‘Inner Pulse to Page’: A Conversation with Ishion HutchinsonFriday, March 30th, 2012 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Updates
Jamaican-born Ishion Hutchinson talks about childhood, poetry, PhDs and his new collection of verse, Far District (2010).
Leanne Haynes: You have said before that you did not grow up surrounded by literature. Can you expand on your upbringing and your affinity for poetry now?
Ishion Hutchinson: My upbringing was simple and typical of any child from rural Jamaica in the late 1980s, and I suspect things are not greatly different, in that I didn’t grow up with the experience of serious reading, where it was a natural part of the day to pause with a book. When I say literature, important as they were, I am not talking about those primary school textbooks someone would now and again brandish on the playfield; I wasn’t trading Grimm or The Little Prince with my friends. This means ultimately I grew up in a philistine condition; it was impossible to have recognised the worlds literature offered, and it took sometime, not until sixth form, to formidably cross literature’s threshold. On the other hand though, it means I was fully invested in the presence of the land and the language I was surrounded by, and I was mystified as a child by both. When I started to read books (beginning with fiction) I naturally grafted the presence of my life’s surrounding to the pages.
I wouldn’t say I had or have an affinity for poetry—it confounded me, plagued me, yet I felt enlarged by it, for it widened the presence of all I knew and didn’t. It was love, simply, love that you have to approach the same way Faulkner said you have to approach Joyce’s Ulysses like the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith. Why poetry can never be answered sensibly, not when every time a poet finishes a poem (or to use Valery’s term: “a poem is never finished, just abandoned”) he cannot be sure there will be another, yet he continues to stake his life on the line. I read as much drama and fiction as poetry—and I think good drama and fiction tend towards poetry—it is in reading poetry I find a total desire to speak aloud, to anyone or anything, to make one lasting coeval bond. I desire the same thing when I write a poem, not only to experience the poetic state but, to return to Valery again, “create it in others.”
LH: Do you have a favourite mantra or quotation that informs your creative drive?
IH: Not anymore, but one that I liked a lot was from the great Spanish poet Juan Ramon: “Let man revolve around his work like a star, without haste but without rest.” I used to mumble it when the muse would sputter.
LH: Do you have a specific writing routine?
IH: When I was younger (what a thing to say!) it was very late at night, now it is early morning. I prefer early mornings. Still, I try not to ritualise writing—even though I have a fairly discipline pattern—because I fear the heart of a poem becoming mechanical, artificial. For writing to remain sensual, or sensuous, it cannot be made routine. There is an internal questing that never stops, which goes on especially during sleep; writing is just the physical effort to transfer (transform) that inner pulse to page.
LH: You’ve said before that you’re not an academic – what’s the dream – fulltime poet? And in the meantime, continue the ‘scholar-poet route’?
IH: I consider myself a poet—that has to be a fulltime thing or not at all. I suppose there is a thing as the scholar-poet route, there are many poets walking that path. For me there are only two ways of describing a poet: good or bad; in the meantime I am trying to be good, even realising that only posterity can determine that.
LH: Ishion, you have recently finished a PhD (University of Utah) in English and Creative Writing. How was the experience for you? And what was the outcome?
IH: The best part about PhD experience was the ungodly amount of reading I had to do. I enjoyed working with some terrific professors as well. The outcome was that I finished intact! I wrote about landscape and travel in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, making unwieldy comparison to The Odyssey, The Inferno, and The Four Quartets.
LH: I know what you mean about finishing intact! I pick up in some of your interview response with others that you can’t quite come to terms that you are a successful and published poet – would I be right in thinking this?
IH: You are right in a sense, though I wouldn’t put it that way. There is something bewildering about being published and being recognized (which is not the same as being successful), bewildering because it is a far cry from where I am coming from. Writing is a private endeavour, a communion between one man and his sheets, so when these sheets leave his hands into the world, it is impossible to judge what will happen. If anything returns to him, he can only be immensely grateful—which I am, constantly. But all remains silent on the personal front, writing as if I have never been published.
LH: Your collection Far District was published by Peepal Tree Press. Was it a conscious decision to publish in the UK?
IH: Peepal Tree made the offer and I took it. It wasn’t a conscious decision to publish in the UK; it was a conscious decision to get published.
