Seán Hewitt, perhaps like his forebear Oscar Wilde, seems to master every anatomy a word can produce. It is this Wildean adaptability in form and technique that has established Hewitt as something of a literary Proteus, or perhaps a latter day Ovid, speaking of forms changed into new entities, seamless as the skin of water. This was initially confirmed in his equal talent as both an academic (see his studies on J.M Synge, W.B Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins) and as a poet, with verse exhibiting as much natural vitality as those towering figures of his critical studies.
His debut, prize-winning poetry collection, Tongues of Fire (2020) announced a formidable poetic command of entwining emotion and landscape, a psychogeography in which the grooves of bark or curve of horizons parallel the intimate lineaments of queer experience, of grief, of rebirth. This was displayed with equal skill in his following memoir, All Down Darkness Wide (2022), a hauntingly exquisite reflection on the braided experiences of queer identity, mental illness, desire, and the peculiar ghosts that spill through gaps of our lives, into our lives. These ghosts, summoned through translation and recital, act as daemon and guide to Hewitt, and by extension, the reader.
Vividly illustrated by the English designer and artist Luke Edward Hall, Hewitt has since released an anthology of Queer poetry, prose and retellings from Antiquity: 300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love from the Ancient World, ranging from the lofty heights of Catallus to inscriptions discovered on the walls of Pompeii. As if this wasn’t quite enough, Hewitt is releasing his second collection of poetry this month on Monday 11th January, titled Rapture’s Road, a deeply hypnotic, near apocalyptic meditation on love and nature, a darker, knottier sister to Tongues of Fire. Somehow, Hewitt has also managed to squeeze in being an Assistant Professor in Literary Practice at Trinity College, Dublin, and a member of the Royal Society of Literature.
So, as you might imagine, there was no shortage of material to discuss when I was privileged enough to talk with Seán about his work, shortly before the release of 300,000 Kisses and the paperback edition of All Down Darkness Wide, both published by Penguin. When we spoke (Seán framed with a suitably bountiful bookshelf, as disarmingly poetic on the spot as in the stanza) we swept through Queer narrative arcs, autofiction, Derek Jarman, and the Gothic. Since, Hewitt has announced his debut novel, Open, Heaven, due to be published in 2025. Described by the author as “a love story, in its own way,” I’d argue that this observation perhaps applies to all of Hewitt’s work. Whether encircled in concentric rings of poetry, memoir, prose, myth, or criticism, the heartwood of Seán Hewitt’s writing is love, in its own way; of nature, of writing, of human connection to both, and the transformative power of all.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us, Seán. Your memoir All Down Darkness Wide will be getting its paperback release this Autumn - how have you found it, sharing such an intimate and personal work to such continued and widespread acclaim? Is its reception what you imagined it might be?
It's nice to have a warm reception. When I'm in the process of writing a book, I block out the fact that anyone will ever read it, because that to me is the only way of getting to the core of something sensitive or personal. I didn't want the fear of a readership to censor me in writing. And of course, once you hand in the manuscript, you begin to get anxious. Not only because there's quite a long gap between writing and publication, but also because you begin to build up possible responses to the book - that was nerve wracking. So in some ways it was a relief when the book came out, and my anxious projections didn't come true. Everything after that feels like a bonus.
To me, the main thing that I love most is seeing the book find readers in really unexpected places. Like you say, I'm particularly glad that not only has the book seemed to connect with queer readers, but I've had emails and messages from people from all walks of life who have connected with something in the book. Whether that is the mental health discussions, or people who feel like they've hidden certain things about themselves, whether it's sexuality or not, then other people that perhaps just read it as a book, that doesn't necessarily connect on that very intimate level. I suppose to some degree, in order not to lose my mind, I have to forget that people are reading the book, otherwise I'd be walking down the street thinking, you know, is someone currently reading about me giving a blowjob? (laughs) It's been read in book clubs and things like that, and occasionally I've had invitations to join the book club, but I have resisted the invitation because I think that readers should have a space to discuss the book without me being present and also, perhaps, I'm nervous about hearing what people think.
