For poet Ishion Hutchinson, English, his home country of Jamaica holds contradictions—much like a poem can.
“There’s so much in Jamaica that’s alive with the deep history of the colonial violence of slavery, but that’s alongside a landscape that is perhaps famous for its remarkable beauty,” he explains. “There can seem to be a kind of innocence in that beauty, but that innocence is contradicted by the history.”
A poem can hold all of these ways of feeling and looking. Hutchinson continues, “It tests its strength by holding the teeming waters of the past and present, all of the turbulent forces that come upon a person. And it must be built in a way that can resist the forces that are beaten against it. A poem has to be as strongly built as a house, one ‘more numerous of windows,’ like Emily Dickinson says.”
In two collections of poems, Far District (Peepal Tree Press, 2010) and House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Hutchinson has built poems that hold these explorations of his home’s landscape and history and his place in it. “The more I reflect on having this kind of background, the more I realize there’s so much of it outside my grasp,” Hutchinson says. “There’s so much more I can’t wait to put down.”
Space to Dream
Hutchinson grew up in a house without books that overlooked the sea. “There was a vista overlooking the surface of the water, and that lent itself to moments of great quietness. As a child, I would wonder and imagine what that stillness and quietness were holding,” Hutchinson says. “I think the mind and imagination try to fill out what this empty space seems to project. So you become a kind of dreamer. And I was given space to dream.”
This stillness had a profound effect on Hutchinson’s sensibility—but so did the sounds and people of Port Antonio, the coastal town where he grew up. “The market in my hometown, for instance, it’s like being lost in this bubble of music coming from everywhere. It radiates with life,” he says. “I was in a community of people who mostly didn’t read, but whose intelligence and gift of phrasing and language were so memorable that, even as a young boy, I would want to copy it and add dramatic effect.”
Hutchinson’s urgency in honoring and probing his home has increased over time, as he has seen how representations of it are largely absent from the English literary canon. “I do feel that it deserves, my specific origins, a passage in the literature of our times,” he says.
“As a reader, I place myself somewhere in the middle of things, knowing that so much that’s been written over centuries is from a certain, often colonialist, point of view,” Hutchinson continues. “But it’s quite a benefit to stand in the middle of this turbulent flow of words and the wranglings of long dead but still present minds. I also have the benefit of people who have written from other positions and those who are closer to my experience, who have given a character and strength of voice to speak—not against or in a polemical way—but wanting to add to the texture and layer of what already exists.”
Sorting out the Violence of the Past in a Space of Beauty
Throughout his childhood, Hutchinson remained relatively unaware of Jamaica’s violent colonial history. From the 1600s until emancipation in 1838, the country’s labor force consisted of a large population of West African slaves, who did the grueling work of harvesting sugarcane. Frequent slave revolts and slave owners’ fear of insurrection made it a brutal place. One of the challenges Hutchinson has faced is reconciling this violence with his experience.
“It [a poem] must be built in a way that can resist the forces that are beaten against it.”
“In Jamaica, we don’t have ruins,” Hutchinson says. “The beauty of the natural landscape has overtaken manmade foundations. You may look at a particular part of the landscape and not see that it used to be a slave plantation. So understanding the past becomes a mental process of looking deeper.”
Then there is the challenge of expressing the violence, of representing it in poetry. “Violence expressed too easily can be crude. It can become simply political statements,” Hutchinson says.
How does a poet write about violence? What is the relationship between beauty in art and violence in art? Hutchinson says we may need to expand our default definitions of beauty.
“Beauty can be such a rigorous, twisted thing—like looking at the bodies of certain dancers, how they can turn themselves in almost inhuman positions. As viewers, we’re twisted in that shape as well,” he says. “A text that works at representing violence should leave one with a sense of having witnessed or gone through. After stepping away from the horror, we feel that something else remains. Something stays that shows the magnitude of human potential to survive the horrors of the Middle Passage or the scourge of war, and so on. That’s the beauty I hope for when I try to write.”
Hutchinson has found that he’s tending more toward a fragmentary style in order to accomplish this. “In House of Lords and Commons, I was interested in what the lyric’s fragmentary nature does to heighten or intensify, to jolt certain speech patterns, so that they carry more of the sharpness and the unsayable aspect of certain historical events that the book is trying to engage,” he says. “I think the fragment has an expressive dimension that a more or less linear trajectory couldn’t have. I don’t mean the willfully fragmentary, but what is condensed—that is, dense with different tones and pitches.”
Juxtaposed with any twisting and jolting in Hutchinson’s poems, he embraces a simpler beauty, too, in his writing and his reading. “There’s a comment made by Milton which I admire very much, something to the effect that the poem should be simple, sensuous, and passionate,” Hutchinson says. “We remember certain poems from childhood for those very reasons. And that’s where a lot of the magic in certain formulations exists. If you can remember it, something must be there. Once it’s in the mind, it belongs to the whole body and has meaning more than what we can extrapolate.”
The Making of a Poet
Hutchinson has always had an obsession with words on paper, writing and reading them. As a child, opening a book made him feel, he says, “A kind of kinship—that silent force-field that came around all of a sudden. It was also a really great way to get out of chores,” he laughs, “so it seemed that there was some sort of power that goes along with reading.”
When he was in the sixth form, the equivalent of high school in the United States, he turned in a paper to his English teacher that almost made him fail the class. “My teacher pulled me aside to reprimand me, because the paper was some kind of poem, not a proper paper,” he says, “but he was very kind.”
The teacher had Hutchinson rewrite the paper but also started him on an independent study, with Hutchinson writing poems to discuss with the teacher after school. “That provided a structure and was my initial pull toward poetry,” Hutchinson says.
From those afterschool sessions through years of study to now, Hutchinson says he feels lucky and privileged to have landed at Cornell. “Everything here makes the difficult strain of being a poet easier to an extent,” he explains. “We’re talking in my office filled with books, and it’s quite the opposite of where I started. To have that in itself is very lovely. Put that next to the fact that I’m surrounded by colleagues that are really wonderful human beings who share with me their own gifts, their ways of being in the world, and who will celebrate and encourage me—it’s remarkable.”
He adds, “At Cornell, as an individual, you’re asked to contribute to this great tradition. I know that something is in place here that has produced some of the great minds of our time. Without the question being asked or demanded of me, I feel myself turning inwards, to reach further.”