Student poet juggles writing, life at Yale

Hannah Zeavin ’12 was hit by a car when she was 12 years old. She was crossing an intersection near her home in Brooklyn when a car ran a red light and struck her unconscious, causing injuries to her legs, nose and jaw.

But some good came out of the accident — Zeavin received a copy of Frank O’Hara’s poetry during her recovery and found herself “digesting” his poems, she says.

Usually prolific, Hannah Zeavin ’12 has struggled with writer’s block since beginning classes at Yale in September.
Esther Zuckerman
Usually prolific, Hannah Zeavin ’12 has struggled with writer’s block since beginning classes at Yale in September.

“It was pretty revolutionary for me,” Zeavin now recalls of O’Hara’s poetry, which she devoured during her days off from school. She went on to take four years of poetry at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, work closely with a literary mentor, win a handful of distinguished prizes and read everything from classical to contemporary poetry. Now a published poet at the age of 18 with her first book, “Circa,” Zeavin is both excited and afraid of what the book’s official release in April will mean for her career as a writer — especially because she has not been able to write since arriving on campus.

“This is my livelihood; it’s my life,” she says, holding onto a paperback copy of her book (copies have already been selling in Book Trader Café and Labyrinth Books in New Haven since January). “And it’s terrifying not producing,” she adds.

On a recent winter afternoon, she was sitting in Book Trader, where she works four shifts a week, with one of her knees tucked in, dressed in an oversized camel-hair coat and high-waisted skirt, her fingers playing with the curly blonde strands about her neck. Zeavin, who professes an uncontrollable urge to write, is both restless and passionate, gesturing with emphasis as she rephrases her statements to clarify her words.

“It’s something beyond writer’s block,” she says. “It’s like a straitjacket.”

“LOCAL POET’S FIRST BOOK!”

Displayed in a window at the entrance to Book Trader Café, Zeavin’s “Circa” is the only new book sold by the café that sells used books.

Both owner David Duda and manager Brooke Wittenberg of Book Trader Café said Zeavin did not make a big deal about her publication. Wittenberg said Zeavin casually mentioned the book while they were working at the sandwich board during one shift. Wittenberg now owns a copy.

“It’s definitely poetry that takes some delving into,” she said of “Circa,” noting that she was an English major in college.

On the back cover of the book, New York performance poet Anne Waldman, who is also Zeavin’s mentor at Naropa University, summarizes the collection of 22 poems as “Daggers, ghosts of pirates, 60 lengths of loose lace, ferris wheels, jesters, family dramas and the exigencies and suffering of the WWII death camps.”

Begun while she was in high school, “Circa” represents the culmination of nine months of constant writing. The daughter of Lynne Zeavin, a psychoanalyst in New York City, and Charles Musser, a Yale professor of Film Studies, American Studies and Theater Studies as well as Co-Chair of the Film Studies Program, Zeavin has always been surrounded by the arts.

The opportunity for Zeavin to arrange her work in a book arose in her junior year of high school, when she won the Alan G. Ross Memorial Mentor Prize, awarded to a sophomore or junior student in the New York City region of The Scholastic Writing Awards. The prize included the publication of a chapbook, a small-sized book printed in low numbers without an ISBN number. The co-editor of a small publishing company Hanging Loose Press, Bob Hershon, who knew Zeavin through her multiple submissions to his magazine, said his company collaborated with Scholastic to ultimately publish a book that would get a wider distribution.

“We like that the language is lively and the work is free of literary mannerisms,” Hershon told the News last week. “We see a great deal of work and, as part of that, we see a great deal of work from young writers and certain kinds of things become tiresome and familiar.”

This tiresome and familiar material, Hershon said, reads like “I love grandma, but grandma is dead.” But Zeavin’s book is not about grandma.

At first glance, the paperback has an intricately designed red cover with images of vertebrae draped across the corners. The art was designed by Zeavin’s friend from home, Zoë Lescaze. As Zeavin leafs through the pages, she describes how the book follows a chronological order. The first poem is about the Trojan War; the second to last is about World War II and the Holocaust. But, Zeavin explains, she had not planned for the book to be organized this way — they were originally written separately at different times.

The idea for its arrangement and title, she says, occurred two days before she submitted the book to her publishers at Hanging Loose.

