Your collections of poetry explore a lively range of form, and in your introduction to the pamphlet Ormonde you quote George Szirtes saying “the constraints of form are … the chief producers of imagination”. To what extent do you experiment with form to drive your poetic practice?
I’d say that form is crucial to my poetic practice, and in fact without it, I’m a bit lost. I find the freedom of free verse a bit daunting, although it seems to have become more within reach, the more I’ve written in form – by which I mean the traditional forms – sonnets and so on, different rhyme schemes and of course, meter, which I’ve found really useful. Rhyme in particular allows me to move past my usual vocabulary. It’s so satisfying to find the right word for the right place. In writing about difficult subject matter – say grief or regret – I’ve found that form allows you to some extent to package up those experiences, and somehow move away from them. In the latest collection, Chan, I’ve tried to push form a bit more, writing in a new form I’ve called a “borderliner”, a conflation of a bold and non bold poem which can be read vertically and horizontally, but which fits into a block of text. Like George Szirtes suggests, what might see to be a constraint, in fact opens up a world of possibility.
A wide spectrum of music is mentioned through your poems, from the poem ‘Learning to Play’ (about piano lessons) in Chick to others that reference reggae, blues, calypso, jazz. What kinds of music do you like listening to now, and do you ever listen to music while you write (or edit) poetry?
It’s funny you ask me that, because I have pretty much stopped listening to music since I started writing poetry – a tragedy in need of remedy. Before I started writing poetry (pretty late in life, I was 30), one of my favourite pastimes was sitting at my table, listening to music, smoking a cigarette, a glass of wine nearby! When I started writing, I needed the clarity of silence, to hear the poem, and gradually I lost the habit. I also used to listen while running, which is something else I’ve stopped because of injury. There’s a poem in Chan – ‘Partita’ – which is deeply nostalgic for that habit – running to music – and about how music evokes places and times specific to all of us – it leaves a unique footprint. Many of my poems are about music – my first big love – listening, playing, singing – so as I’m answering this, I’m making a note to listen more again. The only music I’m really listening to at the minute is house music, through my earphones in the gym, and even that is transporting me back in time to some of the great club nights I used to go to, many moons ago!
You have several poems in Chan which begin with the words ‘If you believe…’. How important do you feel it is to tell the truth in poetry and to what extent is invention inevitable?
Invention is absolutely inevitable. There is no self to pour into a poem, unmediated, because writing involves selection, omission and ordering. And that’s that!
But, regarding those specific poems, I wanted to explicitly address the way we think and write about history. How many of us wish, even fleetingly, we had been born a little earlier, or somewhere else, so to have experienced a connection with someone, or witnessed a particular event? The opening poem in Chan writes the narrator into the jazz club scene of decades ago, and a relationship with the alto saxophonist player, Joe Harriott, my father’s cousin, who in fact died four years before I was born. In the poem, there’s a kind of conceit, “If you believe this, you may as well believe that”, through which I’m trying to be upfront, to say, look this isn’t true, but at the same time, I’m trying to give the reader lots of detail and a feeling of authenticity.
You are a regular tutor at the Poetry School. What would you say you have learnt from teaching poetry, and has it affected how you write poetry in any way?
I’d say you learn from participating – whether as a student or facilitator – in any poetry workshop. You learn what works and what doesn’t from critiquing other people’s work, and having your own critiqued. You also learn a fair bit about diplomacy and kindness. I always try to treat the poem as a text, without losing sight that people are often writing things of great personal significance to them, in the same way that I have done. But broadening your question out a bit, if I may, I’d say that teaching English Literature in an inner city sixth form for many years had a profound effect on my writing – in making me thing in new ways about class, migration, race, the legacy of the British Empire – all things that have fed into my writing. I’m very grateful to those teenagers I taught – outspoken, troubled, bright, optimistic young people.
Can you say a bit about how you found the experience and process of writing the memoir Long Time No See compared to compiling the poetry collections Chick and Chan?
I think I’ve only just realised that the memoir, Chick, Ormonde and Chan are all part of the same project – the recovery of my dad’s lost story, which is also the story of my ethnic ‘”heritage”, via Jamaica and China. They all involved research – visiting casinos, looking up passenger list archives, interviewing family, going back to Jamaica. For now, I think that side of the family story can be left, at least for a while. They also fed into each other – each book overlaps, borrows from the other in terms of narrative, image and so on. The memoir involved a lot more structuring, which is not to say the poetry collections don’t need a detailed ordering, but by far the biggest challenge of Long Time No See was how to tell the parallel stories of mine and my dad’s upbringing in ways that made sense and were compelling.
Several of your poems reference vampires (‘If you believe: one pale eye’ in Chan, ‘Glasgow Duet’ in the pamphlet Rx, and ‘Dracula’s Bride’ in the pamphlet The Hitcher). Do you have a favourite vampire/ vampire film and can you say why you like them?
I’d never noticed this!! If I’ve got to choose a vampire, it’s got to be Count Orlok from Nosferatu... but actually I prefer werewolves. And my absolute favourite werewolf film is John Landis’s American Werewolf in London. And you’ve just reminded me, I need to write a poem about it…
Hannah Lowe’s first poetry collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) 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.