An Interview with Poet Ishion Hutchinson - Believer Magazine

An Interview with Poet Ishion Hutchinson

by Prashanth Ramakrishna
September 29th, 2017

Last Bastille Day, at the Bastille, Ishion Hutchinson and I met in the back of the Cafe des Phares. What better place, I thought, for someone devoted to storming a prison of a different sort: in his words, the “metaphysical prison”of colonial reality. Our discussion centered on “The Orator”, a poem of his in which the narrator attends a fancy New York lecture about Jamaica, his home. Masked by anonymity, the Orator is free to speak truth. He is also, however, hostage to the presumption of power implied by the lectern he stands behind. So, the Orator lays claim to a dual identity: representative of truth and propagator of dominance—just like, as Hutchinson reminded me, Caliban, who speaks both the language of the island and of his captors. “We are all Calibans in the Caribbean,” he said.

Eventually we moved to Milton, with whom, Hutchinson tenderly observed, he shares “an abiding critical animus when it comes to taking up the mantle of the civic duty one has to uphold.” No more proof of this is necessary than Hutchinson’s most recent collection, House of Lords and Commons, for which he earned both the National Book Critics Circle Award and Rome Prize. The collection’s title itself is a nod to civic duty, recontextualized from Milton’s Areopagitica, an open letter in defense of a free press to the Parliament of 1640s Britain, or, as Milton addresses his audience, “the House of Lords and Commons.” The same “House” would only a decade later be responsible for the colonization of Jamaica, and the eventual historical and linguistic circumstances in which Hutchinson is placed and about which he writes. 

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He grew up, odd as it seemed, scribbling down his thoughts. His writing was encouraged by those around him from boyhood on through his time studying English at the University of the West Indies. Near graduation, a friend mentioned the “MFA”school just to study poetry. The idea struck him as wonderfully absurd. After receiving his MFA from New York University, he continued graduate work at the University of Utah. Far District, his first collection, won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry in 2010. Later, in 2013, he received the Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize. Amidst all of this, though, he insists: “I just write poems.” 

Hutchinson and I reconvened in late August at Cornell University, his “personal, wintery purgatory,” where he teaches. His office is cluttered with Ankara prints and precariously stacked books. We spoke about the poet’s charge to dismantle a history corrupted by colonial intrusion. 

—Prashanth Ramakrishna

I. Broken Collective

THE BELIEVER: The first time I saw your face was in that very aesthetic picture posted by the New Yorker alongside their article about you. What did they call you? The “Post-Colonial Poet,” right?

ISHION HUTCHINSON: I think there was another suffix: post-post.

BLVR: You’re right. That coining sounded very odd to me while reading the collection because for most of the book it feels as though you’re trying very earnestly to remind us that colonialism is present.

IH: Yes. That’s true. Since the advent of it, it hasn’t gone anywhere. So we live in a colonial situation. Because it’s part of the whole civilizing project, whatever is meant by civilization, colonization is bounded up in that too. We inevitably are contained by that word: “colonialism.”

BLVR: There’s a moment in your poem “Wanderer” where you say that you hear “it” wherever you go. It meaning not just colonialism, but the specific point at which colonization begins.

I couldn’t tell whether you meant that this original meeting becomes so deeply ingrained that it gets transferred generationally, or whether the colonial story is simply a universal plot line, an external historical constant. I suppose it could be both.

IH: It is both, and more. Because, while you have that colonial script, you have the script of the resistance to it. Its force and repellence of force. Those two things create multiple repercussions. You have a resistance that in itself brings something new. If you take that in terms of language, that is such a fertile ground for how the “dominant languages” moved forward and persisted. There is some claim that it is the language of the colonized that, in fact, maintains the language of the colonizer—not to support it, but through resisting it, it continues. Because when the colonizers left, they left their language.

BLVR: They’re co-creators of each other.

IH: Yeah. It’s not so much something of good and evil, so to speak, because there are so many compromises on both sides, or many layers that exist on both sides.

There’s no denying why history is so important and we must return to starting points. Why are things the way they are now? There are historical precedents that we look at and examine scientifically to answer the question. There are also other kinds of associations that aren’t so direct that muddy the water.

BLVR: Such as?

IH: Well, I’m always returning to the question of language and what happens when I claim a language that ancestrally isn’t mine, and historically was a language of dominion, of dominance. Something there is contradictory. And yet, maybe because it’s the only one that I can use, that I am using right now, it is the one that I am left to love. I am left also to deal with it in relation to the language that I do not speak, that I know is within me, the language of the ancestor, the ancestral language, whatever that might mean. It’s hard to explain, and can only happen through using it and failing, knowing that I have a responsibility to never go silent.

BLVR: Do you think it’s possible for you to feel a complete possession of the language?

IH No, not at all. It’s not possible. Even from the standpoint of the historical depth of the language, how far it reaches back, with so many contingencies, one mind alone couldn’t do it. When you can say I belong to a nation or a people, there is a sense that there is a shared movement or connection that makes the language question less depressing because it’s being done as a collective. The other day I saw these two words together that I really liked, broken collective…

BLVR: Diaspora.

IH: Diaspora, precisely. When you look at the Caribbean, these islands that are scattered in the Caribbean Sea, before the internet and before airplanes and everything, people shared this sort of psychic link together in this broken space. Communication didn’t disappear with the cruelty of history. In fact, it advanced it in a way, where people who historically before colonial contact wouldn’t have known each other or were in communication or were quite separate were brought together.

BLVR: I imagine that the organization of resistance is premised on the advancement of some sort of communication infrastructure.

IH: That’s right. Because, remember that it was outlawed for the enslaved people to speak the language of the colonizer. And if there are all these people from different tongues forced to be together and in their own social setting are unable to communicate fluidly, but they can’t even use the language of the dominant group, they have to invent something new.

II. Submitting to the Language

BLVR: Speaking of invention, the same thing happened in India. Disparate people, physically and politically and linguistically divided, forced into an imagined union. English, immediately following Independence, was rejected as the language of the colonizer and as a taint upon the Indian soul, and so on. States fought over which language was to be called the official “Indian” language and whether or not regional languages were to be given priority. Eventually, English came back into the fold and was accepted as the language to unify the Indian people. No matter how hard you try to reject it, the language of the colonizer still finds a way back into the identity. I’m speaking English from a very similar position that you’re speaking English.

IH: You’re right. You’re right. There is a savage irony about it that speaks to where we are as people with this experience in our background. My feeling is, when I take the language, which of course you cannot separate the language from history, because in a way the etymology of every word takes you through and right back to a source that was always against you. There’s no innocence in the language as such. But, if I think about it as a way to reach a higher form of resistance, as far as poetry is concerned, I think submitting to the language is a way to advance that kind of a resistance. Because then you’re not superficially addressing the language that has become the official standard, that we use, that has become common.

BLVR: What do you mean by submitting?

IH: In the same way that if you’re interested in a religion, it’s not enough to sit in the pulpit. You’d really have to approach the mystery of the thing and get as close as possible to its source. That kind of submission, the training. If you’re learning to be a pianist or whatever, you’d have to know the masters of the craft and submit to their teaching in order to understand it far more in its complex nature than just passively hearing it. Again, this is probably because of the word itself and the English version of the word “submit” or “submission” rings a certain way in our ear. I mean the wish never to remain passive, never to take language on a given platform but to break it, break into it.

BLVR: I think that’s exactly the contradiction: submission is associated with passivity. Talking about submission as a higher form of resistance when resistance is associated with action is counterintuitive.

Which poem was it in which the stars talk to you? And tell you you’re still being judged? “October’s Levant?” We’ve been discussing the colonized and colonizer as co-creators, but, obviously, unequal co-creators.

IH: Yes, we should make that clear.

BLVR: It seemed, in some of your work, that colonizer has a command over the movement and temporal perception of its partner that its partner doesn’t have over it. The judgment that results from that inequality is eternal.

IH: Maybe there’s a way in which everything that we, in the Western tradition, take to be just and right virtue comes out of the Western mind. Everything there is officiated by some Greco-Roman tradition. Of course, what is often not acknowledged is how much of Eastern philosophies and so on get into the Greco-Roman lineage. But, if we only accept this notion that time and movement of time, the beginnings of things and so on, were just how they were given, then we are kind of closed off from seeing beyond those labels, those ascribed roles, to what people before us who are from us know and have created as their own sciences, their own way of judgment, virtues that I believe are still at our core, that have never quite disappeared.

When Caesar looks up at the stars and says, “to whatever end they are, they are mine,” we have to contradict that notion somehow. It’s dealing with a world that is the turmoil of independent Jamaica, with its political, tribal mess, where if you are on this side you become that political animal and if you are on the other side, you are the other one. And, that state of affairs is obviously directly out of the colonial experience. But, if you take a word like “independence” and how it does not at all coincide with the reality of life, as it were, or the politics of reality, saying that one is “independent” is in fact a contradiction, if we are to truly adhere or make sense of the word and apply it to the situation.  It’s another form of lie, of lying, which also has to be resisted, and then to become truly independent.

III. Blankness

BLVR: Your poems are often about music, and it seems to me that you think a lot about silence. The blankness in your pages seems deliberate.

IH: I think there’s a preconditioned silence and silencing that I feel, I would even claim as a duty to write against. I would even go further and say I want to rearrange the silence, dismantle it. The probably higher ambition is to get rid of the silence. But, was it Bach or Beethoven that talked about the “unheard note”? There’s a way, I feel, an achieved piece of art absorbs silence and might look like it, but in fact that is its strength; it is booming and full of energy. But it doesn’t proselytize and it’s not didactic. It might appear to be pure, but it is contaminated.

BLVR: By what surrounds the silence?

IH: Yes, because it absorbs. It’s like when the ocean sucks back everything and if you quickly touch the sand and feel and even quickly see the water being sponged into the sand. That’s the kind of technique that I think a poem or even, to open up, great piece of art is attempting to do. It might not even state its subject. You might even say it is freed of subject because it has become, not pure, but it has taken in everything. It’s sort of like Dante. Yeats called Dante the chief imagination of Christendom. After all the many centuries of that work, it still will ever be relevant and contemporary because it has absorbed the meaning of being a person with flaw, with sin.

BLVR: And in that way it is reborn in every contemporary context.

IH: And silence is important for that. That’s why I said there’s a preconditioned silence. Depending on the political angle could be a silence that is conditioned to undermine one’s own speaking voice.

BLVR: So consensus is a form of that preconditioned silence.

IH: Of course, of course. It’s a kind of a thing where people look at a blank page and see it as blank, as silent. Some would look at this and say, well, it’s just the thing that needs to be wrestled out of it, the poem.

BLVR: Your blank spaces are, in a sense, “unheard notes.”

IH: Yeah, I think it’s populated before I even get there.

BLVR: What’s populated?

IH: The page, it’s full of things. And maybe I’m just lifting the strips and letting…

BLVR: Or maybe you’re delusional.

IH: Maybe I’m completely delusional. My nature is always to think the opposite. I used to very much accept this idea of the page being blank. I’m a little more suspicious of that because, why? How is it that I’m able to leave a page stamped with something? I feel that it’s a combination of things, and one of them is just that it is there. I am now madly in love with John Clare, who says, “the poems are in the field.” He just goes there to pick them. Like posies. I don’t think it’s such an absurd belief that, when you look at a page, there is possibility. There is also, really, dread, because you know that the task of unveiling, word by word, what’s there isn’t going to be easy.

IV. Pitchy-patchy

BLVR: You begin to mention America toward the end of the book. Is your critique of America the same as your general critique of empire and colonialism? Or is there something else there?

IH: There’s a way in which I don’t see a difference between America and the Caribbean. They have the same beginning. Instead of “America” we should be talking about “The Americas.” The US is really just mainland America…

BLVR: Which is why you make an effort to mention Cortez and Pizarro and so on.

IH: Precisely. America’s place as what it is, is hard to not come around to. Before coming here I, of course, would have imagined America and may have put something down on paper, but it took the experience of living here to get around to, in a way, writing into the idea of mainland America. Someone told me—I trust this person—that the book is my “American book.”

BLVR: I thought the same.

IH: Really!?

