July 25, 2018

That time I embarrassed myself in front of Terrance Hayes

Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award finalists on display

I was nervous. I was not, nor have ever been, what you might call a “strong driver.” My parallel parking is closer to perpendicular. My sense of direction is on par with a sack of potatoes floating in space (that is, I often end up bafflingly far from where I am supposed to be). But when my boss and Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards Coordinator Genevieve Kaplan asked if I would drive poet and Tufts judge Terrance Hayes to the award announcement dinner from the hotel, of course, I agreed. I would be honored. Thrilled to have such a heartbreakingly lovely poet and important member of the contemporary artistic community in my vehicle. You can count on me. I got my car cleaned and vacuumed. I put my work stuff in the trunk. I had the air conditioning repaired. I crossed my fingers, and I hoped for the best.

But the great dice roll did not land in my favor that night. I met the judges and poets and countrymen in the hotel lobby, and my fellow drivers and I made small talk until it was time to go. My palms were only a little sweaty when I shook hands with Elena Karina Byrne, Khadijah Queen, and of course, Terrance Hayes. I wasn’t sure what to call them. Would she prefer Khadijah or Ms. Queen? Would it irritate her if I asked? I decided to comment on Elena Karina Byrne’s shoes instead.

“Thank you!”

“Yeah! . . .You visited my classroom last Spring. We talked about Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne.”

“Oh right! That was fun!”

“Definitely, thanks so much for that. I enjoyed it.”

I bit down on the urge to babble and laugh too much–which I do when I am nervous. I reviewed the directions to the President’s House (where we would meet for the celebratory toast and calling the winners to inform them of their good fortune). I tried not to recall the first time I read “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” in my high school sophomore English class. Every spring I still think, “All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet / the flowers keep opening. . .” These lines are coded into me, from the poet’s hand straight into my personal software. I knew not to say that. I didn’t know what to say instead. We went out to my car, and I wondered if I should call him “Mr. Hayes.” Somehow, it seemed awkward and stilted. But “Terrance” seemed too personal–presumptuous. “Terrance Hayes” sounded like I was dropping the name. I settled for “you,” and the very Californian “dude,” and tried to avoid the issue. When he got into my car, the seat would not go back far enough to comfortably accommodate his long legs, but he just shrugged and said, “I’m used to it.”

I powered on the engine. “I have to turn the music on so the car can interact with the GPS. Sorry. It’s a quirky car. 2012 tech doesn’t blend super well with 2018 Apple stuff. I should probably know how to get there. I think it’s safer to keep the GPS on, you know. I don’t want to make a wrong turn or forget how to get to the freeway.”

He remained very gracious, easy going. He said it was normal to get lost if you didn’t live directly in the area. I nodded, and chattered, and didn’t tell him I get lost in my own area all the time. I get lost in large parking lots. I get lost trying to find the card catalogue in the library. I pulled out of my space and turned the wheel too soon. All seemed well, until the horrible scrape of one vehicle pulling slowly against another made every hair on my body stand at attention.

“Shit.” I didn’t mean to cuss in front of my guest. But I swear when I am nervous too. I pulled back into the spot and peered out the door.

“No damage? Not too much damage?” I squeaked. The owner of the car I had swiped looked offended. I closed the car door, unplugged my phone.

“You still gotta go out there and talk to him though,” Terrance Hayes gently reminded me. I wanted to melt into my seat as I got out and wrote my name and number down on a receipt for takeout for the other driver.

“Put your last name, come on,” he demanded, and he raised a suspicious brow. I scribbled it down, all but gulping air.

“I’m so sorry. So so so so sorry. We’ll fix this. Just have your insurance talk to mine, and they’ll work it out. I’m sorry.”

My heart seemed to rocket from my chest; it beat so hard and fast it seemed to whir. I got back in my car, and I giggled and apologized again, to Terrance Hayes: “Shouldn’t drive when I’m nervous,” I said, half to him and half to myself.

He put down his phone. “I told them we had an accident, and we’d be late. Should I tell someone to come back for me?”

“Nah, I think we can leave.” I exhaled, too hard, and put my hands on the wheel.

