“Ishion Hutchinson, Lord of Reggae Poetry and the Cornell Commons,” by Patrick A. Howell

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Lord Ishion Hutchinson, Lord of Reggae Poetry and the Cornell Commons

I can bring a halo
into the night cave, quiet
with music (do not ask the music),

to her shaded there
in the moon; her fine spectacles
steam their pond rings   

From “Black Space” (Poetry, January 2017) by Ishion Hutchinson

Ishion Hutchison (photo by Pari Dukovic)

The scepter of Caribbean literature has been held in the vice grip of Derek Walcott (St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago) and V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago) in recent decades.  Other names in the canons of contemporary Caribbean literature include Earl Lovelace, Edwidge Danticat, Danielle Boursiquot, Claude McKay, Lesley-Ann Brown, Edward Kamua Bathwaite (born in Barbados and lived in Jamaica and Ghana), Michelle Cliff, Roxanne Gay, Gillian Royes — a canon of infatigable creativity, verve and vision that defines the expanse of literary expression in the 21st century.   One name, however, stands potent among his kinfolk: Ishion Hutchinson.

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, known for its mystical gateways and tropical jungles, mountains and singing waterfalls.  His two poetry collections, Far District (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Limited, 2010) and House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) have garnered the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Pen/Joyce Fellowship.  Currently he teaches the graduate creative writing program at Cornell University.

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I know him, however, though his distinct imprint with fellow poets.  We met a couple years ago at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival at USC, in the time when talk of walls and toxic politics foreshadowed an international crisis of the most deadly biological pandemic in modern history.  He had a devout following within the world of poetry and among such mutual friends as poet Ladan Osman and Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess. He sat on a panel titled “Public versus Private” in the Annenberg Auditorium at USC.  David Baker said of the current political climate and the growing significance of poetry, “We listen to poets. People who seems to have a language of complexity, musicality, nuance and making public what is private.”


her animal eyes fix
on the lintel of the door
as the wax owl glances back at me. I am her little cotton

tree the breeze combs
white into a final note,
her diminuendo poco a poco …????  

From “Black Space” (Poetry, January 2017) by Ishion Hutchinson

What follows is my interview with Hutchinson:

PAH: Ishion, let’s talk a little about ancestor Frederick Douglass, definitely a Renaissance Man but also a source inspiration for some of your newest work due out by Newcastle next year (The Fire Thus Kindled May Be Kindled Again – On Frederick Douglass). He once said, “power never conceded anything without a demand.  It never did and it never will.”  Given your work on our ancestor but also your experiences as a creative and poetic soul, what does that mean to you?

IH: I can’t specify any one thing that Douglass quote means to me. I think I came across it in my last year of sixth form at Titchfield High School in Jamaica, so right about the time I was committing or condemning myself to a vocation in poetry. I’m sure I responded to the charge of the statement, its authority. Equally, at age seventeen about to be eighteen, I clung to the making of the statement, the cadence, the balance of negative, the repetition. Those were the things that excited me. That didn’t mean I was in possession of a poetic soul; the concept of which I think I understood but, to take a word from Douglass, never conceded. Why may partly have to do with what, or really how, Douglass’s statement resonated with me, the beginner poet, was as a figure of an agon. This is partly the meaning. It’s also good to recall that Douglass made this statement in a speech honoring the African enslaved in the Caribbean. That’s an agon, the supreme agon. Douglass wanted to ensure that his audience remembered that abolition was an act of the British government based on efforts from British abolitionists, but “nevertheless,” Douglass said, “a share of the credit of the result falls justly to the slaves themselves. Though slaves, they were rebellious slaves.” I think my seventeen-year-old self would claim “rebellious souls” as my agon.

PAH: Ishion, for me, as the son of a Caribbean professor, Frederick Douglass was the beginning of my awakening to civil rights issues and the black struggle for liberation. He is probably one of my favorite civil rights figures — along with figures like Kwame Nkmura, Hallie Selasi, Bob Marley and hundreds of thousands of others, known and unknown, who have struggled in the fight for liberation for over four decades, he is a singular and striking figure.  This year was an interesting one in the struggle for freedom as we came to the official 400-year mark from August 20th 1619 to 2019, where Angolan captives were originally terrorized and brought to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia.   Why did you choose Frederick Douglass for your current project? 

IH: I was invited to give a lecture at the Newcastle Poetry Festival last year and I settled on Robert Hayden’s sonnet, “Frederick Douglass,” which is challenging and stimulating to unpack. It so happened that I had recently read David W. Blight’s splendid biography of Douglass which pointed me to a long satirical poem — unfortunately not readily available — that Douglass wrote called, “The Tyrant’s Jubilee.” A line from the poem gave me the title of my lecture. You could say Douglass just appeared because he was always there.

Moon-afro, myself
outpaces me
in wonder of her.

She goes off and I seep
under the black sprout
of her house, to rise

a salmon bell on the hill
dissolving mild cloud fractals,
without grief or malice. 

From “Black Space” (Poetry, January 2017) by Ishion Hutchinson

PAH: Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is a little different from the milieu and modality you grew up in Nigeria. Most obvious I guess are the difference in weather — one is a hot, humid Caribbean community and the other is a Northeast college town at one of the coldest points in the United States.  How has living in the U.S. and specifically Ithaca as a professor influenced your work?  Are you “landlocked”?

IH: I’m sure you meant I grew up in Jamaica. You know, I don’t work very differently, in terms of certain writing habits, than I did when I lived in Jamaica. The act of writing is still the same; a sort of internal pressure mounts and I make space — usually fairly rigorous — to write. The major difference now is that, as a professor and at times as a critic, I write things out of a different pressure, one which mainly comes down to the intellectual imagination. The two writings share a relationship, obviously, because they’re borne out of reading. But they’re markedly different. The first is intensely private. The agon there is the multitudinous self which moves simultaneously up and down while at the same time resisting this very ladder-binary. The other writing, whilst also deriving from one’s private sensibilities, is concerned with readership, some sort of worldly auditor. Teaching is much like that.

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PAH: Who are the artists that most informed your sensibilities as you began your journey as a poet and storyteller? You have mentioned Lee “Scratch” Perry — the Jamaican artist — in previous conversations.  Are there other poets, painters, novelists, reggae artists, or hip hop artists that inform your sensibilities?

IH: When I very first began, I never thought of writers as individuals; actually “a” writer didn’t exist. The KJV Bible was there and I think this still remains the original text for many Caribbean writers. A little later on individual names began to mean something. Shakespeare was early. Robert Louis Stevenson. These were writers one absorbed and so there was no sense of distance of any kind between them and me. By the time late in high school, Caribbean writers, via anthologies, were a staple. Walcott made a lasting impact early; a little after that Erna Brodber too which became an obsession. The fact that these were living authors, and authors from my own region, made me delirious—and so the course was set in motion, an autodidact’s hunger for books from anywhere and everywhere. I’m roughly recounting for you a young person’s earliest start in reading, but I feel reluctant to just start listing names — inadvertently such listing ends up doing an injustice to these writers and whoever else, because they’re not passing facts, poor or otherwise, but continually living names.

PAH: You recently completed work on a eulogy for Vaughn Benjamin, poet and lead singer of the mighty reggae band Midnight. Who was he to you?

IH: No way to really surmise that. I singled out his humility in that tribute piece. In the similar sense I spoke about the supreme agon of Douglass earlier, I would say Benjamin is a unique example of that. But all that needs to be said is that Benjamin is a superb poet.

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