This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
Last week we published “Far Away,” an essay by Ishion Hutchinson that considers V.S. Naipaul through the criticism of Derek Walcott. These two great Caribbean writers were touchstones for Hutchinson as he left Jamaica to become a writer in New York, and their decades-long feud over fidelity to one’s origins informed his anxiety over that “conundrum of geographical change, its psychic blow.”
Hutchinson now teaches poetry and creative writing in the graduate program at Cornell University. His poems—the Review has published “Overwinter” and “David”—often capture the dislocations of postcolonialism, bridging the distance between his childhood in Port Antonio and the far 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 are with him in his backpack.
Over e-mail this week we discussed being a writer in the academy and coming to prose from poetry.
Lucy Jakub: This essay, and your previous piece for us, “The Noble Fish,” about a trip you took to Senegal, are derived from a work of memoir you’re writing. Could you say more about that project?
Ishion Hutchinson: What I’m working on isn’t a memoir proper. I don’t think I’m there yet with that kind of full, self-investigative writing. I’m working on essays, some of which are diaristic, like the Senegal piece, while others are more like “Far Away,” in which I take a personal approach to disparate subjects. These subjects are invariably writers and artists who have had a strong effect on my work or given me ways to think about the world. The book’s working title, Fugitive Tilt, underpins the method and style of the writing, which is a brambly slant on several things at once. As such, and as a poet, I consider the prose to be “of my left hand,” a phrase 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 Either/Or in the way you trace your reading of Naipaul from the naivete of a student, strongly guided by the judgments of others, to your own mature relationship to the work—demonstrating a capacity, which you ascribe to Naipaul’s writing, “to record the child’s wonder, making that wonder into a language of vigilant and personal articulacy.” It’s a sort of criticism-against-criticism, beginning from a place of humility and pushing back on Walcott’s confident assertions. How did you arrive at this approach, and how have your years of schooling at different institutions—the University of the West Indies, New York University, University of Utah—shaped you as a reader and writer?
Humility is essential. I don’t think I’m offering anything so strong as criticism-against-criticism—that is much more the province of scholarship. What a personal essay like this one shares with the poem, and what I’m most interested in, is that inward turn that takes the writer ever so slightly away from the subject. In the process you get a portrait of the young artist confronting a moment’s confusion. Something beyond my understanding was seeded in that moment, the value of which, belatedly, is traced in the essay. I say “trace” because that value isn’t explicitly stated, but it’s there in the outline of the narrative.
I’m a natural autodidact and would’ve found Naipaul’s and Walcott’s work eventually. But the years I spent at those institutions made it possible for me to encounter these writers and countless others in an atmosphere of support and with the brilliant guidance of many people. Professor Edward Baugh, at UWI, was one of the first. It helps a lot that my temperament is close to his—maybe this has to do with the fact that we were born fifty years apart in the same town. I was lucky to have someone like that at each place I’ve studied. I still hear their voices and counsel in my head when I read.
Even so, the challenge is how to get beyond the kind of essay I was taught and expected to write in those institutions. The rigor of academic composition can at times force the student into a kind of unintended self-annihilation. The teachers I had, in particular the ones I got to know well, tried to prevent that self-annihilation. But it happens, and it’s something you’re left to go through and survive. Luckily, if you’re an aspiring poet or writer, it becomes in a major way your creative agon, meaning that it is something you try to transmute—trace—into your own voice.
In a wonderful interview you conducted with Derek Walcott in 2015, he mentioned the particular difficulty of writing prose, saying that with poetry you begin with the things you know intimately—“your history, your race, your language”—but, if I read him correctly, with prose you start outside of what you know. How do you interpret him, and what has your own experience writing prose been, as a poet first?
Walcott wrote splendid prose. What the Twilight Says, his sole book of essays, is a case in point, so I don’t think he means that with prose you start outside what you know. He means that even the prose writer who is a prodigy has a longer period of incubation than the poet does. He is also talking about a particular kind of prose, not quite the essay but imaginative writing, of which Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is one of the greatest examples. That book contains all the things Walcott says the poet begins with, and though Naipaul was young when he wrote it (he was thirty), he had published three beautiful books before he could make that inward plunge to bring up the leviathan that is Mr. Biswas.
I’m not writing that kind of prose, thank God. My experience of writing essays as a poet is like Milton’s notion of his prose being the achievement of his left hand. I don’t write polemically, but in an essay I hover over different subjects in a way I’m far more reticent to do in poems. In this sense, I find that writing prose depends on what Coetzee once called “an autobiographical path that may be methodologically reckless.” That is radically invigorating to me, and it is the trace I’m working 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 moments, when it is right for you to finally read them. What books are with you now?
I’m going between quite a few now. Here are five I’m near finished or have recently finished: Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkin; Eliot After “The Waste Land” by Robert Crawford (I just got The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis which I’m excited to read); Thirteen Quintets for Lois by Jay Wright; In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova; and Mantel Pieces by the late, great Hilary Mantel.