Recently noted as one of four “significant new books of poetry” by poet Carol Muske-Dukes in her blog at The Huffington Post, Ishion Hutchinson’s FAR DISTRICT received its first review in the Fall 2010 issue of jmww. Reviewer Ashlie Kauffman met with Hutchinson for a two-hour tea in a dusty bookstore cafe in Baltimore and learned much not just about his writing process, intentions, and influences, but about how, through language, one can enter a landscape, escape time, and reinvent.
Ashlie Kauffman: One of the things I noticed when I was reading Far District, that struck me right from the beginning, was that it really drew me in—because of the use of language, the images, the subject matter—really the psychology of it, I felt seemed really deep. I felt like I was very much in my body when I was reading it. I could feel a lot of the experiences and images in my gut, which I don’t think is common. Often when reading poetry, I might have a fine appreciation of something I’m reading, and think specific lines are really beautiful—but as I said, for something to hit me instantaneously not just in my heart, but also in my gut, and sit with me, is very rare. And so reading this several times and getting a sense of it, I was intrigued by what your purpose was when you were sitting down to put together the manuscript, and how you went about that, both in terms of your intention with the book, and how you constructed it. And also, what kind of voice and what kind of meaning did you want to convey with it?
Ishion Hutchinson: The book is really born on the various kinds of memories that are tied to the landscapes that I grew up in. So landscape—you talk about the sort of gut feeling. I wanted it to be very physical—a way that you are finding yourself walking through the various things that I witnessed—the sea, the trees, the cliffs—all of it. All of the physical place. But also there’s a way that the physical place is also the human body. Once you are a part of a landscape, it enters your body and you gain a precision of language that is almost geological. So that was one of the things I was thinking about, or that has always been a part of me, because I am a part of where I am from. The far district for me is not an abstracted territory, not a metaphor, but somewhere close to touch that sometimes, however, I can’t quite reach. When I started to realize an arc, so to speak, of the poems that would make up the collection, I realized early on—because I was writing a long poem which became the title poem “Far District” for quite a while—I realized the shifting angles, the recreating of identity based on actual departures from, say, the soil of one’s childhood. I originally intended for it to be a book-length poem—a book-length poem in terza rima, or in tercets—but the journey sort of got there quicker than I wanted it to, so I started to write other poems around the same feel, the same mental and psychological making of “Far District,” the poem, itself. So it became clear, early on, the journey that I wanted those poems to take. But that constantly changed over the year or two years I spent working on the poems, because my landscape had changed, too. I was away from the spaces that I’m writing about, but away in a sort of psychic matter—so divisions started to enter, and it began to challenge how I imagine home. That’s why in a sense the word “far” became a way of yoking together the idea of distance and the feeling of distance, but something still being inside, within view. So those were some of those things running through my mind as I spread the poems on the floor and looked at how they were satelliting with each other, what was magnetizing them. I didn’t think there was one particular theme as such, or one concept. I was very much interested in the disparity of the whole—the sort of fragmentary existence of the whole, but broken. There’s a whole, there’s a shape that’s there—as the sea has a shape but it’s constantly re-inventing that shape. The horizon line is a steady, fixed mark—but there’s a way in which when you shift your position, you see other things. I had that sense of the poems as I looked at them closer after having gone through suffering the writing process. [Laughter.]
AK: What really interests me in what you just said is the way you spoke of the poem “Far District,” because I had a strong sense when I read it that it was the seminal poem of the collection. I wanted to talk about that in the review, because it does have that sense, but I thought, ‘I’m not sure if that’s true, so I shouldn’t call it that.’
IH: Well, I’m happy you didn’t quite call it that, because a book is about everything in there. I actually realized the danger, or imbalance, of having one poem that is so strikingly different from everything else. It’s on the front page of the book, saying Far District, and you look at the contents and you see that there is something called “Far District,” too. So it’s a way of prodding the reader, in a sense. So I was wary of that. But I wanted the poem “Far District” to stand out on the grounds of the challenge I set myself—that is to maintain the breadth of the long poem, within my chosen form, making that hydraulic run to a finish. But as you have pointed out in your review, there’s no such thing as a finish. I’m interested in what one poet, Paul Valéry, says—a poem is never completed, but abandoned. I don’t think I abandoned the poem “Far District” because I lost stamina, not in content certainly, but there’s a point at which you might overwork a poem, you might take away even the grateful accidents that happen when writing—accidents that brings about tensions and reveal something about the poem—about life—which one was not in search of. There’s no aim for perfection when I write a poem, but a determination to work—to “revolve around my work like a star, without haste and without rest,” as one poet puts it.
