The PEN Ten with Ishion Hutchinson
In this week’s PEN Ten interview, guest editor and programs director at Cave Canem Foundation Nicole Sealey speaks to poet Ishion Hutchinson, a Meringoff Sesquicentennial Fellow Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and a contributing editor to the literary journals, The Common and Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art. His poetry collection, Far District: Poems (2010), won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. Other honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner Journal, and the Academy of American Poets’ Larry Levis Prize. His works have appeared in several anthologies
and journals and has also been translated into German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish.
Ishion Hutchinson writes with a gravitas rare for a poet writing today.
A few years ago, while traveling through the United Kingdom, I had the great pleasure to hear Hutchinson read from his debut collection, Far District. Following the reading, Ishion, myself, and others went to dinner. At dinner we talked about the poets who we couldn’t live without, quoted lines, and debated craft. Not once talking about the business of poetry—who was awarded what prize, who was selected for what job. It was refreshing.
I remember Ishion, in particular, talking about poetry as if it were a woman from whom one learns and for whom one labors. That evening I learned many things. One of which is that Ishion Hutchinson is a serious student of poetry and, therefore, a serious practitioner.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
In my first year as a sixth former at Titchfield High School, something happened that strengthened in me a sense of vocation. I had written a term paper on As You Like It. My teacher thought it was a long, unwieldy blank verse poem, a problem to be worked out of my system if I were to have any good grades in his seminar. He spent the next couple of years giving me writing assignments on the side. I wrote poems which he then read and talked kindly about with me most evenings after school. I was supposed to be punished. Instead, I was given generous care to conjure and think what I could become.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
There is no “without attribution” with poetry. You are naturally paying tribute to the dead and the living, because a poem is the vehicle of reciprocal tension between what came before and what is present, not as perfect synthesis but from, and towards, memory. The same goes for consequences. There is always an inner turbulence in trying to make strong work, a disturbance that may even be necessary in the creative act, which the work alone can, and you never know, potentially redeem.
I love and go back a lot to the sensuous quality of Milton’s music. I love the velocity of his verbal flight, the shambling width and colors folding out into infinity, all of which is there in the scale of the Caribbean. If I could forge a fraction of that into my own language, it would be like entering a challenge of restless peace.
One prose writer would be the phenomenal Marlene van Niekerk. She writes radiant sentences at the mind’s rhythm, burnished and cresting with every stroke. What excites me and I wish to assimilate is the reflective intelligence contained in them. Agaat is a magnificent novel.
Where is your favorite place to write?
On a flat rock at the side of my grandmother’s house, overlooking the bay and the twin peninsulas of Port Antonio. But that has to do with the known world, the physical memory of where I was born. My writing place is wherever I happen to be. Favorite time to write, however, is more pertinent to me, and that is in the morning. Mornings are for withdrawing into a medieval nimbus of words.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Tone, specifically pitch, the weight and measure a sound makes or does not make when paired with another. Literature, immortal speech, the fertile colloquial soil out of which grows the extraordinary human drama we hear as we read.
But most obsessively, recently, it has been versions of the Iliad and the literature and art around it. We are in an intensely iliadic moment. We have been for years. Yet the wars around the world are diffused to monotone or noise over the airwaves. Urgency is lost, of mind, of spirit; of action and atrocity flows on predictably like a river. Reading the epic is for me a way to hear—“Homer makes us Hearers,” Pope famously said—again with rapt attention what is not new but must be heard with the force and freshness of compassion you find in Homer.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
My As You Like It essay should count, right? But daring would be too convenient, as it neither helped my rude boy image at Titchfield or turned me into a scholar, so I don’t think so and therefore I don’t know.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To make imaginary puissance.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
The public intellectual is very current in America. You could probably even say it is popular. Certainly the field is less rarefied and more varied than in the very recent past, which is exciting given the climate of troubles we are living through, so these necessary voices, in different forms, are broadening the conversations and the quarrels that need to happen in this country and the world at large. What is also happening rapidly as a result, is a closing of the gap between the intellectual and the public; with increased communication there is an atmosphere of outspokenness against what Sebald named a conspiracy of silence that was prevalent in German society and literature after World War II.
That said, writing for a poet moves in a private sphere – Yeats’s self-quarrel – and is a case of semantic possibility and challenge rather than purpose. It is a struggle against incoherence, against the lowest denominator of sentimentality, the attempt to hold language with the dignity I admire in great poetry. And it is done alone.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Since I mentioned the Iliad, I would send Christopher Logue’s distillation of it, War Music, plus Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, though it seems unconscionable to send a tyrant a book, as these are books I would gladly give to a friend as well: this semester, in fact, I’m teaching Logue.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
In the former you have what amounts to the fallen innocence of a gaze, that however harsh, is always delicate, secular eden. The latter is pure evil, the servile state.
Poets Ishion Hutchinson, Derrick Lynn Austin and Colleen J. McElroy will read from their recent collections at The New School’s Theresa Lang Community and Student Center on October 11, 2016 at 6:30pm. Visit Cave Canem’s calendar here.
Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from CantoMundo, Cave Canem and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation.