Long Perspectives: An Interview with Hannah Sullivan

And the commercialization of it. I think it’s the relationship between innocence and experience. ¤
RALF WEBB: How did you arrive at the long poem — is it a form you always felt attracted to? Yes, in a sense it is this key moment. 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. Truman Capote, a lot of the New Journalism — like Tom Wolfe — and Didion. Is there any value, do you think, in talking about poetry as either “autobiographical” or “fictive”? The “you” pronoun in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, for instance. 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. 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. 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. Maybe it’s the swearing. When you’re trying to spread a new discipline of study, the idea of teaching very short lyric poems is attractive. 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. 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? To an extent, yes, in the things I noticed. — is one I’ve really struggled with. 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. I had thought there would be other minor poets also writing free verse who weren’t that good, but actually it was just Whitman. And that becomes, then, the idea for many people of what a poem is. 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. When did you first read Didion? I felt lacking in inspiration. But at first sight it wasn’t easy to tell them apart. There’s quite a lot of that in “Repeat Until Time,” too. People were surprised. These things that reverse the process seem to me so human, magical, and bizarre. I don’t think Didion gets anything like the amount of critical attention that she should. The photo is understood as a longer story, somehow. I think there’s a violence and a power in it — that not-very-human off-handedness. We’ve talked about your use of the second-person pronoun, but you also employ the first-person pronoun, though less frequently. 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 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. I often record short 30-second clips on my iPhone, particularly when traveling — things like birdsong, ice-cream vans, and overheard speech. 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. 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? 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. I never encountered experiences of sufficient magnitude to transform into the crystalline lyric forms I thought I needed to produce. Ginsberg’s work is very energized. I was struggling with that clichéd image — the father throwing his child up in the air. At Harvard, when I was around 21, I attended a poetry workshop taught by Jorie Graham. They redid it up inside, and it was infinitely less nice: the drinks were far worse, and they were about five times more expensive. Poems I wrote at that time were very bad, and very formal, and short. Yes. I would have been 27, or thereabouts. I had a real fondness for that brat pack of New York writers at the end of the 1980s — writing that most people hate. 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 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. In terms of women’s sexual lives, this is a very important change. After that workshop, I continued to write poems for another couple of years, but more or less gave up around the age of 24. 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. We used to go to this bar Argus Lounge all the time. 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? The glamour of it. 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? I actually only read Paterson before I wrote “The Sandpit After Rain” — Williams’s experience as a doctor was interesting to me. Whitman and Ginsberg. Dive bars would change overnight into much worse versions of themselves, simulacra of things they had been before. He was 50 years ahead of everyone else. 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. Her virginity can never be recaptured, and it is fantastically valuable as a commodity. It’s possible he did actually say that — maybe it’s a swear word they decided to redact! It is perfect. Yes. Then it closed. I was teaching a course, “The American 1960s.” The reading for that really affected me. Have you been surprised by how large Instapoets’ readerships are? Do you ever record things? 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. But a poem, even a long poem, also needs to be highly condensed and ordered. Both. Why was I writing about cleaning and dirt and mess all of the time? But Virginia Woolf does it all the time. That phenomenon, that uncertainty — how long something has been there, whether it’s “real” or not — was partly because we weren’t from there. 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. He is managing editor of The White Review. Everything they are exposed to educationally looks like that. I rarely feel like that about a piece of writing. In Three Poems, each poem’s individual stories are quite fake. Rather, to my childish early 20s mind, I was captivated by the idea of New York as a manic, moneyed, experienced, and sophisticated world. Did you watch Girls recently? Such a format seemed highly unusual, particularly coming from a mainstream publisher. In each case, the feeling at the beginning was that the poem would be very open-ended. 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. I was also interested in novels where the narrative perspective — in terms of how judgmental they are — is quite difficult to figure out. 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. It is only an illustration of a principle that people believed to be true. I was reading a lot of self-help books after my father died, and when I was having a baby. 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. 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. Order into disorder, disorder into order. Like Didion’s writing, your poems tap into an atmosphere, a kind of paranoid, pent-up cultural (sub)consciousness. 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. 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. 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? The idea of essentially erasing the subject by offering a series of different vantage points of the same phenomenon captivated my attention. 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 I tried to change my practice. 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. But in a modern, sexualized world the opposite is true: it is sexual experience — sophistication — which is the prized commodity. There’s an interest in academia at the moment in autofiction, in writers like Rachel Cusk — whose work I love. I would live there for little patches of time — never permanently, because I was studying at Harvard for six years. 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? I think it’s better with it in. 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. I was struck when I was reading over the last poem how much there is about cleaning. It’s not the discovery of something new — it’s not even as creative as a sentence in some ways. Is it a celebration of this gross capitalist excess, or is it a judgment of it? 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? But in the last poem, “Sandpit,” I think the bathos works in a different way. Whitman, actually, is a very big influence in the first poem. People don’t understand it; they find it too cold, too hermetic. It’s amazing. I had become very interested in and horrified by ideas of entropy. I personally find a lot of contemporary poetry very difficult to understand. 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. 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. And when I first read “Goodbye to All That” — I was just stunned. I think Instapoetry is successful partly because people really, genuinely like poetry. The others were hipster donut shops that sold donuts with Guinness and maple syrup and sea salt and cacao nibs. Exactly. 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. I find that inability to tell very interesting, the simultaneous attraction to and revulsion from the material culture. And the fictive aspect is more interesting to me than the auto aspect. But people never include poets in these discussions, in academic contexts, yet it seems to me that almost all poetry is in fact autofictive. More in the imagery — the “Stuffing a Chicken,” the “Pigeons stacking like Tupperware.”
Yes. So the genesis of this New York poem was those clear experiences — were you living in the city permanently? ¤
Ralf Webb is a writer based in London. Over lunch, we talked about Three Poems, the long poem, lyric poetry, and autofiction. […] It’s time to short the fucking market.”
I like that about American speech. But also popular culture. Virginia Woolf says you can never introduce fiction and fact into each other because the two things are antagonistic and destroy each other. HANNAH SULLIVAN: I used to write short poems when I was studying at Cambridge, and in my early 20s. But in another sense it is completely banal. “You, Very Young in New York” is very much about this. When we moved to San Francisco we lived in the southern part of the Mission, below Cesar Chavez. In what way? The last three stanzas actually took me a very long time to write, even though they seem quite simple. That was what it was. 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. 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. I’ve started thinking I should interview people for my poetry, not to ask direct questions, but to listen for elliptical, mesmerizing, suggestive phrases. APRIL 20, 2018

LAST SUMMER, in a packed basement venue in central London, I first heard Hannah Sullivan read from her then-forthcoming debut collection Three Poems. At Harvard, completely by chance. In writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, the innocence of a female character is predicated on her virginity. 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. Yes, it’s like the aping of that subculture — the replaying of it. Other students in the workshop — they were mainly older graduate students, some very gifted poets — were critical about formal poetry. They wanted to buy into a whole culture, to acquire it for themselves. 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. His love of listing. 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. “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”). They more represent a condensation of ideas that I have found interesting over the last few years. More her novels than her nonfiction. 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. 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. Writers whose work seems to be blurring the boundaries between properly fictive and properly autobiographical. 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. Why do you think there has been this historic, obsessive focus on the lyric poem, particularly in UK poetry? 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. Play It as It Lays was very important to me. 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? I watched Gossip Girl avidly when I was in the States. I was looking for that in poetry, too. 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. I don’t think so. There’s the moment in “You, Very Young in New York” where the “senior partner” thinks: “Things are illiquid, freezing up. 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. 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. I lived on a street that had about five donut shops — one of which was a normal, authentic donut shop. How has the process of writing “Sandpit” affected the way you think about the experience of grief? Yes, I did. “Was anyone ever so young?” Perhaps there is something specifically female about this. Not in a positive way. From Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” I think.