AK: And so “Far District,” the poem we’re discussing, maintains that, like you say, for fifteen pages. You mentioned a little bit about the construction of this poem. Another thing that strikes me about that, in relation to what I mentioned in the review of the book, is how it and the book unfold almost how a novel does. You revisit characters, and so it’s not constructed as if all of the things about one topic are in one section and things about a second topic are in another section. It’s not divided so distinctly. There’s a lot that you learn as a reader as you go along. Even in terms of how place is handled in the book, I didn’t realize until much later, upon rereading the poems in the beginning, that some poems may have taken place, in the writing, in New York, and were looking back. “Far District,” though, was the first poem where I realized that this going back was really beautifully done, mostly in the “Prudence” section, which is the second part of the fifth full section [of the poem], where the whore Prudence’s story is given and she’s described, and we find out that she was stabbed. And then in the third section she appears again, and so we’re still learning things about her after she’s left the poem in a certain sense, which was really nice how that went back in time. And then I realized that even from the beginning [of the poem], the character Cre-Cre appeared in the first section, and then also in this really beautiful way in the second section, where we hear his voice, which was really nice. So I wanted to just get a sense of how you were composing the poem, in terms of those things—if that was something that was natural, or did you sit down at one point and start rearranging things in order to create that effect?
IH: I think you’re speaking in a sense to temporality, and movement. Poetry has that really great, terrific way that you can shift back and forth. The example that I was really interested in as I was going into “Far District” was Dante’s example of the journey of the Pilgrim. The Pilgrim goes down in order to get up, and experiences different people and cultures, and people keep returning—so there’s the constant re-occurrence of events. There’s a sort of encyclopedic way that themes are evolving constantly, or revolving. And I think that’s striking—the way we live in our own life of always returning to something, even when that thing is physically gone. Poetry has that power, that capability to make apparent what isn’t. In many of the poems, the speaker takes an observational distance from the people he encounters and the land he inhibits, unlike Dante’s inquisitive persona. This distance transgresses whatever time is fixed as linear and one-dimensional. As the speaker roams the district in what appears to be an alienating fashion, his movements become like the hands on a clock that close together and unite the land and the people. It’s a constant reflection, and going back. One thing recalls another, so poetry is an associative art form—mimetic. Things are always echoing. But you pointed out something interesting—the novel-esque construction of the poem. It’s out of the coming of age narrative that we are familiar with, in many, many books—the young speaker who has an interior space and air provoked by something or things in his world, because there’s such an innocence to his way of looking at his world. But also, that world is being constantly threatened—even the sort of naiveté of the speaker’s real affection, for instance, for Prudence, who ended tragically. But this naiveté enriches what he sees, so this minor, mistreated woman in his mind is a “bronze goddess” possessing the “powdered star of [his] passion.” So there is a lot more of an imaginative correlation happening.
AK: Yet it’s also interesting to me how the speaker does challenge his experiences to a degree. I believe it’s in “Far District,” there’s a line about a preacher whose “clump of teeth shone false.” It’s a really specific way of describing that, that’s giving the speaker’s perception. And the speaker in that section wants to stand up and speak out, and the amazing moment of the lights going on happens. The way you’re talking about this also makes me remember, in terms of you constructing the whole book, how there are really subtle things that link one poem to the next. There are the many themes that are always carrying the narrative through the book, but there are also the little images. I think in the beginning of the book there are two poems about the mother, and the “slit eyes” at the end of one is also used toward the beginning of another. So as you were saying, when you sat down and spread all of the poems out to put this together, were those things you were looking for predominantly?
IH: Yes, I saw them. I noticed—and was surprised—because in the heady moment of writing, I’m not aware, or consciously aware, of what’s going on in an earlier poem, as opposed to the poem I am now writing. All the energies are there in the poem now being written. But when I started to take notice, and I felt very lucky that that happened—I was very happy that it happened, actually—that the poems were speaking to each other beyond even my making.
AK: That reminds me—I feel like I read this recently but have heard it several times before—about how humans just always look for connections among things. But it is, of course, speaking to your poems that the connections are there—and perhaps that’s because, like you were saying, the thing that’s far away is always still in our mind, in our body, and we’re revisiting over and over—so those images come up. It is definitely fascinating to me how that happens in the book. Actually, could you talk a little about the place? I’ve never been to Jamaica, so reading, I didn’t know certain things, like where St. Thomas is, or Portland, or what “Far District” means. To me it does carry the metaphor of being far, physically, both from the speaker’s current place, and also far in mind. But when I looked at the map, I was surprised to see that it was also the southern-and eastern-most farthest point.
IH: The place where I grew up had two kinds of landscapes, very beautiful in their own way—St. Thomas being the most rural of all the places. Jamaica is divided into 14 parishes—as you have states here, we have parishes—and St. Thomas is the most rural of all of them. Then there’s Portland, where the speaker eventually in “Far District” ends up. Portland is the parish of beaches. It’s the parish of the beautiful Blue Mountains—so quite a different landscape from St. Thomas, which still has lots of sugar cane fields. So there’s a stronger sense of the sort of remnants of colonialism in St. Thomas—a place that seems to have not shifted very much from what a plantation society would have looked like in the 18th century. And Portland—specifically the principal town of Portland, Port Antonio—is very different. Tourism began in Port Antonio. It was a place that has long had visitors of different kinds. Pirates—it started with pirates—to Errol Flynn, who owned an island there, or an isle, called Navy Island. So what happens is, in many of the poems, St. Thomas is represented as sort of benign, what we’d call a bush town. Nothing is there—absolute, this green darkness—and Portland being flooded with light, something that is desired more for relief. So those are the two landscapes being contended with, but then once the poems begin to move to landscapes outside of Jamaica—other places and climates—and this happens not only through the physical flight to other places, but through reading books, looking at art from different places— the dreamscape opens up again. So now there’s a real deepening of the variation of what was originally thought to be home—or how one is to think of home. You have to now re-imagine home from the standpoint of other places.