“It’d be his right to make you wait for the cops to come.”

“Nah, I gave him my name and number. His insurance company’ll contact me, and I can refer them to mine.”

“We could have been stuck here all night, if he’d been an asshole. I’ve seen it happen. I’m just saying. We’ve got to be prepared for anything to happen. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

“Yeah. Thank god he seems ok. …I think he was worried I would start crying.” I quickly added as I pulled out a second time–more smoothly, thankfully, than the first try, “Not that I would cry! I get nervous with this kind of stuff, but I don’t usually cry. But especially older dudes tend to assume…”

“I do not have that problem.” Terrance Hayes seemed amused. “I’ll tell them we’re on our way.”

The car ride was uneventful after that, though my stomach sat high in my abdomen and adrenaline still ran cold up my back.

“My lucky number is 13,” my passenger told me at one point, after I commented on my chronic case of bad luck.

“The Chinese unlucky number is 4. Because it sounds the same as ‘death.’ Like, phonetically. Sì and sǐ. The same pronunciation, except a slightly different tone. All the tall buildings skip the fourth floor, like the ones here skip the 13th.” I smiled, though right afterwards, I frowned in self-chastisement for my rattling-off.

He grinned and shook his head. “Do you have any idea what I, as a poet, could do with that?”

As we drove, he told me about the curse of fame, and how it allocates attention only to the few.

“Awards and recognition only go to a few folks. But there are plenty of people out there are working on stuff that’s just as good and as interesting as anything the more well-known poets are doing.”

I thought about the most recent Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winnersVievee Francis, Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, and Donika Kelly–and their boisterous contributions to poetry, and their connections to underrepresented black communities, voices and poetic traditions. Just then, it didn’t seem like a coincidence that Terrance Hayes was an awards judge during the years that they have chosen these particular honorees. His dedication to spotlighting new voices from unexpected places moved me; clearly, it was not just lip-service.

We drove to the President’s house, and I parked too far away, as I was worried I would drive past it. I have been to the President’s house before. I don’t know why I feared we wouldn’t find it. I felt my entire body compress into my shoes when I realized I parked more than a block away. I offered, lamely, to nudge in closer and apologized for the umpteenth time.

“I don’t mind that,” Terrance Hayes laughed, outrightly this time. He wasn’t mocking, but I knew I was not totally off the hook. “I just wouldn’t want to walk back here in the dark. But you’re not my ride home, so it’s fine. Nice time for a walk.”

As we walked to our destination–an embarrassingly long journey–he advised me to write down my stories, because they don’t do anyone any good it they aren’t available to the world. He noted that he believed undergraduates do better and more surprising creative work than graduates, precisely because they “don’t know what they are doing” and so they don’t “imitate what they think is good.” As we talked, I wished I were my baby sister, who is somehow perpetually cool under pressure and immediately intimidates and impresses anyone who meets her.

At the reception, I made a beeline for the wine service table, as various people approached me about the accident. I reassured them everything was fine–totally fine! just a little fender bender! not even! more like a paint job!–and tried to will my face to a less blotchy red color. There are probably networking consultants who would love to use this as an example of how not to make a professional contact. And if they were toters of the more brutal brand of honesty, they might point out the irony of how I had turned the greatest perk of my job (face time with legends) into one of those things that would keep me up at night, twisting in psychic discomfort on the mattress.

But the experience is still one I would not trade, no matter the pain of reviewing it. Anyone can write poetry reviews. Not many, however, can say with no irony whatsoever: I do not think Terrance Hayes would get into a car with me again, even though he’s really, really a nice guy. In spite of this incident, the ability to work with Genevieve, be a participant in the culture of poetry at its contemporary height, and hear the voices of living poets discuss and embody their own words is an ephemeral, precious experience. And I’d recommend it–even the part where I all-but-fell-flat-on-my-face in the company of a man whose artistic influence has been omnipresent in my own development as a critic and writer. In fact, if I didn’t consider the moment equal parts embarrassing and worthwhile, I probably couldn’t call myself a true poetry fan.

—Kelly Eisenbrand