Sean Hewitt

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Photo Credit: Brid O'Donovan 


Sean Hewitt is a renowned poet—having been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2020; his poetry collection Tongues of Fire was named The Spectator’s Book of the Year. Recently, Editor in Chief Ralph Lam had the opportunity to interview Mr. Hewitt about his approach to poetry and any advice he might have for young poets!


Is there a creative process behind your writing?


I wish there was a set process I followed, but there isn’t. I have a lot of work with teaching and reviewing books, so writing fits around those other jobs. Sometimes there are months when I don’t write anything I like, and other months I might write two poems I’m happy with. I’m a slow writer. When I’m not actually physically writing, though, I make notes of ideas, images, forms, and hope that when something finally clicks, I’ll be able to make another poem.


What motivates you to write?


I suppose it’s a desire to communicate, first and foremost; to preserve and to share things; to hopefully make something beautiful; and ideally to teach myself something along the way. I really believe in the power of personal testimony to change readers, too. All lasting change has to penetrate, or come from, the heart.


Where did you find inspiration for Tongues of Fire?


In reading, in conversation, in life, in music. In short, inspiration can come from anywhere, and that’s the joy and the surprise of it, as well as what’s frustrating about being dependent on it. You never know where to look to find it.


Having written a poetry collection, do you believe that all poems within a collection must have an obvious unifying theme?


I don’t think so. In fact, I think themes are a bit of a marketing ploy; a way of categorising and presenting poetry in ways that reduces it to a sort of ‘aboutness’. Of course, many collections do have themes, and circle around things that preoccupy the poet; but I don’t think collections have to be reducible to themes in order to work. In fact, the collections I enjoy most have a tonal coherence, or a distinct approach to the world, which can encompass many different ideas. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m suspicious about the motives behind presenting a collection as ‘themed’, because if I said my collection was about grief, for example, it would occlude all the other things that it is also about (sexuality, spirituality, natural forms, history, the lyric) and also perhaps obscure all the things the poems might mean to various readers beyond what I think they mean at any given time.


How do you read your own poetry?


I read it aloud to myself, over and over again. In fact, that’s usually how I redraft a poem: I listen to it, and try to get rid of all the dud notes. When I read the poem to an audience, I try to pay attention to that musicality, but also to the narrative of the poem too.


Is there something definitive that you look for in a "good" poem?


No, not at all. I hope to be continually surprised by what is good in a poem – I think there are infinite ways in which a poem can be good. I don’t set rules for them – I do my best to let them show me new ways of being good.


What are some challenges that you faced when you began your writing career? How did you overcome them?


The usual rejections, I suppose. Getting downhearted or losing a sense of value in my poems when others didn’t like them. I think that still challenges me, if I’m honest. But more and more I’ve learnt to trust in the work. I found some good friends whose opinions I admired, and who have taught me things, and supported me along the way. That helps a great deal.


Do you have any advice for young writers who are looking to get into poetry?


No particularly special advice, aside from read as much poetry as you can, and think about what you like in a poet’s work, and what you don’t. Find some peers to share your poems with – people who will be honest, and who understand what you want to do. Take opportunities for feedback. Listen when people you respect don’t think a poem is working, but try not to take rejection to heart. There’s so much of it, and the only important thing is to keep dedicating yourself to whatever it is you want your poems to achieve. Avoid trends – they come and go with time, and are impossible to predict.