Karen McCarthy Woolf talks to Ishion Hutchinson about poetry, islands and the sea as an enduring preoccupation and presence
KMW: The sea is a strong motif in your work – a presence that carries with it a submarine quality, a sense of drama and immersion. In your poem ‘The Wanderer’, which recalls Homer’s marine epic, you say, ‘You cannot trust the sea.’ In quite definitive terms. Why not?
IH: I don’t think any Caribbean person can. It holds too much tragedy. In terms of trust, I was thinking of that bond, as a contract between the self and something outside, which is untrustworthy because of the history. I mean, the sea is quite neutral in this, the sea has absolutely nothing to do with it, except as a site of that historical violence which continues, and which like the sea is limitless. On the other hand, it offers something more absolute, in terms of redemption and possibility. You stand in front of it and there it is, vast, elemental, intimate. This is the great beauty of living with the sea as a familiar. You become a risk-taker, you look and you decide, ‘One day I’m going to be there and I’m going to enter.’ It’s tempting…
KMW: Definitely in the Caribbean.
IH: Yes, in the Caribbean, even more so. But you can’t tell the outcome.
KMW: Do you like swimming?
KMW: Do you swim?
IH: No. Like ninety percent of Caribbean people, I do not!
KMW: It’s true, though, the sea has a magnetic quality. We are drawn to it. I would go to the sea a lot, at a time when I was processing multiple bereavements, and feel better for it. Then I took up a residency at the National Maritime Museum responding to Mediterranean migration, and from that perspective the sea is not always so lovely, or safe, or calming.
IH: Because the change can be sudden, right? A beautiful day at sea can instantly turn into a disaster – it’s unpredictable. I see that through my grandmother, whose house was built on a cliff. It was very beautiful, the overlook and so on, this grand, dramatic landscape – but then there’s the hurricane season, and she would become this crazy, worrying woman. She’d fall into a pattern of walking around, almost aimlessly, and then looking at the sea, with a kind of savage indifference.
KMW: What do you mean by that?
IH: Because the hurricane crosses that body of water and could damage the house or destroy it completely. The sea is a neutral but active participant in this destruction.
KMW: Your father migrated to the UK, so I imagine that the sea was a literal, physical representation of that separation too?
IH: Precisely. Most times the characters in the poems are leaving the sea, headed towards other places, and so they are making a very difficult choice – it’s a choice but one that’s forced – to move overseas, to come to England, to go to America. Once you’re away from the sea, it’s an absence that is so painful – to have to suddenly realise that you’re not by it. You have internalised the sea so much it’s like an organ, it’s your whole blood system. You know how it is, how a certain generation of Jamaicans looked at England as a place where they could come to make a living and then return home.
KMW: My dad was like that, but it took him thirty plus years to go back, to acknowledge that despite his achievements as an activist he hadn’t made it big financially.
IH: Everybody felt that, you know. That’s the notion, that you return with a harvest, and now you’re supposed to build a very nice house and live the island life, without needs or wanting, without lack.
KMW: And the UK experience doesn’t generally support that.
IH: No, and often when people do return they find themselves strangers in Jamaica, unable to readjust, because something has shifted, whether subtle or slight – a change has taken place and either the country has moved in another direction, or likely the self.
KMW: That leads me to ask about you not being in Jamaica, having been in the States for more than a decade.
IH: I went to study, at NYU. So the way I travelled across the seas was very different to my father’s journey. I guess we were both in search of opportunities, but I could return easily enough – I wasn’t working to bring back any loot. I was more interested in discovering what I can be, as poet, how one becomes that. Yeah, the quest, the ambition to take on a vocation like this takes you very far from home.
KMW: Do you think it inspired a tenderness of gaze that wouldn’t be the same had you stayed in Jamaica?
IH: I would risk saying yes, because it’s difficult not to look back with nostalgia.
