Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He attended the University of the West Indies, Mona, New York University, and received his PhD from the University of Utah. Peepal Tree Press (UK) published his first book, Far District, spring 2010. Recipient of the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry, he is a Pirogue Fellow and currently teaches at the University of Baltimore. He recently edited the Caribbean Poetry feature in Issue #17 of Poetry International.
1. Can you comment on the significance of the title, “Far District?”
The title is really literal. It is trying to call to mind the idea of a territory, situated in time and space, away from the metropolis. A place outside of the centre, but not lacking its own centres. The word “district” is always a rural location for the Jamaican, and can carry pejorative overtones, so a far district is even deeper in the country, deeper away from the polis where thoughts are shaped and officiated. The logic there is of the land, what can be ruled and cultivated, and what cannot, but is endured. In the country, the real deep country, a man says “I will build here,” and he makes something sufficient for himself. This is not as utopian as it may appear; the natural elements are there to contend with, from clearing the land, to greater unpredictable issues like bad weather. There are unnatural elements to worry about too, namely, another man. I don’t think one can build without a permit even in a minor city. In a way, to add to the image of far, true solitude can only be found in the country, the district in the distance, and solitude is one of the main positions of the voice in the title poem itself. The solitude isn’t romantic, though, 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.
2. Can you speak a little about the spiritual and religious images used in many of your poems?
It is challenging to talk about the spiritual and religious images concisely, because their sources are wide and varied. All the major religions are in the Caribbean, but protestant Christianity is most dominant. The African retentions, via slavery, and Indian retentions, via indentureship, are widespread. Naturally, a syncretistic society, but not one that is uniformed, is the result. Some poems respond to this flux, which really is characterized by lost, meaning the original and tribal anchors of the religions found in Jamaica aren’t easily traceable, and when they are traceable, there are great gaps between the Jamaican performance of them and how they are outside. As such we have a society that is inventing itself out of the fissures of things that have survived the worse of human tragedy. Those fissures interest me and are exhilarating to meditate on. A lot of the spiritual and religious images in some poems are also drawn from various world mythologies; Akan and Akkadian show up, but mostly out of Greek and Latin literatures. What interest me in those are not the pantheon of gods, but the moments when a hero descends into the underworld and returns. We know already the Sybil of Cumae’s warning to Aeneas, that the way down to Avernus is easy, it is the way back into the upper air which is hard. If we consider Avernus to be the self, or even the society, we know this is the spiritual condition of every human being—that we must suffer in order to be redeemed. I have tried to look honestly at the mythical in the local, the ways in which the environment I grew up in deal with life. True, I see myself as a communicator in this regard, but I do not simulate real lives, or the true beliefs people have in their religious or spiritual faiths. I do not hold up mirrors.
3. You mention the reggae artist, Peter Tosh, in your poem, “The Enigma of Return.” Has reggae music had any influence on your poetry?
Yes, love the Mystic Man. Reggae is scotch bonnet to my rundown. That will require some googling.
4. Many of the poems you chose for Poetry International’s Caribbean feature, and some of your own poems, explore issues of race, gender, violence, oppression and other human experiences that are highly politicized. How can a poet successfully navigate highly politicized topics?
A way to start, I think, is to stop segregating those experiences from the human experience. We call those topics “politicized” and subject them to special classification as if they fall out the sky whenever they are brought up. A poem is bad not because of its content but because of its language, and language itself is an experience in which the subject will have to modify to its demands. Truth is, poets write badly about those issues as much as they write badly about love. Is love a politicized topic? External issues might provide the occasion for a poem, as they often do, but poetry arrives through an inner necessity, and alters nothing in the political status quo. Change of that kind calls for action: “a tiger does not proclaim his tigeritude, it pounces,” Wole Soyinka says. And that is part of the danger in approaching these issues as politicized, that the poets get too proclamatory and evangelical, sounding as if they are “reminding themselves of what they know already, rather than recreating,” to take a phrase from Larkin. When this happens, it is no longer poetry; the poet forgets that a poem is to enchant, not to instruct. This is not to say you wouldn’t find instructions in fabulous poetry—one full of instructions that springs to mind that I love is “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed. Nor am I denying the vitality found in poems that are political (as opposed to politicized)—some I am thinking of now are Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy,” the more indirect with the most direct of titles, “Politics” by Yeats, the “Spain in our Heart” section of Neruda’s Residence on Earth, and Martin Carter’s “This is the dark time, my love.” But again, it is the language of those poems, the intensity of the personal, that make them great art.
To end, the point is, the poet in a mode of professing inadvertently insults the intelligence and sensibility of his audience, whoever they maybe. If these topics, thus politicized, become the poet’s template or singular mode of expression, there is something rabid and insular about that. The creator of his poem, Montale finally reminds us, is the one who works his poem like an object, instinctively accumulating meanings and metaphorical meanings, reconciling the irreconcilable within the poem so as to make it the strongest, surest unrepeatable correlative of his own internal experience.
5. In your introduction to Caribbean Poetry feature, you explore the idea of “hybridity” as it relates to the identity of Caribbean poets. How has the notion of a hybrid identity influenced your work and/or your life as a writer?
The idea of hybridity is the idea of the metaphor, of condensation, which was what I was saying is one of the tensions in Caribbean poets who are writing away from their island of childhood. I cannot speak for their identity—that is private; it was a simple geographical observation I was making. I don’t really know what a hybrid identity is beyond a theory of culture. I am inclined to believe something Glissant says in Poetics of Relation: “We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry out for poetry.” I take that great yearning for poetry to be the yearning for the self that is not part of the crowd. Poetry, therefore, illuminates and makes man know is inviolable private self in the world. I live as a poet, that is, in memory and imagination. But the field is much wider to exploit, which is why I distrust any notion or concept that puts boulders in front of the poet’s eyes rather than windows.
6. Speaking again to the Caribbean Poetry feature, you selected Edward Baugh’s “A Nineteenth-Century Portrait,” which explores the dynamics of color, power and privilege in nineteenth century Jamaica. Does (or should) poetry play a role in re-contextualizing history?
Baugh’s poem is there because it is beautifully written. I agree those dynamisms are present in the poem, but I don’t think the poet says, Now I will re-contextualize history. Why? It would have no useful purpose, for it will not renovate but perpetuate a fantasy. That is what I think Baugh is mocking at the end of the poem; sort of saying the future of history is fiction. The quarrel between history and fiction is old and on going. Yet still Baugh has altered nothing in his depiction of the master and the slave-boy. He does not re-imagine their identity and role—they are just, of course, imagined. If any re-contextualizing happens it is at the level of composition you will find it. The technical aspects of writing found in a poem “reconstruct”—to use a phrase by Joseph Brodsky— time. That is the greatest thing a poet can possibly do in a poem, reconstruct time, with his meter, his line breaks, with his white spaces. Naturally, history, which is only one of the folds of time, becomes current, contemporary. We can note a terrific example of this in Baugh’s line break:
… History has left
Not only the present continuous tense that makes the action appears unfinished, but the break yields a temporary phrase, an uncomfortable resting spot, “History has left,” that we must hurry to complete. (For some reason when I read afterword I hear afterworld). The matter of re-contextualizing anything is pure exegesis. Did Virgil re-contextualize Homer in The Aeneid, or Dante Homer and Virgil in The Divine Comedy, or Walcott Homer and Dante in Omereos? In this chain of writers, of different culture, time and language, what is pervasive is not any “change” anyone has made on the other, but what is transferred and sustained. Not even translation re-contextualize; it goes back to the old thing Donne said in one of his meditations, that “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” Donne’s better language is divinity, but for us still on earth, that better language is literature. How is it possible that through all of the many historical upheavals we can draw a crooked line from Homer to Walcott? Because great literature affirms mankind was here, is here, and will be here still.
7. There seems to be a very distinctive Caribbean voice to the syntax and rhythm of your language. Is that something you consciously strive for or is just simply like talking?