BLVR: I didn’t think that way until I got to “There”, which was quite striking in its subtle rejection of the responsibility everyone else seems to feel to remain in the present political moment and fight it out. You, on the other hand, were either escaping into antiquity or using antiquity to resolve the contradictions introduced by the present political moment.

IH: Somehow it is a case where different pockets of historical moments have returned in this, what do you call it again? Not potpourri. What flashed in my mind was a Jamaican word: pitchy-patchy.

BLVR: “Pitchy-patchy,” I like that word.

IH: It’s kind of like your shirt.

BLVR: My shirt?

IH: Something with lots of patches.

BLVR: A quilt?

IH: Of the ugliest historical tragedies. And it’s just flung over the world. Everything that we see now, there are precedents. Sometimes it’s frightening how direct they are. How much too, the language at that moment, quite the same.

BLVR: The instant teleportation back to antiquity was actually a constant throughout the entire collection. I wonder if the middle of things, what lies between antiquity and present, is the “lost content” colonialism has cost us, and all that precious time we could have had to be our authentic selves.

IH: I agree. I think that “the land of lost content” also represents the achievements of people who have been left outside the power relations, always at the bottom, never get noticed, never do get to become the mainstream. We always are left with the big men of big events, while the incredible things that happen on a day to day basis by people who survive atrocities—for me, it seems poetry is always with that. Even Virgil’s Aeneid, as much as it’s a national poem or whatever, it’s a poem of survival where the weak triumph. Not in the big battles and incredible feats and so on. But, what we remember is Anchises the back of his son, that an old man is taken out of a burning city on the back of the young.

The land of lost content is a reference to Housman and this notion of childhood disappearing. In front of our very eyes, it is going. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way—at all.

BLVR: So the alternate aspirational vision for childhood or reality of childhood is what?

IH: Is to stay a child, to remain, not innocent or with some sort of purity, but just the Blakean child really. The child, so much in the romantic tradition, who is the father of the man, who has knowledge that is intuitive and in touch with nature, that is tender even in the face of violences, is very sensitive to others and can make space to accommodate those in need. It’s just natural to a child. And, that child must remain a child in whoever, for whatever reason, needs to grow up.

BLVR: And that alternate reality of childhood is, in fact, the default one, right? And, it’s pushed away, or actively erased by—

IH: Brutally! Dragged out from under her feet like a carpet. Because that’s just the civilizing method. You become a perpetrator of capital. You have to get out there and punch the clock and think of the stars as just things hanging in the sky. The limitation that happened to the imagination is devastating. You can’t make things up anymore. There’s one logic. The thing about an adult is that an adult who has the awareness of the inner-child can, obviously, navigate the world as some sort of a business with CEOs and the whole confetti of uselessness, but then is in tune with—

BLVR: The frivolity of seriousness.

IH: Of course. Think of it: by whatever the age your childhood is over, unless you’re very rich, and you can’t just do. And, being rich doesn’t do squat for the imagination or the real pulse of life. But the moment you’re not talked down to or at as some sort of “responsible person,” then that’s it for communing with things that others just look at as not worth the time.

BLVR: So you mean that we lose a liberty that is not just enshrined in the social contract.

IH: Completely. We’re cut off from it. We then have to go discover it in somebody’s shitty poem.

V. Depth and Height

BLVR: The other thing I was thinking about was whether you were offering yourself as a synecdoche for the collective memory of a fragmented people.

IH: We were saying earlier about the incongruity or impossibility of containing all of the language, the whole spectrum. That’s partly one of the reasons why lyric poetry exists. It is, in essence, a fragmentary way of projecting the whole, to put it really poorly.

BLVR: That’s probably a better way to ask the question: whether it’s possible to be a synecdoche of a fragmentary whole or fragmented collective.

IH: I am hesitating to say yes for myself, but poets I admire and look up to and admire from other parts of the world—

BLVR: Such as?

IH: I wish I could remember his name now. When I was visiting Jaipur—

BLVR: Rabindranath Tagore?

