FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
SARAH HOWE: I sometimes envy poets who wrote feverishly through their childhoods, who had an early sense that writing was something they needed to do. That was how I felt about painting, thanks to an extraordinary Jean Brodie-like art teacher. Her sayings about artistic vocation – about needing to keep something of the child in you, if you aren’t going to close up to life – sank deep into my consciousness. In my early twenties I stopped painting and started writing with the suddenness of a baton-exchange, but in lots of ways it felt like a continuation of the same project. I did have an early run-in with poetry aged sixteen, when I was chosen as one of the winners in the Foyle Young Poets Award. I had seen the competition poster on the English noticeboard at school one day and thought ‘Maybe I’ll give that a go.’ Back at home, I sat in bed with a pencil trying to work out from first principles how you put words together into a poem. At that time I’d absorbed a lot of Yeats, Plath, Wordsworth, in and out of English classes – but Plath definitely won out in the anguished productions I typed up and sent off. Heading to the prize-week of workshops at Lumb Bank was a formative experience, and must have planted the seed I came back to later.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SH: For so long, poetry was something I did under the radar of my official life, as a university teacher and literary critic. It’s funny how being ‘caught between two worlds’ is such a prevalent theme in my writing, and a dynamic replicated in so many different areas of my life, even down to my longstanding commute between two unalike cities. In the late stages of writing the book, I began to realize how that tension – endlessly hopping back and forth across a dividing line – might actually be something productive, crucial even, to my sensibility. Being half-Chinese, half-English, and having moved from Hong Kong to England as a child, I suppose these concerns must map onto a deep (but also long buried) preoccupation with culture and race, hybridity and allegiance. Strangely, poetry became the place where I explored my Chineseness, something that otherwise had no place in my life – except perhaps for a hankering to go home to my mum’s fried noodles! I suspect it’s no coincidence that I began writing poems in earnest during a year I spent living in America, on a scholarship to Harvard shortly after my undergraduate degree. That period of geographical displacement, when home was far away and imaginary again, seemed to wake something in me. The other important moment was my exposure for the first time to contemporary American poetry, which switched on a light in my brain. I signed up for a semester’s workshop with the great American poet Jorie Graham, who I had never heard of, not realizing it would change the course of my life.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
SH: It’s an honour and delight to have been shortlisted, and something I didn’t dare hope for. If it means the book finds readers who wouldn’t have come across it otherwise, what greater privilege can there be?
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
SH: The poems in Loop of Jade span almost exactly a decade. One of the earliest, written in those first weeks of apprenticeship in America, is called ‘Crossing from Guangdong.’ It’s a long poem that structures itself around two journeys: the first when my mum, at a few months old, fled with her adoptive mother to Hong Kong, upon the Communists taking power in China in 1949; the second when I made the same crossing in 2004, for reasons of symbolism and sentiment somewhat obscure to me at the time, during my first ever trip to the Chinese mainland. In many ways, the rest of the book flowed from that poem. It spawned two companion pieces over the following years, one called ‘Islands,’ in the voice of my mother, and then finally ‘Loop of Jade,’ which I conceived as a bridging poem that would mingle both our voices. When it came to putting together a manuscript, the three of them together felt like the frame from which the rest of the collection would coalesce. Still, it wasn’t at all obvious to me that ‘Loop of jade’ would become the title poem: that was a suggestion that came from friends, I think. If I had to choose, the fourteen poems belonging to the Borges-inspired sequence that threads through the book are probably the ones I’m proudest of. They were thrilling to write, partly because of the way their arbitrarily imposed titles – a list of animals borrowed from Borges’ spurious ‘Chinese encyclopedia’ – were quite taxing, demanding an ingenuity I wouldn’t have mustered otherwise. I loved working out how their fragments could also sing a larger, partially submerged story through leitmotif and echo.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SH: John Ashbery’s chatty, freewheeling abstraction, with its undertow of inexplicable pathos, has always beguiled me: he’s the sort of poet I’ll ritually read when getting ready to write. I’ve also derived a lot of pleasure from the latest generation of poets writing in his wake, including people like Timothy Donnelly, Ben Lerner or Oli Hazzard. I’m interested in the ways we might think inside and through poems, and these poetshelp me perceive new ways of doing that. Jorie Graham is still important to me for similar reasons: her work achieves the fusion of image and idea with a luminous clarity that was a revelation to me. An interest in image is also what first took me to Pound, though he’s since found other routes into Loop of Jade, through both Cathay and the Cantos. He makes cameo appearances in different guises. Eliot famously said ‘Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,’ which is true for me too, even if my interests in Chinese poets ancient and modern have since flourished much more widely. Pound has helped me think about the ramifications of a sort of Chinoiserie-like ‘inauthenticity’ (what, a translator who doesn’t speak the language!) that have interested me greatly, and which I tried to explore in Loop of Jade. My work as a scholar of Renaissance literature also gives me different reference points: Donne’s conceits, Milton’s syntax, Spenser’s edgy political allusions. I once thought there was no trace of them in my poems, but now I’m sure they are there, they’ve just entered so far into my habits of thought I can’t see them anymore. There are so many other contemporary poets I could mention – Denise Riley, Brenda Shaughnessy, Andrea Brady, Kei Miller, Yang Lian, Peter Streckfus, to name a few at random – it changes by the month. I try to read as widely and as openly as I can.
FAF: What’s next for you as a poet?
SH: I’ve started work on a set of more conceptual poems relating to the political, legal and human issues raised by the so-called ‘Umbrella’ protests in Hong Kong. Soon I’m going to be moving back to Harvard, a decade after I first lived there, to take up a year’s writing fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute (the same one Zadie Smith had when she wrote On Beauty). It feels like coming full circle. I’d also like to travel more, in China and elsewhere, since that’s something that has always coloured my writing.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SH: Poets often answer this question ‘read as much as you can,’ which I suspect is still the best advice: poets contemporary and past, but also fiction and non-fiction, since they encourage different kinds of alertness to the world. But as well as reading widely, I think it’s important to read closely: choosing two or three great poems and devoting yourself obsessively to understanding their workings. Read them again and again, silently and aloud. Pin them to your study wall. Write them out in your own handwriting. Memorize and recite them, alone or to lovers. Annotate them with colourful pens. Type them from memory and see whether you get the line breaks right. Re-punctuate them and see what gives. I can think of a handful of poems I’ve dedicated myself to in that way, imbibing, digesting and inhabiting them, sometimes over years. It’s the surest way to push your own writing to the next level, as your qualities of perception refine and expand.