AK: That’s interesting. It reminds me of one place where you have the speaker reading the George Trakl book and there are the poppies from it that are mentioned, and it does really nicely filter into the landscape of the poem. There’s not a clear boundary between what’s the landscape and what’s the imaginative landscape—which was really nice.
IH: I think Shelley [Percy Bysshe Shelley] was speaking of poetry as imaginative—poetry is built on imagination. And certainly there has to be great imagining going on, and lots of the things [in the book] are imagined.
AK: A lot of what you’ve said is reminding me of different things in the poems that really jumped out at me—of some of the lines. There’s one image where the speaker is in New York and lifts a finger to signal the waitress, and it says, “a finger of memory/lifts to the waitress and to forecast/the rain back home” [from “Autobiography of Snow”]. So there is that constant yoking of the present and the past—a lot of what you were talking about with how images, or people, characters—when you were discussing Dante—that things are always circling back and around. There was an image in one of the poems—I can’t remember which one exactly, but it’s about the parents, the dance when they meet—and there was a really nice construction—I can actually just find it—where the image moves from the father to the mother to the speaker all at once. [Flipping through Far District.] Here, it’s “Bryan’s Bay Revisited,” and it’s imagining a dance between the father and the mother the first time they meet, and it reads, “It is an empty arena today, the fugitive sun/ramboes across the sky, and in the near horizon/my father is falling into its arc, a buoy bobbing/like a woman forgotten on the dance floor,/sand on her heels, music slapping the leaves/of her hair, and as the breeze combs through mine,/I take off in one brisk gallop into the sea’s mouth,/sucking salt of all I know of the sea.” And then it comes back again to the parents. But I thought that was really just beautiful, because it’s very explicit how it moves from the father to then the mother in “a woman forgotten on the dance floor, sand on her heels.” And then, the breeze in her hair—”the music slapping the leaves of her hair,” actually—and then, “as the breeze comes through mine.” The transition between those things was so fluid, and really nice. That also reminds me of how in your writing there were a lot of passages in which I was just taken into the poem—farther into the poem than I thought I could be taken. Partially it was how you were breaking the lines. It was also that I felt like I was being pushed farther into something, past where I thought I was going to be taken. I had an expectation of how far an image could go, or how far a metaphor could go, and you kept taking it farther than that. And I wondered in terms of your writing influences—because it’s a definite distinct technique—where that kind of draw to something that goes deeper and deeper comes from.
IH: I didn’t grow up with literature. I didn’t grow up in a house of books. But under the small table in our living room—I must point out that I grew up with women, mostly— there was quite an absence of a male figure—but in any case, sometimes as much as five women at once, who loved each other and hated each other equally [laughter], who would protect each other and betray each other in the same vein [laughter], and I was very quiet, so I noticed that. And I was also drawn into being a hater or a lover at any one point, and had to share my life between these female figures, in a sense. So under the living room table, there were four books. In no particular order, there was the phone book, the massive phone book that keeps changing each year; there was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; and there was the Bible—the big King James Bible, a dark colored one; and there was John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. So this was all the literature, or books I should say, that I knew growing up, and even though I didn’t read them initially, I would just sit looking at them, in one sense, looking at the physical—how they’re packed, the sizes—was what I was playing with in my head all the time, looking down. Once I started to open them up, opening up the phone book and seeing all those names—names, names, names—and once I got to the Bible, seeing all those names, too, the way that genealogy is built, how a story is told, a narrative, those names being recalled in the Book of Genesis—and he begotted, begotted, begotted, right? In that sense the phone book had that same quality to me; I didn’t make a big distinction. So that was I think my earliest reading, and it stayed within me—that way of reading and wanting to, in a sense, imitate that feel of how you carry on a genealogical reference, how you write about something, how you go to the very edge of it, or the very end, without ever quite finishing. The phone book keeps turning up. There are a few names added. The story of the Bible, the biblical stories that really impressed me were the ones that tell about, for instance, the story of Jacob and his family and how to keep track of everyone. Those things become imbedded in how I want to make my own narrative.
AK: I’m wondering does that play in, then, with what you’re talking about in terms of influences?
IH: So we’re talking about influences, so once I started to read more seriously, I was hungry for literature. I read anything and everything that came across me. The British curriculum that I entered into once I started University was really impressive to me. I was fascinated with all those canonical writers, and then later on was turned on to various kinds of American writers—Hemingway, Faulkner—and those guys did generational writing, too. As far as poetry, there’s a company of writers that I admire very much and always go back to their work. That company’s very big, and some of the usual suspects are there. But other lesser known writers like George Barker, a Canadian poet, I’m very interested in.
