Across Borders: A Conversation with Ishion Hutchinson

January 1, 2020   •   By Danielle Charette, Paul Cato

ISHION HUTCHINSON is a master of unexpected harmonies. His poetry joins the reggae of Bob Marley with the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Scenes from Hutchinson’s childhood in Jamaica are relayed in Miltonic syntax. A red bicycle in Venice suddenly recalls the blood of Caribbean cane fields. Hutchinson second book, House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) — winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award — combines the high and the low, ruminating on the legacy of the powerful and the dispossessed. As Hutchinson writes, “History is dismantled music; slant, / bleak on gravel.”

Danielle Charette and Paul Cato sat down with Hutchinson to discuss post-colonial poetry, John Milton, Toni Morrison, and the writers Hutchinson returns to the most.


DANIELLE CHARETTE: House of Lords and Commons opens with the poem, “Station.” The setting, as I read it, is an ethereal train station. What role does geography and migration play in your poetry?

ISHION HUTCHINSON: “Station” gestures at the underworld that is part of every hero’s journey in the epics. Being someone from the Caribbean, from Jamaica, who never grew up with subways, the “underground” was never part of my particular reality. So when I came to the States — to New York City — and used the subway, I associated it with a kind of underworld adventure, which was, for me, surprising, but, it turned out, is a huge cliché. There is a geographical reality to the journey across borders, but all journeys are also psychic journeys. The physical and the psychological correlate in every move. One can’t travel without one’s mind. Or, one’s mind can wonder when one is still, and so on. Literature preempted my physical journey to New York, and even though I didn’t locate New York in reading Virgil or Homer, the sense of that specific underworld descent was immediate to me when I came to the city. But it felt I was there already, in the texts I had read.

There’s this notion in Heraclitus that geography is fate, which I more and more think is a true concept. One somehow ends up in a place unplanned, or even when planned, the way one experiences it is without preparation. In the case of the Caribbean poet, it’s an old story that, for the Caribbean poet to survive as a poet, he or she must leave the Caribbean, because there are no structures in place to support Caribbean writing. In a sense, the Caribbean poet is fated to leave. That’s a reality of the structures and cultures of literature and has less to do with whether one can actually write at home. One can write at home; I did, and many Caribbeans did. But to enter into a global context of literature — the publishing world, for instance — that reality, unfortunately, is still not developed in the Caribbean.

DC: On this subject of leaving the Caribbean and border-crossing, you’ve been called a “post-post-colonial poet.” What do you think of that label?

Well, like all other labels, they are sufficient for a kind of framing — but only sufficient. One has to multiply the labels; they have to grow. I’ve always myself questioned what is “post-colonial”? When you query the language, this “post” might not quite suit the colonial reality. The colonial world still persists. Some things have changed, but much has not. I think there is a way that some academic labels do clarify. But some things are obscured, which is why criticism must be a constant force. As poetry is written, writings about poetry should multiply, and conversations should develop. Maybe in this way, the Caribbean poet, being read by Caribbean critics, can provide a resource of language that gets closer to describing what the Caribbean poet is up to. At the same time, I would add immediately that criticism has to participate in a global exchange. It can’t just be on the ground and local; it has to widen its net. That helps to bring a certain awareness of cultural context. A poem might not have the time to ground a reader because it’s so busy trying to be a good poem; it’s not going to explain each poet’s background sufficiently. That’s where a critic with a certain training is very useful to anchor the poem. Not to make criticism out to be a kind of social work, but it can assist in that activity.

PAUL CATO: During the Civil Rights era, many black authors — people like James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ralph Ellison — were more than creative figures; they were also public intellectuals. Is there any sort of equivalent among contemporary black poets?

I should say something since the name Ralph Ellison has come up. I quoted Heraclitus, saying “geography is fate.” That’s actually a misquote used by Ellison. What Heraclitus said is, “Character is fate.” But Ellison was thinking about the movement of black people historically. He was thinking especially of people at the end of the Civil War, moving from the South to the Northeast and Midwest, of how America’s landscape reacted to this new appearance of black bodies in new spaces. That changed the entire sociocultural history of how the country developed, in very strained and painful ways.

But yes, I would risk saying that the African-American poets I know function as public intellectuals. I’m wondering if this is by default. We would have to understand what we mean by “public intellectual.” The definition of “public intellectual” writ-large has changed significantly. I would say that black poets, those that I know, are very invested in engaging the public imagination in critical ways, as well as with the creative force of their poems. There’s an attempt to create dialogue through poetry that I find certain black poets make a part of their role as poets in America.

DC: Are we right to hear an echo of John Milton in House of Lords and Commons? A fact I always loved about Milton is that, under Oliver Cromwell, he held the title Secretary of Foreign Tongues of the Commonwealth. Do you think of yourself as a Commonwealth poet?

You know, I wish that term were more in vogue: “Commonwealth.” It would, in a certain sense, point to what we now say when we use “post-colonial,” within a certain limitation. It would help to say how poets coming from certain colonial backgrounds, located within specific geographical lines, have a kind of political network that the broad term “post-colonial” might overlook.

The title of the book came from Areopagitica, Milton’s prose tract on censorship. Milton’s been more than a figure of inspiration; I look to his work as one might read a spiritual text. I read Milton for that kind of guidance, for the kind of vigilance it takes to face the world, and, in particular, to face the world using the English language. Everything Milton has done with English is vital, relevant. Milton describes a poem as something “sensuous, simple, and passionate” — words we might not immediately ascribe to Milton’s poetry, but only if we’re reading him poorly. His poems do carry that level of sensuous, simple, and passionate energy, though always within the awareness of their political and spiritual predicament.

Milton is working from the perspective of humanity’s fallen state. We can read that within its Christian context of original sin, certainly. But I think it opens up to any kind of fallen state, any kind of search for redemption. For Milton, language is the only salvation. It’s as if we have to create the grammar that can free us from the burden and the brokenness of being fallen. Each poem and each tract is strewn with language operating within a restless mode that is capacious and worldly. Instead of finding yourself outside, you find yourself within the language, in a rousing wave that riles and delivers, on a layered plateau. You’re never safely one place or the other. I love looking at the opening of Paradise Lost. The first 16 lines create this serpentine syntax that coils in and out of itself. Textually, it manages to evoke what the poem is about, the central subject of the poem — or the character of Satan — as a beguiling, coiling snake. The syntax weaves in that way.

We don’t get the main verb until the 13th line. Our attention is for something that’s hesitant, almost deceptive — as the devil is. Then it lands and we are released in some way. We arrive at meaning. But it takes work to get there. We have to put ourselves in the mind of a poet, of being a poet. Every reader then becomes a kind of a poet. We’re not Miltons, but we’re alert to language in the way that the poet is.

PC: Milton of course wrote both prose and poetry. Do you have other major prose influences?

There are so many, in many different languages. I don’t know if they’re “influences” or just people I love. I’ll name a few: Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Theirs are enduring texts I go back to all the time. I love big books. There’s Halldór Laxness, the Icelandic novelist. He writes these huge texts. I love Gabriel García Márquez. I adore the South African novelist Marlene van Niekerk. Some recent writers I like are Marlon James, from Jamaica. His novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker, is centered around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life. Another Jamaican writer with a recent book I admire very much is Curdella Forbes. Her book, A Tall History of Sugar, enchants as much as it disenchants. There are just so many, but I have to make a plug for Robert Louis Stevenson. I love everything he’s ever written, both poetry and prose. I probably read more of the prose now, but I reckon that I return to him as much as Milton. In addition to the sheer pleasure of reading him, there’s a humanism there that gives me courage to live.

PC: You mentioned Toni Morrison. Some have even suggested Morrison even counts as a historian because she places so much emphasis on the history of the New World. Can you say a little more about Morrison, in light of her recent passing?

Like everyone else, I mourn that passing deeply. I rejoice, though, that what she has left will survive us. Her writing obviously has a central place in American literature. Wherever there is quality writing, Morrison’s name is there. I think it’s a fair comment that Morrison writes with an awareness of how history has shaped the present and how much we have to write into the bones of history to fully grasp where we are. Many have talked about her Faulknerian imagination, and for Faulkner, history is contemporary. There’s that famous statement from Requiem for a Nun, “the past is not even the past.” With Morrison, we fervently understand that kind of declaration.

You can’t really call Morrison’s writings historical, in the sense of genre. But there’s that springing into consciousness, a consciousness that has historical wounds. We’re wounded by history. It’s now our present and must deem what life is. In order to deal with what life is healthily, one has to turn to various histories. With Morrison, it’s history with a capital H but also very personal familial history and stories of actual lives. We see how those lives are relatable to our current condition.

DC: In one of your most recent poems, “The Mariner’s Progress,” I love the line “You sputter into a blinding cough / and recover with, ‘Emerson?’” I like this notion of coughing up Emerson. Naturally many reviewers comment on your Jamaican heritage and how you bridge that identity back to British influences. But I was wondering, if it’s possible to unwittingly cough up Emerson, do you ever consider yourself an American poet?

I feel that as far as the Americas are concerned, I am — at least in the way that Walt Whitman is a poet of the Americas, a poet of the New World. I would see myself within the tradition of the Americas, as both something conditioned by European and African heritage, and as a constellation of the search for what it means to be connected but also disconnected with some past. Whitman and Emerson and the early American thinkers were concerned with this question of what it means to be an American person.

I find some firm roots as a non-mainland American, which is a very problematic way to qualify one’s relation with America, knowing full well that North America is an imperial power, and the Caribbean is under the shadow of that massive power. There’s not a fluidity in the way one relates to America. But in terms of a poetics of the Americas, I see myself and Caribbean poets — and South American and Central American poets — as poets of the Americas. But each to his own rock.

Having lived in the United States for a while, just over a decade, and reading American poets in America — both past and contemporary — I recognize that, along the way, I’ve learned so much from American poetry, about techne, about how a poem works, about a possibility within the poem, that I feel I have my ear close to American poetry. There must be some way that has entered into my own way of writing.

That said, I feel a poet is shaped by childhood and what was heard. The sensuous world of childhood is the core of the poet, our under-ear. For me, that remains Jamaican. Everything is inflected by a Jamaican childhood.


Danielle Charette is a PhD candidate with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Her work has appeared in The PointThe Chronicle ReviewThe Hedgehog Review, and Tocqueville 21.

Paul Cato is a PhD candidate in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. His work centers on theories of love and interrelatedness, especially those found in the work of literary intellectuals such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.