the strange, the surprising, the slightly off-center: A Rumpus Conversation with J. Bailey Hutchinson
While pursuing my MFA in 2017, I met J. Bailey Hutchinson in a poetry workshop. The originality and lyrical density of her poems—with their sound play, odd syntax, and off-kilter figures of speech—still awe me now as they did back then. Bailey’s poems are intellectual, but they aren’t afraid to reach for heartfelt sentiment. They’re grounded in the gritty details of this world, but they don’t mind getting a bit fantastic either.
I was overjoyed, but not surprised, when Patricia Smith selected Bailey’s book Gut: Poems as the winner of the 2022 Miller Williams Poetry Prize. More recently, Bailey won a 2023 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Bailey and I chatted via email about her debut collection, Gut.
The Rumpus: Gut is full of musicality and density of syntax— your language is both guttural and playful: “a language // boiled up / from my most // wickedest organs”). I’ve heard Rita Dove say that she can’t start reading her poems aloud too soon in her revision process because it’s easy for her to fall in love with the sound of her voice, which can make noticing parts that need work more difficult. What role does reading/speaking aloud have in your writing/revision process? How much do you let your ear guide a poem’s progression and at what stage?
Bailey Hutchinson: I frequently enter a poem ears-first, for better or worse. I have pages and pages of notes that are just phrases that sound intriguing to me, like a little magpie’s hutch of curios. What do they mean? I don’t always know! Does a magpie know what a Snapple cap’s for? …Maybe. I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about avian intelligence. But my point is, the initial pull is frequently more sensory (oh, shiny!) than intellectual. I might have a broad guiding concept in mind when I start a poem, like this one’s going to be about my mom or this one’ll be a summer poem, but the first words I put down on the page don’t always overtly engage with those concepts, and by the end of my first draft, I’ve often stumbled into an entirely different story I want to tell.
Poetry’s a space where we’re allowed to luxuriate in sound in a way prose isn’t really built for, and sometimes, that deeply sensory experience of language makes for a deeper emotional truth. Sometimes. Like Mrs. Dove, I, too, can so love a sound that I have difficulty noticing when the emotional truth isn’t really coming through the way I’d like it to, so I try to wait until I’ve reached a draft where I feel like, oh, that’s what I’m writing about before I’ll let myself read it out loud. Often those initial sonic gestures (the shinies) don’t really fit anymore. I’m a little too stubborn to own up to that, though, so I’ll usually try to work them in elsewhere, or soften the words so they’re not so glitzy…but other times, I have to do the hard thing and put them back in the hutch. Fodder for another day. Reading a poem aloud also often helps me find other ways it might not be working—where my tongue stumbles, I might need to tighten the language. If I rest in a certain place as a reader but there’s no break or space on the page, it’s probably a sign that I need to play with the line. I’m a big proponent of the poem telling the poet what it needs, not the other way around. It may just take a couple read-throughs for me to hear what it’s saying.
Rumpus: In her introduction to Gut, Patricia Smith notes the way in which you often create compound words (“shirt-wrecked by a midnight nosebleed” or “cricket-leg lettering”) or torque fresh meanings out of familiar words (using “shallow” and “nickel” as verbs). Your writing is richly textured, thanks, in part, to moments like these that pack so much description into small spaces. How do you think of these moments? How conscious are you, when writing or revising, of wanting to create these word-mashups?
Hutchinson: It’s very intentional. I’ve always loved the strange, the surprising, the slightly off-center—I have a much bigger gut-reaction (pardon the pun) to a surprising description than I do to a straightforward one. If I’m going to be academic about it, I might point to Beowulf, which I read in tenth grade English class. When we learned about kennings, some sticky part of my brain reached out and grabbed hold—and it hasn’t let go. We all know about the whale-road (sea) and the ring-giver (king), but there are so many other fabulous ways the text doesn’t say while still lending additional meaning to the referent. A bone-house is a body. A sea-shawl is a sail. Each not-saying connotes something about the thing to which it refers. I love that.
But another huge part of my fixation with textured and torqued language (to borrow your excellent terminology!) stems from growing up in the South, where figurative language isn’t limited to formal literary spaces. You’ll hear people in the South say some of the wildest things—like my maternal grandmother, who once said “cheese isn’t good unless it makes your teeth itch,” or a man I overheard at a Subway who described a newborn baby as “about a loaf long.” A whole section of my family uses the term “pilf” to describe the act of passing gas. I love this casual inventiveness—to go back to a term I used earlier, It can sometimes get us closer to an emotional truth than safer, more linear language. Sharp cheese does make your teeth itch. I don’t know how many inches a new baby has from toe to top, but I know how big a loaf of bread is. And doesn’t “pilf” sound like…?
Rumpus: Three poem titles contain your full name: “J. Bailey Hutchinson Prays to the River,” “J. Bailey Hutchinson Takes Plan B in Marseille,” and “J. Bailey Hutchinson Moves 658.8 Miles North and Tries to Make it Count.” I love how nearly unwieldy these titles are and the way in which they include particulars that make the titles into small stories with an element of humor in the formality of using your name. These titles both identify the speaker as the writer and also enable a third-person distancing. I learned from the note in the back of the book that this naming idea came from a poem by Christian Anton Gerard. What did you feel that these titles allowed you to do? At what point did you know that you had a series of these poems?
Hutchinson: I’d been wanting to write a poem about an intimate but strange encounter I had in France, but every time I sat down to write it, I felt uncomfortable. Not because it was too personal a story to tell, but because I didn’t understand why I wanted to write it, and, by extension, why anyone would want to read it. This is just another boring hookup story, I thought. So that poem-kernel sat inside me for a while, until I saw the fabulous Christian Anton Gerard read for Open Mouth Reading Series back in 2016? 2017? He read a couple poems that used this mechanic and I found it so fascinating—how it was at once the most obvious gesture of ownership over a poem’s contents, but also, as you say, a kind of exercise in distance. I had to try it, and I figured this weird little poem-kernel was as good a place to start as any.
In writing “J. Bailey Hutchinson Takes Plan B in Marseille,” I felt like I had the opportunity to view my poem’s “I” as an outsider (or reader) might—not “I” as in me, but “I” as in a mechanism the poet built in order to carry a message from point A to point B. Once I did that, I stumbled into the real reason I wanted so badly to share that story: to examine the agency of desire, and the lengths to which women and girls in the U.S. have to go to exercise it. The other two poems you mention don’t carry my name into the body of the poem, but early drafts did. I ended up revising toward “I” for a couple reasons—one being that “J. Bailey Hutchinson” is a bit of a mouthful, and neither of these poems benefited from all those extra syllables. But also I wanted to be a little closer to the poems’ actions. And the truth is, I don’t think I ever knew I had a series—I just noticed them there, in my broader body of work, after the fact.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say it wasn’t an intentional series because there are other series throughout the book too—a few poems that share titles, a few self portraits as anime characters, and two poems “written as barter” for outstanding bills. What draws you to writing in series? Is it often something that’s unplanned for you?
Hutchinson: A lot of poets (especially young ones) worry about writing the same poem over and over again—about not being fresh or dynamic or interesting enough. There’s this notion (a less popular notion these days, sure, but a notion nonetheless) that poems should always be these neat little containers, that they always solve their initial dilemmas. But I don’t know, sometimes it takes a couple shots. Is any feeling small and simple enough to fit in one poem? And to anyone who says yes, I’d issue a gentle challenge: “What might you discover if you try it again, anyway?”
Re-percolate the substrate. Do it a couple times. I’m hard pressed to think of a poem series that reads dull and redundant—there’s almost always something more there. Claire Wahmanholm’s “Glacier” poems come to mind, as do Geffrey Davis’s “What I Mean When I Say…” poems. The urge to do it again is, for me, enough of a reason to do it—it signifies that there’s more to unpack, something we didn’t brush up against in the first or second or third round.
Rumpus: How did your anime poems come about?
Hutchinson: I love talking about this! For me, it comes down to literacies. I was a capital-d Dork in middle school and high school—I’d have birthday parties for my favorite anime characters. I had a binder under my bed filled with fanfiction about them. I had Livejournal accounts dedicated to specific fandoms. I knew all the best websites for torrenting fansubs (which I definitely do not do anymore, please don’t come for me MPAA), and so on. These intellectual properties took up a lot of space in my brain, which led to a specific kind of literacy. When I got to college, many of my peers were already literate in the classically cerebral stuff—your Greco-Roman mythology, your transcendentalist literature, your Gilded Age art, etc…and I wasn’t. It made me feel stupid, which, at that age, came with some enormously disproportionate angst. I started to hate that I’d spent so much time as a kid watching cartoons instead of reading The Iliad under a tree, or thumbing through Kant at the local library, or memorizing Shakespearean soliloquies for fun—all of which were things I imagined my classmates had done (though honestly, it’s more likely that, like me, like so many of us, they’d felt pressured to “look smart” and done a really great job of faking it). So, I put all the things I loved as a kid in a box, and I wrote (terrible) blank verse about Achilles.
And I didn’t open that box back up until grad school, which is quite funny, in retrospect! Only once I’d gotten to a certain level of “academic prestige” (heavy scare quotes) did I feel comfortable returning to the world I’d deemed “fundamentally unacademic.” I just got tired of not letting myself enjoy something I’d historically enjoyed and still wanted to enjoy. And then, I started to think, “Hey, I have all this cultural knowledge stored up in me—why not plumb it? Why can’t Usagi be the Achilles of my poems? Isn’t the fact it matters to me enough of a reason to write about it?”
Rumpus: In your family poems, I keep seeing this “twine” that runs through time—the long history of actions and choices and DNA that have helped to shape the speaker. I also can’t help but notice how different the long-sectioned, “Became My Body, Too,” is formally from the book’s other poems—there’s a collage quality to it. How did you arrive at this form for this poem in particular, and how did you arrive at the decision to present sections of it as Mitzi’s (the speaker’s mother) writing? Was this poem written after many of the other family poems? (I ask because it seems so perfectly placed within the book that I can’t imagine it coming anywhere else.)
Hutchinson: Thank you for being such a keen reader, Josh—it’s so affirming to hear you picking up on the “twine” I’ve laid down.
Interestingly enough, “Became My Body, Too” is one of the oldest poems in the book. I mean, not by much—most of Gut came together in a 2-3-year period—but it’s still on the early end of that range. I wrote the first draft at the Community of Writers Workshop in 2016, largely as an exercise for exploring white space at the loving encouragement of my workshop friends—notably the poets Roberto F. Santiago, Jill Bergantz, Diannely Antigua, and Jeremy Michael Clark. Giving myself permission to play across the page (rather than just down it) allowed me to think about the poem’s contents in a nonlinear way—to get comfortable with a bit of mess, a bit of chaos. Words that go well with “family.”
As part of the work of revising the poem, I asked my mom to tell me about her nuclear family—particularly when she was growing up. A lot of that’s sewn into the poem’s narrative, but as I translated my mom’s words into my own “poetic” ones, I started to feel a little…gross, I guess? Like I was mining someone else’s tragedies and intimacies for my own artistic merit—but it wasn’t just “someone,” it was my mother, and I could see how key moments in her life shaped key moments in my own (for better or worse). So, I was stuck: this felt like an important poem to write, but I didn’t want to write it at the expense of my mother’s voice. That’s when I thought, “Well, why not just let her have her voice?” That’s where her messages came in. And that felt better, though not entirely. I’m not sure a poem like this can ever really feel clean and neat—it’s necessarily uneasy.
This poem’s first title was “My Mother’s Name is Mitzi and I Love Her,” and that speaks to what’s at the heart of it—as well as why it needed a more variable form. Love is complex. The shape it takes depends on so much: environment, generation, culture, health. It’s persistent, but it has moments of weakness. It changes over time, not just on a collective level but also on an individual level. Sometimes what looks like love is something else entirely. I’m hoping the reader feels some of that complexity. I don’t want the takeaway to be but it’s all okay, because it was all out of love, because that’s dangerous—my hope, instead, is that it demonstrates the significance of legacy in all our movements and decisions, and that it can make room for gentleness and understanding, where it’s safe to do so.
Rumpus: Ha—I love that draft title—“My Mother’s Name is Mitzi and I Love Her”! It wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that reminds me of your poem “Discourse” which is dedicated to Mary Oliver. How is this poem in conversation with Oliver for you? The poem also seems to respond to the notion (that many a freshman student has entered my classroom with) that poems are puzzles to be solved. To paraphrase a question from Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue,” why don’t poets just say what happened?
Hutchinson: If you put the beast of poetry in a pot and boiled it down to bones, you’d find something very simple: the need to communicate. That’s the scaffolding upon which we drape all of poetry’s fancier trappings—form, metaphor, language play, allusion, etc. Writing is a fundamentally social practice! I want to tell you something; please tell me something in return. But we sometimes forget that, be it because we’re swept up in the current of submissions and prizes, or because we’re ferociously scrolling through Twitter for the latest literary drama, or because we’re comparing ourselves to our peers, or because we think we’re supposed to be smarter/deeper/stranger, or because we’re so fixated on some amoebic idea of “Success” that it takes over our brains, and so on. I can get in those headspaces, too—and Mary Oliver is exceptionally good at getting me out of them. She opens the poem “Mindful” with the lines “Every day / I see or I hear / something / that more or less / kills me / with delight.” And her whole poetic mission is to invite us, her readers, into those moments of enormously delightful and instructive witness—to share them with us. I don’t write anything like Mary Oliver, but I take her mission to heart, and that’s what I had in mind when I wrote “Discourse.” If I’m not writing to share, to invite, “to tell you something genuine,” then I’m off-track. And that invitation doesn’t always have to look the same! Sometimes it’s direct, sometimes it’s dressed up—sometimes it’s me saying I had a crush, sometimes it’s an overripe peach—but that core thing, the invite, has to be there. The bones. We wouldn’t get much done without bones.
Rumpus: What poets and/or books are you excited about right now?
Hutchinson: I’ve set a punishing but necessary limitation on my 2023 reading: I’ve sworn to only read books I already own, and I’m not letting myself purchase anything new. Here’s an assortment of books that’ve been waiting for me on my shelves for anywhere from five years to three months, each of which I’m terribly excited to get to know:
- Matthew Olzmann’s Constellation Route
- William Fargason’s Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara
- Ashley M. Jones’s Reparations Now!
- Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit
- Molly McCully Brown’s Places I’ve Taken My Body
- Sun Yung Shin’s The Wet Hex
Author photo by Petra Lee