Interview by Dorothy Chan
Chris Hutchinson was born in Montreal and has since pursued various livelihoods (cooking in restaurants, working in offices, and occasionally teaching creative writing at high schools, colleges, and universities) in such places as Vancouver, Dawson City, Kelowna, New York City, and, most recently, Houston, where is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. He is the author of three books of poetry, and the epic poem disguised as a picaresque novel, Jonas in Frames.
First of all, I’m so thrilled that we’re featuring your poem, “The Dilettante” in Issue 34.2. It’s such a clever piece. Thank you, Chris.
“The Dilettante” is definitely an apt title for this poem. I love the irony and the art critique going on—this idea of contemporary art being a copy of a copy of a copy of another era of art. Timing is a key strength of this poem. I enjoyed the timing of when you bring in the “counterfeit pipe” which works hand in hand with the irony. Of course, I also appreciate the reference to Magritte. Can you talk more about this questioning of art’s authenticity? In the poem, the speaker mentions the “sake of art.” What role does questioning this authenticity and bringing out these ironies play in creating a poem that looks into all these landscapes and presentations of visual art?
Thanks so much for your appreciative reading, and for allowing me the chance to sneak in a few more words. It’s flattering to be asked to discuss one’s own work and to facilitate, in a way, its reception. Though the poem might feel a little embarrassed at me being here, hanging around like a helicopter parent. So putting the poem aside for a moment, along with my best intentions for it, how to respond to this overwhelming question apropos the “questioning of art’s authenticity”? What hasn’t been said already about a conundrum that vexed even Plato? For him the problem was intimately involved with the nature of mimesis: Is art just a species of after-the-fact ‘re-presentation’ and thus prone to distortions? Are poets and painters merely copycats of nature? Illusionists? Liars extraordinaire? We know Plato goes so far as to argue, in full-on Socratic dialogue mode, that poets not only pervert truth, they also intoxicate, treacherously stoking irrationality and stirring the less virtuous emotions. So he threatens to ban them, along with other cool bohemian types like flute players and pantomimic performers, from his Republic. Which makes him kind of a dick.
But it doesn’t mean he was wrong to wonder about art’s societal worth vis-a-vis its relation to so-called truth. We still wonder about this stuff today. Trapped inside our capitalist Tilt-A-Whirl, we ask ourselves: Does art have a real-world job to do. If so, who or what is it working for? Does it support the troops? Does it corrupt the youth? Ensconced in our Ivory Towers, we write critiques that assail the epic poem as a delivery system for phallocentric values. Late at night, lost in the hall-of-mirrors of a thought, such as: “If a ‘pipe’ isn’t a pipe, just a free floating signifier, then what?” we convince ourselves that our dissertations are doomed. Thanks to Plato, there are now mountains of theories from which to extrapolate and generate new theories––theories that not only question art’s authenticity per se, but the authenticity of whole canons of aesthetic taste and the processes and structures by which these canons are shaped and supported. In short, the game could be rigged. Beauty and truth are one. But beauty and truth and ideology are one, too. Consequently, I sometimes worry about the degree to which I’ve been complicit in the perpetuation of a sanctioned bourgey aestheticism which at best makes nothing happen, or at worst makes nothing happening seem like the most natural state of affairs.
Luckily, there are plenty of counter examples. As a restorative measure I like to recall the time Adrienne Rich dissed Bill Clinton by rejecting his invitation to the Whitehouse to receive the National Medal of Arts. Justifying her refusal, Rich declared: “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” In this public gesture, and in her poems too, it seems Rich values art’s power to confront and resist––and perhaps destabilize––those instances of ‘truth’ whose only validation is power. Construed in terms of an answer to Plato and the boys we might say Rich flips the script and boots the Republic out of poetry. To my way of thinking, her conception of art counts as authentic.
Anyway, maybe some of this chatter was playing at the back of my skull when I sat down to write “The Dilettante”––if I might quickly turn and yank the poem back into the spotlight and embarrass it for just a moment. Though I’d hesitate to say that the poem is explicitly ‘about’ any of these ideas as I’ve sketched them above, riffing. I’d also hesitate to say the dilettante is me, even though I empathize, of course, with the titular character who seems to want to live entirely through art, willfully, stubbornly naive. I sympathize, and I agonize because even though I’ve built a life with the literary arts at its center, I still can’t accurately describe what it is a poem represents or contains or embodies or enacts, nor can I imagine how whatever this is might be subsequently measured on a scale of truth or beauty or authenticity. These are only a few of my dilettantish shortcomings.
Nevertheless, I’ll boldly throw out a few final thoughts on the matter. For me, an authentic artwork presents itself not as a well-wrought urn full of sublimity and essentialist truth, but as what Heather McHugh calls poetry: “a form of partiality.” For me, this kind of artwork invites its audience to mindfully participate in the undoing of its inherently limited, mutable, flawed, and provisional existence. It makes us co-conspirators as it seeks to challenge the idea of its own authority. Paradoxically, this could be the source of its authenticity. It builds a world in order to tear it down. As in tragedy. As in radical humility. The artwork enlists our help so it can ultimately betray––from the Latin verb tradere, “to hand over”––itself. Something like that.
Which is perhaps why, at the end of “The Dilettante,” we find our eponymous anti-hero benighted, entombed, the victim of his singular obsession. He has betrayed himself––to us? I worry about him, to be honest.
