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Interview with Hannah Lowe

We were lucky enough to have Hannah Lowe as our visiting writer during an amazing week at Arvon Lumb Bank in April 2017. As well as a wonderful reading, Hannah was generous enough to do a Q&A interview for Hive with our whole group of young writers.

Hannah’s first poetry collection is Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013), which focuses on her father a Chinese-black Jamaican migrant who disappeared at night to play cards or dice in London’s East End to support his family. It won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award for Best First Collection  and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. In September 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation poets.

Hannah has also published three chapbooks:  The Hitcher (Rialto 2012); R x (sine wave peak 2013); and Ormond (Hercules Editions 2014) Her family memoir Long Time, No See was published by Periscope in July 2015 and featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Her second collection, Chan, is published by Bloodaxe. (2016).

Interview conducted by young writers at Arvon Lumb Bank led by Eloise Unerman

You started writing when you were 30, why then?

I liked poetry a lot and I used to love writing little rhymes when I was a kid. Somehow, I just never developed that. I went to a very academic secondary school where the essay was the currency of communication, as it still kind of is, and there was never a moment where poetry got put to me as something I could take in any serious way. And it was only when I was teaching poetry in this inner city sixth form, and I was trying to motivate all these unmotivated students, we were looking at an anthology of 1000 years of English poetry. And you can see they’re all keeling over like they’d rather be anywhere else but here, but I was falling in love with the stuff as I was teaching it.

I was also carrying around a lot of grief about my dad. One of the stories my dad believed had happened to him was that his mother, who’d been my grandfather’s maid, was 15 when she had him. My dad believed that she sold him to his father when he was 2 or 3 years old because my grandfather wanted someone to work in the shop and she was too poor to look after him. My dad believed that he’d seen the receipt for this exchange and he died believing that. I know that isn’t true for various reasons I won’t go into. That story haunted me, him believing that his mum didn’t want him like that and that was the first poem I wrote.

Something else happened, crucially at the same time, my mum gave me a Bloodaxe anthology called Staying Alive. That was the first time I really encountered what contemporary poetry was. I was just devouring the stuff.

How did you first get published – poetry or prose?

Poetry, in a magazine called The Delinquent. I started writing then I joined a course. It was an introduction to creative writing, and it became a running joke that I would just turn up week after week with what became the dad poems. I knew I was playing catch up but also I felt like finally I’d found what I should’ve been doing. So I started sending poems out to magazines after a couple of years. That joy of getting something back in the post or, more commonly, by email, it’s still incredibly exciting.

To you, what are the best aspects of poetry?

When I was a kid, one of the two things I loved doing was playing the piano – I played the piano until I was 16 and it was really stressful. I used lock my parents out, but my dad always used to listen at the door. So I loved playing music and I loved painting and drawing. I sort of lost them. I got a boyfriend and then, at university, there was no piano and I was just in a different world. And poetry gave me those things back, because I very strongly feel that poetry is both those things. It’s music and it’s drawing.  For me it is, at least.

I loved playing music and I loved painting and drawing. I sort of lost them. I got a boyfriend and then, at university, there was no piano and I was just in a different world. And poetry gave me those things back, because I very strongly feel that poetry is both those things.

The other thing about poetry is the fantastic community that there is around it. I couldn’t have dreamt, 12 years ago, all the friends I’d have through poetry and all the lovely relationships and correspondences and things. It’s been quite a short time, I’ve had quite a condensed and very nurturing time of people nurturing me. And then me, now, being able to do some of that for younger writers.

How do you feel about being named as one of twenty Next Generation Poets?

I’m very grateful for it. But I think lists of inclusion are also lists of exclusion, and there were many poets – really, really good poets – who weren’t on that list. I don’t take it too seriously. In the poetry world, there’s a kind of establishment. And that establishment’s comprised of things like prizes and things like the Next Generation accolades. I think it’s really important to know that there’s really brilliant poetry that’s being written that’s not necessarily receiving those endowments. And there are different traditions, and there’s a certain tradition that those sorts of things favour. I’m a libertarian, I want to embrace everything.

How do you get your ideas down?

