confessional poet.’ And I think people can hear in the terms, even if you’re not familiar with those terms, you hear what they are. ‘You’re a kind of personal confessional poet. You’re a strict formal poet. You’re a Black arts poet.’ I hear all of these things. And I say in each case, the poem decides what I am the occasion decides what I am. So, in that example, of course, I’m suggesting, certainly, I needed the obsessiveness, the kind of going back to the sestina form because I had nowhere else to go. So, you wanted something to obsess over a bit. And it is true that obsession is a kind of meditation.

Mark: I love that phrase ‘For form as a box that holds the chaos.’ I mean, I came across your work first through the American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, you know, which is all sonnets and it was all written during the time of the Trump administration. So, there was, as I understand it, quite a lot of chaos to be placed in that particular box.

Terrance: Sure. And of course, they show up in the most recent book because that chaos and that energy for the particular American sonnet, that energy is not gone. I don’t think I’ll ever write a whole book of American sonnets again, but some days it feels like all I can do is put all of the madness into a form of love, which is what I think that American sonnet does for me and the sonnet form as a principle, it feels like a very good place to go in an overwrought political climate, because it’s the opposite of that.

Mark: And again, just stay with the question of form in general, I’m really curious about your relationship to it because there is a trend, which I’m sure you’re familiar with on your side of the pond as much as ours to say that these traditional forms, they’re associated with patriarchy, with imperialism, colonialism, and so on. We should be leaving that behind, we should be breaking free of all of that. But that’s not the approach that you take, so I’m curious about your stance.

Terrance: I think so much of my philosophy is rooted in the principle of metaphor, which is always about bridging and never about cancelling. If you cut off half a metaphor, you don’t have anything there. So, I’m often thinking about bridging notion.

So, hence, I mean, we can talk about it in American sonnet, which is attaching that adjective American to it to allow myself to bend the rules inside of it and having that principle be the adjective makes the form, you know, the adjective makes it an American sonnet and not just a traditional sonnet. So, that modifier, if you think about that in most general principle of things, is a very interesting thing to me, even as Black, the modifier on my experience as a Black person is super interesting, but I will still say to you, it is still the modifier. I’m still mostly interested in the body, the individual, the perspective of one as opposed to kind of the generalizing effects of modifiers, but I do like to play with just that principle inside of form. What can I get away with here?

So, here in the sestina form, not only, obviously, multiplying the six words that are repeated, but especially what happens for me in the envoy, which is taking those three lines and turning them into tercets or multiple three line envoys, which is to say that the ending, which is a fairly acrobatic part of the sestina, you go through these six words and now you got to use them all six times in the final tercet. There was no way I was going to be able to do that with having about 18… I don’t know how many words I had here to use.

Mark: I see. I hadn’t thought about that.

Terrance: Instead I just was sort of thinking about what was I thinking about when I was writing it and let the envoy almost be an extension of the parallel thinking that sometimes happens when you’re writing, if that makes any sense. You’re thinking about one thing and that’s what the poem is about, but there’s these other ideas every time you look up from the page. So, for me, in this particular form, which is to say all of them have a kind of extended envoy principle, I’m sort of suggesting that really the form should open you up. You should be inside that form and then at the end of it, it should open you. And that freedom is what I’m trying to capture there with the Picasso extension.

Mark: Right. And so, again, just for people who’ve just heard it once and relative new to the form, all the stuff about Matisse that you read, that is within the classical sestina form. And then the envoy, instead of being the three lines where all six words appear, again, I once heard Seamus Heaney describe that as a lap of honour for the six words. You’ve kind of exploded the envoy and it goes pretty well as long or even longer than the original poem with this amazing story about Picasso’s first painting. At what point did you just decide, ‘Okay. I’m going to do that. I’m going to push past the usual boundary of the form?’

Terrance: Well, it really does come out of, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without thinking first about Matisse, or rather I should say, I shouldn’t assume that everybody thinks about this sort of dynamic between Matisse and Picasso, which, you know, anybody that’s studied a little bit of art history, which I majored in art in college and done the paintings of the covers of my book. So, I do live very closely to certain kinds of things in art.

