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Poetry Talk with Hannah Lowe

Poems that turn corners don’t stay static.


A conversation about poetry and memory, the responsibility in writing, racism and colonial ideology, and unstable lives. With Hannah Lowe, interviewed by Léonce Lupette.

Léonce Lupette: Welcome, Hannah Lowe, to this Poesiegespräch. How are you?

Hannah Lowe: Fine, thank you, holding up in lockdown, busy as always. I’m in that strange place where you finished a book and you can rest, but then your mind starts itching, like: what next? Usually it’s the time when you would go out, visiting exhibitions, go to the cinema, being with people, but the conditions are not conducive to that.

LL: At least we can visit your books. While reading your poems, I am under the impression of being in a three-dimensional space, due to all those layers of words, images and descriptions appealing to all our senses: colours and textures, materials, surfaces, smells, tastes, sounds, food is very important, smoke, very precise descriptions of light. Your writing has a lot to do with your family history, with your Chinese-Jamaican father who migrated to England as a young man and worked as a professional gambler, with your identity, with your work as a teacher and your own teenage past. How do you see the connection between that exploration of memory and of people and places of the past, and the sensorial dimension?

HL: First, on a very simple level, I think of poetry as a sensory art, and in my work the visual is more important than anything else. I try to make sure the readers can see something clearly. So I think a lot about how to imbue a poem with an imagistic quality, and certainly I experience memory as something predominantly visual. There is no linear memory to access, it is much more unstable, much more impressionistic. In terms of food – food is about visual imagination. Also about smells and tastes, of course, but food is the classic cross-cultural, hybrid signifier in diasporic writing like mine, as a descendent from my father who had come across multiple locations in his life. Food has been the classic way in which those cultures are passed on, and I haven’t shied away from that in poetry at all, I’ve got a lot of food poems. Hence the different textures, I try to make the poems rich, robust.

LL: In Chick , the book about your father, there is a poem about him cooking, “Now there’s a man can cook!” the aunt of the speaker says in a verse, and in another very sensorial text there are some home-made Chinese sausages drying on the washing line in a very English neighbourhood in the 60s.

HL: I love that idea of the hybrid, travelling food and how it becomes representative, and at the same time you might add a little extra it originally didn’t have in it. The recipe for those sausages, lap cheong, didn’t stay the same in their movement from China to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to England, to Ilford, to Essex. The image of the lap cheong is like a siren ringing loudly in that white working-class area when my parents lived there. And the line from the other poem comes from the fact that many men of that generation would travel alone from Jamaica to America and then to London, so they had to learn to cook.

LL: Chick is like a conversation with your father, an inquiry into him, who was away a lot, and at home you say there were a lot of silences. Shall we imagine your writing as a reconstruction of a conversation that didn’t take place?

HL: Very much so, there was very little conversation. That is why poetry is a great vehicle for this kind of material, because unlike a memoir or a fiction text, where you really need knowledge, poetry is the art of the white space. So Chick is full of fragments of memories of him. He didn’t speak about his life as a gambler, probably because of shame: it was so unorthodox and at the time illegal; he didn’t speak about his experiences of migration or his early years in London, I suspect that they were very traumatic. And he certainly never spoke about his childhood, which had definitely been traumatic. But there are these little stories that I sort of inherited, I suspect they were from my mother, maybe an aunt of his or a cousin, little snippets that form the bases of those poems. Poetry works as a great vehicle for absence, because you can put what you know and then leave everything else singing in the white space. Apart from the time (there is a poem in Chick called Those Long Car Silences) he would drive me to places or I went along with him driving somewhere. He was often going to drop off some loaded dice or a pack of marked cards somewhere, and we would sit in the car and drive for miles into London and he rarely spoke, but that was our kind of weird camaraderie.

LL: In that context, one text struck me, also formally noteworthy for being the only larger prose poem in Chick: Manchester George. There we have the opposite situation: a stranger coming to the hospital where your father is dying and describing him as somebody who wouldn’t stop talking, who had an opinion about everything.

HL: I like that poem as well, it is different because it was written as a monologue. So the genealogy of this poem is years after my father has died, and here is what I mean with knowledge. On one occasion I did meet his old gambling crony, the Manchester George of the poem. That was many years after my father’s death. We met in London and it was like the tap was turned on and he could not stop talking. That unorthodox road of not just gambling, but cheating, was so illicit that it’s not something that is in the history books, there is little known about. And yet, for those two men it was their whole life. And he just spilled all that to me. Obviously I changed the words, but much of that poem is based on truth. It’s also about this masculine world where emotions cannot be easily articulated. Because George loved my dad, they were best friends, but yet it was difficult for him to say all that to my dad’s face. So I wrote that in the hope I could push through that masculine silence, the camaraderie of men who do hard, difficult work together, and it’s all about living on your nerve and you can’t show your emotion.

LL: Besides the ones dealing with hybrid and contradictory spaces of cultural and ethnic identities, you also have many poems about coming of age, becoming a woman. There is not only the permanent question of belonging in terms of culture and family, but also in terms of gender. In several poems there is a girl wanting to belong to the boy’s club, or wanting to be a boy, and at the same time being very sad for not being wanted as a girl. In Sonnet for Darren the speaker is a mother enjoying the interested looks of a young man who turns out to be a former pupil of hers. And there is another one, Dance Class , where the speaker is a girl whose father comes to fetch her at the end of a dance class. She is ashamed and hides and tells another ballerina: he’s the cab my mother sends to me. On the one hand she seems ashamed because of his skin colour, but maybe she is more uncomfortable because of something else, the poem also stating that he stood among the Essex mothers / clad in leopard skin. He’d shake his keys / and scan the bloom of dancers, of the other girls whose age we don’t know.

HL: The discomfort in the poem has multiple reasons, since as a child, you only want to fit in and I was always asked Is that man your dad? That wasn’t only because of his brown skin, but also because he was much older than other parents, he was 52 when he had me. Also he often just got out of bed after a whole night of playing poker and looked pretty dishevelled. He was very other in quite a conventional place where there was a culture with people behaving in similar ways. So in a dance class, he is an interloper in all kind of ways. Not least because he is a man, when everyone else’s mother was there. But that was his job, because he was a “night worker”, and in the day he had a lot of domestic responsibilities like picking up from school, cooking. Regarding the aspect of gender – I realise how resolutely full of desire my poems are, particularly in The Kids. Sonnet for Darren for instance is about bumping into a boy that I taught many years ago, and misunderstanding the exchange of looks. But there are also poems about the sexual attraction that happens between students and teachers. You’re walking on shaky ground there, but I never shied away from speaking the truth about these situations. But desire isn’t just romantic or sexual. There is a great desire of being “part of the boy’s club”. The boys were always doing the cool things when I was a kid. There are a lot of poems in Chick and The Kids about longing to be a boy and to have the freedom the boys had, rather than being the good little ballerina. Or to be both.

LL: Chick begins with all that desire of colourful expression and then becomes darker and darker, and in The Kids there is one poem, Players, where the parents appear as heavy smokers. It is an especially dark poem, with the cigarette boxes being little coffins the parents would pile up. How do you conceive the relationship between that very adventurous world of colours and tastes and interesting locations full of desire, and those very dark spaces filled with death?

HL: That tension in my work exists, with both opposites being related. My parents were great risk-takers, my father leaving Jamaica when he was young, what he did to get money was dangerous and unstable, and my mother took a risk on him. She was a white teacher, much younger, and it was a life of great colour, adventure, excitement, in that sense it was very different from everyone else’s childhood, but it was also undermined by a great instability. There were always worries about where the next money would be coming from. The smoking represents the enormous pressure they were both under, trying to keep up the middle class façade of the family, but actually it was standing on smoke. The whole book is about the way in which we learn behaviour, and I managed my own worries through smoking for many years. And one of the reasons I found it so hard to stop was because it took me back to them. There was comfort in that. That’s how the poem ends: they are still there, I can still go back.

LL: It’s that tension again: passing on a deadly habit to the next generation, but in that same habit, in the instability there is comfort and memory and connection. In your work that is always intertwined.

HL: They are intricately linked. And the final poems in Chick are like the falling arc in a movement of music, which is leading towards my father’s death. They are all about my experience of his physical health failing inevitably due to his kind of lifestyle. That was waiting in the wings, always. So the poems are poems of mourning, grief. When I wrote them, I was reading lots of elegies, and I tried to put a Caribbean spin on them in some way.

LL: In The Kids, there is another sad and touching poem, The River, which I read as a commentary on Chick. The speaker recites poems about her dad at poetry readings, performing him, but suddenly sees “the real man standing / at the door”. I felt there is something deeply haunting in that.

