vocalisms is a twice monthly feature that presents selected tracks from voca, the Poetry Center's online audio video library of more than 800 recorded readings, spanning from 1963 to today.
When is a poem finished? In this series of three tracks, Terrance Hayes presents three iterations of a poem about the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which nine people were murdered during a prayer service in South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Hayes discusses his process of approaching this tremendously difficult topic, shifting from metaphor in “Carolina Lullaby,” to discourse in “A Poem That Does Nothing,” to a double layer of personas in “The Poet Ai as Dylann Roof.” The poet Ai, mentioned in the final track, grew up in Tucson and was known for her persona poems—poems written in the voice of someone other than the poet—which nearly always considered themes of violence and inequality. Listen for repeated or echoed phrases or images across the poems (for instance, blackbirds recur in every version). These tracks provide not only a glimpse into how a poem might change across drafts, but also why: Hayes pushes towards empathy as he moves from metaphor to dramatic monologue.