When you’re going about your daily business and you have an idea for something – maybe a line comes to you, or an image, or a memory – they’re like birds or butterflies. Are you going to catch them in that moment? Or, are you going to let them fly? Something that I’m sure many of you do, that I’ve only started to do because of technology and what I would’ve done had it been now, is speak it into my phone as I was walking. Which I think is a really interesting way of writing. Maybe even a little freer than writing with a notebook by hand, which I’ve always see as quite a free place.

Often, when I’m writing, I put the thing in the middle of a page and just shoot off lines and go through all the senses, to take myself to unusual places. Each time I do that, the circles get wider and weirder. Because you don’t want to write familiar metaphors and similes, you want to find fresh things.

Often, when I’m writing, I put the thing in the middle of a page and just shoot off lines and go through all the senses, to take myself to unusual places. Each time I do that, the circles get wider and weirder. Because you don’t want to write familiar metaphors and similes, you want to find fresh things.

How do you feel about form poetry?

The constraints of form are the chief liberators of imagination. There’s a tension there between you trying to impose something on it but also, if you do, you’ve got to work it hard. As much as I like form, it’s very labour-intensive. It’s not just writing something down and thinking ‘that’ll do’. Not that I’m saying that anyone’s doing that because we all know how important redrafting is. I think you put the hours in, with form. And it’s got to sound natural, that’s what the work is, and not using any archaic constructions and being consistent in your diction. I don’t know where I’d be without form, actually. It’s that useful. Also, I think you can forget about the finished product being something in form and use form as scaffolding. So you push your imagination in the writing and then you change it and you chuck the form out. But you might not want to sound like it’s all tied up, which is sometimes how form can sound.

Can you talk a little bit more about your memoir?

The memoir looks at the notebook in a much deeper and committed way. It’s called a memoir but, in many ways, it’s not a memoir because it’s heavily fictionalised and it uses alternate chapters to tell the story of my dad’s upbringing and mine. Thematically, I was trying to write about the legacy of the British Empire so I was writing about the social conditions in which my dad was growing up – abject poverty, essentially – and how difficult things were in Jamaica, and he got very involved in politics and the independence movement in the 1940s, to the parallel story of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and all the disastrous race relations going on when I was a child.

On one hand, it’s just the story of two childhoods. On the other, I was talking about something slightly more polemical. It’s definitely different material – with prose, you can do different things than with poetry. I did tons of research for that. I went to Jamaica, and traced all the siblings. I did a lot of archive research, a lot of looking at the ship my dad came on. If you know anything about Caribbean history, migration from the Caribbean was believed to have started with a boat called the Windrush. They say migration started in 1948, but the ship my dad came on came in March 1947, called the Ormonde so I wrote a whole chapter called The Ormonde full of archive material and poetry.

You talked about feeling ashamed of your dad to some extent when you were growing up because you didn’t quite fit in. At what point did you reconcile his background with the people around you and the environment you were in?

I went to a posh secondary school, from a very multicultural primary school. Ilford had changed from being very white to being very multicultural with Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities. And then my parents, particularly my dad, wanted me to go to this very posh school out of Essex and I felt quite displaced there. Which I couldn’t make sense of because, at that point in my life, I was like ‘I’m white, I should feel at home here’, But then some of the kids at school found out my dad was black and I got hassle around it, then I started feeling very protective of him, very angry about that.

That was when I was 13/14. Then the rest of it happened through education. At 16, I started reading a lot of American writing – at university, I specialised in post-colonial literature. When I finished university, I went to do an MA in Refugee Studies. If someone had said to me ‘can’t you see you’re interested in your dad’, I’d have been like ‘what’. And then he died while I was doing my MA, so we never had a conversation. I was becoming fascinated by the whole business of the empire, and with him, but we were never at a point to talk about it.

Can yell us about your dad and his background?

As it turns out, a lot of the Chinese in Jamaica are shopkeepers. There’s a big Chinese community and my grandfather was there as a shopkeeper as well but, like my dad, my grandad was also a big gambler. And he used to play the Chinese game Mahjong. Legend has it that my grandfather twice burnt down his shop to pay off his gambling debts and, once, he nearly pledged it in a game.

All my dad ever did in England was play cards and dice, that’s how he made his living. It might sound glamorous but, actually, it’s a pretty dangerous and unstable existence. He had a saying: if you can’t win it straight, win it crooked. So, morally ambiguous. But, in our hall cupboard, there was all the paraphernalia of your normal dad and there was also a tiny guillotine for cutting the size of the playing cards and there were lots of different pens and things for marking cards – a whole array of his trade.