So, for me people will say maybe Matisse is the classical, the most classical with his cut outs and his sort of formalities, maybe even his Frenchness of the last century of artists. And then some others would say the opposite end of that would be Picasso, more romantic, more naturalistic, and animalistic. So, I kind of live between those two spaces. It just depends on the day. I do like a shapely, straightforward, simplistic notion. So, Matisse gives us all sorts of things about modernism. We don’t get Apple without Matisse’s relationship to shape and colour, you know, the kind of principles.

And then Picasso, of course, is just wild, and a little unruly, and intuitive, and so I do think of those as my sort of spectrums. You probably could do that in music, you know, the wild musician and in the opposite pole. So, I do think they serve for me as examples of just moving between the intuitive and the formal, the classical and the romantic, just sort of working principle. So, certainly, as I was working on Matisse, I was naturally going to come to thoughts about Picasso because it just sort of happens that way in my mind.

Mark: And you’ve used the word ‘meditate’ several times to describe the sestina. And then you go into a narrative in the envoy. It’s a completely different mode of writing, isn’t it?

Terrance: Yeah. And again, we could talk about that as well, this notion of the lyric, the song impulse inside of poems and in the storytelling impulse inside of… And again, I think I’ve walked between those two spaces. I am very much interested in lyric, in saying the same thing again and again, and the circularity of feeling, but I’m also very interested in narrative, the beginning, middle, and ending, the kind of resolution of things. But again, if you hear what I’m saying to you, I do like to think of my toolbox as just full of every possible thing. And I’m more adding instruments to it all the time and experimenting with instruments rather than settling on one sort of toolbox, whether it’s the toolbox of being a formalist, or the toolbox of being a narrative poet, or the toolbox of…

So, I do, as much as I can say, let the impulse inside of the poem and the writing determine that. And ironically, I do think that those DIY sestinas, the do-it-yourself sestinas, are probably the best example of that principle of letting the poem tell you what it wants to be and how it wants to be. Even inside of the principle of a kind of rigorous form, you can still find a way out of that form if you’re sort of listening to yourself, if you’re sort of observing what the writing has already sort of done, the mathematical part of the sestina with those words that I think you can sort of think about it as you’re writing and you’re trying, ‘Can I write about what I was thinking about as I was writing?’ Those are some of the principles underway.

Mark: Yeah. And I mean, I think in a way, this is a microcosm of the book because there is a huge variety of styles, and subjects, and forms, even illustrations throughout the book. And can I ask a bit about the DIY aspects of this? Because it’s another modifier, isn’t it? You’ve got American sonnet, DIY sestina. So, that shouldn’t set us up to know this isn’t necessarily going to be the sestina as we know it.

Terrance: Yeah.

Mark: Where did that whole concept come from?

Terrance: Well I mean, I’m a professor at New York University here. And these days, I am mostly interested even when I’m going out giving readings and just sort of talking to people about writing for themselves. So, not so much presenting the book as a thing to be consumed, but maybe as a manual for writing as you would like. And so even with, I think, again, the DIY sestinas are extremely explicit with that because I’m actually laying out a graph that if you use it, you could write your own sestina. I’ve set it up in such a way that if you were just to read through the lines, you’d be beginning to get the sentences for your own sestina. So, I’m being a little bit tongue-in-cheek with that.

The book ends, actually, with a couple of again, propositions for sestina. So, they’re just only the graphs at the very back of the book. And you literally could write it, but I don’t include the envoy because, again, you won’t really know what the envoy will be until you’ve written the sestina. But I am mostly encouraging again, people to figure it out for themselves. I mean, I could give you a sort of an anecdote of something that’s coming up where I was invited to read at the Guggenheim Museum here. And I really was curious if I could do a workshop with the security guards and the staff, people at the museum. They still want me to read, so I guess, I will. But first, I will go in and we will do, like, maybe doing one of their lunch breaks.

I’m just going to have them do some writing about, like, ‘What does it mean? You work in a museum. You’re around all this art. Wouldn’t you have, like, some pointers or some ideas about maybe taking notes or just thinking about it? And who knows if you work at the museum for 15 years, you might have a couple of books in you?’ So, that is what I’m interested in, the notion that I can have people sort of, in every kind of aspect of life, think about the recording, the keeping track of your day-to-day experiences and how it’s not essays, which is mostly how people come to language in school. It’s not an essay. It’s not a sonnet necessarily, even though that could be useful. But just this idea that what I’m doing could be done for others. Others can do what I do, which is just the practice of writing. That’s all. Maintain a practice of writing.

Mark: And this is, I mean, it’s a wonderful kind of invitation. I mean, we could all look at, take that same grid, and write another sestina, couldn’t we?

Terrance: That’s right. That’s right.

Mark: It would be another version of ‘after’ Terrance Hayes.

Terrance: Right. And again, I would hope that inside of that, people would start doing what they see me doing in the poem, which is, again, taking liberties on what certain words are doing or where they should be. Even if I was to talk about that poem, if the audience can hear each word I say will be followed by, you know, it’s a six-line stanza. So, there’s the dear painter stanza, six lines, ‘we’, ‘it’, ‘I’, ‘you’. And then there’s Matisse stanza, ‘Hello, GOAT’. And then there’s ‘mid-fall, Icarus’. So, as soon as I get to the Icarus thing, I let go. So, I don’t really do ‘esteemed’, or ‘godish’, or ‘if I may’, or they’re coming in different places. So, what I would hope that as someone started to set out to write their own poem, they would be like, ‘Well, he’s already breaking rules,’ so you maybe wouldn’t wind up in the same place, but that, again, would be what I would hope would happen.

And so I think a form is a gateway, it’s a doorway. It’s not really a box. It’s a kind of a frame that you go through into maybe a room, but certainly not a box, not a cage. I think about the open spaces inside of that form that allow us to make discoveries. And that is how it’s extended to go back to your previous question about the sort of history of form and this idea of its usefulness. It is a thing to go through. I mean, form is a thing that we live with, so I say to my students, ‘If the speed limit…’ I don’t know how to convert to kilometres. ‘If the speed limit is… If it’s 75…’

Mark: Actually, we use miles. We use miles here in the UK.

Terrance: Okay. Okay. Good. So, it may be clear. If you’re going 70 miles…if the law says 70 miles per hour, maybe you could do 88. You follow what I mean? So, I’m talking about bending the rule, not fully breaking it because if you break it, you maybe don’t recognize it.

Mark: Yeah.

Terrance: But you do want to be able to recognize it, but the bending of form, and bending of rules, and bending of laws, everything, that is where we get evolution. That’s where we get synthesis. That’s where we really get growth and pressure. So, I’m always encouraging people not to obey the rules, but to figure out how to, you know, massage them.

Mark: I mean, it’s almost just like you’re giving us a poem in kit form here. It’s like something to play with. I love the idea of form as a gateway that you go through and it’s expansive. I mean, that’s how I experience it when I write in traditional forms. If it were just constrictive, I wouldn’t want to do it. It’s, like, here are some pieces to play with. And then when you get into the game, then the spirit of the game takes over.

Terrance: Yeah. We just don’t get that kind of opportunity early on with explication, and scansion, and even maybe history. And when I was in high school, between Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot, and Shakespeare, all the things that we get in high school, and Huckleberry Finn. I did like Huckleberry Finn, but I liked Shakespeare. It would be Shakespeare, Twain, Hughes, and then Eliot in terms of what I remember from that experience.

And so I do know that form does do something for language. I mean, I think I must’ve known that in the 10th grade. So, I do think of poetry as essentially form. It’s figurative language. Figurative is form. And so to kind of separate it, even a notion of free verse, I do think like a paragraph is not a poem, you know what I mean? A prose poem, but the notion of free verse, even that notion of freedom is a little bit misleading and maybe it’s emotional freedom and the verse is still form. Do you know what I mean? It’s still the question of modifier. ‘Free’ is modifying ‘form’. And so form is still the primary concern of what we can do inside of this shape.

Mark: Amen. And I’m curious. Why leave the DIY aspect out there in the book? Because I love the idea of the chart, the table as a springboard for writing the poem, but a lot of poets would have hidden that. They would have kept it for the workshop. They would have just started with…what they would have printed in the book would be just the finished result. Why did you include it?

Terrance: Well, again, the book ends with, it’s a little bit of a discussion on the form at the very back of the book. And then at the very end, I think of these as two poems, it says, ‘Two Do-It-Yourself Sestina Starters.’ One is ‘DIY Sestina for Emmett Till.’ And then the second one is ‘DIY Sestina for Ghost Watching Yourself.’ And so, again, what I think I’m doing is setting up almost kind of, like, grid poems so that if you were to go through it, if I just read the first sort of revolving lines, ‘what kind of fear arms a white man’, which also will be ‘what kind of love arms a white man’, ‘how much love arms a Black man’, ‘how much love arms a Black woman’.

So, if you were to look at this poem, the columns are telling you what I’m sort of asking you to contemplate on. So, one column: ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘child’, ‘animal’, ‘mouth’, ‘ghost’. Another column is ‘a white’, ‘a Black’, ‘a hidden’, ‘a stripped’, ‘a whistling’, ‘a silent’. Another column is ‘fear’, ‘love’, ‘hunger’, ‘grief’, ‘blindness’, ‘courage’.

So, you can kind of see even by hearing the words that I would be throwing at you as a kind of scrabble, you know, here are your tiles. You can kind of see the general movement that you will be going into, remembering, as I said, that, like, what’s most interesting to me about the form and form is that it leads you to something else. But you can see where I would be asking you to sort of move.

But again, it’s almost conceptual there at the end. Do I really expect people to write those poems? Maybe not, but I think they could imagine just by the title, ‘DIY Sestina for Emmett Till,’ ‘DIY Sestina for the Ghost Watching Yourself,’ you can kind of imagine conceptually the poems that follow. And that also is a kind of do-it-yourself encounter if you follow me.

So, yeah, I do think even though when I’m reading the poems as in this experience, I don’t dwell on that. I never talk about the complexities of that graph or the sestina form up front. I usually will say, ‘Here’s a poem. This is Matisse, and then this is Picasso,’ because I do think it’s secondary and I do think it is showing intentionally what you asked, the kind of scaffolding that writers use, that we’re not always just pulling things out of nowhere. And in fact, that scaffolding is what we rely on to kind of get outside of ourselves. And so I’m intentionally showing that kind of notion. And again, implying that it’s something within all of our grasp, even if you’re not using words that I’m suggesting you use, you can see something about the kind of play involved with what we do.

Mark: Yeah. I guess, it’s adding another level of self-consciousness to what is already a very self-conscious form, isn’t it?

Terrance: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’ve always liked bending the rules. Those six words are called teleutons. I’ve always like playing around with, as I said, the ‘I’, being also an ‘eye’, thinking that’s where I could get my real mileage. I think in that poem, ‘you’, I sometimes say is ‘youse’. So, I’m really bending the rules.

Mark: Yeah, that’s very American.

Terrance: Or even, you know, ‘we’. You heard this. I said, ‘ennui’ is from that pronoun ‘we’. ‘Calculus’ is ‘us’. So, ‘us’ is one of the pronouns. So, instead of saying ‘us’’, at some point, I say ‘calculus’.

So, people will maybe hear these words, but I do not want to focus on that in an initial reading. I’m not interested necessarily in a live reading of having people hear where the six words are repeating so much as having a kind of accumulative effect of meditation on blue. So, it’s nice to kind of think about it secondarily, but yeah, I’m mostly looking at those. The most exciting thing is that I got to ‘calculus’, not that I was staying with ‘us’. Do you know what I mean?