Some poets despise the term “ekphrastic” because they justly argue that all art is inspired by other art, making it unnecessary to use such a term. What do you think about this? It seems that references, not only to visual art, but also to popular culture play a big part in your work. I’m especially thinking about your picaresque poetry novel, Jonas in Frames.
I don’t despise the word ” ekphrastic” as much as I despise “arabesque.” But mark this word as it conspicuously appears near the end of “The Dilettante.” Why, you might ask, use a word if its aura stinks of dead past usages and overwhelms its own sense? Who knows. Maybe to evoke a mood of futility and shame while adding just a smidge of baroque decadence? What I’m suggesting is: (almost) anything goes. When a poem is seriously happening, various and sundry references and registers of diction are invited in and encouraged to mingle in order to generate a singular aesthetic effect. It’s all a matter of internal dynamics, plus an awareness of socio-political context (more on this in a sec). It’s like the best party ever. What’s sometimes fun is to see how far I can push a text’s variability, and indeed this is one of the things I get up to in my so-called picaresque poetry novel Jonas in Frames, which you kindly mention. In writing that book I stole from a lot of seemingly incongruent sources. In a fit of savage torpor, I even pilfered myself! Then one day, hoping to legitimize my approach, and moreover hoping to make myself feel like less of a fraudulent loiter-sack, I coined the name Deep Plagiarism, and thus a brave new literary movement was born.
It’s not original, of course. It’s stolen, like everything else. But make no mistake it has nothing to do with pretending to be Andy Warhol’s literary twin, or any of that uncreative writing hopelessness. Deep Plagiarism isn’t about pretending to be anybody, it’s about desiring to be everybody, which, as Whitman knew, is the essence of creativity. Though I don’t mean to promote the idea of an outright free-for-all. That’s way too Libertarian, and I’m more of an Anarcho-syndicalist type. There’s a reason I stuck that “almost” in front of “anything goes.” Adherents of this movement know it’s sweetest to steal from Above. We know, in truth, this isn’t theft at all but a righteous act of taking back from the culture the parts of ourselves those Above once tricked us into thinking no longer belonged to us––which, if you think about it, constitutes a whole fucking lot. But to steal from below, to boost from folks with less agency and power––this is cowardly theft, and anathema to Deep Plagiarism. Being profoundly unethical, such a practice is, by our definition, uncreative.
I confess Deep Plagiarism is also in part a misreading and mocking revision of Robert Bly’s short-lived Deep Image, which he himself seems to have concocted by way of a Harold Bloom-like ‘misprision’ of Lorca then jerry-rigged and recast within an American male chauvinist milieu. But never mind Bly. What I’m hinting at it is this: For better or worse it seems most writing is just an intertextual mash-up of the pilfered past, a heady re-ordering and re-contextualizing of what’s already ‘out there.’ Connecting this back to your question, my sense is that art isn’t so much inspired by, rather it conspires with other art.
I love kitsch but I also can’t stand to look at it sometimes. I just get a weird feeling because it’s so sentimental and so manufactured. How do you think low culture inspires high culture? Is high culture possible without this low culture?
I think that to think of art in terms of high and low culture is to find oneself in a double bind. How high or low can we go? Either road leads to the same cul-de-sac, a place where uncertainties are stabilized and possibilities exhausted as art’s function is reduced to that of a cultural signpost. I mean its status becomes what it means. This is how the Mona Lisa can sometimes appear as sentimental and manufactured as a smiley emoticon. No longer an instance of art, Da Vinci’s painting now stands for Art as some unassailable Ideal. Fixed. Immutable. Vague as a bauble. In viewing this figure, how many times have we fallen into the sublimity of a sweetly enigmatic countenance, and how many times have we found ourselves merely skimming the flattened and impenetrable surface of an icon? Duchamp made this point explicitly clear with his infamous L.H.O.O.Q. Now sporting a childishly doodled moustache and goatee, Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ Mona Lisa quickly became itself iconic, the emblem of an anti-high-culture––which is to say iconoclastic––movement. Ironically, Duchamp now enjoys a place of pride in the history of art and art theory, and his ready-mades are counted among the precious artifacts of high culture.
So up and down it goes. Round and round. And by conceptualizing these two extremes I guess I’m also inferring a fecund middle zone, a ‘between’ place of conflict and interchange characterized by fluidity, particularity, and difference. It’s here where the action lives, where meanings are contested.
Who are some of your favorite visual artists right now? What about poets? This next part of the question is something that’s been resonated already, but how do the two inform each other?
One of my oldest friends is the Montreal-based painter Joseph Siddiqi, whose work appears on the covers of two of my books. I’ve always envied this friend, and painters in general. I covet their ramshackle studios, the materiality of all of their stuff, pigments and palettes and hog bristle fan brushes and whatnot. Next to the tangible plastic arts, the writing life can seem pretty paltry, ethereal. I often misread William’s dictum “no ideas but in things” as part lament and part admission of the utter inadequacy of words. Words as things? Word machines? Who are we kidding? Everyone knows the connection between language and the physical plane is tenuous at best. Like a lot of poets, I circle this problem, this personal grievance, obsessively. In fact in my new manuscript there’s a poem titled “The Half Lives of Painters and Poets” which addresses this matter in all sorts of heartbreaking ways––heartbreaking because inadequately linguistic.
Again, I love your work and want to read more of your poems. Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
Well thank-you Dorothy for your words and support, and thanks as well to anyone who’s read this interview to the end! All I can say (or want to say) about my present project is that it’s a book-length manuscript of poems which I’m thinking about calling An Egg-shaped Hole in the Universe. To be honest, I’m still not sure what it’s about.