Ishion Hutchinson’s poem “The Difference” appears in our Summer issue. Hutchinson, who was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, teaches at Cornell University.
In “The Difference,” the speaker bridges a divide between the reader and the “they,” the poem’s unspecified subjects. Can you talk a little about the genesis of the poem? Do you often see the role of a speaker as a kind of mediator?
The poem’s opening contains its genesis. I overheard two men, it could have been more, talking one early winter morning in a café. Their words weren’t clear but, to my ears, there was a doomsday tone about them, very grave. I had been reading Halldór Laxness’s great novel, Independent People, too, a very masculine book, full of scenes of men gathering in winter to talk iron, as it were, and I think that permeated the poem. I do not see the role of a speaker as a kind of mediator at all, perhaps only to the extent that the speaker is listening to voices, yes, but the speaker’s motive is to speak for and to himself.
You’ve said in an interview that “once you are a part of a landscape, it enters your body and you gain a precision of language that is almost geological.” Can you elaborate on that? Do you think it applies to poets outside of natural landscapes, too—in cities, say?
I mean it in the sense that to a poet nothing about the landscape is inanimate; the poet is able to feel, like Merrill says in a poem, “a stone heart quicken.” I should have said, “you gain a precision of language that is pagan,” right, because what matters most in the poet’s language is an intuitive passion, which can be very imprecise, for a subject. That precision, or the imprecision that you could call grace of accuracy (pax Lowell), of language is alive to a poet wherever she is from. Cities are inside natural landscapes anyway, they grow out of the earth like anything else, and so what is affected—more than the diction itself—is the pitch of a poet’s language.
Don DeLillo speculated in his Paris Review interview that he had such little interest in storytelling because he did not read as a child. You, on the other hand, use narrative techniques at a time when few poets are doing so. What do you think draws you to storytelling?
Circumstances of my birth. Seriously. Like DeLillo, I did not read a lot as a child because books were not readily available—neither was television, nor other forms of entertainment. The natural substitute was storytelling, all very marvelous and pervasive—endless nights of it from adults. Then as kids we made up our own stories in primary schools. I had a good childhood friend, Christopher, who illustrated fables I used to write in what we called exercise books. Childhood, I guess, then, is the first thing which draws me to storytelling. But I am glad you used the phrase “narrative techniques,” for I am not telling a story, in the chief sense of the word, when making a poem. My concern then is with the integrity of the language, its music and shape in relationship to the images and credible feelings that cannot be left out.
You’ve said that you and other Caribbean poets must “reimagine home” through a number of other landscapes. Do you find that specific things tend to get lost or maintained?
For me, the situation is like paradise regained. Contrary to anything getting lost, I am discovering more and more how much of home is inside me, to the point that there is, if you will, a kind of Housman effect, “I see it shining plain,” very weepy and nostalgic. But I am grateful to have such an immense clarity about such a complex, frustrating place.
In an interview for the Virginia Quarterly Review, you asked Derek Walcott, “What would you regard as your greatest strength as a poet?” That was a hard question—he said at first he couldn’t tell. Do you have an answer yourself?
Derek did answer eventually, and his response is spectacular, he said “I think there are lots of times when I have maybe caught the light in certain passages … the Caribbean light at sunrise and sunset.” My answer is, I would hope, in my own way, I have honored the same light.
Jake Orbison is an intern at The Paris Review.