So, I had to bend the rule because that ‘calculus’ gives me an entirely new sentence that, you know, ‘missteps’ is the ‘wrong calculus’. Whatever that line is, it fully comes out of the form, not out of sort of just thin air, you know, even though I apprised that line. The ‘Gooseberries’ line, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be talking about Chekhov and ‘a distasteful blue’. But again, the combination of form and meditation on the colour allows for the surprise that I think we’re often chasing in our work.

Mark: And maybe we could just finish up by looking at the envoy a bit more and where you end up because it’s really quite extraordinary. You start off with the facts, what I assume are the facts about the Picasso’s first drawing, and then it seems to build and build and build into more fantastical and dreamlike, but also meaningful territory. Could you talk about that maybe?

Terrance: I really think that that… I mean with my writing process, I do revise a lot. I do go back over things. But in each case with these envoys, I really was just trying to remember things that had occurred to me over the meticulous crafting of the sestina part.

So, there’s a degree of math and Rubik’s cube and Scrabble that goes into kind of putting sestina together as I had arranged it. But through all of that, I just kind of kept coming back to this dynamic of what would it be like to have been the father of Picasso? And this is true, his dad was a painter. So, it’s a father-son question. It’s a question of influence. So, what would it be like to have gotten that very first drawing from your son?

We all think that the kids’ first drawings are amazing, but it’s Picasso’s! So, on that principle, it was a very simple principle, which is: what if you were Picasso’s dad, you were a painter, and you saw that your son was like, ‘Oh, my God, my son’s Picasso!’ You feel some kind of way about that.

So, it starts there, but it also becomes somewhere – and again, it’s really evolving in the poem in real time. As I said, like, can I make a poem be about what I was thinking about as I was writing the other poem? So, there really isn’t any real planning other than trying to remember the things that occurred and then letting the poem move, if that makes any sense.

So, after that premise, it really does become, ‘Well, what happened to that drawing?’ We do keep our kids’ drawings. ‘I wonder where that thing is.’ And so you hear the poem really literally figuring those things out.

Here’s something I’ll say to you about, like, the particular craft of that poem, something I did decide maybe in a draft or two later, was to not really say who these people were. So, I was interested in a sort of allegorical dimension. So, I don’t really say the name of the dude or where they are. He’s just a stranger. And it ultimately becomes the wife’s story too. And only towards the end does the wife say something that sort of suggests something about, like, race. She’s like, ‘It was about slaves.’

We still don’t know who these people are, though. We don’t know if it’s, like, a white couple in their twenties or the neighbours down the street or whoever they are. If they’re actually Black people, is this a Black man who found the painting and is showing it to the dentist and everybody else?

So, I deliberately was very interested in sort of letting blue be the primary colour, not really, like, white people and Black people or these people and that people, but also interested in that, obviously, the notion of the Middle Passage and that ultimate question of water at the end and the blue in the devil’s shark parlour. But that was a conscious decision to kind of get the allegorical feel into the poem and then let people decide.

Like, I do think sometimes as the maker of a poem, whatever you see them as, whatever you think the stranger looks like, whether you even think the stranger is a villain or not, as he sees the drawing burning in a nightmare, you know, he has a much more material relationship to it. He thinks it must be, it’s amazing. What is this piece? I mean, it is amazing. It’s Picasso’s first drawing. But he didn’t know that. He just knows there’s something magical about it and he’s trying to think about this in the process of poems or in a relationship to art. He wants somebody to kind of say, ‘Oh, yeah, it looks like a landscape.’

So, he’s searching for someone that’ll explain it to it. And his wife is like, ‘It’s something about God. It’s something about grief. It’s not anything that you can really nail down,’ and then letting her sort of carry the story out. That all comes out of the impulse of writing in a way that’s not typical for me. I typically do, as I said, I like to get to ten drafts or something of a poem before I know where I’m going. And I just wanted to allow for that freedom because I had been so rigorous with the Matisse part.

