Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

“Shivering Romantic”: An Interview with Chris Hutchinson

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“Shivering Romantic”: An Interview with Chris Hutchinson

By Alessandro Porco

AP:

Chris, I think that, indeed, you are a “shivering romantic,” to borrow a phrase from the opening poem of your latest poetry collection, Other People’s Lives. Could you talk about this very particular framing of the new book, while also generally introducing its overall concerns, themes, ideas, etcetera?

CH:

Interesting. I guess there is a certain romantic sensibility that runs through the book in terms of how the self, with its various personae and vulnerabilities, confronts the world (or tries to avoid it). But it is indeed a “shivering” thing, as it continually runs up against romantic failure (ouch). Though in this collection I was more interested in unpacking the lyric “I,” or in teasing the old egotistical sublime out into the open in order to rough it up a bit. Why? Because I’ve learned (the hard way) that any art (or any life for that matter) devoted to or guided by the prejudices of the emotions is pure folly. Yet I’m also the first to acknowledge that to write even the most hybridized (as the kids are calling it these days) kind of lyric poetry — that is, lyric poetry that’s alert to the various insecurities and scepticisms which postmodernism tends to underscore — involves a risky sort of subjectivity. So perhaps this is the crux of the collection: how language, which might be the closest thing we have to telepathy, haunts the no-man’s land between interiority and exteriority, between self and other. Although the book is ostensibly ‘about’ a whole host of things: sidewalks; cockroaches; cities; aeolian harps — I think it’s really about this liminal space where the weird abundance of the imagination pushes out into, or even back against (as W. Stevens suggests) reality (if such a thing exists).

But then, I think this is true about most good poetry. So I guess I’m trying my best to avoid your question. Let’s just say that I’m a romantic at heart but I’ve also been exposed to a dangerously small amount of poststructuralist theory, and that my poetry documents my abject failure (hence the shivering) at reconciling these two worlds.

AP:

I don’t think you avoided the question at all, Chris. Before moving on, I just wondered if you could talk a bit more about the idea of poetry as “telepathy,” which you suggest above, and how that plays out in the poems, especially in terms of how we know what we know. It’s a very suggestive idea. But even using telepathy more loosely, one might conceive of metaphor as a manifestation of telepathy, with the poet as the medium between things — and your poems, like “Mining Sapphire,” seem to be primarily interested in making those “connections” happen, while also allowing for interruption.

CH:

I guess I did dig myself a rabbit hole and now you’re asking me to dive in. Fair enough. Let’s say, speaking very generally and just for fun, that the distance between two disparate ‘things’ is the purview of metaphor. If the metaphor is functioning properly, a reader should be able to fill this gap with some kind of psychic-emotional energy. But it’s a nebulous zone, fraught with hazards! It’s chockfull of negative capability, this chasm. So there’s risk involved, and yes, a leap to be made across an epistemological conundrum — namely: how can we know the unknown in terms of the known; or to quote Blake out of context: how “to see the world in a grain of sand”?

As a poet of course I am concerned with the circumstances and conditions whereupon such a vortex of negative capability might come into existence. How to rig the trap? Lately, I’ve become more interested in interruptions, like you say, in fissures, incongruities, disjunctions, fractures, leakages, than in making connections. Because it’s not my job to make connections, it’s my readers’ job to fill the space. The poem you mention, “Mining Sapphire” is intended as a series of slippages, like ascending and descending escalators of images and metaphors, and is designed to be alluring and kinetic, but a little volatile, a little disorientating. It’s as much an enactment of the precarious nature of the movement of thought as it is ‘about’ anything.

But if there is anything to ‘get’ about this poem, or any poem in fact, maybe it’s that rigid categories, such as “self” and “other” for example, tend to merge or dissolve or collapse in the metaphorical void. Let’s call this acknowledgment, this ‘getting it,’ telepathy. Why not? Regardless, it’s all metaphor, isn’t it, the ways in which we think and communicate? Language in itself is just surface noise, that is, until we slip and fall through the page.

AP:

Other People’s Lives concludes with a foray into sonnet territory. “Cross-sections” is a 19-part sequence, which relies on a version of the sonnet that literally cuts it (“cross-sections” it) in half — two seven line stanzas. What brought about your interest in the sonnet sequence?

CH:

Remember back in the early nineties when everybody wanted to be a DJ? Well, now it seems everybody wants to be sonneteer. I’m half-sick of sonnets! And there are a lot of (what I consider to be) superstitious beliefs out there about the form, about what makes a sonnet a sonnet, and what a sonnet is good for. Is it especially conducive to a certain mode of contemplation, or to a particular rhetorical gymnastics routine: the ‘premise, argument, re-premise’ format? But don’t plenty of other kinds of poems unfold in a similar way? And what people are calling sonnets —well, it’s debatable whether a poem is a sonnet just because it stops after 14 lines.

So what’s so mesmerising about the sonnet? For me, the essence of the thing is in the torque and pivot of the volta, that hinge, arguably between thought and feeling, where something shifts, gives way, or swings open unexpectedly. It’s not quite as sudden or as visionary, say, as the effect of the third line of a good haiku, probably because the sonnet is steeped in and cluttered with so much Western intellectual anxiety; so there’s more neurotic ‘mind-stuff’ to negotiate.
But who writes veritable sonnets these days? My 14 line poems are more like the mutant offspring of the form, the weirdo children of cultured parents. For example, the poems from “Cross-sections” are 14 — that magical number — lines but, as you point out, each is vivisected right down the middle, making two stanzas of seven lines — “pried / open for all the world to see” (to quote and to hint a little from Berryman). And there are certain embedded and nearly invisible structures I’d probably have to point out and explain before anybody could pick up on them, none of which have much to do with the proper form of the sonnet.

I still can’t say exactly why I chose the sonnet form to riff on. I had just moved to Phoenix, AZ where I was having a hard time adjusting to the heat and to the Republicans-on-steroids culture there. So maybe I needed to be reminded of the sonnet, to use it as mind-scaffolding, some idea of order, to keep sane. Or maybe I chose to write sonnet-like poems out of sheer spite, because I couldn’t, and still can’t, write a metered and rhymed sonnet to save my life, even though I’ve been challenged to do so by certain friends — friends who are more geometrically adept than I am.

AP:

Well, two things emerge from the answer you’ve provided. First, allow me to play the role of a Valéry Larbaud-esque figure — can I please ask you to tease out some talk (though, admittedly, a little mystery is always good) of the “embedded and nearly invisible structures.” Give an example, if you would. Second, maybe you could speak a little bit to “Cross-sections” sense of history and time, which I think are both, in someway, related to the sequence’s serial form: at one point, for example, you write, quite eloquently, that “Today, something’s either / missing or gone to sleep, as if history were finally / tired of coming ’round, leaving us to something / far more sinister: ourselves” (emphasis mine) and early in the sequence, you also ask, “Why begin again?”

CH:

Sorry to sound so weirdly cryptic. I wish I could tell you that I used the Fibonacci number series as the basis for some kind of metrical master plan. But most of the little games I played with ‘hidden’ or ‘subliminal’ form really aren’t worth explaining at length; to do so would be tedious. They were meaningless in themselves — some as simple as repeating certain numbers of syllables, a la Marianne Moore — and important only to my creative process as a way of focusing my attention away from the literal content of the language. However, not wanting to disappoint, I promise that the book does contain a few buried acrostic messages. That’s all I’ll say.

Your framing of the series in terms of history and time I find really interesting. One of the luxuries I try not to indulge in is coming up with such captivating insights into my own work, so it’s always fun when someone else does this. But here’s the thing: I can’t give my conscious mind much credit for any meta-structures, overarching arguments, or grand conceits — if any such can be gleaned from the series. My theory is that by writing quickly and somewhat mindlessly while under some psychological pressure — I’m thinking of Frank O’Hara when he said “you just go on your nerve” — one’s unconscious intelligence can, at times, become subtly manifest. At least this has been my experience, though what the definition of “unconscious intelligence” might be is hard for me to say. It seems the moment you go looking for these things, or try to talk about them, or access them directly, they are nowhere to be found. Now, here I could regale you with my slant and cock-eyed theories about time and history and my resultant analyses of the human condition, but they’d all ultimately be disingenuous noises, and lacking in fealty to the original creative impulse which helped me to write the lines like the ones you quote above. Which is a longwinded way of saying I don’t know how to answer your question, even though the question itself delights me.

AP:

In “Mining Sapphire,” you ask, “what makes the experience exquisite?” It’s an important question, especially as later in the poem you seem to critique (implicitly) the idea of the cool irony or impersonality that might disinvest experience of “feeling” (you write, “who these days can afford not to invest in their pageantry of feelings?”). So, what makes experience exquisite for you — love, travel, reading, cinema? What sets your mind racing? And how do you try to capture that experience in the poetry?

CH:

I especially love solitude. I love being alone with nothing ‘important’ to do. That’s when I’m most productive, and happiest. But then our culture tends to disinvest solitude, along with the contemplative moods it can engender, of significance and value! I find that even within the culture of contemporary poetry, if there is such a thing, there’s such an emphasis on social networking and on public performance (not just readings, but chasing after grants and tenure track teaching positions) that I’m continually amazed at anyone who has time left over to write — let alone cultivate an inner life. So the exquisite experience for me has something to do with extracting myself from the collective mindset and wriggling free of conventional constraints, responsibilities, and expectations. Basically I’m an indolent, west coast slacker kid, and I should have been born rich. As it is, ineluctable financial pressures have made it difficult for me to achieve any lasting state of beatific weightlessness. But occasionally I manage to sneak a few lines onto the page — lines, it’s true, that contain recognizable words organized according to the normal rules of syntax and grammar; but lines that are, to some degree I hope, unfettered by the obligations of prosaic cultural utility. This means I’m suspicious of the idea of poetry that tries to “capture” experience, as one might trap a wild animal in order to perform scientific experiments on it. Even poetry of witness, or poetry with an evident social conscience, if it’s any good, I think tends to eschew this clumsy style of appropriation. I dig poetry that ultimately refuses to do or to say anything that’s explicitly edifying, yet still manages to engage my whole (intellectual / sensual / spiritual) attention. So when Auden says “poetry makes nothing happen,” I believe there’s room for optimism. To me, his statement is fraught with Zen potential! Or maybe it’s that good art and good artists are intrinsically anti-social. Paradoxically, such anti-sociability might be indispensable to the evolutionary health of a society, if one thinks of the counter-cultural urges and innovations in art as consciousness prototypes, or Darwinian mutations of the mind. Then again, I could just be trying to justify my misspent youth, and my standoffish personality.

AP:

For the record, I think a standoffish personality is good in and for poetry. So, I guess my final question is where do you imagine Other People’s Lives — and its potential standoffish quality — fitting into the field of Canadian poetry? What are your hopes for the collection?

CH:

Despite all my anti-social posturing, I think the book is very approachable. Though I think that reading anything worthwhile should take some work — that a reader is in a sense responsible for actively participating with the text, a la Ronald Barthes’ notion of a “writerly text” — I also subscribe to the idea of the pleasure principle when it comes poetry: life’s too short to defer linguistic gratification! So my hope is that there’s enough pleasure to be gleaned from the poems — albeit the kind of pleasure that is sometimes perversely inflected with a modicum of pain — to stimulate a reader’s willingness to partake in the creative process. More simply put, I hope that people get a kick out of the book, that reading it creates some pleasurable friction. As for the mythical, bucolic field of Canadian poetry — I saw it once in a dream!

Chris Hutchinson was born in Montreal and has lived in Victoria, Edmonton,
Vancouver and most recently Phoenix, Arizona. He now lives in Vancouver.
His poems have been translated into Chinese and have appeared in numerous
Canadian and U.S. publications. He is the author of the poetry collection,
Unfamiliar Weather (Muses' Company, 2005). Other People's Lives is his second collection.
Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press. Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is writing a dissertation on hip-hop poetics and American poetry. He writes a hip-hop column, “In Extremis,” for Maisonneuve Magazine online ( www.maisonneuve.org).

Read more about Other People's Lives at the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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