Poet illuminates fragmented life

Poet Chris Hutchinson’s new book, Jonas in Frames: An Epic (Goose Lane), is brilliant, funny, challenging, a hybrid form for our times.  Born in Montreal in 1972, Hutchinson has published three books of poetry: Unfamiliar Weather, Other Peoples’ Lives and A Brief History of the Short Lived. He has a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Arizona State University. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about his life and work.

 Chris, I found myself both chuckling and laughing out loud in Jonas in Frames, mainly because of all the usual suspects that you skewer so skillfully. Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book within your writing practice as a poet?

Firstly, I’m glad you chuckled and laughed as you read. Even though many of the raw materials I excavated for the book came from a younger, more cynical version of myself—someone more prone to rages and depression who took himself much too seriously—I hoped to transform these materials into something else, worthy of a reader’s attention. In many ways Jonas is the artsy book about suffering I wanted to write when I was in my early twenties, but I had to wait until I was in my early forties before I could make any attempt that didn’t indulge in explicit autobiography or morbid confession. It’s hard to write black humour when the darkness surrounds you. Fortunately, time allows for new perspectives, and maybe even room for some levity and light.

Also, my so-called practice as a poet you mention—which has included the whole gamut of trials and errors, from subsisting as a self-styled poète maudit, to publishing flarf under various pseudonyms, to studying Old English and translating Beowulf in academia—this poetry habit, this “craft so long to learne,” along with its requisite discipline, has gradually taught me not only how to think more cautiously, critically and even technically about my own experiences, feelings and ideas, but also how to then move beyond them in order to make (the word “poet” coming to us from the Greek, poiētḗs, or “maker”) something I might refer to (while suffering a relapse of grandiosity) as art. I’m also much better read in poetry than in other genres, and so this might have something to do with how I conceived of Jonas in Frames as a epic poem (tongue planted firmly in cheek) disguised as a (picaresque?) novel.

Some readers may characterize Jonas as anti-social, but I found him to be wonderfully observant. In the segment called “The Good Life,” Jonas visits “long-lost friends” and observes that “Now all of them have babies.” His descriptions of the infants as “pink-headed babies with slobbery jowls,” “toothless sponge-cake-faced babies with sea anemones for hands,” struck me as terrific images.  In fact, that whole segment reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent comment that parents today regard their children as “artisanal projects.” Did Chris the Author worry that Jonas the Observer was going to cost him a lot of sensitive friends when this book was published?

Artisanal projects! I wish I had thought of that. But neither Chris the Author nor his creation, Jonas the Observer, holds anything against young well-to-do parents or the products of their adventures in procreation. God bless anyone who can provide a safe home for their children. And Chris the Author has enough sensitive friends that he can afford to lose a few if their sensitivity overwhelms their ability to discern between literary fiction and so-called real life.

My sense is that Jonas isn’t as much anti-social as he is socially incapable and embarrassed—a subtle but significant difference, I think. Most of us can probably recall something like this from childhood, or we can be reminded visiting a busy playground: some kid who gets left out is still hovering around the edge of the circle, desperately wanting to join in, but for some reason he can’t. Maybe he’s shy, afraid, or he doesn’t understand the correct playground protocols. Or maybe there’s some nameless thing about the child, some slight difference or sensitivity, which the other kids sniff out and feel gives them permission to be cruel. This dilemma can extend into adult life where social estrangement might broaden to include cultural, political, and economic estrangement.

So it is with Jonas, who isn’t necessarily repulsed by these bourgeois parents or their babies; rather he’s flummoxed, fascinated, somewhat envious, and hurt by a larger and more general feeling of exclusion. As a hovering outsider Jonas is in a sort of double bind. He can enjoy a remarkable independence of consciousness and a unique perspective from which to observe, yet his enjoyment is short-lived as time and time again he runs up against a failure of communication. Put another way, he can watch but he can’t participate; consequently his vision turns inward and involutes. I think this is also one of the tragic letdowns of Romanticism: when our language becomes too private, too subjectively saturated, it ultimately betrays us.

Another idea I’ll float out there is that this predicament, this feeling of being isolated or “left out,” might be a generational soul-sickness born as the wave of prosperity of the baby-boomers crashed amidst their children’s expectations for upward mobility, success, or even riches and fame. In this light, Jonas can be seen as having been barred from participating in a certain cozy vision of the future based on the hippie fallacy that each of us is somehow inherently ‘special’ and thereby entitled to certain first-world privileges.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we live in discontinuous times because we are so often being assailed by floating “hits” of information and image.  It seems to me Jonas’s take on the world reflects that somewhat.  Has the electronic invasion of our lives affected you as a writer?

I recently joined Twitter. I am now a part of the problem. Although it seems to me that the latest tool for the dissemination of information is nothing new under the sun, and that we’ve been living in a “discontinuous” state for a while now. The world, as always, is too much with us. I have no doubt that I am a product of my specific historical moment in more ways than I can ever consciously know—even as I’m left wondering whether Twitter and Facebook are just the most recent symptoms of the kind of mind-body dualism that goes back beyond Postmodernism and Modernism to at least the 17th century of René Descartes…

At any rate, yes, Jonas’s world is jumbled and fragmentary, and his experience of reality is one where “it appears that something or someone is removing segments from (his life) and now only frames—isolate, disjointed—remain” (JIF). And while the world of Jonas in Frames doesn’t deal directly with online culture (an oxymoron?) per se, it’s true that many of Jonas’s identity issues and relationship crises seem to stem from his fear that he is trapped inside an existence where his thoughts and actions are being monitored and controlled by a power beyond his ability to perceive or comprehend.

Maybe his fear is unfounded, irrational. Maybe it’s not. We might ask: what does it mean that we voluntarily modify our identities so that they fit snugly into little boxes to be stored inside some digital database whose contents now belong to the highest bidder on the open market? What does it portend when we do this so cheerfully? These are the kinds of questions that might drive Jonas mad, although his head never stops buzzing long enough for him to be able to ask them coherently.

Content without form is meaningless, and alas, Jonas’s thoughts are all sprawling content, tangents without origins, signs without stable referents, broken links, broken mirror shards of self-reflection. Therefore Jonas doesn’t have much of a “take on the world” as he is himself taken by the world: its forms are imposed on him and so he is like Jonah swallowed down by the whale. As such, I’m not sure he’s so very different from the rest of us.

You and Jonas share a certain kind of peripatetic rootlessness.  I see from your bio that you’ve lived in six or seven wildly different cities — Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Dawson City, New York City, Houston, not to mention Kelowna — so I am wondering, is a writer truly the sum of all the places he has resided?

Don’t forget Nelson, Gibsons, Toronto, and Phoenix! If nothing else, moving and living around in North America has given me the chance to survey certain recurring features of the socio-economic landscape, so to speak. Issues of gentrification, for example, are not unique to any one particular city. What’s happened in Williamsburg, NY, has also happened or is happening to every other blue-collar neighbourhood I’ve tried to live in: working class families and whole communities with historical ties to specific regions are being forced to move. Artists (like Jonas) are getting priced out of urban centres. None of this is news (and it’s not as shocking as factory workers beating their CEO to death, which happened recently in West Bengal), but witnessing and to some degree participating in these reiterating first-world class-tremors gives you a sense of the scope of what is certainly a burgeoning North American crisis. Perhaps writing Jonas into being was, in part at least, my attempt to illustrate, via the pathos of tragicomedy, some of the spiritual fallout of all this.

Again I’d like to note that I wasn’t as interested in documenting my own mazy meanderings and personal catastrophes (like regrets, I’ve had a few) as I was in embodying certain aspects of our collective psychosis (what else to call it?). Jonas might be my shadow-persona, but he’s also a parodic, down-on-his-luck everyman. Whereas I have roots in the Pacific Northwest and I’m lucky enough to have been somewhat stabilized by my colleagues and loved-ones, and the occasional teaching gig, Jonas is dangerously adrift, somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. His parents are dead, he is next to unemployable, and he is quite possibly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with another human being. Travel may have broadened my horizons and extended my parameters, but Jonas is diminished by travel, driven as he is by a desire to flee and to hide himself away. Perhaps he is the sum of all the places he’s been, but to me this is a recipe for mental illness. I’d say it is folly to believe, as Jonas wants to believe, that “enough information, once gathered and incorporated, might one day crystallize into wisdom” (JIF).

What has the audience response been as you tour with your book? Do readers “get” Jonas?  Do they “get” you?

The book is still very new, but already there have been a few positive echoes, including a brilliant spinoff comic called Born Stumbling by Sunshine Coast artist, Alex Cieslik, and a Jonas-inspired spoken word/sound piece by Joel T. Springsteen of the London, UK-based band, Giant Burger. I can’t think of better responses than these. But, as one reviewer has already plainly stated about the book, “By no means is it for everybody.”