HL: The poem questions what poetry can do. I have talked so much about my father’s life in public, written about him, read poems about him, that sometimes I have to remind myself of who the real man was. I felt the more I write, the more I am erasing him, because that’s what happens in the act of writing: by mediating something, the real thing starts wobbling. What can poetry do, the poem asks, what can be forgiven? What can be achieved through this medium? I leave it ambiguous, because I’m not really sure what the answer to that is. At the end of the poem, the father is swept away by a river to depict the idea that I still can’t keep hold of him, no matter how much I write about him, solidify him. He is less stable now then he ever was.

LL: Another kind of instability your poems deal with, especially in The Kids, has to do with the experiences of teenagers, maybe the most unstable period of life. Those poems are sonnets, one of the most traditional poetic forms, with lots of rules. Why that very stable form, if I may say so, for all these unstable issues of sexuality, drugs, also some violence?

HL: There is this quote from Audre Lorde, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, which I believed for a long time. But then I asked: what if you do take the master’s tools with its high culture, its associations of literary difficulty, of Shakespeare, and democratise them with unorthodox working-class experiences? The opening of The Kids is all about teaching canonical literature to an unstable cohort of young people who not necessarily want to learn. So the sonnet appears as the perfect vehicle to write about their boredom, their complaints, their disobedience, their rebellion. And I realised that the sonnet, which looks like a little box, is like a classroom. Every sonnet is a classroom or blackboard or a page in a book some kid doesn’t want to read.

LL: I guess the students that appear in the poems don’t know they are in a book of yours, or they wouldn’t actually recognise themselves.

HL: When you are writing, you go into a tunnel. You’re just in the poem, with the decisions you have to make to make it work as a poem, as a sonnet, and the truth just starts fading. But that’s why I write, the documentary truth is never really my primary concern. The emotional truth is different. But in every single of the sonnets there is a germ of truth.

LL: The documentary truth, the emotional truth, the poetic truth, they all work at different levels. Does the same principle apply to Chick, or is there another kind of responsibility due to the far more direct and complex relationship with your father?

HL: I think it’s the same. It’s always the poems in form which lead me away from the truth. The rhyme can take me to a different place. I was aware ethically that my family would read it, so I couldn’t tell any big lies. It had to be predominantly related to things that actually happened. But my father’s life was so full of whispers, and my understanding of him was full of whispers and rumours, that there are things that I don’t know if they are true and that are in that book. They are like memories of memories, bits that I always carried around, that were already there.

LL: In memory, the factual truth at a certain point doesn’t matter that much, because these images are acting upon us, they are active parts of our perception and of our emotions.

HL: Exactly. It is a little bit like in meditation, where you repeat a mantra. I don’t know if you overlay certain neurological patterns, but it becomes like a new truth to you. And something similar happens in writing, and that can be very powerful emotionally. Why leave the truth alone, why not pick it and probe it a bit and change it?

LL: In a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer you tell how you were invited by a Chinese-Jamaican association to visit your grandfather’s grave, where you had conflicting feelings: on one side there was an expectation of the people who invited you to show some kind of devotion to your ancestral heritage, and on the other hand the feeling of betraying your father who fled from there and who had a very conflicted relationship with his father. Does it occur frequently that your poetry triggers that kind of expectations that put you in a certain role?

HL: That story is about responsibility of representation. As far as I know, my Chinese grandfather was not a nice man, and also he carried all the stereotypes of the Chinese: gambling, bad temper, there is very little positive to say about him. But I couldn’t write this very stereotypical Chinese man, because it is my responsibility to work against those stereotypes. The Chinese made an amazing contribution to Jamaica, they were upstanding citizens. And just because some people aren’t good that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve some airtime. They deserve some attempt to understand the factors that made them the way they were. And a lot of my research into Chinese-Jamaican history has given me more of an understanding of why my father was like he was, but also why my grandfather was so violent towards him. So the writing takes you to one place, but the research is very important as well. Very few people in the UK write about the Chinese-Caribbean, so when you write the kind of texts I write, you do take on this responsibility of telling the good story to some degree. And when you can’t do it then you have to do something to compensate for it.

LL: In that same interview you mention gambling as a metaphor for migration. At the same time you say that this metaphor at a certain point starts to fail. Why is that? And what happens with that metaphor and with that risk in writing?

HL: There is migration where there is absolutely no choice, as for the people in war-torn zones like Syria or Yemen. Those types of migration are very different from the way in which my father migrated. There was much more choice. But you also wonder about what degree of coercion exists when you grow up under the conditions of colonialism, where you are constantly told that your own culture is inferior and that this country is superior. You get tricked, colonialism was the biggest act of trickery ever to happen historically. Its mechanisms continue to stay, and I don’t use trickery lightly, it’s peoples’ lives and psychological welfare that are at stake. The legacy of colonial thinking and ideology is ongoing. You swap one hand of cards for another and you don’t know what you will find, as is true for that generation of post-war Caribbean migrants. They had one idea of Britain and were, on the most part, hugely disillusioned by the realities they found here. Lots of them didn’t know there were poor English people. And not to mention racism, on an institutional, populist level. I thought about that metaphor a lot and I think my dad, rather than becoming a bus conductor or work on the railways, he slipped into the basements of London and was playing his own hand, things he had learned back in Jamaica, via China. So the metaphor works to a degree. The only parallel I can see to poetry is in a much more superficial sense, a poem is a risk in a sense that you never really know what you will come out with. But the stakes aren’t so high. So the gambling metaphor doesn’t quite hold up with poetry. But it’s there in some forms of migration.

LL: In the last months, in the context of the polemics regarding the translation of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, there has been, also in poetry, a stronger focus on everything related to identity and who can or should say or do what under which circumstances. So maybe there is a certain risk in terms of speaking and writing, there are a lot of uncertainties about who is entitled to speak about certain things while lots of people haven’t had a voice in the past.

HL: When I wrote Chick, I didn’t mean to out myself as some kind of spokesperson for the mixed race experience, because all my life I have been treated as white and had white privilege. Even if I never felt what “white” feels like, I don’t really feel it. But that is difficult to sustain when you move as a white person through spaces where whiteness is privileged. It was only really after the reception of Chick that I felt more emboldened to talk about what it means to be someone who has my background. I have always been hyper-vigilant about these aspects. Now social media is the worst place for those things to be conducted, because it is quick fire. But when you actually look at statistics from institutions, for example the academia in Britain where 96% of university staff are white, then you really see that there still are problems, that the platforms needed by other people to speak, in terms of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, are still not there in the big way. So the little bombs that go off on social media, sometimes they are important, sometimes they are not, but institutionally we still have massive problems in this country. These debates around identity and who can speak and who should speak and who needs more airtime, they are still really important, but social media distracts from them.

LL: In one poem in The Kids, there is a student portrayed in a very nice way. First, she is really nasty, but when she learns about the Chinese-Jamaican background of her teacher, her behaviour abruptly changes, as if she was accepting the teacher as “one of us”. That texts shows these institutional questions, where a lot of students are taught by people whose skin colour and hence experience just doesn’t match theirs.

HL: Yes, it’s a big thing, it’s a problem. In that particular situation I was allowed to swap teams [laughs].

LL: Another poem is about the London Bombings in 2005, and it stresses a new word coming up in the media, when the bombers were called British-born.

HL: What more problematic language is there than “British-born”. Basically it is saying “British, but not”. And that expression slipped into our media so easily, without question, and insidiously the acceptance that it meant “of, but not of”, but what it really meant was “muslim”. That was not the birth of Islamophobia, but certainly that ricocheted hugely through London, through London schools and it deeply affected the students.

LL: Actually the title of these poems is Ricochet.

HL: As you know from the book, for me the bombings were a personal tragedy, because a friend of mine died in them. And just two months later, it seemed to me, there was more tragedy, because the students I was teaching, or people from the Islamic community they knew, had been victimised so heavily that they had begun to cling to an Islamic identity. To get politicised is not a bad thing, but to get politicised by stop-and-search by the police … Where do you reach for when you are being positioned like that? Those poems were the hardest to write because I was dealing with such culturally sensitive material and trying to say quite nuanced things, and the sonnet is not an expansive form.

LL: Maybe in their interspaces, in their openness the poems can indicate some of the space these students weren’t given, weren’t allowed to experience.

HL: I suppose in that sense they are deliberately polemical. But there also is an awareness that the teacher is the bystander, the witness, not the subject, which is a tricky line to walk. I could only render their experiences through my own eyes, and sometimes make connections elements from my own life. But I was deeply conscious of not taking on these subjectivities that weren’t mine.

LL: There is certainly no appropriation in that sense, and what there is are those turning points when a poem shifts from the teacher’s perspective into the perspective from the speaker as a student or a teenager.

HL: That’s why I love the turn in the sonnet, because it allows you to make that spacial or temporal or rhetorical leap to a new position. Poems that turn corners don’t stay static.

Hannah Lowe is part of Weltklang – Night of Poetry