Joseph Hutchison, current Poet Laureate of Colorado (2014-2018), is the author of more than 15 books. He teaches at the University of Denver’s University College, where he directs the Arts & Culture and Global Affairs programs. He lives with his wife in the mountains southwest of Denver. Two of his most recent chapbooks, The Earth-Boat and The Satire Lounge, as well as his translation of Miguel Lupián’s Ephemeral, have recently been published with Folded Word.
Maryka: How has your appointment as Colorado Poet Laureate changed your relationship to poetry in the state?
Joseph: It’s been an education! I’ve discovered many poets who hadn’t been on my radar before, which is probably the most exciting result of the appointment. I’ve said before that Colorado is in the midst of a poetic renaissance, and it’s true, although I’m a bit unsure about what it means to say so. Really what’s happening, I think, is that the long-time division between what I’d call campus poets and community poets is beginning to weaken. The renaissance I mentioned is really taking place in regions: North, Central, and South Front Range; the Western Slope; the Plains. Within each, a lot of diversity and a lot of interflow between campuses and communities.
Maryka: Has it changed your individual writing practice?
Joseph: My writing practice has been in place so long that nothing much changes it. Against the advice of most writers, I don’t keep a journal (though I’ve tried) and I don’t write unless I feel moved to write: no prompts, no (intentional) imitations of other writers, no free-writing, etc. Things come to me and I write them down. If I go three months without a line, I don’t fret because I know that at least I’m not adding to the store of dispensable poems by forcing the issue. Not that any of my poems are indispensable, however good they might seem to me. My practice, such as it is, feels authentic to me, and that’s about all I believe a poet can ask.
Maryka: Much of the work in your recent chapbook, The Earth-Boat, focuses on landscape and local ecology, particularly that of Colorado and Mexico. How have these places affected you as an individual and as a writer?
Joseph: My wife Melody and I first went to Mexico for our first anniversary. Friends had told us about this boutique beach-side posada called Capitán Lafitte, which was nestled near a place called Tres Rios. There were cabanas set back about 20 yards from the surf and a row of rooms further back toward the jungle. It was a slow, bumpy ride from the coast highway — back then a two-lane affair running from Cancún south to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Chetumal and into Belize. We fell in love with the place and the people, and began going back every year around the same time. I really knew very little about Mexico, even less about the history of the Yucatán peninsula, but I’d had a love affair with Mexican poetry since reading Octavio Paz’s seminal anthology Mexican Poetry in my early 20’s. So over the years I read more and more Mexican poetry, histories of Mexico, studies of Mayan culture, etc. I can’t begin to trace the influence of all that, but I’m sure it’s there. Not that I write a lot about Mexico: I only write about it when I’m there!
Colorado, of course, is a different story. I was born and raised in Denver, in a multicultural neighborhood (white, Italian, Hispanic, and Jewish residents — by no means a melting pot, but an atmosphere of mutual respect), and of course spent lots of time wandering around between the mountains and the plains. I find places without mountains kind of spooky (Kansas, for example), even a little claustrophobic — which seems counter-intuitive, but there it is. I like vistas. One of my earliest poems that seems worth preserving is a fairly straightforward rendition of a view of the plains from the window of the second-floor apartment I had in college: It connects the external vista with the internal vista, and all my poems seem to do or at least attempt that. So, in The Earth-Boat, we begin with a view of Mountain Evans (though it’s not named in the poem), move by stages to the environment of Yucatán (mountainless and thick with jungle, so that the only vistas become the internal ones and of course the vista provided by the sea), and end up in a leafy backyard in Venice, California, with the vista that is created by deep friendship. Although I’ve written lots of poems about city life, they always have some kind of vista in them — though the vista may be in exile!
Maryka: In what ways do you feel your writing is grounded in place?
Joseph: Let me give a possibly cryptic answer by quoting B.K.S. Iyengar, whose method of yoga is what my wife Melody teaches. Melody loves this quote. One time, B.K.S. was traveling in the U.S., and a journalist who was covering his arrival asked a standard journalistic question: “Where do you live?” Iyengar answered, “In my body.” So, if you accept the notion that we all live in our bodies, then I have to say that yes, my writing is grounded in place. When I write about the landscape, or a dream, or a news report, or any intellectual/emotional experience, it’s filtered through the fact of my bodily existence. So place is bound to be an influence. This is why I’m not attracted to what I think of as “head poetry” — concept poems, poems generated to illustrate this or that theory, etc.
Maryka: Do you write about your environment for the sake of portrayal or as an access point to something else?
Joseph: The answer to this is implicit in my earlier answers, I think, though the question of “something else” is always intriguing. Sometimes place becomes a figure, a set of relationships that touch on “something else.” Sometimes I know what that something else is, but sometimes I just know that the figure feels right, by which I mean it has something else in it that goes beyond the portrayal. I’m really not interested in the picturesque — description for the sake of description — so yes, if I let a poem out of my notebook it’s because it touches on “something else”….
Maryka: In your experience, do different landscapes and ecosystems stimulate different poetic responses, or is it more about the experience of being engaged with the natural world that makes nature and landscape valuable subjects?
Joseph: Because my body (which includes my mind) responds differently to different landscapes, it’s true that different poetic responses arise. The value in this kind of writing is that it stimulates, or should stimulate, some kind of increase in consciousness. I don’t think in terms of “subjects,” the root meaning of “subject” being “subjected or subdued”; I think in terms of a co-created moment of becoming, of expansion. Basho says, “Learn about the pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.” In the process you learn about yourself.
Maryka: What aspects of teaching are inspiring to you, and how does it stimulate your creative process?
Joseph: When teaching is working well, you get to witness instances of increased consciousness. Sometimes about language in a shallow sense, sometimes in the very deepest sense. But teaching doesn’t really stimulate my creative process. If anything, it’s the other way around.
Maryka: What do you see as the most essential element of writing to continuously build upon and improve one’s practice as a poet?
Joseph: First, pay attention to the world, not the knock-offs of reality that are presented to us as “the world.”
Second, read constantly — and not just poetry. Learn the old poets, the old philosophers, the old storytellers; that is, know your tradition. As Americans, we tend to think of “tradition” as beginning with our personal birth. “Tradition” for us is bathed in nostalgia for childhood. But the real tradition is a record of hard-won adulthood, an evolution, a maturation.
Third, understand that the tradition is just a small reflection of a larger evolution of culture. So if you’re going to write, avoid writing out of a narrowness — a narrow focus on your own emotions, your own ideas, your own little life; otherwise the practice will never progress. Read history, for cryin’ out loud! And read beyond your own language: The tradition is bigger than any one language.
Finally, and here I’ll critique your question a little bit, give up the idea of continuous improvement, which in my opinion is a fantasy promoted by corporate capitalism. Every poet’s evolution is different: Some write brilliantly at eighteen and never advance after that (Rimbaud); some barely advance at all from start to finish (Creeley); others peak early and decline over time (Ginsberg); others write well early on but only later become truly brilliant (Yeats). Evolution sometimes leads to a dead end, I mean. The question is not how to continuously improve, but how to create a practice that serves one’s own authentic path at the moment.
Here endeth today’s sermon.