Photo Credit:Tim Ridley
Hannah Lowe is a poet and writer. Her debut full-length collection Chick was published by Bloodaxe in 2013. It won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes.
She has also published three pamphlets – The Hitcher (Rialto, 2012), R x (sine wave peak, 2013), and Ormonde (Hercules Editions, 2014) – as well as a memoir entitled Long Time, No See (Periscope, 2015). In 2014 she was named as one of the twenty Next Generation Poets.
Her second full-length collection Chan will be published later this year by Bloodaxe.
Hi Hannah. Thanks for taking the time to chat. 2016 looks set to be an exciting year for you with the publication of your second full-length collection Chan. You’ve mentioned in the past Chick was something of a cathartic experience but that your impetus for writing has since evolved and broadened its scope beyond the personal to explore multicultural Britain in all of its facets. Would this be a fair way of describing how the poems in Chan have turned out and, now that you’ve had time to live with them, how do you think they compare with your debut?
Chick was a book about grief over the loss of my father, a part of which was about the loss of my chance to know more about my Jamaican and Chinese heritage. But in fact writing the collection and having it positively received motivated me to find out what I could on my own about my ancestry – and this meant travelling to Jamaica, connecting with long lost family, and lots of reading and archive work.
Some of that went into my memoir Long Time No See, but Chan also encompasses some of this research, particularly my interest in mixed race identities. The poems about this retain my interest in form but are more experimental than those in Chick, attempting to memetically reproduce ideas of mixedness in the poems’ shape and typography.
Other poems in Chan are still concerned with family, but broaden the scope, as you say – moving out from my immediate family. The British Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, who was my father’s cousin, plays a big role in the collection, representing the impact of migrant aesthetics on British culture.
And my Chinese grandfather, Lowe-Shu On also features. He was a brutal and neglectful father to my dad, but the poetry is concerned with trying to understand the actions and attitudes of this young Chinese immigrant to Jamaica at the turn of the 20th century.
You were named as one of the Next Generation Poets in 2014. I imagine this must have been a massive boost and helped to raise your profile with poetry readers across the UK and beyond. What do you feel are the relative merits and disadvantages (if any) of being recognised in such a way?
I was over the moon to be included on the Next Generation list among so many good poets I admire. The merits are the publicity and the confidence such an accolade inspires – it’s wonderful (and intimidating) to be told that your work is considered to be worthy of attention! But this said, a list is a list, and a disadvantage of a list such as this is the inevitable omission of some very good poets.
Your 2014 chapbook Ormonde explores the voyage of the HMS Ormonde from the Caribbean to Great Britain in 1947 through the imagined eyes of real passengers on the ship (one of whom was your father). I was intrigued to learn you sent out a number of postcards to addresses from the passenger list to try and contact the people aboard that trip and their families. Did anyone get in touch and did you receive any feedback about the poems?
It was a real shot in the dark to send out those postcards. I had started to write a poem about the youngest passenger on the Ormonde, a 9 year old boy, who had listed his occupation on the passenger list as “Schoolboy”. It occurred to me that he might well still be alive, and as all the passengers had to list destination addresses in the UK, I thought I’d write to him at his address.
Then it occurred to me that others might also be alive, though very old, so I wrote to all the passengers whose details I had drawn on to compose the poems, including the “Distressed British Seaman” of which there were six.
I had to look the term up to find out that a DBS was a seamen in port without a ship – in wartime, that might be because your ship had been sunk, but in peace time, it might be because of drunkenness or womanising or brawling or “mental instability”, you name it! So when I got a postcard back form the daughter of one of these men, saying she hadn’t realised her father had been a DBS and what did it mean – I had to proceed cautiously!
Sadly, she was the only person to write back. I had two or three postcards returned and stamped “No such address”. So the streets could have gone. Or the addresses could have been made up. But it still seemed to me to be an important exercise. In some ways I’m as much interested in the processes of reconstructing history as I am in the history itself.
We’re only a couple of weeks in [Ed note: Hannah answered this question at the start of Feb], but I think it’s going well. I’ve got a full course and I’ve just read a first batch of really interesting and various poems. Despite the potency of what’s going on with the current refugee crisis, I wanted to take a long view at migration, which really is part of the human (and animal) condition. So we’ve started by looking at the many reasons people have migrated throughout history, spurred on by a wonderful poem called ‘Time to Fly‘ by Ruth Padel.
The course will take a chronological approach to the topic – reasons for leaving, the journey, arrival, settlement, the culture in exile, the possibility (or dream) or return. I’m just putting together a list of poems about arrival and am excited to share Philip Levine’s poem ‘The Mercy‘ with those who might not know it. I think we’ll also look at visual images of migration. In particular I have in mind Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series – images of black Americans moving from the south to the north.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific goals you have set yourself?
I’m really looking forward to giving a talk at Princeton in March with the Chinese Jamaican novelist Kerry Young. We’re talking about literature, reggae and the Caribbean with a particular eye on the Chinese involvement with the reggae scene in Jamaica.
I’m also looking forward to submitting my PhD thesis in March. That will be a lovely sense of completion, just before heading to the Bocas Literature Festival in Trinidad, where I’ll be reading from Long Time, No See.
The festival has so many good readings and discussions and is a brilliant opportunity to connect with other writers from the Caribbean and its diaspora. And of course I’m looking forward to Chan coming out in June.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s the first poem in Chan, and sort of announces one of the themes of the book – the desire to manipulate history. Several poems in the collection are prefixed with this phrase ‘If You Believe…’ to invite the reader onto fictionalised territory.
Joe Harriott died in 1972, four years before I was born – but in the poem I give myself permission to have known him, and to some degree interrupt the common knowledge of his womanising by making him play a fatherly role. Other poems in the sequence do focus on his relationships with women but I wanted the sequence overall to complicate him, and for this poem in particular to rewrite his sad, early death.
If You Believe: On Salmon Lane
If you believe I saw Joe Harriott play in 1963
and in my good blue dress, danced all night
in that basement dive below Gerrard Street,
Joe howling through his sax, white shirt
sweat soaked and gleaming in the spotlight,
you may as well believe any of the things
I dream on, listening to his music –
the way he smelt up close say (of cigarettes
and clove) when we took a corner table
at the New Friends on Salmon Lane, gnawing the ribs
he loved and in between chews just talking
to me in that fatherly way he had.
You may as well believe that sometimes
I put his records on and just start crying
and can’t stop crying, don’t even know
what I’m crying for – those decades in history
when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets, or just the way
a melody can get you. I walk the small rooms
of my flat, light spilling through the skylights,
the treetops just in sight through the glass
and even with all these tears, I’m sort of happy.
Richard says be careful what you do in poems
to real people (known people), but surely this poem
shows its seams enough to let me wish
that Joe didn’t start dying so young (at gigs
he couldn’t even stand up straight to play),
that men he used to jam with didn’t see
his broken body shuffling down the streets
and turn away, and those last morphine days,
the dog he saw barking at the window
of the third floor ward really wasn’t there –
well, how could it be, if Joe and me just stepped
from the club into this winter night,
heading arm in arm down Brewer Street
to order steaming bowls of won ton soup?
(originally published in The Rialto)