LH: Turning now to Far District. What struck me was the raw imagery. Take, for example, ‘The Turning Point’ – the opening poem and your use of ‘pubescent blood’, ‘the skull crushed’ and its excess ‘sea-salted ports drunk off sunlight’. What a way to start the collection! The poem could be about the divided self: the poet-persona does not know which way to turn and when he does, he is faced with brutal images of death and decay. Can you tell me more about the reasoning for this poem?
IH: It is the divided landscape that the poem is trying to articulate, how the one world of the speaker is simultaneously ordinary and spectacular, but do not coincide. Maybe it is more accurate to say the landscape divides the speaker, rather than there exists an intrinsic divided self. In many ways, this is the main thrust of the collection, a fractured landscape and its impact on any perceived psychic unity, and I think “The Turning Road” stands as a prelude into a deepening of that concern.
LH: And the “I” in ‘The Turning Point’ is based on you?
IH: The “I” mythologized is me, myself placed in the kinetic energy of fiction where one is not the mirror image of one’s self, but a likeness. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says “the word “I” is the true shibboleth of humanity,” so I think one automatically begins with biography but so many other presences are radiating through the “I”, so it never quite stands alone.
LH: Far District is laced with references to the Caribbean landscapes, its flora and fauna, the sea. In ‘Bones be Still’, the landscapes/seascapes take on more of a destructive force – here I am thinking its use to symbolise illness. Did you consciously want to move beyond the aesthetic beauty of Caribbean?
IH: There is that famous quote from Nabokov that “where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies”—in other words, aesthetic beauty is transient. I do not work for the Jamaica Tourist Board, so the poems are not postcards; I seek with the poems to come close to the pity underlining the beautiful beaches, the beautiful people. No one can move beyond the aesthetic beauty of the Caribbean, unless you can create new landscape (for, as one character in August Wilson’s Piano Lessons reminds us, “land is only thing God ain’t making no more of”); so at the risk of anthropomorphising the land and sounding ridiculous, I tried to have it speak.
LH: Another poem in Far District, ‘New World Frescoes’, includes two internationally recognised St. Lucian icons, Dunstan St. Omer and Derek Walcott. How have these figures influenced your own work as a poet? Have you been to St. Lucia?
IH: Yes, twice [been to St. Lucia]. I read Walcott’s description of St. Omer’s frescoes and I was moved and when I saw the frescoes years later, I was newly moved. It is remarkable the accuracy of Walcott’s word portrait, but even more astonishing is the transformations he makes. The word influence originally means inflow, and Walcott it can be said is one of the first sources that flowed into me; there is no way to calculate exactly how he has influenced me, because there is a long and deep conduit of other writers flowing in him, writers I have been discovering for myself. The poem is a direct encounter of Walcott’s Another Life and recalls visiting him at Boston University one autumn—where it goes from there I am unable to account for. Again, there is a lot of mythologizing, both of self and actual event.
LH: And you use the sonnet form in ‘New World Frescoes’ – -
IH: I often decide on a form to get going, a good percent of the time the poem does not survive the way I started. For me I seek a rhythm in the language that matches the impulse of the poetry ticking inside of me.
LH: The speaker in ‘Far District’ – the collection’s namesake – offers powerful statements of worthlessness. For example, ‘my beginning was not the sea/ my departure not the horizon; / I am nothing, I am dirt, where no light/ can reach.’ The poet-persona seems stuck – a sense of angst?
IH: When you look at the sea, even at its calmest, it is never quite still; you cannot put a marker one place and return to see it in the same spot. In this way, the sea is tabula rasa, always starting over. Landscape is an altogether different experience; one can claim one’s own plot; there is grounding—terra firma—to somewhere that is not moving relentlessly. In Walcott’s great poem “The Sea is History,” the speaker calls the sea “that grey vault,” which makes me think of a mausoleum no one lives in and nothing grows, just a psychological warehouse of memento mori. The speaker in my poem is very aware of where he is from; he is located physically—it is a question of how to unite with his landscape the way a child unites with a parent, that is the hard part, for like Gwendolyn Brooks says in one poem, “nothing never taught us to be islands.”
LH: ‘Far District’ was initially intended to be a book-length poem in terza rima. Can I assume that Derek Walcott’s Omeros was the influence?
