Writing poetry is like mining, it's exhausting, demanding, says poet Ishion Hutchinson
One thing the Jaipur Literature Festival does see are wannabe writers, poets. Ever eager to learn, ever curious - ask them and they might shove a bunch of handwritten notes under your nose and ask - "Wouldn't you have a look please?", hovering around some of the best known names in literature and hoping that maybe a bit of their magic rubs off.
In all this hobnobbing, we got a chance to speak to Ishion Hutchinson. The soft-spoken, smiling Jamaican poet and essayist has come a long way from his little Port Antonio. With a bunch of awards under his belt, including the Academy of American Poets' Larry Levis Prize in 2011, Hutchinson now teaches courses in poetry and creative writing in Cornell University. And after our little talk with him, we know that those are a bunch of really lucky students.
So here's why we think so -
JS: Is there a certain kind of literature you are automatically drawn to? Or was it poetry from the very beginning?
IH: Not really from the very, very beginning. I loved stories, I loved reading narratives. So I read novels, and so on. But poetry was what stayed. You see the thing is, because of the intensity of a poem, it shakes you awake in a way that a story, because it goes on and you are interested in what happens next, does not. And so when the force of a poem came up on me, I felt that's how I would want to use language as well.
JS: Is there any particular poem that you read as a child that you still remember?
IH: Yes, I do. I remember reading because I found it for myself, a poem by Derek Walcott, in the public library in my town Port Antonio in Jamaica. And, it's called Landfall Grenada. The thing is I had not read much of Jamaican poetry, I had read some Louis Bennett, she's seen as a sort of folk poet. But the way that the poem (Landfall Grenada) described the Caribbean landscape, with a sudden immediacy and authenticity, it gripped me. So that's one of the first poems I encountered. Maybe it was the thrill of finding it by myself. I just went to the library randomly and opened a book randomly and it was the poem.
JS: Were you already writing by then?
IH: Yeah, you know...scribbling in notebooks. I was obsessed with the physical material. You know those stationary notebooks...
JS: All of this stuff that you wrote, did they ever make it to a book?
IH: Not at all in the form they began. But I think I draw on them. It was one of the things where the landscape of where I live, I would try very hard to describe things and also I was discovering words, new words and I would try to use them, always inappropriately, but there was a kind of excitement about wanting to write down what I am seeing, to reflect things around me.
And when I moved on, even upto now, I still see myself trying to really get to the heart of the experience of living in a space like the one I grew up in. And wanting to do something about seeing the blue water, the sea around the house, because the colour is only a mere aspect of the blueness of it. So, how do you really enter into it? So, you try ad try and try. That's still my approach.
JS: Suppose, when you had walked in to the library and you picked out a book, had you not picked up a book of poetry do you think it would completely have changed things?
IH: It's hard to know now right? I'm not sure. Even when I was just writing things down, I wanted to condense what I was writing. I was never quite interested in narrative, a story per say. Even though I enjoy that, I was much more drawn to the words. The way in which the words are...
JS:...used in the story.
IH: Yes! They magnify the emotion that they are trying to convey right? So, that's what attracted me to write. And I realised that it is the central force of a poem, that it wants every word to bear an intense meaning. Romantic poet Coleridge said - a poem is the best words in their best order. That notion was always part of what I felt writing should be about, what I would want to do myself.
JS: [In poetry], there is some sort of an economy in the use of words...
IH: I would agree about the economy. But remember there are the different forms of poetry. And a narrative poem is an old form. But yes, the lyric sensibility was always appealing to me, because the way that a word takes you into its various meanings and the implications are so rich when it is set next to another word.
Once you read a poem with a kind of alert openness. The thing though, not to say it for myself, how I feel is that someone who is a poet, who is truly a poet, is a person who has a gift...a gift of the imagination, because writers that we revere, we revere the way that they make the world seem really fresh. And a the poet in particular because there is something extraordinary, elevated about great poetry, about a great poem - that it lifts itself out of being a flat...
JS: ...Piece of story?
IH: Yes, exactly. And it takes someone with a gift to do that. So that's how I've always felt. On the other hand, there's probably some sort of laziness, but I am saying that as a joke. Because in reality, to pick the best words - that means you've gone through...
JS:..So many others to have picked the right one? Sounds like a lot of work, not laziness.
IH: Of course. It's like mining. You go down to the deepest part of the earth for the purest mineral. And it is exhausting, it's demanding. And then you have the trouble of arranging them.
JS: I'm just wondering, as you are teaching, students who can't write poetry must expect you to teach them?
IH: So what I do is, I make students read a lot of poetry. And I try my best to provide, many different great examples of poems and reading traditions and so on. So, the craft, the technique of a poem, those rudimentary, manual aspects of how a poem comes together can be taught. You can show someone the features of a particular poem, the form. But the deep feeling and the other inexplicable...
JS: But I think you should somewhat detect it, feel it to be able to put it down...
IH: Absolutely...when we say someone might be a great poet who doesn't write poems. Who might be engaged in another kind of writing...sometimes I am laboured to make a distinction between poem and poetry. A poem technically is the words that are arranged in a certain pattern, on a page, or recited. Poetry is the marvelous un-sayable that we can only experience when we come across it. And that we can come across not only in a poem, it could be [any other form of art].
JS: From leaving your home town and travelling to America, do you think your rhetoric, your language changed?
IH: The distance has forced me to look back, and there's a danger in that because you can be susceptible to a kind of nostalgic looking back and sentimentality. But because I have something to look back at and because that experience of my childhood, that is vast. I could never grasp it all. It's so profound and deep and now because the distance has caved with imagination, there's another layer that I have to reach down into in order to touch what it is that I am...
I always go on and on about growing up in Port Antonio and living by the sea and so on and it might bore people to death...
JS: But that's a very important part of who you are...
JS: So like you said, once you left your hometown, while you were looking back there was of course the problem of nostalgia, but did the distance help you look at and understand your childhood better?
IH: I try not to formulate any answers to that looking back because I think we move on as people, we grow, we become, we change. And mutability is just a natural part of life, it's the poet's instinct perhaps to want to reclaim moments of life which were illuminating, that were joyful in the deepest sense of that word, and let that confront the reality of, the difficulty of the present moment.
So what attracts me to certain writers is the way that they can enter into their landscape that might have been eroded a long time ago. But imagination makes that landscape forever complete. By holding on to what has disappeared, by renewing what has disappeared and elevating it into something, for the lack of a better word, immutable...
JS: What exactly makes a poem or a piece of poetry successful?
IH: I think just the way that a poet gives herself over, allows language to take over and become possessed, and that poem comes out of that possession, and the language, its garrulous beauty is a result of that submission. I think that is a marker of success, strictly based on its linguistic appeal.
JS: Who are the poets you would read when you are in that moment when you can't think of what to write or when you are writing things and you aren't really happy... are there poets you go back to?
IH: Yes, the list is what we refer to as the canon, canon-deep. The canonical poets are important, but I think the poet creates her own canon as she becomes stronger as a poet and stranger, discovering new poets.
On the way here I was reading Arun Kolatkar and his long poem Jejuri, an Indian poet who wrote in English. And that poem is marvelous and it is mostly deals with a journey to a place called Jejuri. Just the way in which it talks about the simple observation...completely terrific. It does not reach for any cosmic sublimity or anything like that. It's plain, the language is crisp, and I am jealous of that and there is is - a poet I have never read before that I would want to go back to and learn from.
Recently I have been re-reading a lot of Milton, and I think that has to do with wanting to be more aware of the power of line-break, the enjambed force of a line, so you come to the end and it breaks in a way that propels you forward, extremely dramatic and in the English canon there is nothing more powerful than Milton's execution of that. I also read a lot of novels, I read a great amount of prose. I feel that reading is a duty and is one which has so much reward and delight that I would want to make my own island with a vast library, never to write a single line but to pick books and read them by the water and with a good drink.
Here's the whole interview: