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An Interview with Ishion Hutchinson [by Aspen Matis]

Ishion Hutchinson is the author of two poetry collections: Far District and House of Lords and Commons. A contributing editor to the literary journals The Common and Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, he now directs the graduate writing program at Cornell University.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Mr. Hutchinson via email about how great poems, by their nature,console us while they alsom hudge us severelyt. We also discussed the relationship between poetry and melody, the intersection of sound and meaning, and the necessity of becoming a “kindler” ― a fierce agitator against injustice, burning like kindle, always firmly fixed in the altruistic spirit of the root word kind.


Ishion Hutchinson Neil Watson

What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems?

Well, things like “greatest” or “role” I don’t necessarily associate with poetry or my inner life, for that matter. I don’t because poetry and my inner life refuse to be “understood” through the statistical lens of the ego. I inhabit poetry much as it inhabits me, is the best I can say. And this co-inhabitation (not always mutual) happens not only through the experience of reading and memorizing poems or teaching them, but is present also in my dreaming moments.

I write poems because it is my calling.

What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course? 

In all those cases you’ve named, it’s the work of language to assert justice which is most pressing. Poetry is certainly central to that assertion, but whether in a gubernatorial way, to use a clumsy phrase, is at best questionable. What isn’t questionable is that the best poems give us consolation while, at the same time, they judge us severely. The way poems judge us is to demand that our capacity to imagine, which is to say our conscience, be more alive to the world and to never settle on a single view of it.

Still, I don't believe poetry tells “our present society” how to enact the things you’ve outlined.

What is the most radical thing a poet can do in his or her work?

If a poem is happening, then it is its own most radical thing, whether that poem might be the beautiful indignation of Robert Hayden’s miniature epic “The Middle Passage,” or the seemingly chase lyric of Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Dress” (you can imagine the poetic inventiveness that goes into just the word “liquefaction” to capture the movement of silk!). It takes courage to do such making.

But I believe it takes an even greater courage to come to such making. Consider, for instance, that right now in Belarus and Myanmar poets are being killed and jailed for doing their work, poets who might be just writing about the movement of silk or bearing witness to governmental tyranny: in both cases, they continue to find the courage to write poems of integrity. Poets the world over, in less extreme circumstances, struggle to do their work with as much integrity. Sometimes they fail. And yet they find the courage to write poems. So every resonate poem is a radical thing, and an act of courage. 

Your work is often praised for its musicality, intensity, and nerve. Of your collection House of Lords and Commons, literary critic John Freeman writes, “What nerve and music his poems possess, how beautifully they chart the poet’s search.” In The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes that “[Hutchinson’s] sound effects are exquisite: the clusters of consonants… and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax, the brilliant coupling of unlike words.” Similarly, poet and critic Ilya Kaminsky writes that “Hutchinson comes to us from the country called music, he stuns the reader with the sheer symphony of his sentences.” He goes on to remark on the “choral presence” of multiple tonalities within your poems. Poet Henri Cole writes that your “hammered language has a jazzy, classical, rough, painterly beauty.” It seems no reviewer can speak of your poetry without invoking music. What, in your opinion, is the relationship between poetry and melody? And what exists at the intersection of sound and meaning? Of language and art?

I’m grateful for the attentive and kind reading by these writers I admire. I think they’re pointing out, via music, something like the human condition put under a particular duress. The relationship is too complex and ever-changing to answer briefly. Plus, words like music or the human condition or poetry can appear to be an abstract idealism, that’s why the first thing to be said is that the relationship cannot be generalized, and that it varies from poem to poem (in this case, I prefer to speak of the “poem” rather than poetry”).

Nevertheless, since you identified melody, I’m always seeking in the melody of my poem what Pound calls melopoeia: which he defines, rather obliquely, as when “the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning.” That the words are charged is what gives a poem its essential tension, and that charge is a definite resistance of the typical “sweet music” sense of melody which might not bear into account the fraught, ethical nature of words. I say “definite” then because the poem is a conscious act of interweaving unheard melodies embedded in words, so a hearer might hear what is not there in “their plain meaning.”

Actually, what’s not there but heard in those words are, I think, the “intersections” you referred to. In fact, these overlapping intersections make every poem an occasion of meaning. It’s in these intersections the reader of goodwill will find meaning on multiple registers. She will find herself there, too, magnified at a slightly elevated pitch. 

In a lecture at the Newcastle Poetry Festival 2019, you explored Frederick Douglass’s legacy, and what the idea of legacy means, through a close reading of poems by W.E.B. Dubois and Robert Hayden—and ultimately, you invited us all to become “kindlers.” What does it mean to be a kindler, and why is such an endeavor meaningful and important? 

The kindler idea I draw from a magnificent long poem by Frederick Douglass called, “The Tyrants’ Jubilee!,” from the line, “the fire thus kindled, may be kindled again” which became the title of my lecture. To be a kindler is to be someone involved deeply in the unfinished business of emancipation, to be the fierce-minded liberty lover Douglass was, to agitate in our moment against injustice, however construed. The agitation must be fierce, burning like kindle, but it must be fixed in the altruistic spirit of the root word kind.

Your most recent book of poems, House of Lords and Commons, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was named one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2016 and selected among the Library Journal 5 Best Poetry books of 2016. Poet and literary critic Susan Stewart describes the collection as “the pure line of poetry, shaped by [Hutchinson’s] sun-lit vision and music,” adding that, “House of Lords and Commons has been wrested from suffering and cruelty, irony and violence. And, in the end, it is an act of forgiveness.” What would you like to share about the origins, creation process, and ambitions of this newest collection? 

The collection was published five years ago, so it’s no longer so new. I like that you asked about ambitions, and what I recall, to give a very drastic summary, is my attempt to explore the different breaches of the relationship between civil polity and poetry. What that crack-up sounds like? As I was doing most of the listening from this country, many of the poems became about arranging the psychic pressures between home and abroad.

What 17th and 18th century poets do you read? And what has their work awakened in you?

Really too many to name. The anthologies of those centuries, and not only in English, are my favorite to read. I return a lot to this stunning compilation of work from the pamphlet wars of the 17th—a favorite is Elizabeth Cellier’s Malice Defeated, a title I wish to steal one day. Milton is a constant, of course, especially his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica. But of late I’ve been reading a lot of Milton’s younger contemporary, Lucy Hutchinson.

No way, again, a stable and short answer can be given to the question of what their work has awakened in me. I feel the raw alchemy of the intelligence and imagination of their fractious time working on my mind in the very syntax of their writing. Something gets transmuted, and usually whatever that it is, it has strong “relevance” to our contemporary moment. You need only to read, for instance, the first sentence of Milton’s Areopagitica to see what I mean.   

What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you, today?

I’m working on a collection of essays, due out next year. My Douglass lecture will be included, so I’m excited about that, the chance to get it right or as close to right as possible.

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