“If a book of poems gives you permission to slow down, to contemplate and savour, maybe that’s not the worst thing.”

The Filling

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We had the very great honour of interviewing the incredibly talented Sarah Howe, winner of the 2015 T S Eliot Prize and the 2015 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for her debut collection of poems, Loop of Jade. Sarah was born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother and moved to England as a child. Her poems explore her dual heritage. She is the founding editor of Prac Crit. (an online journal of poetry and criticism) and is currently a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

Tell us a bit about you and what first inspired you to write poetry?

I usually divide my time between writing poems, editing a poetry magazine called Prac Crit, and my job as an English literature academic. This year though I’ve been given the huge luxury of a writing fellowship at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute – the same fellowship Zadie Smith had when she wrote On Beauty – which has made more time for wandering lonely as a cloud, or at least for the sort of protected quietness of mind I find I need if poems are to come. Funnily enough, it was a year I spent at Harvard as a graduate student exactly a decade ago that first set me writing poems seriously: something about being far from home and the familiar coordinates made me reconsider the course of my life. That puzzling about my place in the world – and particularly about my mixed Chinese and English heritage – started to emerge as poems.

Poetry I studied at school was the simple rhyming kind whereas your poems are beautiful rhythmic stories that take you on a wonderful journey. How do you define a poem?

The question of how to define a poem is one I like to creatively dodge, since essentially I’m very open to the idea – familiar now from contemporary visual art – that ‘It’s a poem if the writer says it is.’ There was a lot of discussion of this sort surrounding Claudia Rankine’s phenomenal poetic exploration of racism in America, Citizen, much of which takes the form of ‘lyrical essays.’ This led some traditionally minded critics to ask ‘Is this poetry at all?’ In my own way, I feel I was pushing at similar boundaries with Loop of Jade, whose title poem, for example, switches between prose chunks and snippets of haiku-like verse. I’m interested in what comes out of juxtaposing those two sorts of music, two perspectives on the world.

With all these other ways to stimulate minds like YouTube, TV and spoken word becoming a form of expression, how do you keep poetry relevant?

I suspect one of the things I found appealing about poetry in the first place was its marginality, more immune perhaps than more commercial art forms to the pressure of ‘relevance.’ That said, I do love the types of poems that suck in the texture and zing of language right now, whether from TV, the internet or conversations overheard on the bus. One of my recent poems is about, among other things, Skyping my husband when we’re in different time zones: ‘The sun stutters up like a porny .gif / which for you pans the tracking shot of noon.’

I had to think hard about questions like relevance and accessibility when I was commissioned last autumn to write a poem about ‘light’ for National Poetry Day. The brief was to write something that would drop out of the blue into the day of people who might not normally pick up a book of poems, but which could nourish and move them. What I came up with was ‘Relativity,’ the poem I dedicated to Stephen Hawking and which he kindly read out loud. The film version has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people across platforms like Facebook and YouTube. I found the whole experience a humbling lesson in how much a poem could mean to people who never knew they needed it.

Why do you think your poems have resonated so much with the broader public and the judges of the Young Writer of the Year Award and the T S Eliot Prize? 

I guess that question isn’t really one for me to speculate on! Though I have to say I’ve been delighted and honoured that Loop of Jade seems to have reached and moved so many readers, when I never really anticipated that would be so. I had hoped to write a book that would offer up certain pleasures on a first reading, but also the sort of experience that would shift and deepen on later encounters. I’m aware that’s a lot to ask of busy readers, whose time I’m wary of detaining. But then again, if a book of poems gives you permission to slow down, to contemplate and savour, maybe that’s not the worst thing.

Your favourite poem from Loop of Jade and why?

That’s a tough one, of the ‘Which one is your favourite child?’ variety! To tell the truth, shortly after the book came out I experienced the sort of boredom and disappointment with the poems in it that I’ve heard from so many poets is the necessary first stage in moving on to something new. A few months on I’ve made peace with them, and am cautiously proud again. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I’m fond of the penultimate poem in the book, a long one called ‘Islands,’ which speaks in a voice much like my mother’s.

What’s next for Sarah Howe?

In the summer I’m due to move back to London to take up a new job at UCL, so I’ll be diving back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are the focus of my academic research. At Harvard right now I’m working on some more experimental poems arising out of the present political situation in Hong Kong, in the wake of the Umbrella movement and, more recently, the notorious bookseller disappearances. I’m due to go back to Hong Kong in November 2016 for the literary festival there – the first time I’ll have read my work in Asia – so that will all be a very interesting experience.

You can order Sarah’s multi-award winning collection of poems, Loop of Jade here. Follow her on twitter @luckyflowerhowe and visit her website. You can also watch Sarah reciting her beautiful poem Crossing from Guangdong at TEDxHarvardCollege here.