Your work certainly has been received warmly across those boundaries, even when it deals most explicitly with Queer poetics - did you imagine the memoir would, or did you write in anticipation of, this kind of universal embrace, for Queer and non Queer readers?
I don't think I had an ideal audience in mind when I was writing, although I didn't want to apologise or to over explain things to a straight audience. There's a point in the book where I talk about a neighbour when I was young telling me not to be gay because gay people are not happy. And I was thinking about that again recently because one of the fears in writing the book was writing an unhappy book, that perhaps played into that stereotype that queer people are unhappy. That fear, I think, mainly comes from a fear of the straight gaze and having to consider what the straight gaze thinks of you as a group. I wanted to [disallow] that gaze to censor the book or to make it an apology. To some degree I had to write beyond the straight gaze and speak to queerness and, at that point, I think that is the potential to change the straight gaze when you're not acknowledging it so strongly.
There’s quite a distinct way we approach the queer experience, I think, especially in the contemporary memoir form, where you have the likes of Maggie Nelson, Carmen Maria Machado, and Grace Lavery using experimental, fluid and non-linear forms to articulate their own experiences of queerness. Is there something inherently queer, or queered, in how you sought to approach the textual form or linearity of All Down Darkness Wide, or your writing practice more generally?
It's interesting that you mention Carmen Maria Machado, because during the time when I was writing All Down Darkness Wide, I took a lot of solace in the writing of In the Dream House or The Argonauts, books like that, because they exist before your book, they take in the potential, I think, for you to think that, “well, everyone liked that book, and there was not the backlash that you’re anxious about, so take some comfort”. You know, when I was writing, I came to a moment when I was wondering how to end the book, to think about the direction of the book. And when you begin writing, or for me at least, you have a sense of direction, right? It's almost like a journey or an adventure and you think, OK, where do I want to go? Where do I want to take the reader? I became very disinterested in, quote on quote, traditional memoir, because the narrative always seems to be one-directional, from hardship to overcoming the hardship, almost an American dream. The narrative where the trauma or the hardship, the quality of the dream or the quality of the ending, becomes significant because of what has been overcome. That is a very linear route through to triumph, and then we end at triumph, right? I was quite uninterested in that because I didn't think that there was necessarily one triumph. There are perhaps a number of small triumphs. Perhaps in the way that Virginia Woolf would say, there's no great epiphany. There are matches lit in the dark.
I also wanted to explore the idea that perhaps inherent in queerness is not a need to overcome, it’s a need to undo, a need to go back and unpick. So the function of the traumatic incidents in the book would be to look at why they came about in bigger social or historical terms, and try to unpick them to a point of possibility. So when I ended the book, I wanted to end at a place where things have been unpicked enough that starting again might be possible in a truer way. So it needed the structure to go back in time, it needed to question the idea of a stable self who is speaking the memoir as well. I think that's what Machado’s book and Maggie Nelson's book and a lot of other queer books do too.There are versions of ourselves who speak at different times or experience different things, and sometimes one of them takes precedence over another, so I think nonlinearity helps there, to deal with that possible instability in the self. Those models of queer writing really help [but] it also has to be something that you discover yourself, when you write.
It sounds like the book was a very headstrong, sentient entity from the beginning - from what I’ve read, it was quite a protean work, as you’ve said, "I’m letting it teach me along the way what it wants to look like” as you were writing it. I’d love you to expand on this, now the book has crystallised - did you anticipate this kind of relationship with writing the book? Did it emulate how you approach poetry or essays, or was it an entirely different creature?
When you say as if it were sentient, that does kind of capture the experience of writing. Once you get to a certain level, as in, you've written enough of the book, the book does begin to think for itself, because it's almost like this little box where you store parts of yourself or your thinking. Those parts of yourself, and your thinking, are not the same from one day to the next or from one week to the next, and only inside the book are you as conscious of those things as you can be. There is a strange relationship where the book becomes, in some ways, more intelligent than you, because it’s a kind of the repository of three or four years of your thinking in a way that your head can't be at any given time. So the book, when you read it back to yourself, you think, “that image seems to suggest I was thinking of something else”, or, maybe there are three moments in this book where I find myself by a fire, throwing things into it. Why is that? Then you begin to think, well, maybe this book is about creation or it's about purging. So you go back into the book, and you begin to work with it in that way. So the book does have this way of teaching you about yourself, but also about the possibility of the form of the book. When I began writing it, it started off as a novel; it was an auto fiction, but I was kind of happy with the designation of it as a novel. Writers like Ocean Vuong have already brought the novel and autofiction to such close proximity to the memoir that I wasn't too bothered about the label. There were parts of that, as I wrote them, that no longer seemed to fit with the tone of the book, so I experimented with different ways of writing. For example, at one point I thought that I would take on the form of more traditional historical narrative, through a more nonfiction tone. But I realised that the tone I wanted was the tone of a novel, and so the form in that way ousted the nonfiction tone from it. So as I went through, I began to navigate my way through that. The main thing it taught me was not only that nonlinearity was possible, but also that I was mostly invested in terms of the texture of the book with it being an immersive thing in the way that a novel might be, in a way that I don't experience when I read straight nonfiction.
Autofiction is, culturally and historically, an incredibly queer practice, and I think that’s due to the medium’s acknowledgement of the self being an inherently fictional, fabricated entity - even the most outwardly factual piece of life writing or historical revision is, at all times, hand in hand with the creative, the conjured.
I think you're right. To a large extent we live our life in a fantasy of our own creation, and I think the power of autofiction, or of these sorts of memoirs that draw on different forms - like In the Dream House - is that they capture something of the delusions that we live under, the fantasies that we live under, and the way in which as cultural beings, we magpie ways of interpreting the world around us from songs or from books or from films. That is certainly true in terms of how I've lived my life. That's why when you listen to a song, it transports you back to a particular time, because you saw the world through that song that you really connected with. So those ways of fictionalising and re-fictionalising the self seemed, to me, actually closer to reality. However, then we might designate that the realist mode that pretends a  source reality is external is measurable or not fictionalised. When I used the Gothic in All Down Darkness Wide, that appeared to me as an idea because, when I went back through my memories, I realised that there were multiple moments in which I had cast the world as a Gothic. I had cast myself as a character in Gothic terms, in which someone that you love appears to you as an entirely different person, or in which you feel very disconnected from yourself in which it is always winter, for six months and all is dark, and that is in some ways a projection onto the world. But it's also as true to your lived experience; if [writing] the memory can accommodate those forms of fictionality, or those forms of dreaming and collusion, then that is a very good thing, because that seems to me much closer to the way that we experience life.
It reminds me of a particular Derek Jarman quote, from At Your Own Risk I think: “When I was young, the absence of the past was a terror”. We’re so used to absences and lacunae and misdirections in Queer history, and the idea of the archive, and building on the archive, seems imperative to your work, from reclaiming figures like Hopkins to essentially redrawing and rebuilding Ancient history in 300, 000 Kisses. I know you're also the first poet in residence in the Irish Queer Archives as well - what relationship does archival resonances have with your writing?
That's something I've been thinking about a lot. 300,000 Kisses [is composed of] new versions of Latin and Greek, Classical and Ancient texts on queer subjects. I was thinking about the importance of this kind of historical work, and making it accessible or legible. There are so many lacunae, even when we were putting together this new book; we found that perhaps certain sections of certain texts hadn't been translated for four or five hundred years, or they were translated in particular ways that made them not clear. There is that concerted effort to make the past appear blank, or that only allow through stories of the past that are retributive for straight culture. It is the sort of power that we see being denied to trans people at the moment as well, in recognising the historical depth of an identity. It situates us at the end of a massive inheritance. The fact is you can tell queer people and trans people, you are the inheritors of an ancient and very esteemed culture.