AK: And how did you become familiar with his work?
IH: I became familiar with his work at University, in Jamaica. A professor of mine went to Oxford, and he had all these old paperback Penguin anthologies, and he gave me a whole bag—loads and loads of cheap paperbacks—and they’re all British poets. George Barker was in one of these anthologies. His poems are just very striking, very moving, and once again there is a great attention to landscape.
AK: In terms of when you first started writing poetry, who were some of the writers then?
IH: When I first started I didn’t know any poets, so to speak. Literature was not present. When I went to my second high school, which is called Titchfield High School, in Portland, I was already in my late teenage years, and I joined the library—the public library in Port Antonio. I was a big reader of fiction—still am. And one evening I found accidentally a collection of Derek Walcott’s poems—a St. Lucian writer. It was a selected poems, by Penguin, too. What interested me was the cover itself. It was a very battered, tattery copy. The cover image is of a sea with the sun going down and a set of hills in the distance. And I thought it was very serene, very welcoming—was the thing I witnessed every day living in Portland—that kind of sunset, the quality of the light. I just opened it, randomly, to a poem called “Landfall, Grenada.” I was completely transformed, standing there, five minutes to closing, and felt grounded in a way I’ve never felt before, as if I had opened in a sense the book of my life, reading, “Where you are rigidly anchored, / the groundswell of blue foothills, the blown canes.” I couldn’t put it down, even though there was this sort of rush. The librarians were calling me to leave, because the checkout was already closed, and I was torn—I didn’t know how to leave the book. [Laughter.] And so eventually I put it down. Usually I would go to the library two times a week, Wednesday and Friday, and that was a Wednesday, so Thursday morning, the following day, I woke, and went to the library for that collection. So it started with that discovery.
AK: I think that collection, the cover, has white at the top and a little pink, or maybe some blue? I used to have it. I was wondering whether or not Derek Walcott was an influence, but because I don’t know where my copy is, I couldn’t go to it to really look. But I felt in a way that what I remembered of his work didn’t seem as strongly connected to your work as much as what your work reminded me of other things. I noted in the review, how not the poem “Far District,” but it was “New World Frescoes” that really reminded me of Hart Crane [The Bridge]. Crane’s work was something that I read ten years ago and so I’m not as familiar with it in my memory, but it was something about the rhyme scheme, and also that it seemed to have so much…not just purpose, or admiration…but intention. The goal was so lofty in that poem. It wanted to be so big, in a way. But it interests me, hearing about how your literary background started with certain things, how a biblical influence comes into your work, and then other things, like British classics. You’re definitely using those things a lot in your work, but also myth is really prevalent, too. Where did that interest come from? Was it when you were still in Jamaica, or did that come later?
IH: I think it started early; there were lots of local myths, especially in St. Thomas, having to do with the African pantheon of Gods, and what you hear about Obeah tales.
AK: And Obeah is a kind of magic?
IH: Yes, it is. There are places within St. Thomas that have that certain aura, that people go to in order to access a certain magic, or figures who perform this magic—they’re called Obeah priestesses. I felt a lot of fear and fascination toward them. I was interested in why people wanted to go. There is what they call Kumina as well. Kumina is this ritual when someone passes away—the people gather with drumming and singing for nine nights, and sometimes you witness a complete transformation of people—an altered state, a sort of atavism where the dead takes over the body of the living and speaks through that person. And those things I would always stand aside looking at and trying to imagine what the experience is about, what it feels like to be possessed. So those forms of early local mythologies were always present to me—witnessed by me—long before reading classic Western mythology, or Eastern forms. And as mentioned, Walcott was one of the first poets that I learned from, or noticed in his work his use of mythology, myths. Mythology really is about sustenance—continuing a narrative of somewhere we can no longer return, or perhaps have never been, but the myth-making becomes essential, profoundly true. The traditions of how the sun came to man, or those stories, have come down to us in literature, and I think in different ways the poet, the writer, is continuing that tradition, as if the poet also is a keeper of those things.
AK: So when you’re discussing this, it’s interesting how you mention Kumina and also Obeah. When I was reading the book, of course, I had no idea what they were, and so I looked them up. That’s one thing that I really liked about this collection a lot—and it’s something I learned from professors in college, and from the poetry that I read in college—the sense of the writer assuming a certain interest, and intelligence, and also commitment on the reader’s part to experience the world of the poem. And so that in many cases requires me looking things up when I don’t know what they are. One of the things I found extremely interesting when I finally looked it up was “rolling calves.” [Laughter.] I just had that image in my head of calves rolling in the meadow. But then to look it up and realize it actually refers to a spirit from the spirit world, and the calves go around with chains around their necks. The one line you had, which was, “[o]n my last night, the rolling calves…bellowing my name until morning” [from “Some Negatives”], created this very surreal effect in the poem. But it seems that all of these things, and particularly the rituals or the mythologies—the African pantheon—do create this really rich, surreal sense—but that’s also very contrasted with the other influences and presences in the book.
IH: Because I think the mythologies communicate across lines, in the Greek names for gods versus the Latin names for gods—they contain the same powers. And if you look at the African mythologies, there’s a different name for the god of thunder in Zulu and Akan, for instance. But the story, the essence of the story, is there, is the same, in whatever culture—language—you’re reading the mythology from. I love how the spirit world has this unique correspondence and we’re just translating it as poets, and in accordance to our own landscape, to our own present time.
AK: I did notice how it seemed like when you were talking about Greek or Roman mythology, it was predominantly Greek, though there were one or two instances of Roman gods or stories that were mentioned, and so it seemed like you have a really nice command of pulling in whatever it is that works when you need it. It’s not specifically about biblical references or Greek myth references—you pulled from all different things. The one poem where I was actually surprised by the references in it was the “Undergod” poem, with the subway, because that was where it was most clear to me that the pulling in of a distinctly African experience happened. It kind of rounded out a lot of the other references. I looked up all of those [African] names in the poem, trying to figure out what the connections were. In terms of that, the titles of a lot of your poems I found really added a lot to them—”Undergod,” for one, and others I want to mention: “Terminus,” and also “Pantheon”—speaking of pantheons. Reading these, when you first look at the poem and you see the title, you might not pay attention to it and kind of just gloss over it, but with these there was an extra layer of meaning. So I was wondering about your process of looking for a title—are you looking for it to convey something in addition to what the poem conveys?
IH: I think because the title is the head of the poem, is the first thing you see, you want to be very careful of what goes there. And sometimes the title comes before the poem is finished. Sometimes the title is implying what ways the poet wants you to read the poem, but I try to be as simple as possible, to have a clear ‘head,’ something hard yet flexible—so I guess my process of titling is to really have the simplest thing as a clear connection within the poem itself. Titling at first wasn’t important to me. I always found it very difficult when I was first writing, and I would have titles that made no sense. [Laughter.] So it took a lot of searching to get better, and I hope I’m getting better at titling poems.
AK: You mention the word “searching.” How about looking for a publisher? Did you assemble the manuscript and then start looking? Did you know you wanted to send to Peepal Tree Press?
IH: I was contacted by the editor at Peepal Tree Press, who was interested in putting out books by upcoming Caribbean poets for the spring publication, so I was one of the persons approached. The editor, Kwame Dawes, actually had been a reader of my poems for a very long time and read before a manuscript I had written called Revenge Mule, and liked it and wanted to use that manuscript. But by then, that was some years before, and I really had moved away from that manuscript and knew I was working on something else. So I told him that, and asked if he would consider this new manuscript I was finishing—which he did, and then it was accepted. I am learning more and more the rigorous and often daunting procedure of finding a press that really gives you respect and will even in the first place consider your work. So I felt very lucky to have someone, or this group of people, who gave good attention to the book, who were very patient and very insightful once it was finished, and very helpful getting it to where it is now.
AK: I was struck, after I finished reading the book, and reread the blurb on the back describing the book itself, how accurate it was. I didn’t know whether you had written that or if someone at the press had?
IH: I had to contribute to writing it, and then I think it was changed. I got some help. I had to give a pitch, so the people there, they then rounded it off. It’s very difficult to write or even speak about your own work—you’re always wishing that it would speak for itself. [Laughter.] You would want to invite people to read the poems, rather than have you being invited to talk about them, you know? But it’s also very lovely to sit down and have a discussion about poetry, particularly your own poems. There are a lot of things that I can’t necessarily speak about that’s going on in the poems, because I only had the chance of one opportunity of letting the poems find a life. It’s very, very difficult to even look back at a poem and try to recall how you made that poem. What kind of state were you in when it happened. There’s a way that poems do arrive and you are caught into that world of the poem and everything else is closed off and you live with it for however long it wants, however long you can sustain. But then there’s always that time of letting go, when the real world suddenly rushes back.
AK: So what is your writing and revision process? It does seem from what you’re saying that the writing process is a bit of a channeling, of letting the poem arrive. I’m thinking of the poem—and I know it’s difficult to think about how the poem actually happened—but “Requiem for Aunt May,” which is a two-part poem, with the descriptions of Aunt May as a baker in the house, leaning into the oven while her children grow “wings”—just her always being connected to baking and to the oven seems to be a strong impression of her. And then the second part, which is the father arriving, and the speaker being…I think it said, “I [stood]/at the labyrinth of father and son”—you can tell I’ve read this book a lot because I remember these lines [laughter]—the speaker thinking, or not really knowing how to converse, or engage in that moment, turns then to silence. And the way silence is described using the image of the oven: heat going out of an oven, when heat finally escapes an oven, was so perfect in how the poem just comes back around to itself—which is what your manuscript did in a way. I mentioned in the review, I was so surprised there was the sibyl at the end of the manuscript just bringing it back to the sibyl at the beginning, circling a little bit. It seemed to me, wow, that is so careful, when the oven came back in, but also so natural, in a way.