And he also used to load dice. I started imagining whether my grandfather had also loaded dice. I know it’s morally ambiguous but, for me, the gambling thing is quite an important link through lineage back from Jamaica when my dad first played cards and dice and then to China. Of course, my dad never told me any of this – my mum told me years after he died. I think he was pretty ashamed of it, really. He would’ve loved to have been educated and have had a ‘proper’ job.

Because he played cards and was out most nights gambling, it also meant that my dad was a house husband. He did a lot of cooking. He loved to cook, Chinese and Jamaican food mainly. When I was little, we lived upstairs from my nan – my mum’s mum – and she was a right old racist, and she hated that my parents had got together. And it always makes me laugh that my parents paraded their interracial love above my nan’s head.

One of the things that I found – my dad was always in the bookie’s – was that he had all these little notebooks that he wrote about the horse’s form in. But one of these notebooks, it turns out, he was actually writing the story of his life in. And my mum sent it to me years after he’d died, and I realised I’d seen this notebook around the house. But I never knew what was in it, I just assumed it was ‘Kempton Park 5-1’. It was about thirty pages my dad wrote about his childhood and writing about his difficult relationship with his father.

He writes about how he was beaten so badly by his dad on one occasion that his father had a gun, and he held it to his head. He couldn’t shoot it. He was too scared. He was 16 or 17, and he ran away and got on a boat. And that boat took him to America, which was his first migration. Then he came back and saw his father again, no love lost. And that’s when he went, again, to England. He was always trying to escape from his dad. There was something about that relationship where he would keep on going back and looking for him. The last time they saw each other, he was much older and much weaker and wanted money. That’s how the story ended.

How different was it writing the memoir to writing poems? Did you have different office hours?

I wasn’t writing much poetry when I wrote the memoir but I wrote it quite quickly and I had a deadline, which was the imminent arrival of a baby. I remember sitting, getting bigger and bigger, and thinking ‘I need to finish this book’. So I did have office hours, and I’ve never had office hours with poetry. I was sitting at a desk 3-5 hours a day. I was writing historical stuff, I was trying to write about a young man – my dad – going to a political meeting in Kingstone in 1958 and I had no idea what that looked like/smelled like. But I couldn’t do what some writers do – do all the research then write the book – I did it on a need-to-know basis. I’d be phoning my mate John like ‘John, if I wanted to know what a communist party meeting in London in the 1950s’d be like, the West Indian branch, where would I look’ and he’d be like ‘leave it with me’.

What writers would you recommend to anyone interested in post-colonial literature?

Post-colonial is a big world and I suppose my interests are specifically in the Caribbean. Derek Walcott is one in terms of poetry. I think Kerry Young is a really interesting writer. The book I’m reading at the minute is by Stuart Hall, a Jamaican cultural theorist. Incredibly interesting guy who lived in Britain for much of his life. He was a brilliant academic – he wrote wonderfully digestible essays about how we think about our identities. And not just with a Caribbean focus. He writes about the idea that theory is never theory out there, theory only exists for us to try and understand ourselves and how we live. And so there’s never this gap between our own lives and theory. He died last year and his memoir has been published. It’s a fantastic account of a life of conflict because of where he was born and when he was born, but it’s a beautiful personal story about a conquest and reconciling yourself with all the different faucets of identity: race, class, gender.

What bits do you include, then? If you focus too much on the research, then you tend not to include it all.

Yeah, lots of writers say only a tenth of the research goes into the book, but I suppose I try to do a shortcut, which is to only find out the tenth. What I’ve found is you don’t need as much as you think you’re going to need. The big difference I’ve found between prose and poetry – what I missed in writing the memoir – is not being able to work with the white space. Because that’s the thing I love about poetry, that the poem finished but the white space is carrying the reverberations of it. Whereas I felt, in prose, you don’t have that in the same way – you don’t have as much of it, anyway. I think short stories, which I do write, are closer to poems. I think they can be elliptical, I think they can use space. But I know where my heart is with writing and it’s with poetry.

Is it because you understand them better without having to work too hard at it? You know what shape it should be, when it’s becoming what it is?

