Multiple Heritages: an Interview with Hannah Lowe
An Interview with Hannah Lowe
Hannah Lowe appeared in the first issue of The Compass, with poems that came out of research into her family histories, and which are included in her new collection, Chan. As editors we were curious about her research and the way it informs her writing of both prose and poetry. The following interview was conducted via email. We’re very grateful to Hannah for her detailed, fascinating responses.
Hannah’s second collection Chan appeared from Bloodaxe in June 2016. Her first collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. Her pamphlet Ormonde appeared with Hercules Editions in 2014 and her prose memoir Long Time, No See (Periscope, 2015) was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. In September 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation poets.
Your pamphlet, Ormonde, is much more formal than your first collection, Chick, making use of more rhyme and stricter structures. Your second collection, Chan – which includes the poems from Ormonde – seems to develop this interest in form in unusual ways, playing with visually tight narrative structures that nevertheless enable a fluid voice to emerge. Why did you choose to go in these directions?
Hannah: The SS Ormonde is the name of the ship my father sailed from Jamaica to Britain on in 1947, and the poems in the Ormonde sequence are in the imagined voices of its passengers. Some are sonnets, some written in rhyming couplets, often with a strong iambic meter. In choosing these traditional forms, I was consciously echoing the formal poetry that was taught in colonial classrooms in the Caribbean, in which these poetic characters would have grown up. My father could still recite poems by Wordsworth and Kipling by heart, although their subject matter often had little relevance to his life. So I wanted the speakers to claim these high literary forms as their own, and speak of their own experiences. This formality made a kind of historical sense too, since many Caribbean people at that time would have spoken across a ‘creole continuum’, as my father did – meaning that he could speak crisp standard English when he wanted to, and imbibe some very lively creole English when speaking to his Caribbean friends.
I had Audre Lorde’s famous quote ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ in my head when I was writing Chan, which partly accounts for the more experimental nature of some of the poems. In the last section of the book, I wanted to write about the experience of having multiple heritages in a new way. The poems are an attempt to formally mimic the post-colonial concept of liminality, or third space, through layout and typography – the idea that postcolonial people live with a kind of ‘inbetweenness’, a hybridity, which can be a place for subversion and change.
I’ve also played around with form and repetition, particularly in some of the biographical poems about jazz musicians. When I was writing them, I was conscious of how a poem can tell a story, compared to say, a short story, or a piece of biography. The poems were strongly influenced by listening to music, and some of them are about the act of listening and the evocative power of music. In particular, I was listening to two albums from the late 1960s – Indo Jazz Fusions and Indo Jazz Suite, by John Mayer and Joe Harriott (who was my father’s cousin), music that embodies the kind of hybrid dynamic I’m interested in.
Indo Jazz Suite, by John Mayer and Joe Harriott
On a simpler level, Chick was very much a personal book, much of it written using the first person ‘I’, to explore my relationship with my father. In Chan, which explores family ancestry in a much more amorphous way, travelling back in time and space, the personal ‘I’ is displaced by many other voices, all jostling to have themselves heard.
On a similar subject, given you have written a prose memoir, what made you select material for poems? Were there things you felt you couldn’t say in prose, or did the poems occur almost synchronistically with the prose writing, perhaps with one form feeding into and back out of the other?
Hannah: The memoir, Long Time No See, and the poetry collections are all part of the same project, in which my father has become a springboard to the discovery of my ancestry and to writing about multiculturalism and mixedness in a broader sense. As a young woman growing up, I felt disconnected from this, partly to do with my appearance – most people assume me to be white. I say this with the benefit of hindsight, because it’s only now looking back that I can see that in writing Chick, I was trying to make those connections, and claim a different identity from the one I occupied.
At the time of writing that book, I knew very little about my Jamaican or Chinese background, so the poems speak of the absence and mystery around the figures of my Jamaican grandmother and Chinese Grandfather. There are imagined or dream encounters with them. After the positive reception to Chick, I felt encouraged to find out more about my grandparents and my father’s early life. One of the great losses I felt when he died was the loss of his story. I’d known so little about him. So I went on a journey to find out what I could. Much of my research was contextual, but there was also active archive work and a research trip to Jamaica. The memoir tells a recovered life story, but because much of it remains lost, the book is heavily fictionalised. To write a memoir, you need content – and I didn’t have that before.
My Jamaican grandmother, Hermione Harriott
The poems in Chan are like offcuts to the memoir, like deleted scenes that take off on tangents. So while Joe Harriott appears briefly at the end of LTNS, Chan has a long sequence that explores his life in great detail, from the voices of other musicians, lovers and so on.
The poems are also about the experience of my research. In Jamaica I hoped to find out more about my Chinese grandfather, enough to create his character in the memoir. But as it happened, I was in the very early stages of pregnancy while there, and in a kind of dream state and physically very woozy. So I ended up writing poems about my impressions of Jamaica, with all its history, richness and hardships, through this woozy lens, addressed to my unborn child.
