An Interview with Poet Ishion Hutchinson
Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Ishion Hutchinson is the author of Far District, a debut collection that received the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry. Of Far District, Yusef Komunyakaa writes: “Not only does this collection travel through an abiding language and far reaching imagery, but it also transports the reader to a complex psychological terrain through a basic honesty and truthfulness.” Hutchinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Utah, teaches at Cornell University. He will read at American University on February 27, 2013 as part of the Visiting Writers Series.
CA: Your poetry is very grounded in location. Where do you like to write? What landscapes do you draw from in your current writing?
IH: My primary writing place now is my office below the house. I feel fortunate for that space, the sense of enclosure there. But I miss the exhilaration of writing on the veranda of my childhood home in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Everything is opened there, the sea, the peninsula, an entire lush accompaniment that makes the effort of writing a kind of enduring childlike delight. Now things are a bit more sombre, especially given it is winter, but I am comfortable.
The landscapes in some of the newer poems are less autobiographical, less from the backhand of retrospect, I guess, and more a shifting concatenation of landscapes not yet arrived at. I think this is a result of reading rather than actual travel; I have been crisscrossing centuries, different existences, the rhythm and mode of other places and now it is has woven a basket in my head. I am pulling the straws from that.
CA: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned the lack of literature available to you as a child. Now that you have a Ph.D. in literature, how has your writing changed? What writers inspire you?
IH: I don’t think I said a lack of literature, a lack of books, yes, which was terrible but was also a sort of blessing, a blessing because it meant I lived closer to the presences around me, and I was, thank God, literate so when more books became available, in high school, I read those children’s books with this adolescent skepticism—very thrilling to do. But to the Ph.D.: it afforded me a kind of monkish love-affair with books, for it was during the doctorate I started to believe more in the notion that the poet should be a servant of language, rather than master of it. It would be accurate to say that I am changed by the experience, the supreme gravitas of it; how my writing has changed is a matter I cannot really answer, but reading someone like Robert Burton, for instance, whom I had never read and I doubt I would have if it wasn’t for the doctorate, I was moved by him, and I desired that power, desired to learn from him. Burton wasn’t assigned, but discovered along the way while reading other writers of his period. Writing is a timely evolution; we will see.
I turn to different poets’ work for different things. The list is big. I think Walcott once made this very funny pun: “I always read Ovidly”—me too; some books I gouge, some I only Pynchon. This week, for instance, I have been reading and loving Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, there is a music there like air blown into rocks, it’s light and heavy at the same time. I am almost done with Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I am always surprised how these books come into my world and mysteriously help with what I am attempting; for instance, the ritual, energetic chorus of Soyinka is, I realized, what a certain poem I thought hopeless could benefit from. The word inspire means to breathe life or soul into something, and that is what literature does, it breathes life and soul into our own.
CA: What are your feelings on the way poets are labeled? Your work is almost always tagged as Caribbean; is this limiting at all?
IH: The word label makes me think in terms of value, a sign that fixes the value of a work, and in that I see no complexity but reduction, nothing a work of literature could benefit from, so my personal instinct therefore is to reject anything that demeans the work, which is my life. That said, I think a poet who spends too much time fighting off labels could be charged with what Camus calls the wish for “simultaneous applause and hisses,” an attention mercenary.
My work is Caribbean much the same way I believe some of Hart Crane’s poetry is Caribbean, in that when I read a line like “Under the poinciana, of a noon or afternoon,” I am home, home. But I understand the political element of the tag Caribbean, and it should not be avoided. Caribbean literature, so young and so worldly, is astounding—is that limiting? No. One must have a place, a tribe, the dark embryo out of which the work springs and to which it returns. The limiting thing is really in the utilitarian stuff—a greater surge in the literature culture in the Caribbean (regular reading series, prizes, residencies, publishers, and the likes) where Caribbean writers can be visible and active at home.
CA: Are you still working on a book-length poem? Many reviewers have spoken to the narrative quality of Far District. Is your long work structured as a narrative?
IH: I am, but just like before, shorter poems are accruing. There is a fractured sense of narrative unity. That is inescapable.
CA: What do you find particularly challenging or exciting about writing a long poem?
IH: You get lost differently in making a long poem than in a lyric; I love the agility it requires to add lines to lines so there is a tapestry of “Here I am, there I was, there I hope to be.”
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths