Writer interview: Seán Hewitt

We spoke to Seán Hewitt about his poetry collection Tongues of Fire, writing and his route to publication.

Seán Hewitt’s debut pamphlet of poems, Lantern (Offord Road Books, 2019), won an Eric Gregory Award in 2019 and was the Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice for 2019.

In 2014, he was awarded Arts Council England funding for a series of poems, and in 2015 was selected as one of the Poetry Trust's Aldeburgh Eight. He won a Northern Writers' Award in 2016, and the Resurgence Prize in 2017.

He is a book critic for The Irish Times and a Government of Ireland Fellow at University College Cork. His book J.M. Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

His debut collection, Tongues of Fire, was published by Jonathan Cape in April 2020.

I absolutely loved this collection and I’d love to know how it came about. Did you set out to write about a theme in particular?

Not really! I suppose, as with a lot of first collections, it came about over a number of years of just writing individual poems, and then after a while taking a step back, and asking myself, ‚ÄòWhat is it I’m doing? And what do I want to do?’ When I took that step back, I realised I was joining the poetry of nature with the poetry of the body, and queer poetry of the body in particular, and that those seemed to be the two strands I was working with. But, to be honest, I think if I was overly aware of what I was doing, I’d have written a weaker book: I can never sit down with an idea and begin a poem there. Usually, my poems have to be rooted in experience, and come (as trite as it might sound) ‚Äòfrom the heart’ in order for them to work.

And then, also, life happened along the way, and so the shape of the collection changed as my life did. I wanted to preserve that journey in the form of the book, hoping it might have some narrative and formal progression in that way. So there might be a sense that the reader ages with me as I go, and makes links back to earlier poems, and sees a gradual complication of ideas as they move forward.

I found the descriptions of nature were incredibly vivid. How did you approach writing about the natural world?

That’s really kind of you to say. I’ve always admired writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alice Oswald for that certain vivid quality of their approach to the natural world. Usually, my poems start as notes, either in my phone or in a notebook – just images, words, certain lines, and those often come to me when I’m out walking. I like to sit in one place for a long time and just take note of things I see, and try to get them into language as accurately as I can. But I never write poems ‚Äòin place’, really – I make notes, and then go home and work on the poem itself there.

Hopkins has this amazing way of sitting and staring at something for hours and just writing out a set of images that come to mind, and often they take on a sort of hallucinatory quality, just because he’s moving further away from the obvious idea. I like that as a method of getting stuff to flow, and of working away from the first image that comes to mind.

Do you find poetry an effective medium to talk about personal and intimate themes? Does it feel more cathartic, maybe?

Yes and no. I really don’t think that I’ve found writing poetry to be cathartic, to be honest. If anything, I think I’d have done better for myself not to dredge up certain things and dwell in them for such a long time. It’s odd, too, to write poetry that exhibits very intimate things to the world, especially when you have to read those poems aloud to an audience. It can feel like you’re exploiting things in an unethical way, I think; but my consolation is that perhaps they might give voice to common things that aren’t simply confined to me.

There’s a comfort though, in the poem’s general movement, in finding links, and in working one’s way through a thought and ending up somewhere new. I think that must help, in a way.

Could you tell us about your inspiration for writing about Suibhne?

I took a few modules in Old Irish at university, and was obsessed with these little green hardcover editions that the Irish Texts Society publish. I used to look for them everywhere. I’d done a few short lyrics as translations before, but nothing longer outside of a university setting. And then I happened upon the 1914 edition of Buile Suibhne, a story I knew already through Heaney’s translation Sweeney Astray. It came at a time when I’d run out of steam on the sort of poems I was writing, so I thought I’d try a translation instead, though as it happened I wasn’t particularly interested in the entire story, and so I invented small lyric moments, borrowing lines from the book, or images, and making poems around them. Suibhne is cursed, and ends up living in the trees, longing for the world he’s lost, and it seemed to speak to many of the themes I was already working with, and I found I could use him to talk about things more obliquely, so he’s almost a voicebox for some latent ideas I hadn’t found the medium for before.

What was the first nature writing book you read?