You use an unusual form in some of your poems in Chan, allowing two voices and narratives to sit side by side—one in bold font and the other in plain, some of them taken from notebooks—interweaving almost as though two conversations are being overheard at the same time. Can you tell us more about this? Did it free you up in some way?
Hannah: I was up late in the night, feeding my son, skimming through the Poetry Foundation website when I came across Phillip Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets, which literally embed a bold-text sonnet in a field of plain text, and make some really interesting juxtapositions. Literally after reading them, I started to sketch out some of these poems. I’d come across the term ‘borderliner’, a derogatory term for someone of mixed race, which I found really interesting because it speaks to both notions of racial transgressions and geographical borders, both of which are heavily policed. So the ‘Borderliner’ poem juxtaposes narratives about each of these ideas, one in bold, one in plain text, with a kind of porous border between them, meaning you can read the poem across, and it makes (I hope) a kind of new sense. The reader can be as active with the poem as they wish – cross the border, or not.
It was fascinating to see what kind of juxtapositions came up in writing in this form. The process was pretty organic, as I’d be writing both sides simultaneously, rather than one poem and then the other. This was followed by endless fiddling!
For a while I couldn’t really see why a single poem wouldn’t benefit from another mashed to it, but I’ve just about weaned myself off. I hope to write more at some point though.
Yellow River, Milk River
If you ask me about ancestors I’ll tell you he weighted codfish down with salt
of Hakka people sold turning milk and musty cornflour. He offered credit to the
always moving, hounded down customers he robbed, angry ticks and crosses
from mountains by knives and blood on the yellowed ledger. But the women
down country to the Yellow River in the beauty parlour raised up their heads
and war with the Punti when he went by, believed those small bones made him
hakka, an insult spat until the Hakka took tender, not a man to rope a child or
the word back; about tough land, bad water stab a counter with a gutting knife
black rice, moving on again: Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi He had an inventory
of fortress villages, and the ships of wives he withered in the country, thirteen
that carried the Hakka from the rim of hungry children spread from Milk River
China to Surinam and Taiwan to Yallahs Bay. The youngest boy, a bed-wetter
how Hakka became guest worker he gave a dollar to and sent away, hitch-hiked
to Austria and Spain and Jamaica to Kingston and survived. The only photo is
where my grandfather stepped off the boat of his body in the mahogany coffin
of Hakka men asleep in the bright lights he saved two years for, suited on a bed
of the Chinese temple waiting for brothers, cousins, new lives of emerald silk
about my name, which is now your name too one daughter took it as a souvenir
from two ancestral villages, how there are 80 million Hakka people as proof
scattered in the world, how I found this all out for you at last that he was dead
(This poem, from Chan, was first published in the Compass HERE)
In your introductory note to Ormonde you state ‘All I can do is emphasise that this is a work of fiction, with its origins in fact’. Do you think family historians are particularly attuned to this sense of creating fictions based on facts (photographs, notebooks, dates, documents, maps, objects etc), or is this balancing act every writer’s dilemma?
Hannah: I think there’s a disjunction between the work of a genealogist and what a writer might do. The genealogist’s approach is more scientific, seeking facts, evidence, documentation, and out of that, to form a family tree and a family narrative as close to the truth as possible. Whereas a writer – and I’m using myself as an example – might be as much interested in what they can’t find out as what they can. There’s energy in the gaps and silences, which can either be filled imaginatively, as I attempt in part to do in LTNS, or can be left in the white of the page. Poetry lends itself to this more. The poems I like most about family are the ones where there’s lots of breathing space around the poem, where what is interesting is what is unsaid. ‘Black Silk’ by Tess Gallagher is a great example of this, or Philip Levine’s ‘Starlight’.
Passenger list for the SS Ormonde, 1947, showing my father listed, aged 23
What happens during the research is a kind of alchemy, I guess. I don’t mean to romanticise it, but I’m not sure the way the creative mind works when ignited by stimuli, such as photos, maps, passenger lists, can be theorised. For me, the immediate challenge is usually what perspective to take – whether to approach something head on or not, to write from then or now. I think that’s why form is so helpful. George Szirtes says the ‘constraints of form are spurs to the imagination’ which I entirely agree with, but I also think form can be a control as well, helping you to reign in the choices. You have to make decisions and stick to them.
Do you grapple with an awkward sense of duty to the people you write about – a need to be fair to your family and the people they knew – or is this something you overcome through form, or in other ways? Are there ethical issues involved for you?
Hannah: There are big ethical issues for me, and they remain unresolved. I agonised over representation in LTNS – particular as it was a memoir, and therefore would be assumed to be ‘true’. There’s a disclaimer on the first page, emphasising the work is a ‘fictionalised reconstruction,’ but even still, I redrafted lots with representation in mind. The final version was very different from earlier drafts, because when first writing, I was just lost in the story-telling, not the ethics.
