LAST SUMMER, in a packed basement venue in central London, I first heard Hannah Sullivan read from her then-forthcoming debut collection Three Poems. I was struck by how effectively — and instantaneously — Sullivan’s poetry constructed its own detailed, lucid, and deeply honest world, one which the audience were able — and felt impelled — to enter, and recognize themselves within. This second point was made clear by the rapturous applause Sullivan received, and in the conversations I had with several awestruck audience members after the reading. Speaking with poet-friends about Three Poems ahead of its publication, another aspect of the work was regularly discussed: will it really be constituted of just three long poems? People were surprised. Such a format seemed highly unusual, particularly coming from a mainstream publisher. This surprise reveals just how accustomed many readers of poetry, at least in the United Kingdom, have become to a by-now standard poetry collection format: around 50 or so individual poems — a couple of sonnets here, a few dramatic monologues there — mostly written through a lyric “I.”
Put very briefly, the three long poems of Sullivan’s Three Poems are about, in order, New York, repetition, and the death of a father and birth of a child. Throughout each, Sullivan shifts between comedy and lyric tragedy, between astute social commentary and cutting cultural satire, making use of a variety of forms and techniques to do so — including long chunks of prose poetry, irregularly rhymed quatrains and tercets, rhyming couplets, and elements of reportage. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” follows a young woman living in the city — “stand[ing] around // On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed” — and tells of the “huge lost innocence at which [she] aimed.” This “lost innocence” — that is, the acquisition of experience — is not attained. After the “you” sleeps with a former lover, the poem loops back on itself, the narrative of its final section rejoining that of the first section: the “you” standing on Fifth at dawn, watching the “unlit cabs go by” and that idea of lost innocence “reced[e] like long perspectives.”
The second poem, “Repeat Until Time,” takes this idea of looping further. The poem is separated into numbered sections, and it whirls forward and backward through different places and eras, from gentrified San Francisco — with its “techies in vintage Levis,” where “women pour milk on Kashi for the men from Tinder in the Mission” — to the British town of Rye, the early 20th-century home of Henry James. The poem culminates in a portrayal of the Trinity nuclear bomb test in Nevada: “Now nothing will be the same again / And Everything will be as it always was.” Imperfect patterns and recurrent themes weave throughout this poem in order to evoke its mantra — in many ways a mantra for the whole collection — that “repetition is inexact, eternal return is falsehood.”
Toward the end of the final poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” the speaker remarks that “it has been the year of life events” — a dryly bathetic summation for a period of time in which the speaker both witnesses the death of her father and has a child. “Sandpit” is split into four sections — each with perfectly chosen titles that gesture toward the stirring, mortal symbolism contained within the seemingly mundane and domestic (“Stuffing a Chicken,” or “When the Egg Meets the Whisk”) — and moves between the first- and second-person pronouns, as well as between indicative and imperative moods (“Think of the reality of breastfeeding: / Your fingers gleaming like crab-claws under the tap”). Here, that ability of Sullivan’s to articulate a sharply honest world is most keenly felt in the descriptions of the child’s birth — “to be hauled out, in a windowless room / Somewhere near Paddington to Radio 5 Live” — and the death of the father, where the family, “little wimpled Puritans with [their] tissues at the sickbed,” hopes that the death “be odourless […] / Yes, let it be odourless.”
I met up with Hannah on a bitterly cold February afternoon in central London, on the top-floor cafe of Waterstones, Piccadilly. Over lunch, we talked about Three Poems, the long poem, lyric poetry, and autofiction.
RALF WEBB: How did you arrive at the long poem — is it a form you always felt attracted to?
HANNAH SULLIVAN: I used to write short poems when I was studying at Cambridge, and in my early 20s. At Harvard, when I was around 21, I attended a poetry workshop taught by Jorie Graham. Poems I wrote at that time were very bad, and very formal, and short. Other students in the workshop — they were mainly older graduate students, some very gifted poets — were critical about formal poetry. So I tried to change my practice. After that workshop, I continued to write poems for another couple of years, but more or less gave up around the age of 24. I felt lacking in inspiration. I never encountered experiences of sufficient magnitude to transform into the crystalline lyric forms I thought I needed to produce.
