Issue IV, Volume V : December 2013
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Larry Levis Prize and the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry for his first collection, Far District: Poems (Peepal Tree Press Limited, 2010). Hutchinson is a Pirogue fellow and an assistant professor of English at Cornell University.
Ishion Hutchinson Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
In her review of your book Far District, Ashlie Kauffman writes: "...Hutchinson awakens and incites the realms of lore and myth—the speaker of these poems seeming at a type of crossroads between past and future, culture and individuality." With the word "crossroads," Kauffman seems to be addressing the liminal. Can you expand on her observation as it applies to Far District, and to you personally?
Yes, the liminal, but more so the limited: material and spiritual limitation, the feeling of hiatus, of being on the border of something strange and strong, but lacking the certainty of experience and language to crossover—that is how the speaker of many of the poems strikes me. The natural and the mythical are closer than we normally think; poetry restores their proximity and at the same time fills us with awe, through the universalizing force of metaphor. Somewhere Virgil makes the boast in his Georgics that he will be the first “to bring the Muses home from Helicon to [his] native country”—obviously there is a strong note of appropriation here, but it speaks deeply to exchange, transmission. It is a little extravagant sounding, but personally, now, that line of Virgil’s speaks to how I am feeling.
What was the process for you of writing the poems that make up Far District? Were they written within a concentrated period of time, or over a span of years—and, if the latter, how many years? In a surge of inspiration, or in fits and starts? And how has the book changed your life?
The poems that make up the collection took roughly around four years to write. I began with the great ambition to write a book-length poem called Far District. As I continued to fail in that single sustained scope, I wrote many ‘interval’ poems, not ‘in a surge of inspiration’ (never happens to me; always sweat), but with a clear vision of the arc of the book. I don’t remember the actual writing of the poems, and though I kept a sporadic diary over those years, it only records morning light, night sounds, passages from writers I like, notes to the poems, and so on. It is the whole effort of trying to write the book I still feel, like how you feel the presence of the sea long after the dive. Rewrites and editing, which took over a year, I remember more clearly—very painful surgery.
The change the book marked in my life is that it gave me the right amount of validation I needed. I had a fair vision of where I wanted to go from early on and the book accelerated that tremendously. As a young poet you know that poems will come, to a large extent you are in control of that, but you just don’t know when the first book will be taken and that can make you really anxious. Well, it came, and not long after the fresh excitement of seeing it, after the first review, an odd feeling of what Heaney has called, talking about his first book Death of Naturalist, “the start of the ‘Borges and I’ condition’,” settled in. It is a startling realization, the simple fact that first you were a person without a book, then you became someone with one, someone who must now acknowledge, is acknowledged, as the creator of this piece of work—it is something you can now never disown, a birthmark or wound. Yet none of it belongs to me, and like the narrator in Borges’s parable confesses, “what is good belongs to no one…but rather to the language and to tradition.” I am already deep into the starting over process and don’t handle the book if I don’t have to; in fact, when I read out from it, I prefer to look at the scraps of things I have accumulated in my reading copy: notes, a photograph, receipts, a piece of fabric. But I know because it exists, it is the biggest impetus (stimulus?) that another book is possible, even inevitable.
Say a bit about the genesis of your poem "Morning Tableau". It seems to me to be a persona poem; reading it, I'm taken to an internal place where dream, history, and memory merge together, and beautifully. On another note: in an interview with Leanne Haynes, you've said: "...I try not to ritualise writing—even though I have a fairly disciplined pattern—because I fear the heart of the poem becoming mechanical, artificial. For writing to remain sensual, or sensuous, it cannot be made routine." Your observation resonates with me very much. What does your writing "practice" look like on a typical day?
Thank you for your kind words.
