Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Matthew L. Thompson, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ishion Hutchinson about his book House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Poetry for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Matthew L. Thompson: Poetry is big on tradition. What poetic tradition(s) do you see your work being in conversation with and [which] do you see yourself writing into?
Ishion Hutchinson: When you read a lot you start to create your own tradition. You start to be jealous and in love with different literary types. As an English student in Jamaica, coming from a colonial background, the British canon, as such, was a big part of my education, which at times felt like a sort of imposition. It wasn’t so much a burden, though, because of the teachers themselves. They were trying to put us in context with this great English canon and making us realize we have to figure out ourselves in relation to it. So the tradition also involves my upbringing. I was raised in a household of women who talked and who had stories, who were silent and had these fantastic ways to implore me to work. I operate in the traditions where language excites my mind in ways that are unexpected, and it comes as much from reading novels and plays and poems in English or translated into English as much as from just listening to people around.
MLT: When I was reading House of Lords and Commons, some of the themes I read were geography, memory, desire, death, politics, home and family. Would you say your upbringing influenced your interest in digging into those themes more?
IH: Oh, absolutely. I think, in a way, we all have this lost eden in us. We had those years of innocence as a child and as we grow further away from it we are circling back in our memories, trying to recreate or recapture that lost eden. You hear that condition expressed in Houseman’s phrase, “That is the land of lost content.” By eden I do not mean anything Edenic, but whatever sense of grace that the child has lost. This sense of the world not being as terrifying as it really is. I find that I had that kind of a childhood, despite the poverty and the things that made life difficult. They were not so much so a burden to me as a child. I find that, in a way, a lot of my writing wants to, in part, commemorate and celebrate those magical years.
MLT: A lot of times, when poets of color are talking about colonialism, slavery, and/or race, the underpinning themes get lost [by the reader]. Then it becomes just a poem about race. Can you talk a bit about that relationship between death and desire in [House of Lords and Commons]?
IH: [October’s Levant], specifically, it is an elegy, or becomes an elegy toward the end, dealing with a friend who was killed. I remember a poet I admire once making a joke that there is really only one theme in poetry and that is death, and it is as if we turn toward poems to shield ourselves from death. But while we’re here we have to learn what [death] is. We face it in life. It is something that I have not consciously thought of but I feel as a reader it is something I pay close attention to in certain poems. This poem is moving from the child who has a poor start, who is coming from nothing, and has to evolve through that scarcity into someone who inevitably is caught up in the ills of the society. Who is a prisoner, a prisoner from birth. So it travels that thin line between the excitement and exaltation of life, of being born and the joy of having life, but the precarious position of that life is at any moment it can be violently taken away.
MLT: You mentioned joy and I wanted to stay away from this but it is a thing. Under this current presidential-era, where do you see the place of joy in your work?
IH: When I say joy, I am speaking of a certain passion that cannot be quelled. [Joy] so powerful it can overwhelm you into this exuberance, for the sheer reason of breathing. Given all the historical systemic designs that are against certain people, we can’t be complacent, and we have to remember that others did not have the opportunity to recognize or realize the joy in life because they were deliberately prevented from doing so. Therefore, it is a supreme political act to create joy. Joy as a form of rebellion, as a form of retaliation, is as important as retaliation that is more pointedly political. Joy of the spirit is vital because that is where language is quickened into the deepest actualization and that is where the poet wants to reach. This actualization, I’d say, is to give to a reader the inner-strength to go joyfully out into the frontlines.
MLT: When Jamaal May came to The New School [for a reading] he was quoting another poet and he said, “A poet should always be in trouble.” In what ways do you always stay in trouble?
IH: It’s in the different poems. I write a poem then destroy it. After every draft, you get more into the hot mess of oh what have I done. As soon as you start the poem, you are in trouble. Trouble is a word I love. In the context of Jamaica there are many expressions that use the word trouble. One expression goes: “when trouble come pickney shut fit you,” which is when you’re in trouble a child’s shirt fits you, so it speaks of a kind of desperation. I don’t think, as Jamaicans, we are desperate people. I think what we have is ingenuity. If I am going to wear a child’s shirt it is going to be fly, it’s going to look good. That’s the kind of trouble I feel is necessary. Perhaps what the metaphor extends to is troubling the conscience of whoever might read [my work]. Once people get too settled they get complacent and things like what is happening now, happen. So it is almost the poet's task, if not responsibility, to trouble the conscience of his neighbor.
Ishion Hutchinson is the author of two poetry collections, House of Lords and Commons and Far District. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, he moved to the U.S. in 2006 for graduate studies. He's the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a Lannan Writing Residency, and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Ilya Kaminsky describes him as "without a doubt one of the most gifted poets of my generation." He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University.
Matthew L. Thompson is a poet from Cleveland, Ohio, and a MFA candidate in Poetry at The New School. You can find his work in Public Pool, Juked Poetry, James Franco Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and is getting his life. Join him on his blog Unlearning Monday and Twitter + Instagram @mlew_33.