Ominous pre-tingling (PoemTalk #150)

Terrance Hayes, 'MJ Fan Letter' and 'RSVP'


Simone White, Dixon Li, and Jo Park joined Al Filreis in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House to discuss two poems by Terrance Hayes from his book Wind in a Box (2006). The poems are “MJ Fan Letter” and “RSVP,” and the texts are connected. The first begins with an address to Michael Jackson (“Dear K.O.P,” or King of Pop) and the second begins “Dear Michael,” although the opening of that versified fan letter is crossed out — single-line excising that makes it easy nonetheless to see and read what is meant to be excluded or second-guessed. And when the cross-outs finish in that passage of the second poem, the writing starts again with “Dear K.O.P.” We hear layerings of speaker, addressed figure, voices, subjective imaginings, and fantastic substitutions.

Any time taken to sort though the several shifting modes of address surely will be rewarded. Listen for this: toward the end of the discussion you will hear in the PoemTalkers’ own voices the thrill of people who are realizing yet again that poetry — well, at least this poetry — is a form of art and of critical inquiry well suited to convey the complex effects of a person as entangled and fraught as MJ. In a sense these poems are a dense chronicle of that huge influence, and the group discusses several such lasting effects. One effect is amplified by the memory of the Black adolescent’s Vietnam vet father whose knowledge of “the ominous pre-tingling a soldier feels / when he waits in a trench at the start of a great war” causes the son to feel keen desire for the kinds of early sexual experiences that might reproduce the familiar scent of the soldier-father’s “olive green Army-issue boot socks” or replace the feeling of the parent-child connectedness that is affirmed when the speaker as a child “sat on [the elder’s] chest.” It’s a matter of sons and lovers, which is why the meaning of Jackson’s hit “Billie Jean” is at issue. This act of adolescent projection generates excitation sufficient to make him “prone to forget his questions” and only intensifies “a bizarre über-hunger for companionship” that takes us back to the essence of MJ’s crisis. The young speaker’s summertime sitting “at opened windows” — the opposite of “bizarre,” moments when the artist as a young person looked out and “listened to the world” — makes us think of the composing of the poems themselves. For the poems ultimately are the result of someone who listened hard back then. The issues raised in these poems are written out of an attentive yet liminal state of being “prone to forget [one’s] questions.” Yet “What’s a brother got to do to get an answer?” Which reduces to: Who am I? “RSVP” recalls the dilemma of anonymity, sexual identity, and paternity in “Billie Jean” (1982):

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son

Special thanks to Terrance Hayes for providing us with recordings of his performance of the two poems. Listeners will hear these toward the beginning of the podcast. This episode of PoemTalk was directed and engineered by Leah Baxter and Zach Carduner, and edited by Zach Carduner. We are grateful to Nathan and Elizabeth Leight for their ongoing support of PoemTalk.