I was always obsessed with a book in primary school, and I’ve forgotten the title of it, and haven’t been able to find it on google. But it was an illustrated book, called something about the wilderness, and it was a really beautiful story about deforestation. I feel like it’s sort of the lost ur-text of everything I’ve been writing since. I took it out of the school library so many times that they told me I couldn’t take it out anymore, and had to let someone else read it.

Which are your favourite nature writing books?

I’ve just read an amazing book by Merlin Sheldrake called Entangled Life, which will be coming out this year with Bodley Head. It’s all about fungi, and it was mind-blowing, really. One of those books that makes you walk into the world changed once you’ve read it. I find the best writing opens us up to wonder, and makes the world seem new, and more alive, and more complex than it was before. I’ve also really enjoyed Mina Gorji’s Art of Escape, which is a book of poems that feel like natural history, and also meditate on ideas of migration and belonging.

With older books, I think I generally read ‚Äònature writing’ through novels and poetry, rather than through non-fiction (mainly because my head for non-fiction is usually quite depleted through my work as an academic). Thomas Hardy has the sort of mythic, rooted engagement with nature that I like best. I love The Woodlanders. Although I find I can’t return to more than one Hardy novel a year – they’re so intensely sad, and they really take it out of me. I think it took me years to recover from Jude the Obscure.

I also love some of the new environmental philosophy – writers like Jane Bennett, in particular, whose ‚Äòvital materialism’ changed the way I think about the world.

How do you put together a poetry collection? Do you work on the overarching theme and the order of the poems or is this something you work on with your agent or editor?

I used the tried and tested ‚Äòliving room floor’ method. Print out all your poems, and arrange them on the floor – which poems fit together? Which poems need to be kept apart?

Tongues of Fire isn’t short for a poetry book (it’s 80 pages long), so I came up with the idea of putting it into sections, to give the reader breathing space, and to allow it to take certain themes in turn, and then link them together. When I sent the book to Robin (my editor), we decided it needed to be re-arranged, so I went home and came up with a new ordering. And I added poems to the book, too. I think the latest one in there was probably written in August last year, though the vast majority are quite a bit older.

I tried to foreground a narrative arc over the book, and to vary the forms and peaks and troughs of feeling. I think you want to give your reader the stamina to keep going, especially if some of the poems are emotionally tough-going. Give flashes of light in the dark (or flashes of dark in the light).

What was your route to publication?

I spent about 5 years sending poems to magazines, and found a few editors who seemed to like my work. And I won a few prizes along the way, which has a large component of luck most of the time, I suspect. And then in 2018 I sent off a pamphlet to a publisher I liked (Offord Road Books), and they decided to give it a go. Lantern (the pamphlet, which was published in early 2019) did well, and won an Eric Gregory Award and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. I sent it to my favourite publisher, Jonathan Cape, and Robin Robertson (the editor there) asked if I had a full book on the go, which I did, so I sent it to him. And so, Tongues of Fire was born.

What piece of advice would you give to writers for getting their work published?

Mainly, don’t rush, and don’t be put out by rejections. But also, listen to rejections (sometimes) – if a poem gets turned down over and over again, it might be that something actually isn’t working, and you might put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes, once the burn of the rejection letter has eased off.

There’s little money in poetry, and so little space in the books. So take your time – don’t publish a first collection until you know that every poem in the book is worth it. Better to take 10 years to write 40 good poems, than to publish a collection too soon, and it be flimsy.

Have you been writing much during the lockdown? Any tips for other writers

I’m afraid not. Like most people, I think my attention span is a bit shot, so I’ve managed a few drafts of poems, and have a document of ideas, but the effort and concentration (and peace) it requires to bring them to something like a final version is eluding me at the moment.

Go out (if you can), take time for yourself (if you can), just live as best you can. Care for yourself and others, and don’t feel guilty for letting things slide a bit. Make notes, but don’t push yourself to be productive or ‚Äúput together‚Äù in the way you might usually be. Life gets in the way, and the substance of poetry is life. The poetry will come once you’re done getting through whatever living you have to get through.