Terrance Hayes, described as one of the most decorated living American poets, received Troy University’s Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Writing on Friday.
Hayes, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award recipient and a National Book Award winner, read from his works and answered questions from students on Friday morning before receiving the award during a luncheon in the University’s International Arts Center.
The Hall-Waters Prize is endowed by TROY alumnus Dr. Wade Hall, an author, former member of the faculty at the University of Florida and professor emeritus of English at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. Dr. Hall, a native of Bullock County, endowed the prize as a memorial to his parents, Wade Hall Sr. and Sarah Elizabeth Waters Hall. The award is presented regularly to a person who has made significant contributions to Southern heritage and culture in history, literature or the arts. Past winners include Rep. John Lewis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Pat Conroy, Natasha Trethewey, Cassandra King, Ace Atkins, and the songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, among others.
As a Southerner, Hayes says his heritage often shows through his work without much thought or effort.
“I’m always talking to people about the South (through my work),” he said. “Anytime that I use a religious reference, like a sermon, that is coming from where I’m from, how I was raised. I feel like it is in everything, and I don’t really separate it out. It’s there. I have to look at it closely sometimes in some subjects, but I don’t think I have to think too hard about it influencing the work.”
Hayes referred to language as “his music.”
“When I was growing up, I did chorus because I liked music and that was the instrument I had,” he said. “Is language music first or is music language? My sense of it is that language is the music that everybody has. For me, a person who would not have gone to school without a basketball scholarship, much of my career has been trying to see if language could be my music. Through my work, I am trying to make equality between language and music.”
Hayes, who is a professor of English at New York University, is the author of seven poetry collections: So to Speak; American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin, a finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and TS Eliot Prize; How to Be Drawn; Lighthead, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for poetry; Muscular Music, recipient of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; Hip Logic, winner of the 2001 National Poetry Series, and Wind in a Box. His prose collection, To Float In the Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism. Most recently, Watch Your Language (2023) is a collection of graphic reviews, illustrated prose, and visualized poetics addressing the last century of American poetry.
Hayes said he was appreciative of the recognition through the Hall-Waters Prize.
“The thing that we may hear in church, but not in our professional lives, is this concept called glory,” he said. “I thoroughly appreciate this prize and it will occupy an important place in my home. These moments are like game moments around what we really do as a regular practice. What we do is not really about fame, but it is so much about reaping the benefits of the work and the practice of reading and writing every day and being kind every day.”
For the second straight year, English majors in Dr. Kirk Curnutt’s English senior seminar class organized the Hall-Waters ceremony, from picking the luncheon menu and writing the award citation to publicizing the event and asking questions during the morning session.