“I am lucky to be a poet, to be someone who selfishly gathers the voices around him and plays with ways of registering those voices.”
Jaipur: Born and bred in Port Antonio, Jamaica, poet Ishion Hutchinson moved to the US for his graduate studies. He is the author of two poetry collections, House of Lords and Commons and Far District, and teaches in the graduate writing programme at Cornell University. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a Lannan Writing Residency and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets. In India to attend to the Jaipur Literary Festival, he spoke to The Wire about being a Jamaican poet, the processes of writing and teaching, and more.
You grew up in Jamaica but moved to the US after college to do an MFA and a PhD, and you’ve been there ever since. For you, what’s the balance between where you are from and where you are now?
Perhaps you are asking if I feel uprooted. I try not to make too much of my move to the US. It was a physical move and it wasn’t forced. It was in search of better opportunities that weren’t available where I was. There is an emotional gravity about it of course – you miss where you’re from. But there are people who live in actual exile. For me, the borders are fluid. It makes returning quite easy. I go home as often as twice or thrice a year.
Do you sometimes have the sense of speaking for Caribbean or Jamaican people?
I don’t see myself as a spokesperson. I am lucky to be a poet, to be someone who selfishly gathers the voices around him and plays with ways of registering those voices. To speak for someone is to think that they don’t have a voice. But there is a delight in speaking to people. And once you enter into speech, a distance, small or large, happens. A poet thrives off that kind of strangeness. Poetry makes you see or hear differently, as if for the first time. It results in questions, in wonderment. So, even when I use a ‘local’ reference, I hope that what I inspire in the reader is allowing her to see that reference in a new light, I hope that I have done some justice in making that image fresh.
How exactly do you ‘gather’ voices and what does this gathering do?
You have to know when the crop is ready, when it is the right time to pick, how to store and so on. I find that part of my practice is to celebrate the resistance and beauty and terror of people. Not only as manifest in the landscape of socio-political realities but in the fragmentary, emotional struggles that people who have been historically oppressed still go through. So, poems offer consolation – consolation that hopefully isn’t facile. Poetry is not a solution, it doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s dynamic. What you want is to not live with the illusion that things will work themselves out by chanting this poem, but to know that somehow by chanting this poem you reinforce the spirit to face the challenges of day-to-day life. As a reader, I return to certain poems and keep them close to me because they provide ways to deal with difficult circumstances.
Which are some of those poems?
There are quite a few – some of Milton’s political sonnets, or what people refer to as ‘political sonnets’. Our current situation globally calls for what someone once called Dryden’s language – a ‘massive, truculent English’, an English that is like armour, syntax so dense that you clothe yourself in it and go with a kind of force into the world. Those sonnets provide a way to face up to the global meltdown.
So what is it that poets should do or can hope to do in troubled times?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I dislike didacticism. Oftentimes poets feel they have to bring their politics into the forefront of their work. When aesthetics takes second place language can fall flat. The forces around us close in and say be loud, be disruptive. But in fact we have to depend on subtlety and on not giving up on the sublime, not shortchanging the pleasure and delight that words arranged in a certain way produce. You can’t ever let that become a secondary part of the making process.
How do you bring all of this into your teaching of poetry to undergraduates at Cornell?
I often alter the official titling of my creative writing courses to ‘creative reading’, because we become better writers by becoming better readers. I work hard to introduce students to diverse reading materials and make them become more alert in their reading of texts, so their own worlds become bigger. When a student discovers something completely new and her language wants to respond to that and becomes fresh, that’s always a fascinating thing to witness.
The world is broader than America. My American students have to know that. The American tradition is a young tradition when you put it in context of other traditions. It’s always beneficial to go as far back as you can and to bring things forward. I think any poet who wishes to be good knows that and tries to make herself more curious and constantly challenge what is available. So, I’m serious about making sure that is an important part of my teaching practice.
What do you look for when you go home?
I go home for me. It’s home, you know – it’s back into the fold, into your instinct and intuition, when you don’t second-guess or question, where you just are, where you feel fluid. Just to listen to people is a great comfort. Small things, the way the sun feels different in Jamaica from how it feels even in summertime anywhere in the US, that quality of light, the colours and their particular vibrancy. You feel yourself spreading and opening to receive the renewal they offer.
What has the reception to your work in Jamaica been like?
I don’t know! The people I know are extremely supportive and glad to know of what I’ve done. Something I’m interested in seeing develop in the Caribbean is critical assessment of Caribbean writers, so one could have some sense of the way one’s work is being received. But even though I’m curious and grateful for acknowledgment, my concern is always with the next poem, figuring out how to get one word to reverberate next to the other.
You once referred to ‘what makes the Caribbean the Caribbean’. But the Caribbean islands are quite disparate in terms of politics, history, culture. So what exactly do you mean by that phrase and what does it mean to you to be called a ‘Caribbean poet’?
I am grateful for that classification, actually. There are two distinctions for a poet, good or bad. But it would be extremely naïve to say those are the only ways to look at a poet, when the world is so complex. Given the violent complexity of the Caribbean, given the struggles and horrible legacy, it would be something of a betrayal to not accept and appreciate that label ‘Caribbean poet’. So, it’s a great privilege to bear that. I travelled late in life. Every inch of me is as Jamaican as it gets. And it gets more particular than that because I’m not from Kingston, I’m from Port Antonio, where you find a different way of being Jamaican than somewhere else on the island. It’s a fortunate, privileged position to belong to a world that, though going through a traumatic upheaval, has given me a sense of imagination I don’t believe I could have gotten anywhere else.
The Caribbean is a made-up world. It’s the tragedy of the Americas that we live on the land of which the true owners aren’t even there. Where I live in Ithaca, many Native American tribes lived in vast numbers and are no longer present. But their presence is not completely gone. You look at a grove of trees and think, maybe that was important to the people who were here before, but now it’s just a place where a dog pees or someone walks or lovers meet. It’s a very strange thing.