Let me first say, in this case, the voice is distinctively Jamaican, there is no one Caribbean accent. Well, it comes of out talking, firstly, and that voice is inevitable. The voice of course evolves from the season of the place, the weather. I spent most of my life near the sea: calm some days, hectic others. Same with my grandmother, whom I lived with when poetry took me over: she was calm some days, a damn storm others. I loved the way her registers would shift, and on her hectic days, which were really few because she was a Christian woman, she invented blasphemy without cursing. Most of my uncles are born comedians and liars and I am always in awe of their improvisations of the same story whenever they spoke. They speak with their whole body, which, as a boy, I imitated. Where I lived was also studded with churches, and Sundays I would sit on the veranda and listen to the competition of sermons and singing. Those voices carried strongly through concrete and wood, most times without microphone, astonished me. It was not religious astonishment, though that happened more than once, but the quality of the sound itself has something of the gigantic loftiness Johnson says you find in Milton’s poetry. My two best friends of childhood, brothers, were both preachers in the Adventist church. I used to be their secular half, practicing sermons Friday evenings after school. Also, my mother and father were Rastas, and I grew up around that language—which is quite different from Jamaican patois—it has the feeling of something old rather than new. The frame there is psalmic and thunderous, but can be very tender.
The syntax in its appearance on the page grows out of the literature I read and study. You lock yourself away and read a line of poetry and hear the poet speaking directly to you. What you hear is the syntax of immorality, what you hear is an invitation to live longer. When I write a line down I am trying hard for it to commemorate two instances, one of the vernacular I was born with and was surrounded by—that is the mortal, tribal voice— and the other, forever trying to “eternize” like what Edmund Spenser said in his famous Amoretti 75, preserved by literature.
8. You selected Kwame Dawes, the programming Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival (Jamaica), for the Caribbean Poetry feature. Can you describe the literary communities in the Caribbean, talk a little about their importance, and discuss any influence they had on you as a young writer?
Good that you should mention Kwame Dawes and Calabash. Dawes is one of the great forces at work in Caribbean poetry, not just in is his own magnificent literary range, but his kindness to young writers is something of legend. I call him Father Dawes. But your mention of Calabash makes me recall something Derek Walcott said at its 2008 staging—in conversation with Dawes, in fact. Something to the effect that Caribbean literature is only now beginning. What remarkable humility and what great encouragement to young writers from one of the pioneers of Caribbean literature! There is no literary doffing of hat from Walcott, though. His most recent collection, White Egrets, a late-life gift, shows the lion in the prime of his power. But to take up his comment about beginning, it is very accurate, as recent poets and prose writers from various islands have made very strong debuts. One young poet from Trinidad and Tobago not in the feature, for instance, is Vahni Capildeo. Her collection Undraining Sea is a feast. One hopes that soon there will be what Pound has called a “convenient anthology” that collects the span of new poets, those with and without books.
As for influence, I read Caribbean fiction before Caribbean poetry: Wilson Harris, Roger Mais, CLR James, Jean Rhys, Sam Selvon, Erna Brodber, Edgar Mittelholzer, George Lamming, VS Naipaul, and Earl Lovelace. Their narratives left indelible marks; I lived in those narratives. In poetry, Walcott is the chief corner stone, but others like Kamau Braithwaite, Lorna Goodison, Anthony McNeil, Edward Baugh, and Martin Carter are among the Caribbean poets I love and respect. The non-English speaking Caribbean writers came later, giants like Glissant, Fanon, Roumain, Zobel, Cesaire, Chamoiseau, Conde, Carpentier, Infante. Let me also include Marquez who insists he knows the Caribbean island by island. It is impossible—and would be pointless—to disentangle their influences. Influence, itself, is the wrong word. All I know is that they have written books I consider holy and keep next to other books I consider holy, and I don’t deny a filial affection to their work. Their importance is incalculable; so is my debt to their gifts.
Thank you Ishion!
Interview conducted by Amanda Fuller and Masashi Musha