Ishion Hutchinson on his poetry and the inspiration of Lee 'Scratch' Perry

In Ishion Hutchinson’s breathtaking poetry collection “House of Lords and Commons,” music stirs and rises again and again in a stunning meditation on the landscapes of memory and colonial history, sunlight reflections and the vibrating sounds across the twin experiences of joy and suffering. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Hutchinson currently lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University.

Hutchinson’s many honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets; he is also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry. We spoke on the phone about the poetic resonance of reggae artists, his admiration for the dramatic monologue, the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and the palimpsestic landscape he inhabits between Jamaica and the U.S. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Your playlist for “House of Lords and Commons” was a thrill to have alongside the collection. It contains a good deal of reggae music you love, and you’ve said that “reggae is scotch bonnet to my rundown.” There’s a line from your poem “Sibelius and Marley” where the speaker remarks: “Music dismantles history.” How does music pursue and inform your poems?

I think poets would say if they weren’t writing they would be playing music. And, it goes back to Walter Pater, who said something to the effect that “all art tends toward the condition of music.” I more than half believe in that; it’s the rhythm, the sound, the way a transmission of feeling that is not corroborated by language or words, or isn’t mediated by anything but just by itself, gets through to a reader. That’s music; it’s kind of a pure form. The purity of it, listening to any kind of musical forms from anywhere in the world, we don’t have to necessarily be culturally invested, whether by language or customs, of where it’s from, to be moved fully. The sound alone performs its own form of transformation. When I write, of course, I am using language, so I don’t have the outlet of music itself, but I try to listen to the music, the rhythm, the structure of the syllables, the patterning that’s necessary to make words be ordered toward a kind of verbal map. So, music, when I imagine it — you quoted that line — “music dismantles history,” performs an internal rebellion. It’s the blood pumping inside. It is not conditioned by outside forces. But it has a powerful way of resisting; it’s a form of resistance in and of itself, that is so private. In spite of what’s happening in the world, the music gives you a space to retreat into this intense privacy, which is a form of resistance.

Is that form of resistance a way we engage with pleasure?

Yes, and I would even extend pleasure, and I would intensify pleasure and say joy. I love joy. I love to rejoice in what is, in making the smallest of things important and larger than life. Biting into an apple becomes magnificent: the joy in savoring something just for itself. As a private reader of poems, you surrender to that joy and are surprised by it, you can’t predict where it might take you. There’s always a change that happens to a reader in the reading of a poem. The poem, even if it deals with horrific realities, because of its musical structure, it’s always commemorating whatever its subject matter may be, and it elevates that subject matter, and the sadness finds correspondence with joy.

See Ishion Hutchinson at the Festival of Books Saturday on the noon panel A Thousand Faces: Poetry’s Public and Private Languages and reading at the poetry stage at 2 p.m. »

Your work has examined the way in which the landscape of your native home, Port Antonio, Jamaica, has influenced and formed your sense of self. How has your voluntary exile and the consequent back and forth between the landscapes of the U.S. Northeast and the Caribbean informed your work and the way you inhabit the world?

It’s really fortunate to have that ability to travel back and forth. It’s palimpsestic. You pick up various modalities of sounds just because you’re physically being transported. There’s a certain stillness about memory, and having grown up in this place, I feel like it’s this part of me and I know it by instinct, so it’s very still. Just by going back and forth, it expands my own relationship to the place and makes me aware of the things I couldn’t see or didn’t see because of my proximity. A great deal of poetry deals with the myth of voyage, and the crossing of the sea — a testing of the will. The risk the voyager takes is to discover what’s beyond the geographic location of origin, which ends up being an act of self-discovery. That’s one of the ways I would think about moving back and forth between the States and back home. But this happened long before I had the opportunity to travel, because of reading and the imagination.

Can you tell us about the way in which the women you grew up with, and the stories you overheard helped feed your imagination and sense of storytelling? It reminded of a line in your final poem in the collection, “The Small Dark Interior,” that “instinct is older than the body.” How did these early experiences influence your imaginary experience?

I’m fortunate that literature, for me, is not something that belongs between two pages. It’s living form. Because of spending a lot of time around women as a child, I was privileged to hear stories they told themselves. Lots of times, they weren’t talking to other men, just themselves. I would go and hang out with my male friends and uncles and they had a completely different pitch and different concerns. I loved that, having what can be called these two vicarious insidenesses. I loved having been exposed to that richness of voice, and voicing, and this was very important to me as someone wanting to become a poet.