Why do you think there has been this historic, obsessive focus on the lyric poem, particularly in UK poetry?
The primary reason, I think, is to do with the discipline of English in the middle of the 20th century: practical criticism, New Criticism, and the focus on form. When you’re trying to spread a new discipline of study, the idea of teaching very short lyric poems is attractive. They have something enigmatic about them, and someone’s intelligence can be shown by their ability to decipher or make a meaning out of those poems that is not only not incorrect, but also interesting. And that becomes, then, the idea for many people of what a poem is. Everything they are exposed to educationally looks like that. Probably my favorite 19th-century poem is Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which people have stopped reading because of this idea that the poem must be a hyper-condensed, universalized, and universalizable experience.
It’s an interesting time for the arrival of Three Poems, as longer-page poems, given the current debate around the ultra-compressed poems of the Instapoets.
When I first looked at Rupi Kaur’s work, I felt that in some ways there were similarities between it and what I was doing in “The Sandpit after Rain.” It seems to me her books are primarily self-help books. I was reading a lot of self-help books after my father died, and when I was having a baby. I was looking for that in poetry, too. I would also say that because Kaur’s poetic fragments don’t have the separation typical of traditional collections, you can think of each of her books as one long poem.
Have you been surprised by how large Instapoets’ readerships are?
I think Instapoetry is successful partly because people really, genuinely like poetry. But its true success is to do with the obscurity of a lot of contemporary poetry — it shows there is a lot wrong with it. People don’t understand it; they find it too cold, too hermetic. I personally find a lot of contemporary poetry very difficult to understand.
Can you talk about your practice when structuring your longer poems — is it a linear process, or do you write fragments and then build the poem out of them?
Both. In each case, the feeling at the beginning was that the poem would be very open-ended. With “You, Very Young in New York,” I didn’t sit down and think, “I want to write a long poem about New York.” I had written a few fragments, and then I worked a lot on my academic book about The Waste Land, where I was making an argument in favor of the original draft rather than the final version. I was struck by this idea that Eliot’s original ambition, before Pound changed the poem into a much more elliptical piece of work, was to look at contemporary London through a series of different historical and formal modes. The idea of essentially erasing the subject by offering a series of different vantage points of the same phenomenon captivated my attention. So, I thought, I want to write about New York, I have these experiences that are very clear in my mind, what would be gained if I used some different forms to write about it? In the poem, the material that allows for a more satirical take on the city was only generated because I thought, “Maybe I’ll try and write something in rhyming couplets.” Once you start writing in rhyming couplets, a different tone of voice comes in.
So the genesis of this New York poem was those clear experiences — were you living in the city permanently?
I would live there for little patches of time — never permanently, because I was studying at Harvard for six years. I had a real fondness for that brat pack of New York writers at the end of the 1980s — writing that most people hate. Like American Psycho — it’s a long time since I’ve read it — but I still think it’s a fantastically brilliant novel. I had really saturated myself with this type of literature. But also popular culture. I watched Gossip Girl avidly when I was in the States.
Did you watch Girls recently?
Yes, I did. In some ways Girls has much in common with “You, Very Young in New York.” But the sort of slummy New York of Girls was not the kind of thing that caught my attention about the city. Rather, to my childish early 20s mind, I was captivated by the idea of New York as a manic, moneyed, experienced, and sophisticated world. The glamour of it. I was also interested in novels where the narrative perspective — in terms of how judgmental they are — is quite difficult to figure out. The “you” pronoun in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, for instance. Is it a celebration of this gross capitalist excess, or is it a judgment of it? I find that inability to tell very interesting, the simultaneous attraction to and revulsion from the material culture. “You, Very Young in New York” is very much about this.
This poem also presents the idea of the city permeating the self, and the individual self having influence over the workings of the city — the idea of that reciprocal relationship reminded me of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, to an extent.
I actually only read Paterson before I wrote “The Sandpit After Rain” — Williams’s experience as a doctor was interesting to me. Whitman, actually, is a very big influence in the first poem. His love of listing. Whitman and Ginsberg. I’m currently working on a book on free verse, and the more you look at Whitman, for instance, you realize how much of an innovator he was. I had thought there would be other minor poets also writing free verse who weren’t that good, but actually it was just Whitman. He was 50 years ahead of everyone else. It’s amazing.
