African-American Poets Broaden the Definition of Nature Poetry

Terrance Hayes, a National Book Award winning poet and Pittsburgh resident, talks with The Allegheny Front's Nichole Faina about the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.

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OPEN: When you hear the words nature poetry do you think of trickling waterfalls, a snowy night, or dew on grass? The Allegheny Front's Nichole Faina talked with National Book Award winning poet Terrance Hayes about a new anthology that broadens the definition of "nature poetry."

FAINA: On this afternoon, poet Terrance Hayes relaxes on a park bench. It's one of Pittsburgh's rare sunny winter days. Hayes says he didn't examine the role of nature in his own work until the anthology Black Nature came together.

HAYES: I think nature has always been a natural part of where I grew up in South Carolina. So it wasn't a conscience decision to have it incorporated into what interested me as a poet, but part of what was interesting in the anthology is that it kind of made me investigate in a different sort of way the role nature has played in the work I do.

FAINA: This anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry is the first book of it's kind. It features poetry written as far back as the 17th Century during the time of slavery in America.

HAYES: Well, it's interesting because what I think the anthology wants to do is to highlight the fact that for four centuries African American poets and writers have had a relationship with the environment, so more than a kind of discovery of writers and that kind of writing I think it highlights that really from the beginning it's been part of the subject matter

FAINA: So it sounds like what we normally associate with nature poetry is pastoral scenes and historically African Americans have had a different role in those kinds of scenes.

HAYES: Well, I would say historically African American's roles in the natural environment is one that includes the complexities of race. The complexities again of sort of using the land as a source of survival so it's not simply as if you think of a landscape painting, it's not one that is purely passive and it's not one again, that's purely bucolic.

FAINA: Your poem is included in the anthology. Would you mind reading your poem for me?

HAYES: So I think this poem is probably a good indication to my relationship to the outdoors which in some ways is a suburban relationship. It's not one that involves hills and camping. Instead it just involves kind of like domestication.

We scrubbed the patio,/we raked the cross hatch of pine needles,/we soaked the ant-cathedrals in gas./I found an ax blade beneath an untamed hedge,/ It's edge too dull to sever vine and half expected/ to find a jaw bone scabbed with mud,/because no one told me what happened to the whites that had owned the house./No one spoke of the color that curled around our tools or the neighbors/ who knew our names before we knew theirs./Sometimes they were almost visible,/clear as fence posts in porch light;/ their houses burning with wonder,/their hammocks drunk with wind.

FAINA: That was Terrance Hayes reading a portion of his poem Root.

HOST The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series will be hosting an event highlighting Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry March 24th at the August Wilson Center.