IH: Thank you. That poem is really an elegy for my grandmother, who was called Aunt May, who died. She was a baker. So the poem is repeating facts, repeating things, but not just describing them, because it is an homage. The language has to find a way to celebrate or evoke this figure, because now there’s an association being made with the grandmother, who the speaker, myself, has a deep connection with. What rounds it off is because now there’s the question of where is the father, the son of Aunt May, in the equation, because mourning someone’s death is very painful, and can be very lonely when it’s being done by just one person. But the invitation of the father is in a sense to help with that mourning process.
AK: So your process—I started asking about that but then started talking about something else [laughter]. I started asking about your process of writing as something that seems like channeling, and then revising, and whether or not the way the poems are culminating for you is more natural. The reason I brought this poem up is because it seems so natural, because it’s the world of the poem that completes the poem. I do want to ask you about the writing and revising, more specifically, in terms of your choices of adjectives and things. It seems so natural because it’s so ingrained, but yet it’s also very careful, because it’s done so well. So when you were just discussing the poem, I wondered if where you were going when you were talking about the deep connection is that maybe it’s just very natural that the poem brings up an image in relation to the speaker that is an image in relation to the grandmother, to Aunt May.
IH: I think so. There’s so much layering that happens—the poem is moving with an instant. Once you recall an image, that image starts to echo another memory or another image, so things begin to fuse and move farther away from where you started, and might end up being something completely different.
AK: In connection to that, I just mentioned that one thing that I really liked about your work is the way that your choice of adjectives, your choice of images, seem very ingrained to the world that is going on here, so there aren’t foreign comparisons that are brought in—there aren’t things that seem out of place. Everything seems very much in place. So much so that in “Far District,” the title poem, I noticed how with one of the men in the section, “Tribune of Old Men at the Cool Spot Tree“—I love this image of the bar called “The Cool Spot,” by the way.
IH: Thank you [laughter].
AK: It had a nice kind of humorousness to me. But of the one man, it says, “His face grew a creased and distant and red/clay,” with a dash, and then this description: “lethargic as the donkey passing,/amnesiac grass bundled on its back.” And so not only do you have this rich description, but to even go further in describing it, you’re pulling in something else from the scene so that it’s not just describing the man further, it’s describing the scene further. And that was a place where to me it seemed that the layers really come out. But there’s so much more layering because it seems so attuned to the place and the landscape, like you were saying.
IH: Yes, and adjectives are the most fertile way of achieving this marriage. And you are right about the unity of place and person, which is natural. Some of these men that I’m referring to are people who are farmers. They are people who have lived there a long time, descendents of that genealogy again, so they’re really the continuation of both the land and the people who have been on the land—so I am talking about history. But when I read Shakespeare’s tragedies, for example, when King Lear’s madness is at its wildest and most destructive, there was that storm, right? The storm is an attribute—the adjective—of Lear’s troubled mind. So in the sense of how where you are becomes who you are, that’s part of one of the interests I have with the landscapes of different places, and how people behave in these landscapes. When you go to St. Thomas, which is where I already said there are lots of cane fields, it’s locked into a very provincial, late-century plantation lifestyle, as opposed to Port Antonio, Portland, with just a few miles separating them, where people live a different kind of life because of the landscape. They go to the beach daily. There’s something very different about the mannerisms of people, and I think it’s really based on their surroundings. So I’m aware of that, and I want to understand, or—the poem isn’t an attempt to understand it, but to go further into what’s already there.
AK: It’s great to have a conversation where what you’re saying makes me want to ask you so many questions. One of the reasons I was really excited to read and write a review of your book is because you’re in Baltimore now. So I’m interested, because you’re talking about landscape and how it influences people, about the kinds of things you observed with that in New York and now in Baltimore, and also how the places have influenced your writing. And also because it seems to me, as a writer in Baltimore, that the writing scene is not necessarily connected. There are a lot of smaller writing scenes, similar to in New York, but the art and music scenes in Baltimore seem a lot more connected to me than the writing scene. For instance, I never have any idea what’s going on at the colleges in terms of readings. I don’t usually notice them advertised in the City Paper. You might need to be on an email list in order to know about them, or you might need to be affiliated with the particular school. So I do want to hear some of your take on being a writer now in Baltimore, and how maybe this landscape influences your work. And also how you feel about this in terms of New York, too.
IH: One of the most striking things that happened once I left Jamaica for New York was of course the climate. It was Fall—Autumn—when I got here, to New York first. And the air was utterly brisk, very much brisker than home. I noticed it. I noticed the trees, the change in light, all of the differences. But once it turned to winter, that was completely new. I’ve never seen snow before, and so of course I got more excited than the average person who is used to this miracle each year, so I was drawn to that. But I never really felt a need to write about it until very later on when the experience…I must say I did write initially about the climate—witnessing this falling of snow—but it didn’t stand to me as any good poetry, it felt weak. But later on—quite some time—it was almost two years or three years after first coming to New York, I mentioned New York in a poem. And I think that’s what generally happens with how I write about where I may be currently.
