Interviewed by Leanne Hayes for ARC magazine, Jamaican-born Ishion Hutchinson talks about childhood, poetry, and his new collection of verse, Far District (2010), which was published by Peepal Tree Press in the UK. Hutchinson holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Utah; his work has been featured in journals including Callaloo and the Caribbean Review of Books. Here are excerpts of the interview with a link to the full article below:
Leanne Haynes: You have said before that you did not grow up surrounded by literature. Can you expand on your upbringing and your affinity for poetry now?
Ishion Hutchinson: My upbringing was simple and typical of any child from rural Jamaica in the late 1980s, and I suspect things are not greatly different, in that I didn’t grow up with the experience of serious reading, where it was a natural part of the day to pause with a book. When I say literature, important as they were, I am not talking about those primary school textbooks someone would now and again brandish on the playfield; I wasn’t trading Grimm or The Little Prince with my friends. This means ultimately I grew up in a philistine condition; it was impossible to have recognised the worlds literature offered, and it took sometime, not until sixth form, to formidably cross literature’s threshold. On the other hand though, it means I was fully invested in the presence of the land and the language I was surrounded by, and I was mystified as a child by both. When I started to read books (beginning with fiction) I naturally grafted the presence of my life’s surrounding to the pages.
I wouldn’t say I had or have an affinity for poetry—it confounded me, plagued me, yet I felt enlarged by it, for it widened the presence of all I knew and didn’t. It was love, simply, love that you have to approach the same way Faulkner said you have to approach Joyce’s Ulysses like the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith. Why poetry can never be answered sensibly, not when every time a poet finishes a poem (or to use Valery’s term: “a poem is never finished, just abandoned”) he cannot be sure there will be another, yet he continues to stake his life on the line. I read as much drama and fiction as poetry—and I think good drama and fiction tend towards poetry—it is in reading poetry I find a total desire to speak aloud, to anyone or anything, to make one lasting coeval bond. I desire the same thing when I write a poem, not only to experience the poetic state but, to return to Valery again, “create it in others.”
LH: The speaker in ‘Far District’ – the collection’s namesake – offers powerful statements of worthlessness. For example, ‘my beginning was not the sea/ my departure not the horizon; / I am nothing, I am dirt, where no light/ can reach.’ The poet-persona seems stuck – a sense of angst?
IH: When you look at the sea, even at its calmest, it is never quite still; you cannot put a marker one place and return to see it in the same spot. In this way, the sea is tabula rasa, always starting over. Landscape is an altogether different experience; one can claim one’s own plot; there is grounding—terra firma—to somewhere that is not moving relentlessly. In Walcott’s great poem “The Sea is History,” the speaker calls the sea “that grey vault,” which makes me think of a mausoleum no one lives in and nothing grows, just a psychological warehouse of memento mori. The speaker in my poem is very aware of where he is from; he is located physically—it is a question of how to unite with his landscape the way a child unites with a parent, that is the hard part, for like Gwendolyn Brooks says in one poem, “nothing never taught us to be islands.” [. . .]
LH: Home is where the heart is – Jamaica?
IH: Yes, Jamaica is home. The poet Ilya Kaminsky is fond of saying the poet’s home is childhood; well mine has a name: Jamaica.
Photo: Ishion Hutchinson by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
For full interview and photo, see http://arcthemagazine.com/arc/2012/03/inner-pulse-to-page-a-conversation-with-ishion-hutchinson/