Farfetch and Zegna explore modern masculinity with the award-winning poet
“I am large, I contain multitudes”, wrote Walt Whitman in his seminal poem ‘Song of Myself’, and indeed, most can lay claim to this statement. Assumptions of character traits based on people’s gender, or assigned sex at birth, often fall short of reality. We are simply too complex for binaries. However, what does masculinity mean today? Its toxic qualities are easier to identify and are increasingly being called out, but what does a progressive version of it look like? What new opportunities do men have to communicate, to grow? Together with Port, Farfetch and Zegna have partnered to create two short films with poet Seán Hewitt and musician Azekel, exploring the subject as well as a recital of a text they’ve penned.
Port caught up with Hewitt – whose debut collection, Tongues of Fire, won The Laurel Prize – to discuss his chosen work ‘Ilex’, the consequences of men denying their fragility, and writing as a means of investigation.
Why is poetry your artistic medium? What sets it apart from other modes of communication, literature, expression?
Fundamentally I write poetry because I like its mystery. I like the fact that rhythm and music and rhyme and language all play together. Often when you write a poem, you don’t know where it’s going and you find something out by the time you get there. I think of the poem as connecting two things that wouldn’t be connected otherwise and you basically ask the question, what happens if we connect them? So it feels like discovery to me.
Why do you often pair the natural world with the poetry of the body? What magic happens when the two meet?
I often think of using the natural world or looking through the natural world and back to the body as a way of rethinking what the body can be, or what nature – which is really the rest of the world – can teach us about being human, or what it might mean to be human. If we were to look at a question and ask, for example, ‘what would a piece of holly teach us about this?’, we come at it in such a strange way, a way that’s outside of our usual way of thinking. A poem might begin thinking about a piece of fungus, and if you turn that back and look at life or love or the body, you often begin to ask different questions and think how are things connected. Of course, as a poet, you think everything is connected.
I like the idea of poetry as a mode of investigation. The poem is beautiful by the way – why did you choose this text with masculinity in mind? Why is it important to you?
I chose this poem thinking about masculinity for a number of reasons. One, because it’s basically a really old-fashioned occasional poem, written on the birth of my nephew. But I was wondering, what would I wish for a young boy now? And it was the ability to retain vulnerability, the ability to be fragile. To bring into being a man or masculinity, where all these things that are often seen as weaknesses, might actually be blessings, in a way. Another reason that I like this poem is because originally when I wrote it, I sent it out to an editor, anonymously. My name wasn’t attached and they thought it was by a woman, and I liked the idea then that inside the space of a poem, I’m almost androgynous. Once you connect my name with that poem, people read it differently, but there’s nothing instinctively masculine or feminine about the person I am inside the poem. It made me think perhaps I’m not a static masculine identity, that inside the poem I have a freedom that perhaps I don’t have elsewhere.
What are the consequences of denying the fragility you highlight in the poem?
Psychoanalysis tells you that you can’t bury anything successfully. Often what we’re asked to do is distraction or rechanneling that emotion into some other outlet, and eventually they catch up with us. We see often men dealing with the outcomes of that emotion or experience catching up. One nice thing about poetry or being an artist is that you get the chance to sit down with those emotions in a private way and figure them out as best you can, on your own, and then share them. I think that that is a connection between a writer and a reader or a singer and a listener – that you create this space where we can communicate with each other in ways that we don’t often do.
Roger Robinson said that poetry is an opportunity to practice your humanity with others. It’s a way to empathise, a vehicle to access other bodies, other states of mind. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges for men in communicating today? What can be done to remedy this?
It is a big question. My sense of it is, and this is probably because I’m not immune to it, I don’t think anyone is immune to it…There is a feeling that anything that we do feel might be particular to ourselves. I think the more we talk, the more we read, the more we listen, the more we learn that nothing is particular to any given person. No matter how embarrassing the thing you might want to say feels, it’s never embarrassing to the person who hears it, because they recognise something of themselves in it. That’s why in a poem or in a song, I can say I was doing this, this is about my nephew, this happened to me on this particular time. And anyone else can read it and see something of themselves in it. So nothing is a particular unique experience. It always has an element of universality if you tell it honestly. I think the fear of that isolation, or being the only one, is what holds people back from speaking. But the more we speak, the more we realise we’re not alone or isolated at all.
We’re living in a different world to our fathers and grandfathers. What opportunities do we as a younger generation of men have when it comes to defining and expressing ourselves?
We live in a world where people are beginning to be a bit more open about what masculinity or femininity mean, and whether we need those categories. Or, what it might mean to express oneself in a way outside what we think of as those categories. And that feels like a great freedom to me. We have technology, we have different jobs available. We have a whole history behind us, of men wearing makeup, you know, our parents grew up in the 70s, 80s. They shouldn’t be shocked! So maybe we should be a bit braver in doing whatever we want and expressing ourselves in different ways, because we’ve come a long way. I think grabbing hold of that freedom, making use of it, is what we should do. We should be brave enough to do that.
Are binary terms like masculinity and femininity, where we ascribe qualities based on gender, relevant anymore? Do you think masculinity can be a force for good and if so, in what way? What would it look like?
It’s hard to say what is a masculine trait and what is a feminine trait. In my mind when I begin to list what I think of as masculine traits, I think of so many women that display them. If I were to imagine an ideal masculinity, it would be one that was vulnerable, emotional. In fact, that borrows many aspects of stereotypical femininity. I think it would probably be a blended identity, because any polarised thing, any binary, is inevitably going to lack what the other thing has. An ideal always has to be a kind of compromise between the two. So yes – vulnerability, creativity, the freedom to express oneself, no fear of showing emotion, care for other people. That’s something I’d like future men and masculinity to exhibit. It must be widely defined enough that anyone can fit into it.
If I were to think about strength, I immediately think of my mother, if I was thinking about vulnerability I would immediately think about my father. That may be personally unique, but I’m sure it applies to many people. Good parents will have those blended identities. Speaking of – how is your nephew? How old is he?
He’s four, and he’s well. Apparently it’s quite common for a couple of weeks for it to be hard to get children to breastfeed. He’s absolutely fine. He’s a terror.
As his uncle, what lessons or qualities would you like to pass on to him?
It’s quite a nice role to be an uncle because you get to have fun and to steal children away for a day or so, and not have a great deal of responsibility. He’s very imaginative, so I like to play creatively with him. He loves to make up stories and I buy him books and read to him. He paints, runs around, dresses up, he just has that freedom and play that I think we lose too quickly. I would like him to get the most out of that and hold onto it as long as he can. At least until the world drums it out of him!