References do get inside of poems, but they’re not as explicit, because I am still writing about home, still writing about a place that is there is no literature on, no literature about the harbor in Port Antonio, or the swamp in St Thomas. There have been very fantastic Jamaican writers—Caribbean writers—who have paved the way in a sense through creating a body of literature that myself could find some sort of inspiration from, but there’s still so much work to be done, and I think that’s one of my major engagements—that is why I try to be bold about saying the names of places—even direct references to a street, a bar, a nondescript rum shop, we call them, in rural St. Thomas—where even in Kingston nobody knows what that bar would be. But that’s something I feel poetry has the capacity to provide for us—naming things—the role of the poet as one who names, which really means one who recalls.
AK: Something similar occurred to me, that I wanted to ask—in “Far District,” I wrote in the margin, “what are your thoughts about documenting history and experience?” I wrote that right next to the part at the swamp with the boater, with the reference to Navy Island. It’s such a unique and specific experience, and made me wonder what are your thoughts about documenting experience, in terms of the role of a writer?
IH: I think there’s a way that we can contribute, in continuing the things we heard, because of course it’s an oral society. Many things have been said, and there’s not the privilege of books and literature. It’s not available unless you belong to the city, Kingston, or live in a more elite part of the island. But I think stories are everywhere and poems are everywhere, and one wants to write the poems that will show in a very meaningful way the society one is from—but always be aware that the poem is being written not to represent a community, not to be so gratuitous as to say I am telling the story for a people, that kind of business. And it’s very difficult to fine-tune your art so to be inclusive and open and be revealing things, but while keeping a sort of personal credibility, which is the witnessing of one person. But one person belongs to a society, a generation, a landscape.
AK: Is that what the critique is in the second poem, “Anthropology”?
IH: Yes—though it would be a mistake to call it a critique, since I am not a critic, but the poem is rooted in the question of literary and scientific misrepresentation. The first writings about the Caribbean were written from the outsider’s point of view—the anthropological gaze—which can be very dangerous, because you’re then represented by someone who is not you, does not know you. And I think lots of writing that has been coming out of the Caribbean is to recover or to even reinstate the viewpoint, for lack of a better term, of those who were originally subjected to the gaze. The first writings are from the outside, the European and that kind of stuff, and now there’s a sort of active push to write one’s own story from an even more honest, more direct place, that the outsider could never have had any access to.
AK: It’s interesting because it’s almost like that’s something that all writers, in a sense, or anyone, tries—to convey their viewpoint. There is that sense of ‘experience is only personal.’ Even though we have skills of empathy and imagination and things that let us know, in certain ways, or try to come close to knowing other people. I did get a really strong sense here that even though the book reads like a history, in a certain sense—a memory—it’s very much personal myth and history, which was nice. It contains both of those things. It contains the personal history and the history.
IH: Yes, I think so. At least I try…I try to write what I experience, but I write a lot of the things that I imagine, as we were talking about earlier, about imagination, and I’m not necessarily unveiling any truths, you know. They’re not, so people might rightfully challenge a lot of things said there, but it doesn’t matter—because it’s grounded in a definite space. And sometimes poetry flat out lies about details, right? [Laughter.] It’s art, it’s artificial, but it’s in pursuit of beauty. I think there’s something one gets to know, something…I don’t know, I hate to use the word, but something even ontological, where one could not have known that.
AK: The spirit of the poem.
AK: The opening poem we haven’t talked about yet, and it’s extremely strong, and I think it’s a great poem to start on. And it really establishes a lot about landscape. It doesn’t directly deal with myth, but the sibyl coming into it, and the bush’s lore—the idea of the person being torn. That was one of the first poems where I also—where it wasn’t quite clear what happened. You [the speaker] turned back. It wasn’t quite clear what the result was. In a way I think it’s nice how that connects with what you were talking about with the honest and direct place—not having a definitive thing that’s stated, or a definitive viewpoint. One of the other poems that I really liked a lot that had that same sense was the poem “Walking With Atlas.” In a way it’s what you were talking about with beauty—the pursuit of beauty—that poem I thought seemed like such a beautiful meditation. It had this meditative celebration-of-life kind of quality. It says, “[t]he world didn’t/totter; the sea stayed in balance”—just this description of calmness, basically, which was nice, and really in terms of this book it seemed like there was so much just observation, which really stood out to me. So I was wondering also, do you have an intent with that— observation? When you were talking about documenting an experience, it seems like almost because there is this richness of observation, it’s also naturally set up, [that] when your language is direct, it’s really forceful. In the “House on the Hill,” there’s the line: “Somewhere is/such a kingdom.” It’s reflecting on an observation but it’s also a direct statement that comes across really beautifully. Or “[m]orning surrounds/my grandmother’s hill.” It’s describing, but it’s a more vague description, so it’s more direct in how it’s stated. I was wondering what you think in terms of that—do you have a preference for voice?