“It seems sort of magical for me,” she said.

A YOUNG WRITER

Zeavin has some habits that she just cannot break. One is smoking — she continues talking as a cigarette dangles in her mouth as she gets up to leave Book Trader. Her other addiction is writing. Even if she is not producing, Zeavin explains, she feels a compulsion to write — a compulsion so strong that she says she does not know what she would do without poems.

“Actually, I’d probably kill myself,” she said. “It’s my work. It’s the way I think about the world. It’s how I address the world. It’s how my attitude toward everything is shaped.”

This is why, Zeavin says, she hopes she can find a way to start writing again as she did before entering college.

“Please God I hope that I start wri—” she stops and quickly corrects herself. “And I don’t believe in God.”

She tries again: “Please someone make me start writing again is maybe more apt.”

Still, among friends and family, Zeavin is recognized as a rising talent and writer among her friends.

A friend, Peter Beck ’12, said it was “hard to miss” that Zeavin was getting her book published at the beginning of this fall.

“We’d be going to a party,” he recalled. “And she was suddenly in a corner making last-minute edits.”

Zeavin’s suitemate Christine Slomka ’12 said she also noticed the unbound manuscript sat on their coffee table. Although Zeavin did not share her work, Slomka briefly looked through some of the poems, Slomka said.

“On a cursory glance it seemed like it must have been really full of symbolism,” she said.

Zeavin’s mother, Lynne, said she never had any doubt Hannah would have her book published. Lynne said she witnessed Hannah’s talent for poetry even before Hannah expressed her intention to publish a book.

“She would come downstairs and say, ‘Mom, can I read you this poem I just wrote?’ And she would read these poems, and our jaws would drop,” Lynne recalled of her daughter in high school.

TWOFOLD

Zeavin, a single silver ring hanging from her nose, does not want to sound like a “prick.” She repeats this while describing what it is like to have a book published. The reality of the publication and distribution of her work, she says, is twofold.

First, she says, “it’s awesome” — second, “it’s horrible.”

When Zeavin was at the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., as Waldman’s assistant this past summer, four guest speakers among a crowd she describes as “hyper-spiritual people” told her that she would no longer write, she recalled.

“[They] made these proclamations,” she says of the speakers, recalling that one threatened that she was going to “die very soon,” while another predicted that she would have six kids within the year and stop writing. The message from these writers and poets, she summarized, was that she would ultimately stop writing.

And now, just over one semester into her freshman year, Zeavin is not writing. She is not interested in writing classes, either. Instead, Zeavin hopes to double major in literature and film.

“When deadlines come in, when a grade comes in, I get turned off,” she says. “I went to high school with no grades. It’s not because I’m a hippie; I just don’t want that pressure.”

While Zeavin admits she has written a couple poems since she arrived at Yale, she has not produced her usual “bleh” of work, she says, as she mock vomits. Not writing, she says, makes her more uneasy about the upcoming release of her book.

“Every time I look at it, when I’m at work and it’s in the window or when someone tells me ‘hey congratulations,’ I want to call it a falsehood,” she says. “It’s not a falsehood. I did write it. It is my work, but because I’m not producing now it’s like a constant smack in the face. If you are a writer, you are only a writer if you write. I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘So I published this book, now I’m a writer.’ ”

Comments

  • Arthur

    This girl sounds like a total poseur and the article sounds as if it was planted by her PR agency.

  • TD

    Interesting article. Sounds like Ms. Zeavin needs to feel comfortable writing terrible poems again-- always a difficult thing to do. Best of luck to her.

  • Anonymous

    Better call mom for a little psychoanalysis to get rid of the writers block. I'm sure once that's cleared up she can use dad's connections again to get #2 published.

    YDN: there *has* to be more inspiring students to feature. This one is a waste of ink.

  • yale

    hannah this is cool!

  • hyper-spiritual?

    give me a break. this is a new low for the YDN. Where are the long profiles on worthier students and worthier achievements?

  • Dear YDN

    But wait! One candidate is black and the other is a woman! And they're vying for the Democratic nomination!

    We all know how this turns out.