I’ve wondered long and hard about whether my dad would have been happy to have been exposed in the way I’ve exposed him – as a victim of child abuse, a victim of racism, a reckless gambler. I can’t know, and this issue became more acute for me when I was writing in the voices of the Ormonde’s passengers, some of whom might well have been alive still. If you’ve read Ormonde, you’ll know that I wrote to the addresses listed on the passenger list, to seek their permission to use their identities in poems, but I heard nothing back.
Postcard sent to the address of the Ormonde’s youngest passenger, a 9 year old boy
What really came to light out of that experience is my own concern with what readers might make of my choices. I have a sense that a reader might be quite comfortable with a poet writing in the voice of a dead parent or other close family relative, but less so when writing in the voice of someone to whom they are not connected and whose experiences they have not had. I’m talking about the issue of cultural appropriation really – for example, whether my depictions of post-war racism, in prose and poetry, would be read as authentic.
I had a lot of discussion about this recently with the students who were enrolled on the Poetry of Migration course I was teaching. Many of them felt compelled to write about the current refugee crisis, but were conflicted about doing so, asking whether and how they should write about other people’s trauma. I had no concrete answers for them either, more just notions – that good intention doesn’t always make for a good poem; that research is absolutely crucial – you have to get your facts right; and that often the answer to a particular dilemma, of how to approach a subject, or find the perspective, will be found in conscientious redrafting.
How important is it for you to visit the places you write about?
Hannah: Somewhere between important and not important! And also, it entirely depends on what sort of place. So for example, there would be no way for me to recreate the experience of visiting the Chinese cemetery in Kingston, where my grandfather is buried, without having been there. It lies between dilapidated walls separating two warring gangs. You can hear their gunshots as you walk. It’s a huge plain of neglected marble tombstones and graves, baked by the sun and tangled in a bright pink bind weed they call ‘rice and peas.’ Homeless people have curtained off some of the tombs and made them into their residences. I had never seen anything like it. But when writing about places that no longer exist – say some of the jazz clubs where Joe Harriott played – I was calling on a kind of generic knowledge of the smoky dive, as seen in films, and evoked by the music. I didn’t need the physical reality of the place.
Standing by my grandfather’s grave, Chinese Cemetery, Kingston, Jamaica
You include passages from your father’s notebook in some of the poems. Can you tell us more about this?
Hannah: My dad’s notebook was such a gift. The beginning seems to announce a full autobiography but it’s only about 30 pages long, of handwritten recollections of his childhood in Jamaica. He writes in a very formal and restrained way, as in this example, writing about his Chinese father:
I do not know the exact date or year of my father’s arrival in Jamaica but my guess is about 1918 or 20. From the little information I had of his past life he was born somewhere in Canton in China, and came to Jamaica under the sponsorship of a cousin who was in business on the island.
This vagueness comes about because my father, even though he had parental responsibility for my upbringing, hardly ever spoke to me other than to give a command in relation to the running of the shop which was his livelihood. And in which I started taking an active role from about the age of eight.
My dad’s notebook
Do you find yourself haunted by the voices in these poems? Do you feel they are your own voice, or that at some point – being immersed in the work – other voices emerge organically?
Hannah: I’d seen the notebook knocking around our house when he was alive, but it was years after his death that I sat down to read it. I hadn’t known what it contained. It put his voice into my head so clearly but I couldn’t not use it.
In a way, I wanted to make him a poet. His life circumstances were so dire compared to mine, and he was a very bright man – quite unconventional, very left-wing and very well read, despite being uneducated. I wondered what he might have made of himself had life dealt him a better hand. So his voice certainly haunts me, although I must say there is a difference between the voice I have created for him in poetry, and the real man I knew many years ago. I think one of the inevitable consequences with writing with such focus about an individual, and then ‘performing’ him in public as I do often at readings, is a disjunction between the performed character and my actual father. Sometimes I have to have a kind of private communion with myself, to remind myself of that real person, who was all of the things I have shown about him, and also many things I haven’t shown.
As for the other voices I have used, particular in Chan, I think yes, they do resound in my head for a while, and certainly come back when I read the poems aloud. In writing those voices, what has preoccupied me most is the technical difficulty to make those voices sound distinct from each other without exaggerating or parodying their qualities, and there you have a whole range of options available to you, in the same way as a playwright does.
Where do you think you will you go from here?
Hannah: I feel like taking a big breath after the productivity of the last few years, which included recently finishing my PhD. I’ve got ideas for prose and poetry, but I also want to take things in as I don’t think you can keep pushing out. So I hope to consume for a while – books, art, films, music – and do other things – cook, draw, run – the last two are more ambitions than realities! And of course, I’ll be looking after my little chap, who gets the odd poem written about him. I’m glad to see so many women writing about motherhood at the minute, like Clare Pollard and Liz Berry. I’ve just finished Rachel Cusk’s brilliantly honest depiction of motherhood A Life’s Work. I have a feeling some of my new work will go in that direction too.