Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Poet Sarah Hannah Has Passed.


Poet Sarah Hannah Has Passed.

Poet Sarah Hannah, Emerson College instructor and author of “Longing Distance” has passed away. Hannah reportedly committed suicide.

A Newton, Mass. native, she held a PhD. From Columbia University. I had the pleasure to know her, interview her, book her for readings, and publish her in issue 20 of the Ibbetson Street Press. She was a striking woman, wore a nose ring, played the bass in a rock band, and had a brilliant poetic talent.

Ironically she sent me an article she wrote on the poetry of Sylvia Plath; who met the same fate. She said her next book of poetry was to deal with the mental illness of her mother. Tupelo Press is publishing the collection, and it was due out in the next several months. I had booked her for The Somerville News Writers Festival, and she asked me to help book her for a reading at McLean Hospital, which I was close to doing. I sent her an email last week. I was told that she killed herself last week. She was only in her early 40’s. I know her high school teacher. She seemed so happy. Her star was rising. She had been through a divorce. She had everything to live for. I have only clichés. I am sorry. I have worked at McLean Hospital for 25 years, but I am not immune to this. May she rest in peace.

The family is having a private memorial. There will be a public memorial at Emerson College in the fall.

I conducted this interview with Sarah a year ago:
Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

Interview with poet Sarah Hannah: A Poet within “Longing Distance”

Sarah Hannah is an educator, a poet with a PhD from Columbia University, and a sometimes rock musician. Her poems have appeared in “Barrow Street,” “Parnassus,” “Gulf Coast,” “Crab Orchard Review,” and others. Her original manuscript, which became her first poetry collection “Longing Distance,” was a semi-finalist for the “Yale Younger Poets Prize,” in 2002. Anne Dillard describes her collection as: “…an extremely moving work. I’m struck by her intelligence of emotion and her unmistakable voice…Sarah Hannah is a true original.” She currently resides with her husband in Cambridge and teaches at Emerson College in Boston. She was a guest on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.

”Doug Holder: Can you tell us about the “Yale Younger Poets Prize” which “Longing Distance,” was a semi-finalist for?

Sarah Hannah: That was a sort of near miss. That was in 2002. That was the year Tupelo Press accepted my book. I found out I was a runner up by phoning the editor, (not the judge) who was W.S. Merwin. The editor told me he remembered the book, and it was a semi-finalist, and it was a strong book.

Doug Holder: A lot of folks claim a PhD can ruin a poet. You learn how to write academic papers, but you forget how to write poetry. This does not seem to be the case with you.

Sarah Hannah: It ruined me in the sense that while I was writing my dissertation, I felt that I didn’t have time to write poetry. But I think the PhD made me a better poet. It forced me to really study poetry deeply. You have to grapple with ideas that are foreign to you. You read more than just contemporary poets. You learn to become a better writer.Some people become sidetracked. They go into a PhD program and they emerge as critics not poets. There are more people around than you think that are poets and scholars.

Doug Holder: How did you come up with the title for your collection “Longing Distance?”

Sarah Hannah: I was writing a series of sonnets about a messed up love affair. You know “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” an all those clichés. So I came up with a line while I was in the country watching my husband scale a rock. I thought of the line: “I keep you at longing distance.” I thought it was just going to be another sonnet in the sequence. I wrote the sonnet, but then wound up expunging it from the book. I kept “Longing Distance,’ as the title.

Doug Holder: From our email exchanges I get the impression you haven’t had an easy life.

Sarah Hannah: I lived a hardscrabble life. I’ve seen life disintegrate. I wanted to put back my experiences in more metaphysical or formal terms.I grew up in Newton, Mass., in the Waban section. A lot of neurosis going on there. I would say seven out of my eight high school friends were bulimic. I was not. My mother was hospitalized at the same “summer hotel” Anne Sexton visited.

Doug Holder: How does your teaching at Emerson College fit with your poetry?

Sarah Hannah: It’s fitting beautifully because I am teaching poetry, as opposed to composition. I am teaching traditional form to graduate and undergraduate students. I teach a hybrid literature and writing course.

Doug Holder: Why did you move from the bright lights and big city of New York to the more provincial environs of Boston?

Sarah Hannah: I am a lover of the underdog. Boston is the underdog to New York. I felt I had to come back. You know: “My end is my beginning, my beginning my end.” I have always missed Boston. I am a loyal person that way. My husband and I purchased a house in Cambridge. It’s right in the Central Square area. It’s a very diverse city. I often write at the ‘1369” Coffee Shop or ‘Grendel’s Den,” in Harvard Square. I feel rooted here.

Doug Holder: How does the lit scene here compare to the “Big Apple?”

Sarah Hannah: There are a lot of readings here like N.Y. I lived in N.Y. for 17 years. It took me 8 years to get “out” there. It seems much faster out here. I have a book though, that makes a difference. I was worried. It took a long time for me to establish myself in New York City. But I didn’t loose my contacts because I maintained my connection to the journal “Barrow Street,” and now I am an editor there.”


  1. I'm terribly saddened by this news. I didn't know her well, but I loved her poetry. Thank you for posting the interview, she was such an interesting person. I'm glad to have had the chance to meet her.

  2. I'm a former student of Sarah's and I am entirely torn up over her death. Regardless of her extraordinary poetic ability, Sarah was one of the most kind and humble people I've ever met. She created an entirely positive atmosphere in her classroom; there was criticism over favoritism, only constructive criticism. Sarah was even humble enough to let us undergrads critique her work. I'll never forget her sense of humor either. I'll always remember her imitating Mick Jagger when describing the word "shattered" or casting a slight role of the eyes upon meeting unpracticed intellectuals. She was by far my favorite professor and it'll be hard to start next year knowing I'll never see her again. I've never seen a class embrace a professor like mine did with her. I am so distraught.

    Thanks for everything, Sarah, and I wish I could have done more.

    -Dan Weiman

  3. Anonymous10:33 PM

    i saw her on the 21st.
    i don't know what to say.

    i miss her.

  4. Larry Chiger7:04 AM

    I was a student of Sarah's in New York several years ago. I lost touch with her and just this morning went looking for her email address to send her a new poem to critique.

    Sarah was such a joy, such a radiant person, such a fine teacher, such a wonderful poet. I am literally overcome with sadness. It is impossible that she took her life.