IH: The only ‘relationship’ ‘Far District’ shares with Omeros is the tercets.
LH: Is the book-length poem something you aspire to?
IH: Yes, I am working my way to a book-length poem but it is not in terza rima.
LH: ‘Far District’ reads like a journey between inner and outer worlds. You have the struggle/ turmoil/ emotional journey of the poet-persona coupled with the physical journey. The poet-persona ends up in Portland (-a place of possibility because of the scholarship mentioned at the end of the poem) but also a stark contrast to the remnants of colonialism of rural St. Thomas. Can you expand on the contention between the two?
IH: The landscape of Portland and St Thomas aren’t exactly like night and day, but there are enormous differences between the two, despite them been so very close together. I don’t want to polemicise the two too much. There are great similarities between these places; the contrast mostly plays out in the texture of the light and sound you encounter in one or the other. I have always thought Portland to be more lively, the fact is there are more beaches there, so there is greater play of light; St Thomas on the other hand, with its many fields of cane, have more shadows. Each offers the sublime differently, and because they are mingled in me through my back forth and between them, they have almost being made one in my subconscious. So there is a kind of a drama between the two but no contention, nothing as real as say contention between Israel and Palestine or rival communities in downtown Kingston.
LH: ‘Doris at the River’ has a refreshing simplicity and there is something so beautiful about the verse even though the subject matter is rather dark. This poem has an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What place does Shakespeare have in your poetic education?
IH: Thanks for your kind words on the poem. I would say Shakespeare is the giant totemic spirit in any poet’s—any human being’s—life, for like Auden says and I agree, “he (Shakespeare) is holding up the mirror to nature.
LH: Travelling is a pertinent theme in Far District. In ‘Letter from Home’ is written from Brooklyn and not (surprisingly) Jamaica. Is this home? Tell me how your travels have impacted on your understanding of home.
IH: I was a tourist among the brownstones while I lived in Brooklyn for the two years I lived in NYC attending NYU. The poem itself is deeply nostalgic, the speaker, feeling trapped in winter, yearns for home—home being Jamaica. Travelling has been a blessing, the more I travel away from home into other landscapes, I feel myself inquiring about home in ways I didn’t and wouldn’t have while living there. For instance, the most mundane things take on immense emotional weight (and burden) and I feel myself exorcising them. I find that travel accelerates memory; I just hope I can be merciless at anything that sensationalize and sentimentalize the more I go on.
LH: Home is where the heart is – Jamaica?
IH: Yes, Jamaica is home. The poet Ilya Kaminsky is fond of saying the poet’s home is childhood; well mine has a name: Jamaica.
LH: ‘Two Trees’ contains Jamaican patois. Why was it important for you to include the language?
IH: The woman in “Two Trees” is speaking a mixture of Kumina and Jamaican patois. Kumina is an African retention practice found in St Thomas, brought there by African indentured workers after Emancipation. The practice, which mostly takes the form of ceremony for the dead (wake), was outlawed and was carried out in the hills of St Thomas for a very long time. The language appears in the poem because that is the way the woman, who was my neighbour, speaks. I learned Kumina words from her; patois though I was never taught, as that is the language I grew up in; in fact, it is English I had to learn. Sometimes I consider patois the result of censorship, in that the slaves were forbidden to speak their native languages nor were they allowed to be proficient in English; patois emerged out of these restrictions giving a common—communal—expression that was able to contain the full range of the slaves’ new world experience.
LH: One final question Ishion. You have said that you are working on a new collection of poetry. What can your readers expect? How will it differ from Far District?
IH: I cannot tell a reader what to expect; I wouldn’t dare, really. I believe, to borrow a phrase from Auden, “a work cannot be anticipated; it must be encountered.” What will differ? In truth, I do not know either; I am letting the language discover that. Sure I can perhaps speak to some of the technical things I am insisting on (blank verse, for instance), but in the end, as always, those things change. The hope is I have evolved, in every sense of the word.
Ishion Hutchinson’s Far District is published by Peepal Tree Press (UK). His work has featured in several journals including Callaloo Journal and Caribbean Review of Books. Hutchinson is the recipient of several fellowships and holds a PhD from the University of Utah.