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Sarah Howe

The T.S. Eliot Prize Winning Poet on the Pursuit of Identity


Sarah Howe’s voice is as delicate and harmonious as her poetry,  a thought that becomes increasingly apparent throughout our talk. Howe, a British-Chinese writer who has been published in a number of anthologies, including three editions of The Best British Poetry, as well as well as being a recent recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2015, is inspiringly smart – a testament which is proven not only in her writings, but in her eloquent conversation, ranging from Shakespeare to The Walking Dead. Ahead of her reading at NeueHouse Madison Square, an event co-hosted with The White Review, where she was joined by fellow poets Jorie Graham and Matvei Yankelevich, Howe sat down to talk about the pursuit of home and identity, the responsibility of representation, and working out her fascinations under the radar.


NeueJournal: Loop of Jade is your first collection. What is the curating process like when creating a compilatory book of your work?


Sarah Howe: It was very much a process of learning slowly, and somewhat surprisingly, what the range of my obsessions was. Discovering what it was that I’ve done over the last ten years of writing poems was actually quite a fun process, and it was a matter of learning which sets of poems seemed to need to speak to each other. There are lots of different strands running through the book, one of which is China and travel, another of which is art, and another of which is England. I was trying to bring those things together and knit them into some sort of satisfying order.


NJ: I’m glad you bring that up, because your work, at large, deals a lot with the meditation of being bicultural. What is the most significant thing you’ve learned from this exploration?


SH: The book was almost an attempt for me to answer the question, “who am I?” What emerged was a real hybrid of miscellaneous things. What I discovered about myself in the process was just how fluid and up for grabs something like identity is, but at the same time how much we, as individuals, are shaped by history and the cultures we live in – almost to a sort of oppressive degree, sometimes. So, history actually became a really big part of what the book was thinking about. My history, China’s history, my mother’s somewhat traumatic personal history – it was all an effort to sort of make sense of that and not be buried by it.


NJ: Is it difficult when you come face to face with realities you haven’t explored before?


SH: I had the experience, which I imagine is not uncommon, of having had an upbringing that was utterly different to that of my parents. I was always conscious that I had a great deal of privilege and safety and security, which neither of my parents, particular my mom, had enjoyed. I guess this is the way of inter-generational narratives, isn’t it? That one generation has to think about what it wants to pass on to the next, because that transfer is a meaningful one in the way culture happens.


The book, with its gaps and elliptical looping, reflects just what a broken and fragmented process it was for me to learn about my family origins, and what I discovered, as well, was there was a point beyond which I just couldn’t go. I can’t know anything about my Chinese family beyond my mom, and that was a big void, which I felt I needed to fill in some way. What the book does with Chinese history and myth was sort of an attempt to find some other connection with that place.


NJ: Poetry is such a beautiful art, but it feels like nowadays it’s the most devalued artform. Why do you think we forgot to nurture this relationship to poetry?


SH: I think that’s a lovely and quite accurate way of putting it, that we forgot about the historical and powerful relationship we used to have with poetry in our culture. It’s a sort of paradox, though, isn’t it? Just in demographic statistical terms, there must be such a larger percentage of people reading and writing poems now than ever before, solely because of literacy and education. And yet, it does feel very marginal in the culture, or at least in an economic sense. But actually, I find that quite liberating myself, as a poet; that you’re not under the same scrutiny, maybe, as artists working in art forms that enjoy a bigger share of the limelight. I feel like I’m allowed to work out my own fascinations under the radar.


NJ: You quite often deal with history and mythology as means to explore your work. Which historical figure do you most identify with?


SH: The person I have in mind is the modernist poet, Ezra Pound, who I found I kept going back to again and again, partly because as a Chinese poet writing in English you just can’t escape his legacy. He sort of created the idiom that we might think of as, in inverted commas, “translating Chinese to English.” And yet, in so many ways, he was an absolutely abhorrent, racist, fascist person. So, it’s not so much that I identify with Pound, it’s that I had to make some sort of effort to identify with him in order to think through his legacy.


NJ: Rebecca Solnit wrote a list of books no woman should read, which included Ernest Hemingway, who is a big staple of modern literature. I realized I hadn’t really considered the effect that his blatant misogyny can have on younger writers, especially female ones. The way we have conversations with these larger than life artists, and how we approach them, is interesting because it leads to the question, can you separate a person from their work?


SH: That whole debate is one that really interests me, because it’s about the ethics of writing and reading. I think it’s sort of related to the question of role models in literature, whether we need to have certain sorts of diversity in terms of the characters we encounter in our imaginative lives. Which, given my interest in race and identity and representation, is something I find myself thinking about. But then again, I think it would be a sad world if I felt like the only writers I could learn from were female poets of color, which brings me back to the question of empathy. I think we have to foster empathy on one end as writers, and on the other end as readers.


NJ: What is your favorite word?


SH: I absolutely love words and their texture and their history, so I think my favorite word probably changes on an hour-to-hour basis, but I have a special fondness and weakness for dead-end words in the evolutionary line. In the 16th century, they used to say “yesternight” but we only have a “yesterday” now, so I’m quite fond of ones that died a death for no apparent reason.


NJ: You’re relocating to the moon and you can only bring three things. What are they?


SH: A complete Shakespeare, a violin, in the forlorn hope that I might be able to learn how to play it one day, and is it okay to say a Netflix subscription? (laughs) I’m currently halfway through binging on The Walking Dead. I think I would be very sad to go to the moon before I found out what happened.


NJ: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the pursuit of poetry and writing as profession?


SH: I feel like as an ethnic minority writer, you face a different set of challenges to your peers of the dominant culture, as it were. This is something that has become very clear to me recently, that it’s just a very charged area in which to be working at the moment. There’s a sense in which whatever you do will always be colored by the idea that you have to serve as a spokesperson for the group you belong to. That burden is one that I want to be able to step up to, but it’s also a responsibility that I also sometimes feel I shouldn’t have to shoulder. I guess it’s especially acute for me, because there are so few Chinese poets writing and being published in Britain. I feel like some of the scrutiny that my work receives is much too colored by this sense of novelty, that I’m the first one to stick the head above the parapet.


NJ: Do you ever feel you’ve been hindered by thinking too much about the audience, instead of the reasons why you’re creating work?


SH: I think this question of the audience hovering in your mind as you write is an important one for all poets, and it’s one that shifts in and out of focus for me. I believe at some point you have to think, “What will another reader make of this?” I do write with an audience in mind; I do care about the world that my poems go out into. I’m not going to make any big hyperbolic claims, but the world is changed when voices that have traditionally never been heard before suddenly start to.


NJ: If you could live in any other point in time, when would it be?


SH: My day job is as an academic working on Renaissance literature, so I would definitely choose to live during Shakespeare’s heyday.


NJ: There’s a conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn’t actually exist. What do you think?


SH: I personally don’t care that much either way, because I’m not a big one for biographical speculation about the lives of authors. But I actually find the conspiracy theory phenomenon around Shakespeare absolutely fascinating as a phenomenon. It has so much to do with conspiracy theory as a psychological need.


NJ: What do you think happens when we die?


SH: I suppose this doesn’t really impinge on my poems or writings very much, but I’m a very staunch Atheist, so I believe that nothing happens to us after we die, or at least the conscious parts of ourselves. But I don’t find that particularly depressing or nihilistic, either – it’s pretty liberating.


Portrait Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal

Artwork: Pablo Thecuadro for NeueJournal