You know, when I was writing, I was thinking of Oscar Wilde’s speech in the dock during the trial. There is a moment where he speaks about this love that's common to Shakespeare and Plato, and the people in the court clap. And I thought, that is such a powerful moment, because it situates him at the centre of the most esteemed things about the culture. But it shows you that the most esteemed things are actually queer; that’s a hugely empowering realisation. There are so many lessons to be learned from the archive. When I was at the Irish Queer Archive at the National Library, a couple of the things that really stuck with me were, one, the sheer amount of work that went into achieving this. I organised an event here at Trinity in June, on the 30 years of decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, and I'm 32, so it's really not that long ago. Another thing that struck me when I was in the Irish Queer Archive was that, at one point in the late eighties, there were - I can't remember how many - but 20 to 30 queer magazines in Ireland. We look to this idea of progress and the expansion of visibility, which I think in some cases is true. It's very easy also to lose a sense of that cultural richness by pretending that it was not there. It's very galvanising as well, because if something was there before, you can have it back.
One thing I really wanted the book to be was not just about myself, which posed challenges in the writing. No memoir is just about one person, because it's impossible. I wanted to open up the fabric of the book to bring in those ghosts, and those historical figures, and people you meet, want, or people you have known for a long time. To try and accommodate a sense of the importance of communal existence on the single life, so I may be the speaker of this book, but perhaps at moments in the book I'm not the protagonist. A book, perhaps if you make it porous enough, can have a communal voice too. I think that is perhaps why books hit at certain moments and become well read, they seem to come out of not just one life, but to be the expression of something that happened to be felt across different lives.
These notions are certainly present in your second collection of poetry, Rapture’s Road. One of its poems, We Didn't Mean to Kill Mr Flynn is brutal but an incredibly important given its political context - it's thickly detailed with material references found in the Irish Queer Archive. Perhaps you could share how you came across the material for this poem in the archive, and why you structured it in the way you did?
The poem is made up from fragments of language lifted from texts published after the murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park, Dublin. The murder itself, and the fact that those involved never served prison time, is a foundational injustice in the Irish LGBTQ+ Pride movement. I began my work in the Irish Queer Archive thinking that I would absorb the materials and speak them in my own voice, but the more I read, and the more I listened to the chorus of voices in the archive, the more I wanted to be a channel for those voices, a conductor, perhaps. This particular poem came after reading quite a few boxes of materials from newspapers and magazines relating to Flynn’s murder, and hearing so clearly the voices of his killers recounted in them. Of course, I couldn’t let Flynn’s voice speak, because he died before any of those texts were written, so I had to ventriloquise him through the voices of family, friends, and details from court proceedings. The idea of footnoting the sources of the poem came through a desire to point a reader to the reality of the language, which is often shocking in both its unguarded brutality and its powerful, defiant sense of tragedy.
Among all of the lines I was struck by, I particularly loved this one from Pleated Inkcaps: "I have chosen one life, interred / countless other selves”. Is the self who wrote the poems of Tongues of Fire the same self as the one writing in Rapture's Road? Or did you feel a particular change from writing your first collection to your second, given all that has come between them? There are echoes of some of the motifs in Tongues of Fire - the figure of the father in Section III (Two Apparitions) and the intertwining of Queer physicality with landscape particularly. Would you say Rapture's Road is a returning, or a departure?
I definitely felt a change, and wanted to mark and incorporate that change within the poems. Partly, it was a formal change: if the poems in Tongues of Fire, felt to me to aspire to the state of flow, here I felt a desire for a more enclosed, embattled sense of form, so I shortened my lines, and tended towards a four-line rather than three-line stanza. Of course, that doesn’t hold true throughout, and the ballad form allowed for a more flowing rhythm in places, but Rapture’s Road seems to me to work in of ideas negation, absence, and the spiritual potential of matter falling away.
