How a poem moves – a workshop with Terrance Hayes

I had looked forward to this workshop for MONTHS. Terrance Hayes! A small, intimate workshop! I am going to learn about poetry from one of the greatest poets writing today. AND I get to attend his reading the night before? Get. Out. Of. Town. I was beside myself.

img_8863.jpgLet’s start with the reading. Charlotte Lit sponsored a weekend with Terrance Hayes for their Beautiful Truth initiative. Held in a elegant, aged auditorium and flanked by artwork by local artists, Hayes opened his reading with an explanation of Wanda Coleman’s influence on his book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. (I highly suggest reading this interview with Hayes written by Hanif Abdurraqib in Poets & Writers magazine if you are reading Hayes’s book.) The first poem he read, which also happens to be my personal favorite, was this one:


He read through a crown of sonnets, and ended with a sonnet comprised of lines from all the previous sonnets read. You can read more of his American sonnets here. Hayes answered some questions from the audience afterward, then graciously stuck around to sign every last person’s book waiting in a very long line.

At the reading, I ran into my #aplitchat friend and (somewhat local) colleague Melissa Tucker, who made the drive up from Rock Hill, SC. Some former students of mine, who are infected with the #TeachLivingPoets bug from my class last year, also came out for the reading. College students attending a poetry reading on a Friday night?! If that’s not a testament to the power of #TeachLivingPoets, I don’t know what is.


The next morning, Charlotte Lit offered a poetry workshop taught by Hayes. As a teacher of poetry, and HUGE Hayes fan, to say I was excited for the workshop would be an understatement. I got there early and was a little surprised to see the tables in the back filling up before the table with the man himself in the front. If you know me at all, you know where I sat. (That’s me under the green arrow!) IMG_8899

Hayes started off with explaining his theories on how poems move (technical aspects seen in the car illustration) and how poems are moving (the contextual “living space” of the poem seen in the house illustration).


Poets use the tools on the car in tandem with the intangible elements of the house, and we explored how this happens by reading and discussing two poems. We first listened to Henry Taylor read his poem “Landscape with Tractor.” Hayes asked us to share what we noticed in the poem, both structurally (the car), and where we “find the heat” in the poem (the house). As we shared out specific lines, techniques, and insights, he wrote notes on the board. These notes would turn into catalysts for our own poem, a list of possible prompts for us to follow.

We then did the same listening to and sharing out activity with a second poem, Toi Derricotte’s “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses,” which is written in conversation to Taylor’s. At the end of our discussion, the board revealed our prompt options inspired by the moves of our two mentor texts.


We were to choose three elements from the board to incorporate into a poem of our own. After about 20 minutes of writing time, we were given the opportunity to share our drafts. Which I obviously did. I mean, go big or go home, right? To have the chance to read a poem I wrote to TERRANCE HAYES?!? You bet I did. He was so kind to all who shared. He responded to each of us individually after we read our poem with things that stuck out to him (in a good way) or that he liked. He said some things to me after I read mine, but I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a second due to the fact that he was actually saying words out of his mouth about how he liked a poem I wrote. I remember him mentioning my use of a certain image (Barbie’s bodies) but that’s about it. And I’m okay with that because I was living in the moment and just so grateful to be in that space.

He closed with encouraging us all to work on our poems and to submit them. His kind words of praise in reaction to our poems were a gift to everyone in the room, whether they shared or not. And even though I don’t consider myself a poet, I just might follow his advice!

If you have the opportunity to attend a poetry workshop, even if you are “only” a teacher of poetry and not necessarily a poet yourself, GO! Chatting with another lady at my table, who actually is a poet and has published things, I introduced myself as “just a teacher.” She told me to take out the “just.” And I was like, YES, I am totally taking out that “just,” as we ALL should. We are teachers. And we should be proud of that. Say it with me, “I. AM. A. TEACHER.”

Thank you for for reading! If you ever want to write a guest post for the TeachLivingPoets site, please email me at or DM me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith. Sharing your story might inspire someone to try something new! We are a community of educators so the more voices we have participating, sharing, and inspiring each other, the better! Hope to hear from you soon. 


One thought on “How a poem moves – a workshop with Terrance Hayes

  1. Pingback: Exploring Family Relationships with a sonnet by Terrance Hayes | #TeachLivingPoets

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