Sarah Howe: dream libraries, revolution and literary influences

Arenike Adebajo 28 May 2016

Sarah Howe is a British poet, editor and a Renaissance scholar. She studied English at Christs before gaining her PhD, and spent five years as a research fellow at Gonville and Cauis. Sarah is the founding editor of Prat Crit, a journal of poetry and criticism, and her poems have appeared in numerous journals.  Loop of Jade, her first book, won the T.S. Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. 


What is your favourite poem? Why?

My initial impulse would be to say something like Ovid’s Metamorphosis because under the rubric of one poem you get enough to keep you going for a lifetime. And I suppose maybe that’s not such a bad choice actually. Especially if I were allowed multiple translations like Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, [which] is always swirling around in my head. I fell in love with it when I was in my late teens, and it really is a touchstone for me in lots of ways. I love Ovid’s playfulness and narrative nesting and the wonder of the transformations and the subversive wit you get with the different narrators' points of view.

What lyric poem is my favourite poem is a tougher question. I feel like I would give a different answer every week but – this is a sort of sentimental answer – Robert Hass, the American poet has a poem called 'Meditation at Lagunitas’ which I really love. I found it fascinating the way the speaker peers into the mind of another human being and yet doesn’t quite dare to. And that experiment in the boundedness of ourselves and yet our capacity despite that to connect with others. Plus its last line is ‘Blackberry, blackberry, blackberry’ which I think is an awesomely Hotspur thing to do.

What is one poem or poet that has most informed your style? 

I think reading the classical Chinese poets in particular has really influenced my style. And maybe, though I have made a point of reading round a lot of different translations and the originals too, Pound’s Cathay. Not in an un-ironically uncritically accepting way, but as something to grapple with I found it extremely rich. I feel like that’s only half of my answer because I don’t want to pin myself down in terms of influence to a single tradition. If I was going to answer that with someone from the Western tradition, I’d probably say a poet like Jorie Graham, whose intellectual ambition, range and stylistic reinvention is something that I hugely admire.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Do you ever find yourself navigating different identities and personas when you write? 

I think these two things are related. A particular challenge that I found while writing Loop of Jade was this desire to be as various as all human beings are and not consciously to let myself be pinned to any sort of cultural expectation of what somebody who looks like me should be writing. On the one hand, you don’t want to be making an exoticised fetish of yourself but on the other hand you don’t want to say, as I did for many years and most of my teens, I’m going to deny one half of myself. So if you’re going to do both that’s quite tough and quite a political act in lots of ways. I suppose some of the reception of the book suggests that that is a very fraught thing to be doing in our society as a writer.

I think [using] personae is actually one of the ways I attempted to address this and create a little bit of distance between the ‘I’ which is my breathing self and the ‘I’ of the poems, or to make the reader be constantly guessing what the relationship between those two things is.

How has your formal study of English literature shaped the way you write? 

For the longest time, I tried not to let the scholarly half of my life and the writerly half overlap too much. Because I thought they might be sort of toxic to each other. Whilst I’m not sure that that’s true anymore, on some level they do draw on the same well of the self which is why I can’t really do them simultaneously. I tend to have a situation when one becomes displacement activity for the other. So when I should be finishing a critical essay I write poems to procrastinate and vice versa. I guess I had thought that had left no mark on my writing.  But actually now that I go and look back on it, I think there are touches of that other way of using English and that historical sense. That sense that you can’t quite take anything for granted because it works differently in different cultures and even in different times in the same culture.

In one of my favourite poems by you, you write that "Something sets us looking for a place". Many of your poems explore your different cultural identities and convey a sense of returning to and reflecting on your roots. How has poetry allowed you to manoeuvre the idea of place? 

Loop of Jade is very much concerned with places real and metaphorical and how real places become metaphors for you. That’s what that poem ‘Crossing From Guangdong’ is very much about. It’s about what it means to return to a place which is putatively home but where you haven’t actually lived for most of your life. And what that place becomes in your head in the intervening time, and how the idea can never really line up with the reality. So the book isn’t just interested in place, I think it’s interested in journeys. And that’s why water, and crossing water and rivers and islands are so important to it. It took me a while to realise this, but I think there’s a sort of unconscious pun happening in the book within the idea of crossing a strait, crossing a body of water and being a ‘cross-breed’ of ‘half-caste’ – words I encountered as a child moving to England aged 7. Our societies, with their increased levels of migration and movement, will have to grapple with this idea of boundaries more and more.

I'm from Hong Kong and, having participated in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests, I love your work, 'A Note on Two Systems'. I think the way you used pages from the Basic Law to express many citizens' anxiety about the loss of their freedoms was very powerful. How do you balance the relationship between your creative work and political activism? 

I’m not sure I have any pretensions to being a political activist myself. Although I followed the reports very closely and had several friends who were involved with the Umbrella Protests back in 2014, I wasn’t [there]. I was here in England teaching. I feel like I don’t risk myself anything like what those students did going out at that time partly because I was shielded by British citizenship. So I feel like my role is [more of] an exploratory one and one of solidarity than actually being able to be in the thick of these things. But I am deeply interested and care very much about the future of Hong Kong.

That poem is my attempt to make a contribution to what is a very uncertain and precarious and time in the former colony where I was born. I know in its current form that poem might seem like quite a depressing thing, that its key conceit and metaphor is about erasing words and erasing freedoms and eroding the structure that makes Hong Kong what it is. I’m starting to envisage that poem becoming almost a collaborative artwork. Members of the public in Hong Kong, whether this happened in person or over the Internet, could erase their own pages of the Basic Law and make as many permutations of that poem as the combinations of the words would allow.

You allude to Borges in many of your works. One of my favourite stories by Borges is 'The Library of Babel', in which the narrator describes how his universe consists of an enormous expanse of hexagonal rooms within an infinite library. Mathematics and metaphysics aside, if you had to design your dream library, what would it look like and what books would be in there?

I love the Borges sense of mise en abyme and the paradox of endless recession that a story like ‘The Library of Babel’ gives you. It always makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the librarian. I think [he] calls it ‘L Space’, the paradoxical, impossible library space that the orang-utan librarian of Unseen University pitches along. I think that would be my dream library, a portal to other moments in time and space because that’s what’s brilliant about Pratchett’s vision after Borges – that books are these time warps and wormholes through to other universes.

I would really like the sort of library that goes from the floor to the ceiling and you have those ladders that you can ride along. As for what would be in it, I suppose if we’re talking real fantasy here, I think it would be awesome for your personal library to be like the BL Library or vault. And to be able to hang out there with all the Shakespeare folios and stuff, that would be really cool.