IH: I think I move through different voices, depending on the poem that I am working on. My interest is very much, though, in the meditative voice. It’s the voice that is going to dwell on something, meet an image or the like, and stay with it. The meditative voice has always attracted me, because I think it also grows out of, on one hand, the things, the art, that I’m interested in—the poetry. And you had mentioned earlier Hart Crane and his meditation on the Brooklyn Bridge, how that grows and expands into not just the physicality of the Brooklyn Bridge, but giving a spiritual vision to it as a structure, set in time. How does he even remove time from it? And that sort of stuff I am interested in, and I think the voice—I’ve struggled to find a voice that speaks beyond description, beyond just saying one thing—because that voice must then explore what’s the meaning of its observation, of highlighting one thing over another. And so I think that the way that I’ve been doing it is to create a sort of…for instance, in the poem you mention, “Walking With Atlas,” I had to find a way to make the poem a journey between two people who are witnessing or observing different imagery. But the real pressure, the true essence of the poem, is really that move between the two, how they are walking, which then again is that mentioned earlier—Dante’s putting together of the Pilgrim and the Poet, so both of them are in search. Poetry is a searching, right? But a pilgrim is someone who is definitely in search and has definite goal intention. There’s a point to which that person has to reach and does. The poet doesn’t necessarily know—it’s far more mysterious and enigmatic.
AK: This is making me wonder a couple of things. You tied that in nicely with the meditation and the meditative voice and the two people walking, and then how that comes back to Dante and the Pilgrim being in search. And also the idea of the poem being the movement and not the mysterious things—I think that connects really nicely with what we were talking about with how the book is laid out, in the circling, the Dante-esque thing going on. And so I’m curious how writing in form versus free verse is for you?
IH: When I started my serious reading of poetry, it was mostly poems in form, so my interest started a very long time ago in form, particularly. I think I have a stronger affiliation with form because I feel it’s the easiest way to give a poem a shape, and a sort of symmetry. There’s so much happening within language that one needs to find a way to contain and shorten the effect of language. Choosing one sort of meter over the other is one way of doing that. I have a big love affair with the iambic pentameter. And I feel that in terms of lots of these poems being about landscape and even the sort of processional feel that you get with lots of people walking—lots of movement—the iambic pentameter really lends itself to presenting that march. With free verse I get a lot more playful, obviously, but all the time there’s a kind of shape, a pattern that I’m insisting on, so it’s never completely free. And I gain my affiliation with the poets that I admire most—they tend to write in forms—and there’s a kind of attraction to it that I have, too—and want to learn how to use form freer. So the choice, for instance, to write in tercets, and having occasional rhymes, was one way that I could carry on that narrative of the long poem, “Far District.”
AK: And that poem doesn’t have a distinct rhyme scheme, it’s just the tercets. I didn’t think it was in iambic pentameter, but maybe it is mostly?
IH: I keep a ghost of the iambic line, so there’s always the shade of the five beats running through there.
AK: I like how you were just talking about giving a sense of movement, so a sense of place, also—even within just the structure of the line. You also have some really nice lines—just the integrity-of-the-line thing—how they read. I definitely really felt like this was a type of book, and I mentioned in the review, that I could imagine reading in a class, but also just for the richness of the different things it pulls in. Not just in terms of studying what the book is thematically, but also, the socioeconomic ideas that are brought up in it, with the sugar estate factory, and just all these other issues that lend themselves to discussion, which is nice. I think maybe the other question that I wanted to ask—maybe there are two other things. I’m interested in how teaching is influencing your work now. Were you teaching before being at UB?
IH: I was a student. I was doing a PhD. I am still finishing up, actually. I like teaching a lot, and as a teacher you’re a learner, because you constantly have to revisit basic things that you left a very long time ago, which really sharpens my mind. The other thing is, as a teacher, you have to keep a current eye on things being produced, which I was not very much open to—new works. I didn’t know what was going on in a lot of the contemporary scene. For instance, students would come to me and say ‘do you know such-and-such’ and I would have no idea, and then I would try to know. As far as influencing the writing, sometimes it impedes rather than influences. It doesn’t influence it at all, actually. [Laughter.] Thankfully I have structured a writing discipline. I go to write whenever that time is there, and so teaching does not necessarily prevent that.
AK: That’s good. [Laughter]. The other thing I was curious about is the notes section for the book. They weren’t overly prodigious. There were lots of other things in the book that I thought could have had notes, too, so I was curious how you went about collecting or deciding on which notes were more crucial for a reader’s understanding.
IH: The few notes that I chose to put were where I felt things were a lot more obscure or it would be a lot more helpful for those things to be pointed out. It was hard, because there were many things that I felt could use some notes, but then afterwards, I want the reading to be pure for the poetry, for the reader to experience and live with the poems.
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Very inspiring. I am very excited and want to read this new publication. From the interview, the collection seems to be imbued with, what I can only describe as, an admirable literary musculature developed in a rich cultural environment.
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GREAT INTERVIEW! I’m looking forward to meeting Ishion and reading his book. He’ll be my guest on Oct. 9th before he reads and presents his book at the Living Writer’s Series at SDSU on Oct. 10. Safe travels, Ishion! See you soon! Seretta Martin email@example.com
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