Perhaps my favorite genre is the dramatic monologue, because you have to be a good listener to write the dramatic monologue, because you are inhabiting the voice of another person. It’s not necessarily a monologue, because you are a silent participant, and you get to try on voices, which means a total shift in identity, and that’s extremely risky. It’s a form that allows you to not be so wedded to one’s own sound and way of being. I teach it a lot; the other day, we did a beautiful poem — “The Love Letters of Helen Pitts Douglass” by Michael Harper. The poem is in the voice of Douglass’ second wife. Harper, a male poet, writes in the voice of a female speaker, and the poem picks up on the historical distance between his time and Douglass’. It’s a painful poem, but it works because it tries to envision or imagine what Douglass’ second wife would have felt during their marriage and the whole business of what happens to his legacy after he dies. It’s a short lyric poem — it doesn’t have that history — but you get the naked natural voice as imagined by Harper, and the power of it is that the emotion is so immediate, that if it were a poem that had to explain or construct the discourse around the politics of the moment, it wouldn’t work with the emotional gravity it succeeds at.

We may turn to certain poems that guide — to put it broadly. But I don’t think we go to poems to be told what to do. I really don’t like dogmatic poems; I go in for a broad range of lyric possibilities. And that’s what the lyric does. It doesn’t come down on a reader to adopt a particular world view, it implodes that expectation. You find yourself a new person after reading it. It’s that whole notion in Rilke — “you must change your life.” I don’t think that’s a command; it might warn, certainly. I’m remembering that Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “all a poet can do today is warn,” under the shadow of war. There’s great truth in that. But that’s not all a poet can do. We look across the spectrum, and there are many poets making things happen in many different ways, and all of it carries its own valid music and says to a reader, “Discover me as you wish, at your own peril.”

You have discovered musicians like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Vaughn “Akae Beka” Benjamin as poets. Can you tell us a bit about what they’ve meant to you?

Oh yeah. I would say, particularly with Lee Scratch,” I’ve always thought of him as a Blakean poet. He contains Blake’s contraries, particularly with the divide of the sound of experience and the sound of innocence. He’s so tuned into the sound waves of Jamaica, reaching back into the history and colonial past — and puts it right up front. He does it by imagining the journey across the Atlantic, he’s doing it sonically: The heavy bass is the deep sound of water. In his wildness, he constructs the form and then destroys it. It’s amazing. He has the rhythm, the bass and the whole sonic building, and then strips away everything, leaving only one or two elements, allowing for just the bare minimum to stand, which gives a lot of space for things to resonate. It does such fascinating service to a singer; a singer has lots of room to improvise lyrics and play with vocal pattern, and it becomes a real collaboration between music and voice. He’s a superb poet.

There is a fusion of the rigid and organic architecture that happens in Vaughn “Akae Beka” Benjamin, the way he makes his voice into an instrument — he is a poet; he has one volume published — it’s a treasure. I have a copy. I met him once some months ago. He is the way he is in his music — he’s intelligent and he doesn’t take anything for granted. He wrestles constantly with how to responsibly engage ethical matters without anger — his intelligence surmounts being emotionally one way or the other. I love this about him. Equal to that is that he seems like someone who spent a lot of time in the library — and was able to absorb many different influences across disciplines. A line that I love goes something like “Watch the titans coming down out of their towers to buy hamburger.” There’s a lot happening in that space that is at once massy and supple. I feel I’ve learned a great deal from him and have always been attracted to that density of thought, without leaving emotion out of it, but careful to combine as Rastas would say: word, sound and power.

Derek Walcott, a writer you’ve greatly admired, recently passed. What have you learned from him?

I see Walcott in the tradition of Lee “Scratch” Perry and “Akae Beka,” that of a native ingenuity. I first think of Walcott in that sense, as being a Caribbean person, coming from that same seed, from a very similar experience, there’s something that translates naturally as if you’re sitting on the beach or a bar, and someone you’re familiar with starts to tell a story and everything falls silent, because the melody of his speech is what you grew up around. Yet it is concentrated and condensed in a way you haven’t heard before. Everything around flashes anew. Which is the genius of Walcott. It takes a certain poet to be so gifted, in order to shape or reshape the different strands of his origins into this singular register and singular poetics. With Walcott, you are inevitably speaking to that singularity — that of which we give the name poet. He is certainly among the few deserving of that title. To be remotely close to that genius, is something very special.

Mirakhor is a writer currently based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paste and African American Review.

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