IH: Not Tagore. But, even Tagore—the epical, vast, Indian story that I feel, reading his work, a strong sense of where this is coming from; the collective is very present. But, if it’s Chrisopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet, through his epic lyrics, lyric epics, he gives this dense feeling of what kind of past and present is the Nigerian story. In the Caribbean it could be a Kamau Brathwaite or a Derek Walcott. And if you really go specific about the islands, it could be Martin Carter of Guyana or Lorna Goodison of Jamaica. It’s the old thing that Shelly said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Somewhere Auden must have said, “if poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world, then poets are police.” But, it really is true: poets can go unacknowledged. I think some of my uncles and aunts are the best poets. They have never written a single line down, but they are amazing.

BLVR: Every mother who has ever existed.

IH: Every mother who has ever existed, yes. So, you see, because poetry—there’s an interesting closeness between poetry and cliche.

BLVR: Especially because so much of cliche is derived from poetry. Shakespeare is the best example.

IH: But it does take the genius of a poet to refine a cliche into poetry that will endure—and that’s the genius of Shakespeare and everyone else. It’s also where your aunt will lose in the comparison. She might definitely out-Shakespeare Shakespeare at prose and keeping the story alive and full of momentum. But, where poetry is concerned, it’s not democratic. It’s not finally democratic. It has depth and height simultaneously. If you can’t go deep and high at the same time, you just don’t possess it in that way. It doesn’t mean you can’t go partially one way or the other. But, if you’re not doing it at once—depth and height—then it’s not quite poetry. It can be close, and that’s fine, but what is everlasting is undoubtedly straddling both difficult positions.

VI. An Anarchy of Anachronism

BLVR: Colonialism is of course explicitly a subject of the book, but it also seems as though you want to present a conception of the Caribbean not defined by its history of coloniality. I was curious about the conception of the Caribbean narrative that you were trying to communicate to your reader.

IH: I think what I was really hoping for was to set various experiences in motion. There are a lot of poems that are in voices. And, those different characters are often set in specific time periods between pre-Independent and post-Independent Jamaica, after emancipation and then refracted to the post-Independent era. So there are different kinds of timelines—the timeline actually doesn’t matter because there’s also, and I’m very conscious of it, what’s it called? Blurred timelines. Bring something from that past that doesn’t belong to that moment. I don’t know. I taught a whole course on it.

I find that nothing is anachronistic in a poem—

BLVR: That’s the word! Anachronism.

IH: If you’re dealing with a general context of place, geography. From my standpoint, and since I’m using the lyric form, anachronisms become anarchic. It shows a kind of confidence in making claims. I feel that I am the result of various terrible historical catastrophes. None of the things that came before I became a presence on the world are out of my hands to claim. In fact, they belong to me in such a way that I jealously guard them.

BLVR: The catastrophes you mean?

IH: Or the results of those. If you look at the catastrophe—it’s even too soft a word—of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The language that emerged out of that, to speak of one aspect of it— I want to make sure that I claim that and not be denied taking it and using it in ways that give me new ways of remembering, of making— and I use “remembering” in the sense of “commemoration,” of the poetic act of paying homage to even things I do not know in their fullest conception, but through poetic imagining I feel am there. I strive towards that kind of making and I’m very conscious of it. Because I know it’s a duality of working hard as someone who tries to, as much as possible, inform myself from the historical material, and moving intuitively through that, knowing that a lot of it was written in a way to silence whoever might have come after. Turned out it’s me. Turned out that it’s many other Caribbean poets who now are active and the poets, the generations who were before and so on. It’s the metaphysical prison that we have to constantly throw ourselves against and destroy— in doing so, might destroy ourselves as well. But, it’s not an unworthy thing to be devoted to because, if the condition of life is colonial and there’s no removing that because it’s just the system that every aspect of the civilizing world moves within, then what else could there be that could demand one’s gift and attention and power. It has to be devoted to dismantling this metaphysical, but very physically present colonial world. The little that a poet can do— and it’s aesthetic, it’s within a linguistic polity of, perhaps, hopefully bringing together some words that clarify the obscurity of—

BLVR: Blankness.

IH: Blankness! Yes! That’s perfect: that clarify the obscurity of blankness.

Purchase a copy of the current issue of The Believer here, and subscribe today to receive the next six issues for $48. 

More Reads

Bilingual(-ish) Comics with Kate Gavino

Kate Gavino

Distancing #21: Dear Science

Brian Josephs

Distancing #20: The Infamous

Sam Marks