Ishion Hutchinson on his poetry and the inspiration of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

In Ishion Hutchinson’s breathtaking poetry collection “House of Lords and Commons,” music stirs and rises again and again in a stunning meditation on the landscapes of memory and colonial history, sunlight reflections and the vibrating sounds across the twin experiences of joy and suffering. Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Hutchinson currently lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University.

Hutchinson’s many honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets; he is also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry. We spoke on the phone about the poetic resonance of reggae artists, his admiration for the dramatic monologue, the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and the palimpsestic landscape he inhabits between Jamaica and the U.S. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Your playlist for “House of Lords and Commons” was a thrill to have alongside the collection. It contains a good deal of reggae music you love, and you’ve said that “reggae is scotch bonnet to my rundown.” There’s a line from your poem “Sibelius and Marley” where the speaker remarks: “Music dismantles history.” How does music pursue and inform your poems?

I think poets would say if they weren’t writing they would be playing music. And, it goes back to Walter Pater, who said something to the effect that “all art tends toward the condition of music.” I more than half believe in that; it’s the rhythm, the sound, the way a transmission of feeling that is not corroborated by language or words, or isn’t mediated by anything but just by itself, gets through to a reader. That’s music; it’s kind of a pure form. The purity of it, listening to any kind of musical forms from anywhere in the world, we don’t have to necessarily be culturally invested, whether by language or customs, of where it’s from, to be moved fully. The sound alone performs its own form of transformation. When I write, of course, I am using language, so I don’t have the outlet of music itself, but I try to listen to the music, the rhythm, the structure of the syllables, the patterning that’s necessary to make words be ordered toward a kind of verbal map. So, music, when I imagine it — you quoted that line — “music dismantles history,” performs an internal rebellion. It’s the blood pumping inside. It is not conditioned by outside forces. But it has a powerful way of resisting; it’s a form of resistance in and of itself, that is so private. In spite of what’s happening in the world, the music gives you a space to retreat into this intense privacy, which is a form of resistance.

We may turn to certain poems that guide — to put it broadly. But I don’t think we go to poems to be told what to do. I really don’t like dogmatic poems; I go in for a broad range of lyric possibilities. And that’s what the lyric does. It doesn’t come down on a reader to adopt a particular world view, it implodes that expectation. You find yourself a new person after reading it. It’s that whole notion in Rilke — “you must change your life.” I don’t think that’s a command; it might warn, certainly. I’m remembering that Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “all a poet can do today is warn,” under the shadow of war. There’s great truth in that. But that’s not all a poet can do. We look across the spectrum, and there are many poets making things happen in many different ways, and all of it carries its own valid music and says to a reader, “Discover me as you wish, at your own peril.”

You have discovered musicians like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Vaughn “Akae Beka” Benjamin as poets. Can you tell us a bit about what they’ve meant to you?

Oh yeah. I would say, particularly with Lee Scratch,” I’ve always thought of him as a Blakean poet. He contains Blake’s contraries, particularly with the divide of the sound of experience and the sound of innocence. He’s so tuned into the sound waves of Jamaica, reaching back into the history and colonial past — and puts it right up front. He does it by imagining the journey across the Atlantic, he’s doing it sonically: The heavy bass is the deep sound of water. In his wildness, he constructs the form and then destroys it. It’s amazing. He has the rhythm, the bass and the whole sonic building, and then strips away everything, leaving only one or two elements, allowing for just the bare minimum to stand, which gives a lot of space for things to resonate. It does such fascinating service to a singer; a singer has lots of room to improvise lyrics and play with vocal pattern, and it becomes a real collaboration between music and voice. He’s a superb poet.

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