You probably know that through practice. I think those are things you can learn but I think something more organic within you knows what writer you are. I enjoy lots of other forms but poetry is the thing I really want to do. With short stories, I sort of feel I am where I was ten years ago with poetry and I need to do the work. The longer they get, the harder they are to manage. I feel like, with poems, you can read them then hold it up, just out of eyesight, and ask yourself ‘is this the right shape and length’ and think ‘actually this should be about ten lines shorter’. You’re sort of sniffing it, you’re not absorbing it in a very logical way.

I feel like, with poems, you can read them then hold it up, just out of eyesight, and ask yourself ‘is this the right shape and length’ and think ‘actually this should be about ten lines shorter’. You’re sort of sniffing it, you’re not absorbing it in a very logical way.

Talking about other people that you know, and relatives, do you ever find it difficult representing them as they are without feeling guilty for perhaps showing darker sides?

Yeah. In a way, I think it’s totally natural and inevitable that it is difficult because it’s like talking to your very close friend about all the problems in your relationship with your mum. Except your best friend is actually the whole world because you’re going to publish it, and your mum’s going to read it as well. The biggest thing I’ve encountered in my work is me and my brother, the one who put his fist through the window. With that poem, I phoned him up and said ‘can I publish this’. And he was very like ‘art is art, of course you can’. But, with my dad, it’s been much more difficult. Even me being critical of my dad is a kind of rose-tintedness in my writing, a sense of trying to place him in historical circumstances, which forgives him for things.

With poems, you can write them and you should write them but you don’t necessarily have to publish them. Or you can publish a slightly different version, like leaving out one of the lines. But, writing it, you shouldn’t censor yourself.

Also, I think we should always think about how some of these dilemmas will be resolved through not rushing to publish but redrafting so you might have something that you’re working on over a long period of time. I really believe that a lot of these ethical and moral things can be resolved through keeping working at it. Or change the names. In The Hitcher, my pamphlet, Dan is called Billy.

Just going back to your poem Fist, when you say ‘my brother who I never told I loved’, is that relevant to your relationship with him?

That’s the whole poem, isn’t it? It’s a sort of love letter to him. That incident did happen but I wasn’t there, so the poem writes me into saving him. It was a very strong memory for me, going to the hospital with my parents and seeing him. Because he was so drunk and off his face, they’d not been able to sew him up, so he’s got the most awful scar all down his forearm. Many years later, we were both teachers in the same college and the kids would all say to him ‘what happened to your arm’. He’d tell them ‘shark attack’ or ‘wrestling with a crocodile’. He was making his own fiction out of it. But I just remember this horror that he nearly died, so I write myself in as a saviour.

Because your nan was racist, did you ever have difficulty dealing with the conflicts of the two sides of your identity?

My nan’s kind of racism is the ‘they come over here, they take our jobs’ kind of racism that comes from being disenfranchised herself. But there’s a whole history of racism on behalf of the Chinese in Jamaica. The Chinese community in Jamaica looked down on mixed Chinese-Black children. But it’s not like it only existed there. I always think that my dad and my nan, they got on for two weeks in a year when Wimbledon was on.

We had a television and she would begrudgingly come upstairs and sit next to my dad on the sofa, and they’d be civil to each other for two weeks. My dad always made the effort with her. That’s quite a good symbol of reconciliation. I’m asked a lot these days how I identify and I think I’m still struggling with that. I have more trouble with those sorts of things than I do with the actual fact of the matter. I have trouble with the labels.

Any advice for young writers in general?

I suppose I could give you some advice about capturing your ideas. Read – that’s my tip. I experience so many at university creative writing undergraduates who have chosen creative writing because they don’t like reading, because they want to write, as though there’s no relationship between the two. But I know I learnt to write through reading. Don’t forget the books, basically.

The other thing about writing – quite a lot of people have said to me ‘I want to become a writer, how do you become a writer?’. And, of course, how you become a writer is simply by writing. Make it something that’s as important to you as anything else in your life. Of all the important things in your life, writing should be up there if you’re serious about it. To be writing at your age means that there are lots of opportunities for you to take advantage of and you can make lots of mistakes, you can write lots of dross. You can also take your time.

One thing to think about in your own writing is your relationship with the documentary truth, and how you feel about moving away from that in your own work.

Thank you so much for the reading Hannah and such a great Q&A!

Eloise and Hive Young Writers at Arvon Lumb Bank April 2017