I hadn’t thought of Ginsberg as an influence — I feel like people do away with him, at least in the United Kingdom — but I can see it now.
Ginsberg’s work is very energized. His anaphoric long line is very exciting to me — the lines are very muscular, and it is truly a pleasure to hear him reading them, because you feel like he’s got more to say than he has space to say it. In “You, Very Young in New York,” it was the fact that I began to write long lines, which I hadn’t done before, which seemed to produce the long poem. I hadn’t written a poem with a second-person pronoun before, either, and I think without the “you” there is no way I would have written about some of the topics in the poem. Not because of embarrassment — because I wasn’t expecting anybody to read it at that point — it just would not have occurred to me to do so without the “you.”
How did you arrive at the decision to employ the “you” pronoun?
From Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” I think. Not that Didion is writing to her former self, exactly — she’s writing to an audience of readers — but there’s a tender attachment to a former self that can mingle with something self-mocking and acerbic. “Was anyone ever so young?” Perhaps there is something specifically female about this.
In what way?
I think it’s the relationship between innocence and experience. In writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, the innocence of a female character is predicated on her virginity. Her virginity can never be recaptured, and it is fantastically valuable as a commodity. But in a modern, sexualized world the opposite is true: it is sexual experience — sophistication — which is the prized commodity. Instead of there being a linear, one-direction narrative in which you have innocence, lose it very quickly, and then spend the rest of your life in a state of postlapsarian experience, in this modern world it is possible to move back and forward between innocence and experience. In terms of women’s sexual lives, this is a very important change.
When did you first read Didion?
At Harvard, completely by chance. I would have been 27, or thereabouts. I was teaching a course, “The American 1960s.” The reading for that really affected me. Truman Capote, a lot of the New Journalism — like Tom Wolfe — and Didion. More her novels than her nonfiction. Play It as It Lays was very important to me. And when I first read “Goodbye to All That” — I was just stunned. I rarely feel like that about a piece of writing. It is perfect. I don’t think Didion gets anything like the amount of critical attention that she should. I only realized recently how saturated her work is in a lot of the poets I really like, too — obviously Yeats, but it is also full of modernist poetry, and poetic techniques and rhythm.
Like Didion’s writing, your poems tap into an atmosphere, a kind of paranoid, pent-up cultural (sub)consciousness. In “Repeat Until Time,” the sections set in San Francisco resonate with Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — the culture you observe is the mutated or inverted 21st-century version of that subculture Didion observed in the 1960s.
Yes, it’s like the aping of that subculture — the replaying of it.
And the commercialization of it.
Yes. When we moved to San Francisco we lived in the southern part of the Mission, below Cesar Chavez. The neighborhood completely changed during the four years we lived there, particularly once Apple and Google started running buses to Silicon Valley and a lot of very young, wealthy people in the tech industry moved in. They wanted to buy into a whole culture, to acquire it for themselves. Dive bars would change overnight into much worse versions of themselves, simulacra of things they had been before. We used to go to this bar Argus Lounge all the time. Then it closed. They redid it up inside, and it was infinitely less nice: the drinks were far worse, and they were about five times more expensive.
You were in San Francisco while teaching at Stanford — do you feel like your status there as someone not from there, a non-national, gave you a distinct perspective on this type of gentrification?
To an extent, yes, in the things I noticed. I lived on a street that had about five donut shops — one of which was a normal, authentic donut shop. The others were hipster donut shops that sold donuts with Guinness and maple syrup and sea salt and cacao nibs. But at first sight it wasn’t easy to tell them apart. That phenomenon, that uncertainty — how long something has been there, whether it’s “real” or not — was partly because we weren’t from there.
We’ve talked about your use of the second-person pronoun, but you also employ the first-person pronoun, though less frequently. Is there any value, do you think, in talking about poetry as either “autobiographical” or “fictive”?
There’s an interest in academia at the moment in autofiction, in writers like Rachel Cusk — whose work I love. Writers whose work seems to be blurring the boundaries between properly fictive and properly autobiographical. But people never include poets in these discussions, in academic contexts, yet it seems to me that almost all poetry is in fact autofictive. And the fictive aspect is more interesting to me than the auto aspect. Clearly all poetry — probably all forms of writing, including reportage, science write-ups, everything — will have elements of the autobiographical, but the question of whether or not poetry can include fictive elements — can it include, for example, fictive people? — is one I’ve really struggled with. Virginia Woolf says you can never introduce fiction and fact into each other because the two things are antagonistic and destroy each other. But Virginia Woolf does it all the time. I’ve started thinking I should interview people for my poetry, not to ask direct questions, but to listen for elliptical, mesmerizing, suggestive phrases. Do you ever record things?
I often record short 30-second clips on my iPhone, particularly when traveling — things like birdsong, ice-cream vans, and overheard speech.
I didn’t realize until recently that you could record on the iPhone, and I suddenly thought, “Maybe I should record all of my day, every day.” Who wouldn’t like to listen to a perfect recording of their own life, as it was 10 years ago? But a poem, even a long poem, also needs to be highly condensed and ordered.
Is there a way in which one’s own poetry can ever hope to do something similar — to act as a substitute for that perfect record?
I don’t think so. In Three Poems, each poem’s individual stories are quite fake. They more represent a condensation of ideas that I have found interesting over the last few years. I was struck when I was reading over the last poem how much there is about cleaning. Why was I writing about cleaning and dirt and mess all of the time? There’s quite a lot of that in “Repeat Until Time,” too. I had become very interested in and horrified by ideas of entropy. Since having children, and since my son started moving, all that would happen is that a perfectly ordered space would turn into a disordered space by him; he could only produce mess, and I would spend 20 minutes returning it to how it was. Order into disorder, disorder into order. These things that reverse the process seem to me so human, magical, and bizarre. I find it truly fascinating that there should be agents present in this universal decline into entropy — poets or cleaners or surgeons — who turn mess back into order.
In “Repeat Until Time,” the final section focuses on the first testing of a nuclear weapon, Trinity, which seems a perfect embodiment, in human history, of that dynamic between order and disorder.
Yes, in a sense it is this key moment. But in another sense it is completely banal. It is only an illustration of a principle that people believed to be true. It’s not the discovery of something new — it’s not even as creative as a sentence in some ways. Returning to the question of fictiveness, in the final line of that poem, I added the word “Motherfucker” to Bainbridge’s post-detonation quote — “Now we’re all [motherfucking] sons of bitches” — I was going to take it out, but people convinced me to leave it in.
I think it’s better with it in.
It’s possible he did actually say that — maybe it’s a swear word they decided to redact! I like the comparison between Bainbridge’s completely banal but profound observation to that Oppenheimer quote everybody remembers — “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
That reduction down to bathos — a profound moment of destruction reduced to something flippant and casual — recurs in the collection, too. There’s the moment in “You, Very Young in New York” where the “senior partner” thinks: “Things are illiquid, freezing up. […] It’s time to short the fucking market.”
I like that about American speech. I think there’s a violence and a power in it — that not-very-human off-handedness. Maybe it’s the swearing. But in the last poem, “Sandpit,” I think the bathos works in a different way.
More in the imagery — the “Stuffing a Chicken,” the “Pigeons stacking like Tupperware.”
How has the process of writing “Sandpit” affected the way you think about the experience of grief?
Not in a positive way. I don’t think it was beneficial to write about it in terms of witnessing his death, but I do think it was beneficial to write the very last part of the poem. Now, for this section, there are a lot of other pieces I produced that didn’t go into the final version — there was epitaphic writing, and some translations, longer pieces … the whole thing was really starting to fall apart —
We’re back to entropy.
Exactly. That was what it was. The last three stanzas actually took me a very long time to write, even though they seem quite simple. I was struggling with that clichéd image — the father throwing his child up in the air. There exists an actual photograph of this, which is nostalgia-inducing in that way that 1980s photos are —
— sun-stained and faded Kodak shots, the “reddish colour cast,” in your words.
Yes. I could never really understand the significance of this photo — maybe I still don’t — but I felt finally I had come to a positive understanding of it. The photo is understood as a longer story, somehow. Then the child is actually liberated from the father, so the child is no longer represented as someone thrown up but as someone who has chosen to fall.