All Down Darkness Wide

Seán Hewitt discusses his masterful new memoir

Seán Hewitt. All photography Stuart Simpson / Penguin Random House

How may you love someone when they no longer love themselves? What spectral palimpsests do people leave behind? How does it feel to emerge after hiding from the heteronormative world’s “tacit disdain”? These are the central questions in All Down Darkness Wide, a masterful new book by poet, teacher and critic Seán Hewitt. The memoir radically reimagines the form through a non-linear structure, deliciously Gothic atmosphere, and meditations on poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Karin Boye. Rather than detract from its emotional core – the love story between Hewitt and previous partner Elias, and the latter’s total descent into depression – these academic reflections interlink with the book’s examination of queer belonging, Catholicism, shame, art and grief, illustrating that literature is an active, resonate medium that reaches out across time to the discerning reader. Hewitt’s transition to prose is astonishing; his observation and self-reflection so immediate and intimate, his longing so lyrical, that it reads like a modern fiction classic.

To celebrate its publication by Penguin Press this week, Port spoke to the award-winning writer about sensual Christianity, inter-textual haunting, and memoir as unsupervised therapy.

We begin in a Neo-Gothic setting, communing with ghosts, haunted by phantoms of the city, of loved ones – could you talk about the role ghosts play in the book?

I open in the graveyard and use this mode that runs throughout because the Gothic is a good way of making history porous. I read quite a lot in this genre – for teaching as well as enjoyment – and I love the way in which the past erupts through the material world of the present. I wanted this to be a memoir that didn’t just begin with me, and it was good way of opening up to history, where ghosts could freely come and go, guide me, teach me.

Even though a memoir is usually contained to the factual world, I didn’t see the Gothic or ghosts as anything particularly unreal to the way that we experience the world. Sometimes you have this sense of history pressing in on you, of repeating the past, echoing people, tapping into cycles. It all seemed a worryingly truthful way of getting into the subject. As I was writing, gathering these ghosts along the way, I had a Sixth Sense realisation towards the end where I thought, maybe the final ghost is me?

You write movingly about a paradoxical interconnectedness within the queer community, but also the isolation. In your early life, how difficult was it to emerge out of that shadow of heteronormative contempt when you were figuring out how to safely express who you were, dismantle the twisted notion that pleasure deserves punishment, separate the armour you had accumulated from who you were? Is this a lifelong process?

It’s ongoing. It’s a cliche to say that some people almost have this postponed adolescence, but I think sometimes the figuring out of who you are often comes after you come out, because you don’t need to hide anymore. But to begin to unpack the perceived inherent morality of certain ideas and figure out how far that morality applies to your vision of the world… It’s quite a big step to begin to construct your own moral system.

Especially when you had previously been using the framework of Catholicism…

I mean, Catholicism is quite gay (laughs). I remember reading medieval literature at university, particularly the female mystics – Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe – and the sublimation of sexuality into religious thought seems to set a very big precedent for this kind of sensual Christianity that followed. My good theologian friend here at Trinity put it very succinctly when he said Christianity is a history of the possibilities of material form, in terms of, how much is the body spiritual? How much is the bread, the Eucharist, inhabited by God? Gerard Manley Hopkins seemed to be a great person to pull into the book because of how much he sublimates sexuality into the body of Christ and then by extension through almost everything in the world.

There are many things to love in this book and my biggest hope is that it gets more people reading Hopkins, who is one of my favourite poets. He is a central figure in the memoir – why do you have this affinity with a “counter, original, spare, strange” Jesuit priest who was writing 150 years ago? I suppose he’s always been a bit of a time traveler, as his work was only properly picked up after the first world war.

Yes he’s good at jumping in and out of time, given he was received almost as a modernist. In bear terms we have followed each other. He moved from Oxford to Liverpool, I had done Cambridge to Liverpool, and when I was there I was aware of his presence, even though he’s still an under-appreciated figure. And then I moved to Dublin and of course, so did he. He would’ve lived about 400 meters up the road from my office here, I feel like I cross him regularly. So, geographically I followed in his footsteps – he’ll be getting out a restraining order for me soon! I find him and his work fascinating.

I was raised atheist, and yet sections of The Windhover or As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire move me so deeply, I think because I see God, or what people perhaps may think is God, in the natural world… Having read your previous work, it’s no surprise the pastoral, the seasons, the flora in the world sing. You capture these natural phenomena so beautifully – how did you approach writing about them in a prose, rather than poetry?

I think a poet like me is always going to have the tendency to want to overwrite and rhapsodise, because the poetic mode is often ‘here is one thing that we are noticing and let’s get as much detail out of that as possible’. Whereas you can be much sparer in prose because you don’t want to overload the reader with pure description. So I did pull back in that sense. What I wanted most of all was to conjure up atmospheres for the reader, painting the backdrop before I added the figures in foreground. Moving to prose, you’re thinking on a massive canvas, and I found that difficult. It was almost impossible to hold the reader’s entire experience in my head and make sure that I was orchestrating it well. I guess I treated it as a massive poem and kept to the idea of recurring images or ideas. Even if a reader doesn’t necessarily pick them up, I needed them there to structure it.

There’s a wonderful self-deprecating line when you talk about the “irritating habit” of poets “turning life into metaphor, with all the added self-grandeur of a postponed adolescence”. Do you think your tools as a poet and academic makes you more sensitive to analysing, diving deeper into everyday things, reading them as omens, metaphors, similes, imbuing them with greater meaning… or am I making it sound quite worthy!

No, I mean, there are two sides of the coin. One of them is a sense of shame and embarrassment that I think is integral to being a writer, because you have to take something seriously, which is deeply uncool and the thing that opened you up to mockery all the way through your life. If I sat in the pub and said the things that I say in the memoir, I would expect to be roasted. This is something that comes up often when I read from my work. The second I get home, I’m mortified that I’ve done it. The second Seán comes and in castigates the earnest Seán.

As a poet, you can get into a habit of when something happens to you, willing yourself to remember it, recording it over experiencing it, so you can use it. That can be a dangerous way to live, but being a writer trains you into that. The process for this memoir was almost like researching my own life. At the same time, when I sat down to write, I didn’t know what would come out onto the page. But eventually, little memories begin to seep back to the surface, because you disturb the sediment of your mind. And if you do it for long enough, over time, unfortunately you have to live in these murky depths.

Putting aside discussion of craft, emotionally it must have been an incredibly difficult process. Because you’re in the sediment, looking underneath the rock, at lives and loves lost…

The problem is that it’s kind of unsupervised therapy in which you are playing both therapist and patient, but you’re not trained. It is a difficult, inefficient process. I also found a type of guilt as you become a puppet master of your memories. You have to stage your life, narrativise it, to make it work as literature. I had to always keep in mind that what I was doing was writing a book, I wasn’t therapising myself, even if that might have been a side product of it.

You articulate the darkness cast over a person with severe depression, but also the tremors they create around them and the people who care about them the most, very keenly… When I spoke to Roger Robinson about what care poetry needs to take when working with ‘real life’ he replied ‘When things truly happened, you have to honour the moment… If you move in a spirit of honouring the best of the person or event you’re writing about, then hopefully it will come out true.” What care did you take, for yourself, and the people you were writing about, in honouring the difficult things that happened? Because memoir is a vulnerable form.

I was completely unprepared for the toll of a book like this. Last year was not easy because I found that I had made real again things that were in the past. I had somehow conjured up the mental weather of that time, and I don’t want to valorise the suffering writer stereotype, but that’s what happened.

One way of protecting myself and others was to fictionalise certain elements so long as it didn’t affect the reading experience. That brought it into a safer space for the real people involved. I guess the other thing is that the book is not written out of a place of anything but love for everyone in it. That makes it easier to write, because if a book is motivated by anger or vengeance, I imagine it makes it much more difficult to pen.

Are you familiar with Jack Spicer’s After Lorca? I was struck by many parallels with your book. It is a text that is essentially an imagined dialogue between the 20th century San Francisco poet Spicer and the then deceased Federico García Lorca, made of up letters between the two, and Spicer’s translations of Lorca’s work. I read it as a work of queer longing for something that is impossible, and yet through the medium of writing, possible. Is All Down Darkness Wide also a love story in this vein, and has writing it given cathartic shape to your loss, made the impossible, possible?

It has, yes, and I would say this is a book about longing in many ways. That inter-textual haunting element you mention sounds similar, wherein haunting is a longing through time, of someone in the past like Hopkins, who you feel that you might complete the longing of. I think that’s quite a powerful energy. One of Hopkins’ dark Dublin sonnet’s opening lines is “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life among strangers”. The final lines are: “This to hoard unheard, heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.” I think of that end line a lot because he might have been unheard or unheeded in his life, but so long as I hear him, he’s not a lonely began. If I listen, he may begin. There’s a way of completing the loop through literature. That’s what a reader can offer a writer. Even over a great expanse of time, they can allow them to be heard.

It is my hope that anyone reading the memoir who is struggling with depression or living with someone who has it, or anyone trying to define who they are, will felt seen, understood, and have some light enter their life.

I hope so too. It’s complete a cliche to say I wrote the book I wish I had when I was younger, but I spent a long time looking for a book that would help in the situations in which this memoir finds itself.

All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt is published by Penguin Press Jul 14, 2022

All photography Stuart Simpson / Penguin Random House