Ishion Hutchinson has the ability to anticipate a poem before it is spoken.
Shion Hutchinson, who is 40 years old, is a poet known for his originality, innovation, and attention to detail. His third book, School of Instructions, focuses on the experiences of West Indian volunteer soldiers in the British army during World War I in the Middle East. This collection has been nominated for the 2023 TS Eliot prize. Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica and is seen as a highly-educated individual with a remarkable amount of energy, sensitivity, and warmth. He earned a degree from a university in Jamaica and went on to pursue a master’s degree at New York University. Currently, he teaches poetry at Cornell University’s creative writing program.
What was the origin of the School of Instructions?
Karen McCarthy Woolf, a British poet, commissioned the work in response to the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The purpose was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One and explore the involvement of Caribbean soldiers in the war. The commission was straightforward and hands-on. Initially, I planned to visit the archives, select a document that caught my attention, and then write a poem about it. However, during my time at the archives, I discovered a whole new realm of information that eventually evolved into the School of Instructions over the years.
What was the most notable thing you discovered at the Imperial War Museum?
A war journal by a white British officer writing about black soldiers in the Middle East. It was dry writing, with plain observations, but each time the diary mentioned by name a black West Indian soldier, it triggered something in me. The fact that the officer was doing his duty, in this very fraught moment, writing out their names was an intimate way of saying: “This man is here” – and that really touched me. It stayed with me for a very long time. A lot of names in the poem came from there.
The book’s immense impact is attributed to its manipulation of time, where a schoolboy’s experiences in 1990s Jamaica intertwine with the events of World War I. How did you come up with this structure?
My admiration for modernist poets, particularly TS Eliot, has greatly influenced me. Another poet, David Jones, also had a significant impact on me, especially his work “In Parenthesis,” which explores the concept of time collapsing and focuses on a single day on the Somme. This idea is similar to James Joyce’s, where a single day can represent a whole lifetime. Prior to this, I was unaware of the involvement of West Indian soldiers in World War I – it was a hidden aspect of history for me. When encountering something new, I strive to approach it with a fresh perspective. As I delved into archival material, I connected with images of West Indian soldiers in their uniforms. It was a moment of realization and I have since been combining my own experiences growing up in Jamaica with these soldiers, who remain largely unknown.
I really enjoyed the use of sound in the poem, with the playful use of language and the more elegant moments like the phrase “a red-letter day of sorrow.” Was it difficult to switch between formal and informal styles?
I remain acutely aware of the patterns I have established. I instinctively follow them and can anticipate the poem before it is written. There is also a recurring theme, a persistent need to hear and re-hear. Growing up with Jamaican music, I was inspired by dub – the technique of layering phrases – and wanted to incorporate it into the language. Considering Jamaica’s complicated history, I felt it necessary for language to reflect the current chaotic state.
Could you discuss your childhood in Port Antonio? Is the character “Godspeed” in the book based on yourself? Did you also go by that nickname?
During my childhood in Port Antonio, I experienced joy and contentment. My grandmother and I resided in a seaside house, where I often immersed myself in reading encyclopedias. The pursuit of knowledge held great significance for me, even at a young age. My grandmother, along with others in my community, encouraged and supported my thirst for knowledge.
The school had a strong British influence and discipline was utilized for teaching purposes. It is paradoxical that one attends school for education but is subjected to a strict environment that is hard to break away from, yet it is a crucial path towards a better future. Godspeed is a diverse group of individuals, partly influenced by my own personality, but as Eliot described, it is a “complex ghost”. And no, I did not have a nickname, which is uncommon for someone from Jamaica – I managed to avoid that!
What age were you when you wrote your initial poem and what was its subject?
At the age of 15, I wrote what I thought was a poem about a suicide that occurred in my hometown. It was about a man who had hanged himself, and at the time, I had never even heard of someone taking their own life. It was a teacher who pointed out to me that it was indeed a poem.
Have you ever encountered Derek Walcott and did he have an impact on you?
He showed great generosity towards me. When I had my book launch for Far District in St Lucia, he kindly drove me and was concerned about arriving on time. He always made sure to be prepared and ready.
I was taken aback by the mention of Gaza in your poem. What emotions does it evoke for you, this connection between the past and present, life imitating art?
The situation in Gaza is devastating and terrifying. During World War I, British soldiers from the West Indies were not treated as equals and were not allowed to bear arms. They were primarily used for service work such as digging trenches and carrying weapons in the Middle East, specifically in Gaza, Palestine, Syria, and what is now Israel. This history continues to haunt us.
How much does poetry raise one’s awareness?
Poetry enhances our connection to language, causing us to reconsider and reshape our bond with words. We are creatures of communication; it is our means of connection and expression.
Who is the poet that has had the greatest impact on you and what is the reason for that?
I always bring Shakespeare along when I travel. It serves as my protection, shielding me from the overwhelming stresses of the world.
Which poet would you recommend to a young person who has not yet been convinced of the value of reading poetry?
EE Cummings is a great gateway drug because he has a sharp ear for the inner music of language.
Which book would be unexpected to find on your bookshelf?
I own all of Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary works. As a child, I adored Treasure Island and was captivated by it to the extent that I believed I had it completely memorized. I had a deep admiration for it.
What’s the best book you’ve ever been given as a present?
I revisit Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch every fall.
What will be your next read?
The copy of The Iliad translated by Emily Wilson is currently on my desk.