Ishion Hutchinson and Vladimir Lucien in conversation with Tishani Doshi
By Sitamsini, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger
‘The idea of the commoner might be an old trope in Literature, but it is something that is constantly unfolding in the Carribean,’ said Ishion Hutchinson of his poetry collection, House of Lords and Commons, which had recently garnered a nomination for the American National Book Critics Circle Award. Along with Vladimir Lucien, the youngest winner of the prestigious OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for his collection Sounding Ground, today’s session explored the poetics of the Carribean, their influences as well as the gifts that poetry has provided them.
The extremely personal nature of the writing process, especially for a poet, can sound vague and unconvincing to an audience member, but Hutchinson and Lucien were very articulate about what it was that drew them to the verse form. At university, Lucien had started reading Carribean literature seriously, which led him to question his ‘specific place in the world.’ He said that he is driven towards poetry because it is ‘a vessel through which the tradition can speak using new terms.’ Hutchinson agreed: ‘I can go back and be ancient from my present location simply by reading, I can be whoever I wish.’
Both the poets seemed to be very interested in the way history can be given new life, and new vision by poetry. Especially for Lucien, who studied St. Lucian culture after finishing his university studies, writing poetry is a way to talk about history with all the complexity that it deserves.’ He acknowledged the power of poetry that can enable one to inhabit several lives at once. ‘It is difficult to talk about time in a uniform way,’ he said. Coming from the same island as the Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott had a huge influence on him growing up – and he pointed out that Walcott loomed large in the consciousness of every young person picking up their pen in St. Lucia. ‘You feel grounded when you discover tradition,’ he said.
Hutchinson, who is a professor of Creative Writing and Poetry at Cornell University, talked about his journey from rural Jamaica to America. The first time he stepped inside the library of New York University, he was ‘full of anxiety’ – he had never seen so many books in one place before that.
When Tishani Doshi, who was moderating the session asked about the family members, and the ‘commoners’ who inhabit the poetry of the panelists, Hutchinson spoke movingly of his grandmother, and her ‘secrecy’ – he learned from being around her that secrets can never be found out by ‘simply asking.’ The poet talked about how growing up in a rural community meant that his ‘ascension’ (a word he used dubiously) was received with joy and blessings by the people around him. ‘Of course, there are always haters,’ he added, to laughter.
The poet Anne Waldman, who had been intently listening to the session, asked the poets about how the geography of the Islands effected their poems – Hutchinson said, ‘This is the cliché for me…the sea is inside my body.’ Lucien, as a student of Carribean ethnology, spoke with admiration of the beauty and the imagery that Carribean culture assigns certain words – ‘for example, the word Water-Lily, in St. Lucian Creole, literally translates to ‘hat of the water’
Hutchinson recalled the Emily Dickinson poem, ‘I Dwell in Possibility’ in which Dickinson compares her poetry to a house – ‘More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors.’ Described as a ‘post-Post-Colonial poet’ by the New Yorker, he said that poetry helps him process the Carribean landscape that is ‘constantly unfolding.’ Lucien, in his turn, recited a line from a poem, Codicil, written by Walcott – ‘To change your language you must change your life.’
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor