Interview #8 Seán Hewitt
Seán Hewitt, interviewed by Mariah Whelan
Mariah Whelan: Thank you so much for being our feature poet for issue 8, Seán. I first read your debut collection Tongues of Fire back in January 2021. Where I live, we’d gone back into another Covid lockdown and the world seemed endlessly grey. Your poems were like a lamp. I read them at my desk and it was like the book was casting its own light around the room as I read the poems. It was as though the language started to disappear — the words, the lines, the stanzas — until I forgot that I was reading and all that was left was the raw experience of the poems.
I particularly loved how I got to experience the natural world in your poems in a very direct, experiential way, so I thought I’d start by asking you about that aspect of your writing. So, to begin, I wondered if you could talk about the role that boundaries and edges play in your treatment of the natural world. The book is full of edges (the house and the exterior, the town and the not town) and the pleasure and complexity of crossing those boundaries: barn owls that slip through ‘from another world’ (‘Barn Owls in Suffolk’), hands plunged into the ‘black glass of a lake’ (‘Hacksjon’), the elation of crashing through undergrowth into a wood. Could you talk a little about the role that edges and/or boundaries play in the way that you think about and experience the natural world?
Seán Hewitt: I suppose I am interested, fundamentally, in where one thing becomes another, in these places and times when we might feel ourselves slipping out of ourselves and into another thing entirely. There’s a tension in my thinking, perhaps: in wanting to draw attention to the body, to its capabilities and its processes, but also in having a desire towards immateriality, to leave the body in places and float off out of it. It’s hard to say why so many of my poems seem to focus on these boundaries and edges, but perhaps it can be explained by a fusion that I think created Tongues of Fire. When I first started writing, I was embedded in a lyric canon, often of writing about nature; but then I got my hands on new queer poetries (from American poets like Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Mark Doty, Jos Charles), and I think a fusion happened in my mind, where I tried to meld together this tradition of the nature lyric with a queer tradition of writing about the body, and Tongues of Fire was born out of that fusion. So perhaps that affected the way I saw nature in the poems: that it was a place of bodies, of meetings and boundaries, that these material things are important, but also that there is a desire to transcend them, however ineffectual that desire might prove to be. So the poems are perhaps sitting at the boundary of two traditions, and there’s a tension in that placement that is often the driving force of the poems in the book.
MW: As well as a book about edges, the poems also celebrate the body as a vehicle that allows humans to cross boundaries. In particular, it seems there’s something special about the fluids produced and experienced by the body — urine, come, water soaking up jean legs, breath — and the way they allow traffic between worlds, between people. There is also a sense that the places where bodily fluids are exchanged — a sex club in Berlin, the woods in the early poems, the ‘slate urinals’ and other ‘waste spaces’ (‘Adoration’) — become holy places. Is this something you wanted to explore in the collection?
SH: I think this was something that coalesced in my mind towards the final stages of putting together the book. This may sound strange, or it might be common, but I didn’t really set out with the collection by wanting, consciously, to do something. It was only in writing the poems, and putting them into a sequence, that common themes started to emerge for me. I was raised Catholic, in a loose enough way, and the imagery and mythos that Christianity gave to me structured my thinking, I suppose, and that structure is still latent, perhaps as an invisible scaffold, within the poems. Praise is a central part of Tongues of Fire — praise of the body, of sex, of nature, of mystery. It seems to me that the best place a poem can get to is not necessarily an answer, but a place of increased mystery, and that all mysterious things are sacred, inviolable, and fall into silence. The silence at the end of the poems is really just me acknowledging or hoping that I’ve reached the boundary of the holy place: the white space after the final line is perhaps a sort of sacred silence.
MW: Segueing from bodily fluids into sex, there is a lot of sex in the book. The Romantics often organised nature along particular binaries of power and gender: the landscape gendered as a ‘female’ space used as a vehicle for the expression of masculine feelings and emotions, or even more explicitly as a space to be conquered. The sex in the book between men really seems to interrupt and displace that trope within nature writing. The sex isn’t linked to ideas of fertility or fecundity. Instead, it’s about power, sometimes pleasure, and the very practical lack of a place to put your body and have sex as a young person living in the countryside. What impact has the long history of nature writing had on your writing of the book?
SH: Part of me is quite allergic to a lot of nature writing, which can often strike me as a bit toothless, middle-class, heteronormative etc. It can feel all-praise and no-mess, and I think you need to acknowledge the mess before you can start to praise. Again, the sex in the book wasn’t really a conscious overturning of gender and power binaries: this is probably just what happens when a queer perspective or lens is placed on the long tradition of nature writing. I think this is why I love Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is so sensuously-attached to nature in the poems, knowing its difference but also being part of it himself. I’m very interested in attachment, rather than detachment, by which I mean I want the speaker of my poems not just to observe the world, but to be in it, front and centre, feeling and touching it. I don’t actually know if there is a lot of sex in Tongues of Fire (I can think of a handful of poems that directly mention it), but some people have responded to the erotics of other poems in the collection, perhaps due to their close emphasis on heat, touch, the body etc. ‘Wild Garlic’, for example, was once described to me as an erotic poem, and I hadn’t thought it was at all, but when I looked back, I realised that perhaps it was.
MW: As I read the collection, I found myself dividing it up into three sections. The first group of poems explore the woods and the illness of a loved one, the middle section is the translation of Buile Suibhne and then there is the final section. I wanted to ask you about the role of narrative in the first part of the book. There is a story here about an intimate relationship, with the opening nature poems preparing the emotional territory for the poems that focus on this relationship. Did you think about narrative when writing these poems or was it something you thought about at the editorial stage at all?
SH: Narrative was at the forefront of my mind when I was planning the book with my editor. It was only later on that the idea of sections occurred to me as a possibility, and from thereon it occurred that I could create stages in the narrative, picking up on themes and deepening them, and then moving forward. I wanted the collection to have an overarching movement, but also recurrent motifs, almost like a symphony might have, so that a reader who read from start to finish might feel a deepening or changing sense of things, a progression towards the ending, as I wrote. The poems are by no means in chronological order according to when I wrote them, and they are generally collected according to biographical narrative, with a few exceptions of poems that found themselves a home in other parts of the book due to the emergence of a certain theme. For example, I wanted to introduce my father in the book before the final section, so a reader might “recognise” him in the world of the book before they encountered the final poems. Elsewhere, there are recurring images or motifs (such as the lake water you pointed out in your earlier question), and I wanted these to recur, and recur changed, to signal a movement, or a new possibility, in the landscape of the book itself.
MW: Staying with this idea of three sections, the middle of the book is a translation of the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne. What creative opportunities does translation offer a poet compared to writing novel poems from scratch?
SH: Well, I began writing the translations/versions/inspirations (whatever I might call them and their liberties with the original text!) as a way of combatting a writer’s block. I was suffering a little in my personal life, and overwhelmed by things, and found writing about myself a bit difficult. So I began to write these poems just to keep myself writing, and then looking back I found I had been sublimating a lot of my own experiences through the character of Suibhne, mapping out different aspects of myself through a landscape and through these already-existing figures. Part of the beauty of translating is that you already have a framework: you’re not just writing into a blank space, and pushing forward. In some ways, it can feel like completing a puzzle, and there is a different part of my brain I find myself using, one more conscious and analytical. Some of the poems in the Suibhne sequence are just prompted by a line or image from the original, and some are compiled of various parts of the original poem brought into new forms. Of course, it’s also about finding the right text to translate, if you’re putting the translations into a new collection, and I thought the Suibhne poems made a good fit within the themes of Tongues of Fire, and gave a historical depth to the things I was considering in the other parts of the book, too.
MW: As well as a poet, you’re also an academic and have published a study of J.M. Synge’s dramatic and prose works. You’re also about to publish a memoir. Could you talk a little bit about how these genres cross pollinate one another (if indeed they do)?
SH: The best thing, for me, about being an academic is that there aren’t many jobs that allow you to read, research, and talk to people all the time about books. Keeping those questions at the forefront of my mind through the working day is a real privilege. Fundamentally, it just means I can read a lot more than I could usually, and I’m surrounded by people who are always full of ideas for new books to read, who are working in their own ways in different avenues of thinking.
The academic study of Synge took a huge amount of work. I worked on it every day for about four years, going into archives and reading everything I could get my hands on about the subject. It exercises quite a different part of the brain to poetry, but I have no doubt that all of that information is in the primordial mulch of my unconscious mind somewhere, influencing my creative work too.
During lockdown, I found poetry difficult to write, and prose much easier. With the memoir, there was always a scene I could work on, or a paragraph, or some proof-reading and editing, and somehow it felt more practical than poetry did at the time. By which I mean, I always felt like I could open up the document and do something, whereas with poetry I felt much more consciously blocked.
With memoir, the very great issue is that you need more information, more narrative, more detail, and so it feels far more exposing and risky than poetry does. With a poem, you can hint, suggest, get to a scene and leave it out of context. With a memoir, the reader needs information: how did we get here? Who is this character? What are the implications of this scene for the rest of the narrative? There are very few places to hide, and it’s taken a lot of nerves to get to the finished manuscript, and the nerves have only increased with publication on the horizon next year.
MW: Finally, Seán, a lot of our readers are yet to publish a first collection. Could you talk a bit about how your collection came to be published and the journey your writing has taken from indie presses like Offord Road to Cape? How has that transition been for you?
SH: I think, in all likelihood, it came about the same way as many others: through a lot of good luck and persistence. I started sending poems out to magazines when I was about 22, I think, and just carried on, finding a few editors who seemed to like my work, and then listening to them when they told me that things weren’t working, and trying again. If I had a piece of advice, it would be to not rush, and to try to find an editor or editors at some magazines who like you and who you like, and then to listen to them when they say “no”. Often, there is a lot of value in a kind rejection.
Once I had what I thought was a full manuscript, I started sending that out, but I think I skipped a beat there, and eventually I cottoned on to the fact that a pamphlet was the best medium to begin with, so I sent it off to Offord Road, who had a list and an editor (Martha Sprackland) who I really admire. Thankfully, the pamphlet went down very well, and I sent a copy to Cape, with a quite cheeky note saying “If you like this, I have a full manuscript…” Robin, my editor there, wrote back to me, and I sent him my book, and thankfully he decided it wasn’t so terrible!
The biggest transition, I think, is being lifted out of writing poems for the sake of writing poems into a place of being, self-consciously, ‘a poet’. That got in my head for a while, and I started to write poems with a voice in my head that told me ‘people are going to read this’. I’ve had to find ways to get rid of that voice, or to challenge it head on. If you have the awareness that someone, somewhere, might read your poem (even before you yourself have started writing it), it seems to freeze you up, or make you too predictable, like you’re delivering a product to order. Getting back into the place of unselfconsciousness has been hard, but I’ve just about cracked it now, I think.