But the change was also in the self, as you say, which is never static, and is not continuous between the collections. I wanted to signal this in the imaginary world of Rapture’s Road – the dark-haired youth in his flame-stitched tunic being, amongst other things, a representation of the self that wrote Tongues of Fire. Rapture’s Road felt like a dance between two selves, between two tendencies: the first seeking to make music and beauty, the other to pull into darker, more fibrous material. So the book feels to me like a departure in many ways, though it’s a book that dances with and questions an earlier iteration of my voice.
Perhaps through this communal process, do you feel writing, in this sense, retrospectively and poetically, gives your life a certain sense of order, a pulling together of fragments and scenes which now have a cohesive form to you? Is the act of writing a way of building an identity?
From the whole mass of your life, the book is one version of the story that you could tell yourself. I think if anything, personally, as a writer, I want to resist the power of the book over me, because I'm conscious that when we're talking about discovering form and letting the book teach you something, I could also have perhaps written an entirely different book about the same year, you know. There are innumerable books that could have been written on the same subject. This is just the one that I have. And so it cannot just be the book of my life. It is one version of the book of my life, and so I don't want the book to necessarily provide the only framework through which I view my life. That said, when I was talking before about allowing the book to teach you something or to show you possibilities for where you might go next, it does help you to draw connections. It does help you to give shape to something and form to something, and that is an extremely clarifying thing to have. Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst, his practice is about letting someone reveal themselves to themselves, and I think that's what writing can do, but I hope that is also what reading can do. It is something I have found reading can do. If the book was only about revealing myself to me, it would be a useless book to put on a shop shelf, so I hope that it has this dual function of also revealing reader to reader.
And in this way, you’re giving form to both your own life and the lives of queer folk of the past, who perhaps didn’t have the means or vocabulary to do so.
There’s a Hopkins poem that doesn't have a title, but it begins “to seem the stranger lies my lots, my life, among strangers”, and it ends with the line, “this to hoard unheard / heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began". I think about it often. To extrapolate on your point, if you hear him in the book, and if he does not go unheeded, he is no longer a lonely began. He has continued into the present, and in that way he's kind of set up as a model for us, but also a living person again. So I'd like to think that a book like mine might be able to gift that back to people, to stop them from being lonely began.
It definitely has. I mean, I had read Hopkins briefly during my undergraduate, but it wasn't until I read your memoir that I pursued him more seriously. I think it’s amazing, the ability to reanimate authors of the past through your own love for them.
I’m glad! In Ireland he's on the school curriculum as well, so people read him and then they say God, I never knew that he was queer. I love that I'm sending people back to read him. I also think it's kind of hilarious when you read some of his poetry, that [his queerness] could ever have been covered up, because there are poems in there, like Harry Ploughman, in which spends about ten minutes just describing the muscles and the sweat on this man's body while he’s topless farming.
I think your memoir is testament to this, and most certainly the powerful collectivity in 300,000 Kisses, but I’d like to end on this - do you think things are improving, finally, for Queer people? Is there a liberating potential from the struggles and difficulties you express in the work, related to Queer experience and coming-of-age, even in the act of writing and verbalising them?
It is, you know. I think with all the writers that we've been talking about, I feel very excited by the possibilities of queer writing. I hope that translates into the way that we in the collective see ourselves. I see particularly with my students here a much more creative way of being in the world, whether that's through not conforming to binaries or even through clothing, and the respect that they have for each other in the classroom is something that is very new, even in the last 10 years. That wouldn't have been the case when I was at university - I think that openness, that conversation is very good. One thing I miss and I hope that we get back is that late eighties and nineties queer culture. I do get very excited by that kind of queer radicalism. I just picked up the new George Michael biography. All of those sorts of people that I found extremely inspirational as a young person. Maybe I'm out of touch, but I would love another inspirational radical icon. I guess there are a few possibilities. I love that bite in queer culture.
Rapture’s Road will be published by Jonathan Cape in January 2024. 300,000 Kisses is currently available from Penguin Books.