A poet at the Academy | Ishion Hutchinson, Lucy Jakub
Last week we published “Far Away”, an essay by Ishion Hutchinson that considers VS Naipaul through Derek Walcott’s critique. These two great Caribbean writers were touchstones for Hutchinson when he left Jamaica to become a writer in New York.
Hutchinson now teaches poetry and creative writing in Cornell University’s graduate program. His poems – the Exam published “Overwinter” and “David” – often capture the dislocations of postcolonialism, bridging the distance between his childhood in Port Antonio and the distant outposts of academia. His recent essays relate the experience of travel as nothing less than a spiritual transformation, always and essentially mediated by literature; on a pilgrimage to Senegal, Ousmane Sembène, Michael Leris and Saidiya Hartman accompany him in his backpack.
Over email this week, we discussed being an academy writer and coming to prose from poetry.
Lucy Jakub: This essay, and your previous article for us, “The Noble Fish”, about a journey that you took to Senegal, come from a work of memory that you are writing. Could you tell more about this project?
Ishion Hutchinson: What I’m working on is not a memoir per se. I don’t think I’m there yet with this kind of self-investigative writing. I work on essays, some of which are diaristic, like the Senegal article, while others are more like “Far Away”, in which I tackle disparate topics in a personal way. These subjects are invariably writers and artists who have had a strong influence on my work or given me ways of thinking about the world. The working title of the book, Fleeting Tilt, underlies the method and style of writing, which is a high-sounding bias on several things at once. As such, and as a poet, I consider prose to be “in my left hand,” an expression Milton once used to describe his polemical prose writing.
“Far Away” could be called a “campus essay”, and it reminds me of Elif Batuman’s recent novel Whether or in the way you trace your reading of Naipaul from the naïveté of a student, strongly guided by the judgments of others, to your own mature relationship at work – demonstrating an ability, which you attribute to the writing of Naipaul, “to record the wonder of the child, making that wonder a language of vigilant and personal articulation. It is a kind of critique-counter-critique, starting from a place of humility and pushing back Walcott’s confident assertions How did you come to this approach and how did your years of schooling at different institutions – the University of the West Indies, the University of New York, the University of Utah – shaped you into as a reader and writer?
Humility is essential. I don’t think I’m offering anything as strong as criticism versus criticism – that’s much more the realm of scholarship. What a personal essay like this shares with the poem, and what interests me most, is this inner turn that takes the writer ever so slightly away from the subject. In the process, you get a portrait of the young artist facing a moment’s confusion. Something beyond my comprehension was sown at that time, the value of which, belatedly, is traced in the essay. I say “trace” because this value is not explicitly stated, but it is there in the outline of the story.
I’m a natural autodidact and would have found Naipaul and Walcott’s work eventually. But my years at these institutions allowed me to meet these writers and countless others in a supportive atmosphere and with brilliant advice from many people. Professor Edward Baugh, at UWI, was one of the first. It helps a lot that my temperament is close to his – maybe it has to do with the fact that we were born fifty years apart in the same city. I was lucky to have someone like that in every place I studied. I still hear their voices and advice in my head when I read.
Even so, the challenge is how to move beyond the kind of essay I learned and expected to write at these institutions. The rigor of the academic composition can sometimes force the student into a kind of involuntary self-annihilation. The teachers I had, especially those I knew well, tried to prevent this self-annihilation. But it does happen, and it’s something you just have to go through and survive. Luckily, if you’re a budding poet or writer, that largely becomes your creative agon, which means it’s something you try to transmute – map out – into your own voice.
In a wonderful interview which you directed with Derek Walcott in 2015, he mentioned the particular difficulty of writing prose, saying that with poetry you start with things you know intimately – “your history, your race, your language” – but, if I read it correctly, with prose you start outside of what you know. How do you interpret it, and what has been your own experience of writing prose, as a poet first?
Walcott wrote splendid prose. What the twilight says, his only book of essays, is an example of that, so I don’t think he means that with prose you start outside of what you know. He means that even the prose writer who is a prodigy has a longer incubation period than the poet. He also talks about a particular type of prose, not quite essay but imaginative writing, of which Naipaul A house for Mr. Biswas is one of the greatest examples. This book contains all the things with which Walcott says the poet begins, and although Naipaul was young when he wrote it (he was thirty), he had published three fine books before he could take that inner plunge to elevate the leviathan who is Mr Biswas.
I don’t write that kind of prose, thank God. My essay writing experience as a poet resembles Milton’s notion that his prose is the work of his left hand. I don’t write polemically, but in an essay I skim over different topics in a way that I’m much more reluctant to do in poems. In this sense, I find that prose writing depends on what Coetzee once called “an autobiographical path that can be methodologically unwise”. It’s radically invigorating for me, and it’s the trace I work hard to hone.
Books tend to arrive, when you reference them in your writing, as physical objects – you describe the covers of specific editions and where you found them – and at auspicious times, when it’s good for you to finally read them. What books do you have with you now?
I go between several now. Here are five that I’m nearing completion or recently completed: The Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkin; Eliot from “The Wasteland” by Robert Crawford (just received The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis which I can’t wait to read); Thirteen quintets for Lois by Jay Wright; In memory of memory by Maria Stepanova; and Fireplace parts by the late great Hilary Mantel.