Cambridge alumnus and poet Seán HewittStuart Simpson/Penguin Random House with permission for Varsity

“You begin with no idea of the book,” the winner of the prestigious Laurel prize tells me, “you begin with just one or two poems.” Coming to Cambridge for a reading of his second poetry book, Rapture’s Road, after the immense success of his first one, I sit down with Seán Hewitt on a freezing Wednesday afternoon at Gail’s, wondering what the process of writing a book of poetry is like. “For this book I had about 300 pages of just notes and ideas,” he tells me. After a while he looked at his notes, realised what he was writing about and then pared it down into a book. “This book took me about four years, not full time, but it has been in my head for that long.”

As a Cambridge graduate, I ask Hewitt what it feels like to be back. “It does seem strange coming back. I can kind of see my younger self walking around. I feel a bit nostalgic.” The 2023-elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature remembers his time at Cambridge as being very busy: “I didn’t get much sleep,” he tells me, “but I also really liked the romance of it. Girton has an orchard, so I spent a lot of my time outside, just reading in the lovely gardens.”

“I can kind of see my younger self walking around. I feel a bit nostalgic”

“I think for me poetry is kind of isolated, because it seems to come from the time when I am on my own,” Hewitt explains when I ask him about the common theme of isolation in his work. “Poetry, or at least my poetry, is an eye speaking, and so that eye is always on its own.” Hewitt’s first poetry book, Tongues of Fire, was named book of the year by numerous newspapers including The Guardian and The Irish Times. He reveals that the process of writing both books was very different: “When I wrote the first poetry book, I didn’t really think of it as a book almost ever, because you don’t expect that you will ever be published and that people will read it or that it would get sold in shops. Whereas for this one, I knew it was going to be published and that people would read it, so I felt a sense of being listened to, which made me self-conscious in a different way.”

Hewitt’s works explore themes of mental health, queer identity and heartbreak, with The Sunday Times referring to his work as “poetry that will stand the test of time.” After graduating Hewitt struggled to find a job and ended up going to South America. There, he met his first long term boyfriend and moved to Sweden. Hewitt’s memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, which won the Rooney prize, is based on the time his life took a darker turn when his boyfriend suffered with a mental health crisis and suicide ideation. Both his memoir and his first poetry book, Tongues of Fire, are based on his life, but he says: “I think now I am quite interested in writing less personal things and more imaginative things.”

Some of Hewitt’s newest works include 300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love From The Ancient World, an anthology of queer Greek and Roman stories that celebrate homosexual love, in collaboration with illustrator Luke Edward Hall. “It has become quite important for me to write books that I wish I could have read when I was younger,” Hewitt reflects. “300,000 Kisses for me was that book. I think it would have made quite a difference for me if I had read that book when I was a teenager.”

“It has become quite important for me to write books that I wish I could have read when I was younger”

“I want this book to feel like a fantasy poem for the reader. I have always loved reading poetry that seems to take me somewhere else,” Hewitt tells me. “My first book was very much based on the experiences that I had had. This book is set in an imagined landscape, a bit like the landscape I know around in Dublin, Ireland.” The book is written as a dream in which Hewitt meets new people and wanders through the natural world. It’s also about climate change: “My first collection was also a lot about the natural world and with this one I felt like it was important to address the crisis the natural world is under.” His debut novel Open, Heaven, coming out in 2025, follows the romance of two 16-year-olds in a village in the north of England. “I am looking forward to it, it is almost done and I am just doing the final edits for it.”


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I ask Hewitt for his advice to the aspiring writers here at Cambridge. “Try to get in your personality and the way you see the world in your poems because you can never predict what can happen in the world that might make your book popular, you can never predict what the market publishing decides is cool this year. The only thing that you can do is keep writing things that you know best and hope people see that.” There is lots of pressure on Cambridge students to have figured out their career before they graduate, and he wishes that he’d been less focused on his career while studying: “Some of the most interesting people I have met began in one job, changed to another job and then became something entirely different. So let life be viable for you and open-ended.”