KMW: And we can’t think of nostalgia, really, without thinking about complexity, about difficulty – which I think plays out significantly in your relationship with language, with etymology, where you have an anthropological, almost archaeological approach.
IH: Well, to take difficulty first, it takes me back to the question of how is it possible to imagine the transatlantic experience? We can statistically place some things, some records and so on, but the fact that people were brought over in the hulls of ships and in darkness leaves us, as Caribbean people, in a state of uncertainty – in this compacted, condensed, almost congealed and wrought state, which is extremely difficult to process, mentally, psychologically, and linguistically, because anything you say would be bound to fail. That’s why Jamaican music is so amazing for articulating some of that historical pain. A writer, whether or not she writes about the beauty of a poinsettia flower, or a mango hanging from a tree limb, or a grandmother sitting on a veranda chair – in the background, this other terrible narrative is there, and it’s very difficult to embrace a story that is too metaphysically sad to parse. So what does the writer do?
What sustains my attention in Caribbean literature is how writers create something equally massive, equally disturbing: you might call it a poetics of opacity, where the darkness can match that historical moment. So it’s not dark meeting dark, where you have confusion – I would look at it as a kind of illumination, where that dark is pushed to its furthest extent, where things are reflected. You know how a very dark space can be reflexive? So it’s highly personal, rather than something civic; it appears as if one is talking about an absence that is unique to one particular person – and language has that, language can build, with its history of uses and abuses, across time and space. The English language, as we know, is a mongrel form – each word connotates several meanings and it’s important to be able to track a word to its closest origin, because it reveals something about not just the story of the word, but the story of where we are now.
KMW: And it’s the people and their multiple situations which create that meaning, over time?
IH: Yes. So what happens is a fragmentation of the whole, and it’s important to disturb this concept of unity. When Eliot speaks of the unbroken line of Western literature, from Greece onwards, he’s saying that in sympathy to a worldview from which he could easily and rightfully say that and be accepted – but that leaves out so much.
KMW: The canon as straight line is hardly inclusive – to me it feels more like a capillary network.
IH: It’s only convenient to use in order to categorise, for the power structure to keep its centre. But the lyric sensibility troubles that sense of order, it’s chaotic.
KMW: Those kinds of tensions play out in your poems, in ‘Sibelius and Marley’ for example.
IH: Even someone like Sibelius, who has a symphonic imagination and melodic feel; that’s the artist’s way of deceiving or making it appear smooth. You have a kind of Apollonian unity, very structural and seamless. But when you examine how Sibelius goes about constructing his symphonic style in response to a fractured political struggle in his country, you realise he’s doing something incredible to make these disparate things whole. Bob Marley was involved in a very similar process.
KMW: There’s also a concept of rebellion, through music and through sound as a symphonic quantity, which feels apt in terms of how your poetry is structured.
IH: Take the sonata form: by nature you have to create counter-rhythm, you have to put forward phrases, and those phrases echo across space, and are reshaped, so they feel almost as if you have created one sound; but because that sound is a replay of the sound, waiting for the new sound, it creates an anticipation, creates this yearning to work for a resolution which might not come.
KMW: So you have these disparate elements, being pulled together, which is literally ‘Ark-ival’ as well as archival, as your poem ‘The Ark by “Scratch”’ suggests.
IH: Well, we are all living archives, but again, it’s back to that density, where I can’t point to or name my ancestors, or be specific about my lineage. And yet rhythmically, something makes me belong to somewhere. So first I’m an island child, and I have all of that ‘suspended reality’ – I think of the island as that.
KMW: The island as ideological entity? Or Jamaica?
IH: Well, I suppose all of them. It’s funny, islands have this interesting correspondence – because they are separated from something, they’ve been broken off and they have to heal without returning, so it’s suspending, it’s held off from any reference. Comparing it to the lyric, that’s not so much involved or interested in where it began, but where it is: the lyric has that, it just arrives, it happens. An epic of the island would have to function in that truncated way, would have to seem to have just blazed into reality, with no backstory.