  • Columbia

    Not only do I think this is a worthy student, but the achievements are above and beyond many her age. I don't see this girl abusing her parents' positions to get ahead in her career; if anything, she has shied away from them in order to make a name for herself independently. Whether you like the girl or not or like her poetry or not, is irrelevant here; there is no doubt that she is worthy of some sort of recognition. How many of those who commented can say they have achieved such success by age eighteen? Jealousy can cloud the success of peers, and I do hope this girl does not let that be the case. Ironically, I don't think he article itself was very well written… but that aside, how is this a "new low" or "a waste of ink" in any way? Do tell, previous commenters, what YOU have done in the past 6 months that would be worthy of an article in the Yale Daily News. Then perhaps YOU can struggle through generating publicity, and maybe then you could be so lucky as to have to YDN approach you for an article, and then you could have people writing hurtful comments about your lack of worthiness… bottom line: who gives a rat's ass if you like her or not? that's not the point of the article. It is a look into a local student, your peer, who is making something of herself, so have some respect.

  • calm down

    Why can't Yalies be proud of a fellow Yalie who's getting published? She deserves to be congratulated.

    The YDN is a daily paper, and it's not everyday that a freshmen is getting published.

  • meet the Maker

    "Please God help me start writing again…And I don't believe in God. Please someone help me start writing again…"

    Oh please…

    If you actually have talent, where do you think you got it from? Maybe that's your problem…

  • The critics have merit

    A lot Yale applicants and students are extremely talented. Many are good writers. However, the facts that a)Hannah's father is a prominent Yale professor, and b) Hannah went to a well-connected school that doesn't give grades strongly imply that this girl has received a "leg up" in life. Being able to write when you're a teenager at a tiny, nurturing alternative private high school is one thing. Being able to write under pressure, on a deadline, for a grade is quite another, and is far more important for success in the real world. It's true that we can't say for sure whether Hannah does or does not deserve what she has accomplished so far. It's just frustrating to those of us who don't have a leg up--a father who's a Yale professor, for example, or families with the money to send their kid to a private high school--to see how much easier it is to succeed when a student comes from privilege.

  • just a thought

    to the previous comment, I understand that it is very easy to feel that someone with "privilege" has an unfair advantage. Alas, if you had self-respect, you would quit complaining about how unfair your life is and stop using it as an excuse and get yourself published or something equally impressive. Support your fellow students, or else they will never support you… money or not.

  • Y12

    This is the most useless piece of crap I've ever read in the YDN. I'm so disappointed

  • Anonymous

    @#10--

    You do have to think, though, about how many high schoolers are writing poetry better than what Zeavin writes--and judging by the poem the YDN printed of hers, there are probably many who are just as deserving of some attention. Her being published would be impressive if it were her sheer talent alone that got her published, but it doesn't seem to be. I know current Yalies, not too much older than Zeavin, who could put together quite good--memorable, even-- first collections. But getting published as a poet is harder than getting published as any other kind of writer, because poetry simply doesn't sell. I don't doubt that Zeavin's parents' and school's connections cut out several steps for her.

    That being said, I bought her book. I'm interested in reading her other poems, because perhaps there's some hidden brilliance I'm just not seeing. And I definitely want to support fellow Yalies.

  • Brigitte P.

    She is anointed, as far as I can tell. This rare quality of predestined success is frequently seen among white men or women of privileged social and cultural backgrounds. It is the mark of a successful Yalie.

  • Hieronymus

    Whadda buncha meanies.

    Gotta be honest: I prefer Zeavin's stuff to the crap I was fed at Obama's inauguration.

    Weird to see such rabid jealousy at…Yale. How fractal: hierarchy, even at the highest heights. Ha!

  • greg

    look I happen to know that Hannah got her poems published by submitting them to a writing contest, which she won. it had absolutely nothing to do with her wealth or her parents; any of you could have done the same thing.

  • Yale 2010

    Whether or not she got her work published due to connections or privilege is a moot point, I think. It comes down to this: Why did this article get a quarter of the front page and an entire page in the middle of the paper? There must have been something, anything, else more relevant.

  • Anonymous

    I have not read any of her work, but there is no way she is the most talented in her class. There is a real genius in 2012, but I've forgotten his name.

  • alum

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/health/views/24book.html?em

    it seems another published author is coming to yale…slightly different subject matter

  • former lecturer

    Re #18 yes, the daughter of Barry Nalebuff of the SOM, a kid whose mother slaved over this book with her for years.