Mark: Yeah. I mean, I love the way it builds from one perspective to another. So, you’ve got Picasso, and then his father and his mother and his sister, and then the stranger who found the drawing, the neighbour, the eye doctor and his wife, and then it’s his wife’s dream by the end. So, it’s one perspective building on another.

And I love the way she says twice, ‘it was clearly’ something. And it’s – by this point, for me, at least the meaning is not entirely clear at all, but for her, it was really clear. And in her dream.

And then you get this extraordinary ending. It’s almost like the envoy to the envoy, the blue between the sky and the shark parlour. I mean, ‘Lovely as the loveliest of the sisters to leap / Into the waters & live free as the bride of the sea.’ On the one level, that is such a beautiful, poetic, blue image. But of course, it’s the utter horror of what happened.

Terrance: That’s right.

Mark: And you flip the notion of blue right round, you’ve got the beauty and the horror there right at the end. I don’t know. I mean, was that surprise to you that you ended up there or was that in your mind that that was where the poem was leading?

Terrance: It’s an interesting question because remember what I said about, like, the modifier of Blackness being very interesting to me as a maker of art. So, I think I was naturally going to get to something about, you know, the sea is always going to lead me to the Middle Passage because it’s been such a significant part of diaspora, such a significant part of, like, how we got here.

Whether that’s what she’s thinking is sort of the fun thing that the poem plays around because, like, who is she? What does it mean for a farmer’s wife in anywhere, to come to that conclusion to look at blue and fall asleep at night, and suddenly meditate on these women who jumped into the water rather than be slaves? So, any woman could think that. Does it make a difference if the woman who meditates on that is a Black woman, or a white woman, or a woman in her eighties, or a woman in her teens?

So, those kinds of things I do leave up to the artist, but, certainly, you know that is my… at the end of the poem, it would be me, obviously, curious, she’s like, you know, it’s about slaves, it’s kind of about this idea of who they are, but I still also am leaving that question for us to be like, ‘Well, who is seeing it? Who’s saying it? Who has seen it this way?’ I don’t know if I would answer that. I think I would let the writer, I mean, the reader fill that question in. I’ll let the reader decide who it is that thinks that.

But, yeah, where it comes from, I think it comes from my subconscious, I guess, and certainly, as I said, the colour blue just has all these different resonances in it. That seemed like a good place to go.

Mark: And you’ve got that very telling phrase just before the end, ‘The artist was suffering a notion of colour,’ which could be a description of the whole poem and the issues it brings up.

So, Terrance, thank you so much. That is an extraordinary journey you have taken us on.

Terrance: It’s been good.

Mark: Let’s have another listen to the poem and meditate again and see where we get to with it. Thank you.

Terrance: Okay. Well, great. Yeah, this has been good. I’m glad we could do this, Mark. This is why I come out to meet people like you, otherwise, I’m just going to be home writing poems, but it’s nice to come out and meet the readers and writers in the world. So, I’m glad this happened.


 

DIY Sestina: What Would You Ask the Artist?

by Terrance Hayes

DIY sestina table showing keywords

Dear Painter, can you share how you made the blue we
Find in certain of your paintings? Sometimes I catch it
Throwing a Godish glow over everything in the eye
Of a storm covered in lightning. I fear without you
The color will not be seen again except perhaps inside us
Where the bones hold its mercurial shades in them.

Matisse, sir, did your brushes have the blues in them?
Where else might the remains be found? We
Sometimes find the color in denim when rain dampens it.
Once or twice, making love, when I closed my eyes
I found myself in a tabernacle of the hue you
Have left hanging on the walls around us.

Hello, GOAT, Master of the Show, I have very little use
For blueberries, blue jays, skies, sapphire & the hems
In the garments of policemen, but the lines we
See hand-painted on porcelain come close. I might use it
On a Ming vase or in cases of chaos or rapture & if I
Fell into darkness, I would gaze upon it & thank you.

Mid-fall, Icarus shows how a misstep expands behind you,
How one can come to a conclusion using the wrong calculus.
The man who covered his coins in honey before eating them
In “Gooseberries” also turned a distasteful blue. The ennui we
Wish to cover & uncover & free & contain. As in how hard it
Is to describe your own accent. As in the way The Bluest Eye

Has so much Blackness in it. If people born in a season of ice
Are usually crawling by summer, how much do you
Suppose that determines their general disposition? Above us
Are constellations a soul needs for guidance, the anthems
Of sawdust & approximation. As if in matters of our bodies we
Are the least reliable witnesses. You find upon exit

The tubes of desuetude painters used in the exhibit.
I was born for this moment because this is the moment I
Was born, you say. It is always the color of history. Can you
Share how you made the blues outlast & outline us,
How long did you swim or drown or float or swallow them,
Esteemed Ghost, Henri, if I may, ennui, Henri, ennui?

Envoy of Picasso’s Blue

The first drawing Pablo Picasso made as a toddler,
With a single blue crayon on onionskin,
Made his father, an average painter, weep

And weep again showing the drawing to Picasso’s mother,
Who also wept. The drawing was said to have been lost
After the death of Picasso’s sister, Conchita, of diphtheria

When the family moved to Barcelona, but it
Reappeared years later somewhere you’d never expect.
To truly grasp any of Picasso’s later work you should know

Whether the sister’s death conjured a bird’s- & bull’s-
Eye view of loss & faith & if the experience
Instilled a constant mysterious feeling in him,

Whether everything that happens to the artist before
Age nine or ten or even before nine or ten a.m. influences
Whether an instrument is held like a tool or weapon.

Loss, like desire, is always in the eye
Of the maker & beholder. Picasso, of course, grew
To make many more haunted perceptive scenes,

But the stranger who found the drawing had no idea
Who’d made it, only that the lines in blue crayon
On onion paper conjured a mysterious feeling in him.

“It looks somehow like a perfectly drawn landscape,”
Said the neighbor, resting his wiry hand
On his garden fence, thinking the stranger showing him

A drawing in the middle of the day slightly stranger than
He’d thought before. Returning to his dirt when the stranger
Left, the neighbor felt something come over his eyes:

The quixotic quaking in all his blind spots
He spent the rest of his days trying to describe.
It was a depiction of the body’s geometries, the eye doctor

Replied when the stranger asked his opinion. He sent
The stranger home after an inconclusive eye exam & then
Went home to bed himself. The doctor closed his eyes

Around his tears & slept for six or seven days dreaming
Of nudes posing before a surgeon with a palette knife.
When the stranger got home & showed the drawing

To his wife, she said it was clearly a portrayal of liberty.
The artist marking the presence of God, she explained,
Pausing over the thickest of the lines, “and asking why

And which heartbreaks can conjure the opposite of faith
And time.” Her hair, the stranger noticed, was no longer
As it was when she was his bride. “Blind spots always leave

A stain,” the wife said after dinner, though the stranger
Had long put the drawing away. She kept trying to describe
What she’d seen. “How not to disappear completely,

She said, lying in bed while her husband, the stranger,
Saw the drawing burning in a nightmare. It was clearly a tale
About slaves. The artist was suffering a notion of color.

The wife cried herself to sleep that night & dreamed
She was being covered in waves of salt water & gold,
The ephemera of souls lost between African & American

Shores, a blue between the sky & shark parlor,
Lovely as the loveliest of the sisters to leap
Into the waters & live free as the bride of the sea.


 

So To Speak

‘DIY Sestina: What Would You Ask the Artist?’ by Terrance Hayes is from his collection, So To Speak, published by Penguin. 

So To Speak book cover

Available from:

So To Speak is available from:

The publisher: Penguin

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes portrait photo

So To Speak was concurrently released by Penguin in 2023 with Watch Your Language, a collection of visual and lyric essays. Terrance Hayes’ honours include the National Book Award for poetry, the Poetry Foundation Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. He is a distinguished Silver Professor at New York University.

TerranceHayes.com

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