I wrote, or rather rewrote, the first draft of what became “Morning Tableau” one morning last summer in Krems, Austria. The poem’s previous incarnation only had the image of the beloved swaying in the hammock and the little lyric, “my God, my heaven, my all,” which came from reading a letter of Van Gogh’s in which he quotes a hymn (to Tio, I think) from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book he loved. The morning I woke to rain—rain on the Danube, which I could see from my window over the tops of apartments—and maybe this will sound melodramatic, but the rain didn’t seem like rain at home, no tropical haze, if I may, but it stuck with me and the atmosphere, the romance of the Austrian rain, ashen to my eyes (light tropical rain being clear silver), started to work its way into the draft. I am sure it was the rain that led me to rewrite the poem, but it was the town as a whole. One of the streets near the hotel is lined with linden, there is even a hotel there called Unter den Linden, which, I supposed, is to be reminisce of the boulevard in Berlin, and of course it is nowhere as grand; this is a provincial town, its association is rural medieval, not of the operatic architecture of a wet metropolis, just the subtle resonance you find of a village in the rain anywhere. A scream is buried under every quiet, something disfigured by history, and I think the poem eventually rejects the quiet it opens with, rejects even an attitude that says love is paradisal, to end on an inflection of morning as mourning, depending on your accent. That disfiguring history in the poem is, of course, the Holocaust and World War II, which I think is filtered through some of the books I was reading then, particularly those of Thomas Bernhard. I didn’t want to be emphatic about that—essentially I see the poem as a love poem, an aubade—hence why the most direct line concerning that history is borrowed and bracketed with quotation marks.
About the predicament of the poetic experience, Les Murray has said, and I agree fully, that “We can have it repeatedly, and each time timelessly, but we find it hard to take in steadily, to sustain.” Some sort of psychic pressure must be brimming for me to start on a new poem, a pitch I want to carry, and since that does not happen daily I am more often working on old drafts or imitating a sonnet or what have you. A morning of work can entail as much as playing with articles or reworking an image—whatever it is, I do it obsessively, releasing myself only when I feel the change is better than what was there. But in a few hours I will see that nothing has improved, and you only have two choices: trash bin or try again. The trying again is an amazing consolation.
In terms of practice, it is the reading “practice” on a typical day than the writing practice that is more interesting. It is not like there is some big secret to one’s writing practice, but it is like going to the toilet or the prayer mat, it is an intimacy that is best left private. With reading there is so much freedom and a constant buoyant sense of discovery—reading, Marina Tsvetaeva reminds, “is complicity in the creative process.” Somewhere during reading, you become the one being read, the ego totally abolished and it is time to write.
In an interview at Poetry International, you talk about the significance of your book's title, Far District, and how it literally refers to rural locations in Jamaica, where you are from. What comes up for me in response is how one's self and identity can themselves, too, feel like "far districts": remote, peripheral, lacking a sense of cohesion and belonging. Did this perspective occur to you at all? I also like what you've said about solitude: "...solitude isn't romantic... it is constant bewilderment. I think solitude in the city—if it can be found—amounts to loneliness, and that one gets nostalgic for what is in nature that is greater than ourselves: the mountains, the sea, the forest, stillness." Given your work as a university professsor (now at Cornell), how do you access that stillness and solitude, both external and internal, that's so essential to reading and writing—to being?
Yes your perspective occurred to me. Yet in the case of Far District, there is no crisis of self and identity—self and identity are one and whole with the speaker; what the persona is trying to resolve is his personal unity with his landscape, a disparity which is in effect linguistic. It is that conflicting idea you find in Stevens that “man is the intelligence of his soil” and in Neruda “to tell the story of my life / it’s the land I must talk about”—but how? There is a natural language in the blood to talk about all this, but it is long hard work to make it well.
Nothing gives off the air of stillness and solitude like books. Some books are so good at stillness they put you into a coma straight away. In my comment about solitude and the city, I am conceding that a kind of solitude and stillness can be found in the city—anonymity, for instance—but genuine solitude can only be found in the open country, away from the constricting walls and the multitudes teeming all around.
When I imagine solitude and stillness they are not without certain presences vibrating: sound and texture and colour, those combinations that are sublime because they are from nature. I am probably not thinking hard enough, but the only poem set in the city that I can think of now that achieves that sublimity, the still tone nature offers, without pastoral embellishment, is Wordsworth’s “Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” Here it is not a ‘nature’ poem set in the city, rather, Wordsworth excavates the presence of nature concealed in the city. Wordsworth, it is worth pointing out, would have missed that “sight so touching,” if he weren’t up leaving the city at five or six in the morning, according to Dorothy Wordsworth. Perhaps, very early in the morning, every city is a country.
All the same, I access it through reading and of course memory, which has amplified the ordinary reality of my landscape of childhood—boring, beautiful sea; so-so, gorgeous mountain—to something tremendously permanent time and the advancing ‘developments’ happening in Jamaica can never annihilate. Solitude itself isn’t essential to writing; the imagination is the sole condition a writer needs, whether he verses by glen or sewer.
Your choice of reading is formidable: "...Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Perse’sAnabasis... Chamoiseau’s School Days and Platonov’s The Foundation Pit" (from the PEN American Center blog), to name a few. Your poetry reading, too, ranges far beyond contemporary American poets. Are your reading choices personal and intuitive, determined by scholarly pursuits, or both? What are you reading now and how, if at all, is it informing newer poems?
I consider myself a student of literature and I read out of a mingled sense of duty and pleasure; as a poet, though, my reading veers towards Promethean tendencies, namely, theft, as I am always on the look to revitalize the language shaping me and that I am shaping. Let me share, very briefly, the two roots that quickened my reading life. In my first year in sixth form at Titchfield High School, my English teacher opened up his small personal library to me. It was just two or so modest shelves of extraordinary books in this deteriorating colonial cottage in which he was basically hermitting out his time while teaching Shakespeare. He took me to the cottage one day and said, read what you like and then we talk. We did exactly that for two years, master and student, his presence making those distant books immediate and full. Two years later in college, at the end of a semester before summer break, an English professor told me to come by his house to pick up some books. When I arrived there were two large burlaps of books waiting in the car porch, Mendelssohn’s St Matthew’s Passion was coming through a window. The music cast a spell and the professor was kind enough to lend me the CD, which I bootlegged and spent hours listening to while reading the loads of books he had given me, most of which were Penguin paperbacks editions of the major poets from Britain and her commonwealth—from Chaucer to, roughly, Thom Gunn. Apart from some penciled marginalia by the professor—most of them, strangely, grammar correction, and ticks—this time my reading was purely solitary; I did not report back to the professor, even though it was killing me to do so. Books became important to me, therefore, at the invitation of individuals I revered; in the first instance, there was a great amount of reciprocity, in the other none at all, and my reading is still generally governed by what is given to me, either directly or indirectly. By indirectly, I also mean the gusting labyrinth one book will send you chasing down to discover its predecessors and the scions that sprung from its loins.
At the moment, besides the staple people I read bits of all the time, I am reading two stirring recent poetry collections: Sandeep Parmar’s The Marble Orchard and Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s The Ground. Parmar’s title is indicative of her language; marmoreal, athletic, but sometimes she softens the glow and her poetry turns visceral, naked. Phillips writes with his ears keen to Dante’s description of the lyric: rhetorical, musical, and poetical fiction (fictio rethorica musicaque poita). I admire the way Phillips handles the main subject of the book, 9/11, without mythopoeticization and heroism; his real subject is the fragile “I” strengthening against atrocity through song. Incidentally, both Parmar and Phillips are poet-critics, and I am also reading the critic George Steiner’s fascinating book, Lessons of the Master and Edmund Wilson’s Axel Castle; the chapter on Joyce is worth “any number of old ladies,” as Faulkner says about Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” As for fiction, I just finished Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey and Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. Saramago’s hypnotic, breathless sentences have had some effects on what I have been doing lately. He is a longtime favourite; his death really touched me.
“Reading Late Anabasis”
There is nothing strictly immortal, but immortality.
—Thomas Browne, Urn Burial
You read the ripples of their sandals
and armors dragged in dust, the anagram
of crows following them, the air
sick-riveted pitched down in night’s
large territory near a highway trucks rumble
like tankers to war, or breath moving
upon water, condensing time—night
being the sun’s drop into ashes.
You look up and see barbarians gathering,
you hear their organs and the stars
when they shouted: sea! sea! at the dark
coastline, regiment after regiment, entered.
So you pull the cord on the light, to wade
the sepia sheets, forever on the road, forever
the bonfire raging in the skull and bones.
Intermittent drizzle on the orange roofs;
a barge slides russeting water, I awoke
and heard brass music from another century:
carriage tinkles and princes and parasols
the white of souls promenading by the river;
no tankers, no allies, just rows of lindens,
“without the broken crucifixes of swastikas,”
and a cortège of starred-arm people, clasped-hands,
shuffling to the prick of spires, by rote,
a voice terse script silting the sky.
A breeze then shatters the rain’s paralysis,
sheets away the corpse barge, lifts mist clear
off the roofs, blanches the sun’s fight to copper
the river to my love’s rye-coloured skin
when she surrenders to summer in a hammock’s
sweep on the porch, and I watch over her shifts,
between the inferno and paradise, and hear
my reflection murmuring: my God, my heaven,
my all, and hear the leaves gnashing
where the trees are glinting shades forgetting
their journey to this place of morning.