KMW: Thinking of fragmentation, language and the lyric brings the Tobagan poet M NourbeSe Philip to mind. There’s a relationship, I think, with patterning in your work, particularly through sound. Does that resonate?
IH: I’m teaching Philip this semester, and I was thrown back into rediscovering her writing – she’s one of those poets who teaches you how to interrogate a word, taking it to its limits, breaking it and breaking it again…
KMW: I also discern a strong matriarchal lineage in your work.
IH: It’s no mystery to say that Jamaica is a matriarchal country. Most people I knew growing up were raised by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and so on, and lived in a house ruled over by women. I was very close to my grandmother. She was an extremely quiet woman, and I was a very inquisitive child, so I was always bothering her with questions, and we developed a way of talking without talking. She was one of very few women who owned their own house, who built it herself.
KMW: On this clifftop overlooking the sea?
IH: On this clifftop, yeah, yeah. That struck me, even as a child. She built that house on her own, by baking and selling in the market, and everybody called her The Baker, or Aunt May the Baker. People would ask, ‘Are you the baker’s grandson?’ That was how I was identified. She was extremely precise, and her precision worked in a ritualistic way. She woke and moved around the house in a certain pattern, and then, only then, and only after the things that she needed to do were done, would she rest in her chair. This was like clockwork for my entire life. I can’t remember a time, except for when she was very ill, that things didn’t function that way. Far District [Hutchinson’s first book] is dedicated to her. I remember when my very first poem was published, in the local paper: I was in the sixth form and I ran home to show it to her in the backyard where she was washing, covered in soap, suds and so on. I made this announcement, and she burst into tears and said ‘read it to me’, and I read the poem to her, and she said something along the lines of, ‘That is very, very good.’
KMW: So did you grow up in a particularly literary household?
IH: No. My grandmother was illiterate, so she supported my writing but didn’t fully understand. I had to read her the Bible, and what I think I learnt from her is that precision, via a pattern that seeks a structure that you can depend on. So she would ask me to repeat things because she had memorised passages from the Bible and sometimes she’d catch me trying to cut some lines or whatever, or giving wrong information.
KMW: So she was a churchgoing woman? Devout?
IH: To an extent, but this is the enigma. My grandmother developed a private sense of church, she didn’t need to go every Sunday. We did attend, though, and she’d sing the hymns with the other older women, knowing them by ear; and ear was the way of building the communal to create a spiritual alignment that supersedes superficial religiosity.
KMW: You’ve talked about an idea of intuitive accuracy, and the lyric, and how you might connect those things, through movement, music and refrain. Not as a strictly formal presence: more as a seabed, metaphorically speaking.
IH: The poet is like a beachcomber, and you don’t know what you’re going to find, but you open your box at the end of the day and reveal things that somehow speak to each other. You can make infinite patterns. You could make a poem for every individual in Jamaica – that’s some three million people who could have a personal poem.
KMW: You’re volunteering for this, then?
IH: Uh… not quite! If I leave one poem that one personmight be able to recall, then I will have done my job.
KMW: What about your new work, does that hold the same spirit of witness?
IH: I’ve been working on a long poem, ‘School of Instruction’, for an anthology which re-envisages the poetic response to that conflict [Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, edited by McCarthy Woolf]. The West Indian soldiers were so ill-treated by Britain, the ‘mother country’. Looking at a class photo prompted me to draw a parallel, imagining these young soldiers through these high school boys I knew. The military uniforms that resemble school uniforms, the way we gather for assembly every morning. All the rituals that are part of an imperial construct play out in very noxious ways. I’m always interested in what’s buried but paradoxically on the surface at the same time. It’s a work I think will extend.
KMW: Is that because you have an instinct towards the epic?IH: Oh certainly. Yes, because I have an instinct towards the sea. And that’s epic.
Karen McCarthy Woolf is Fulbright Scholar/Writer in Residence at the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA.
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His latest book is House of Lords and Commons (Faber).