The Sound of Her Voice

Sarah Howe interviewed by Lily Blacksell
Boston Review
July 7, 2016
By Lily Blacksell

Since long before the publication of Loop of Jade (2015), her debut collection, Sarah Howe has been a highly regarded and much-loved member of the UK poetry scene. Earlier this year, she won the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize for that collection, as well as The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. Sarah is not currently in the UK, however; for a little while longer, she is a Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Like me, she is a Brit abroad, and this was one bullet point on a list of reasons why I wanted to meet her. Our paths finally crossed on Chinese New Year in February, in a bar in Manhattan’s Alphabet City. With poet Jenny Zhang and musician and writer Emma-Lee Moss, Sarah presented a night of performances and festivities. The event was called “Here for the Ghosts” but I was there for the hosts, all of whom happened to be born in China in the same year. I left with a head full of lyrics and questions and, somehow, a bag full of satsumas. In the interim period I have eaten the fruit, but here are those questions, along with answers from Sarah, which I find to be just as thoughtful and generous as her poems.


Lily Blacksell: Has the last handful of months allowed even a moment to put pen to paper? Has the success of Loop of Jade been inspiring? Exhausting? Daunting?

Sarah Howe: It’s certainly been busy! Right now I’m letting myself wander until something un-ignorable tugs me down a new path. As for the reception of the book, I’m very happy and grateful when readers connect with the poems, but to be honest I’m trying to put it all out of my mind. 

LB: You have gone from one Cambridge to another. As a writer who has explored place so thoughtfully and eloquently in their poetry, how are your current surroundings influencing your work, if at all?

SH: This part of the New World isn’t entirely new to me. Ten years ago when I’d recently graduated from university I spent a year at Harvard on a scholarship, in a lovely, light apartment a few roads away from where I live now. It was the first grownup home I’d shared with my partner. We were very young and it was the first time I’d been to this continent. Getting the Chinatown bus to New York for the weekend felt like a dream. Back then I had almost no clue how to write a poem, and couldn’t foresee how my priorities would change on that front. I spent hours translating Virgil, but hadn’t yet thought to study Chinese. I’d never experienced four feet of snow, and my faux-suede boots (in improvident powder blue!) meant I always had wet toes. I wanted to be a painter but couldn’t let myself be one. This year, a decade on, being in the same New England town feels like an uncanny revisiting of a phase of my life I never thought I’d see again. None of this has made it into poems yet. I tend to write about places where I’m not—my imagination is perverse like that. 

LB: What cultural differences have you noticed between the UK and the United States, whether in the writing world or wider spheres? Would you say it’s possible to feel ‘at home’ whilst being far from home?

SH: I like how being over here unsettles my perception of language and its givens. I did an interview a couple of months ago before a reading in New York. When the typed-up transcript came back, it was strange but also delightful to see how my interlocutor had “translated” me into American: my “mum” became my “mom” and a “forlorn hope” that I’d learn to play the violin one day became in her ear a “full-on hope”—isn’t that great? I should put that in a poem. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my husband’s American cousins, who have a five-year-old daughter. She is fascinated and confused by my “Briddish” accent, which she seems to think at points is something I’m putting on. She invented a game where she’ll point at an object in the room and I have to say the word for it—Carpet! Dump truck!—in my best American accent (which is dreadful, by the way). This had her in stitches. When the laughter had died down, she turned to her parents, suddenly contemplative, and said, “Isn’t it amazing that Sarah knows a few words in our language?” 

America isn’t my home. But in many ways I feel at home aesthetically in the States—probably because it was here that I first started writing poems in earnest. I realize this might seem odd to any Americans who see my work: to them my poems would probably sound very English, or at least recognizably foreign. But it was encountering twentieth-century American poetry for the first time, hearing its contemporary voices, that at last made things click for me as a writer after years of not getting it. Through the decade I spent writing Loop of Jade, I’m aware of having held in my mind an idea of America as an alternative space to the world of British poetry: one maybe more open to various sorts of idiosyncrasy, strangeness, richness of surface, mess, than there’d be room for in post-Movement British lyric, whose plainspoken naturalism didn’t make me feel quite at home. Even if that was a fantasy—how could it not be?—it was an enabling one.

In the wake of Warsan Shire’s incredible, game-changing collaboration with Beyoncé, one of the discussions that emerged back home took the form of a transatlantic comparison. My friend and fellow Complete Works poet, Inua Ellams, wondered aloud why the United States is often a more hospitable environment for British poets of color than our home shores. Having temporarily followed Warsan across the Atlantic myself, that sense of relief chimed with me: how tired you get from constantly swimming against the current, without even knowing it.

That said, I arrived in the States almost the same week the Yi-Fen Chou scandal came to light, which was quite a reintroduction to the country! But even that eventually felt cathartic thanks to the brilliant and scathing responses from many Asian American poets, which I continue to turn over in my mind. I was surprised at first that the episode was so widely reported in the British press, until I tuned into the note of self-congratulation—that racism is a problem America has “over there,” unlike our happy, multicultural, Commonwealth-enriched (pun intended) family in the UK. (As I re-read this, the dust is only just settling after the publication of Calvin Trillin’s “Have they run out of provinces yet?” in the New Yorker. It seems my year of observing the U.S. poetry world is set to begin and end with face-palms.)

An American poet friend recently told me her writing students felt free, after a long time away, to venture once more into the “first-personal” (as they’d dubbed the autobiographicalI), authorized in part by the work of minority poets they admired. I don’t know how accurate a picture that is, whether it suggests a “post-post-identity” turn, as it were, but it’s interesting to me. Mostly it makes me think how mainstream poetics in the UK never really broke with the personal voice in that way. For my part, I find myself wanting to take an extended vacation from it, even as I realize that might well be impossible. 

LB: I totally agree that race is foregrounded. We need not dwell on this (goodness knows there are one or two British journalists who’ve expended enough time and words on it) but, being half-Chinese, you could be one of those ethnic minority writers. Is race something you might write about, even whilst on holiday from your I?

SH: I have conflicted thoughts on this. From write-ups of Loop of Jade, one might not guess there’s a whole bunch of poems in there that have nothing to do with Chineseness at all—or at least that’s what I thought as I was writing them. A lot of the time I sit down and write poems about fourteenth-century Flemish paintings, or the debt crisis, or rain. But the reception of the book suggests that even when I don’t feel I’m writing race, race is still writing me.

I know poets of color who don’t feel they have the luxury of confining themselves to a purely personal I. Even as I might shy from such a responsibility, I feel the pressure for my work to be read as somehow representative of a wider immigrant experience. This is only exacerbated by the fact that so few poets of East Asian heritage are published in the UK: you could count us on one hand. At the same time, think of the drive in our literary culture to read poems by women, and especially ones from racial minorities, as artlessly autobiographical—as unmediated expressions of lived experience, to be consumed for their “authenticity.”

Pronouns are worth dwelling on. I recently had cause to revisit the we that crops up occasionally in my poems, and what claims it might stake. It was drawn to my attention that the way a poem such as “Crossing from Guangdong” shifts between a personal I and a larger we—“Something sets us looking for a place. / For many minutes every day, we lose / ourselves to somewhere else”—could be considered problematic, even exclusionary, because of the assumptions it makes about the poem’s readership. I was glad to have the chance to reconsider this particular move in my work: was my universalizing wehere a pernicious sleight of hand? 

My reflex response would be that male writers, ethnically unmarked writers, can assume a universality that, so it seems, would not be imputed to my own work. By this logic, my writing is limited, “trapped within [its] particularity” (to quote Katherine Angel on the reception of women writers), “unable to speak to those who don’t share it.” On the other hand, whole realms of experience aren’t universal—the traumas of migration, racism, sexism being only the start of a very long list. The brilliant stroke of the you in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen struck me afresh, for the way it at once sidesteps such difficulties and draws constant, discomforting attention to them.

Is it possible to imagine a we in a poem that isn’t magisterial, assuming, coercive, and yet manages to encompass more than just a narrowly similar group of people? I suspect this question goes to the heart of the work poetry has to do in the world. Flimsy as it is, I had hoped that communal pronoun could serve as an invitation to traverse the bounds of otherness—the distancing of they—like an umbrella under which we might, in our differences, shelter together for a spell. I cling to that hope, even if some readers can’t follow me there.     

LB: I’d like to circle back to what you were saying about accents. I too am finding that our fascination with pronunciation is endless. It’s really made me think about your voice, and I mean literally the sound of your voice, rather than any lyrical baggage. I’ve so enjoyed hearing you read on the radio and seeing or hearing you read in videos and in person. Your voice and your poems are now forever linked for me. Do you enjoy reading your work?

SH: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy my readings: it’s something that’s very important to me. And yes, when they go well, that feeling of intimate connection with a room can be exhilarating. Sound is central to my writing process. I can’t write in cafes or public spaces anymore because I need to speak the emerging lines out loud, chanting them again and again with every shift and revision. If pressed, I would say the page is still the primary vehicle for my work. But then so much of my experimenting with form is about trying to visually “score” the voice on the page, to find a shape that will convey its inflections, hesitations and subtexts. One of my basic fascinations with writing is its ability to conjure voice in the mind—an almost bodily presence—from the specter of print. That’s not to diminish the magic of performance, where the actual body of the poet has its own force.

“Voice” isn’t a straightforward thing for me: neither my physical voice, nor the unique and unified poetic voice we’re all supposed to be trying to find within ourselves. A couple of years after we moved from Hong Kong to England, toward the end of my time at the local primary—I must have been about ten—my mum came with me to parents’ evening. She listened as the teacher told her to take me to London more, to museums and the theater, places where I could hear English, because it was important for non-native speakers to get extra exposure outside the home if they weren’t to fall behind. I could tell my mum was quietly furious: English was my first and only language. But my face, my Chinese mother’s face, had managed to obscure that fact for the teacher, despite me having been in her classroom for months. The children doing their “slitty eyes” and “Ching Chong Chinaman” at me outside in the playground were mocking the sounds of a language I couldn’t actually speak.

Shortly after that my mum enrolled me in something called ”speech and drama lessons.” They were taught by a woman I loved, whose original Irish accent I somehow became aware had been transformed by drama school into the BBC voice I learned to imitate. Every week or two in term-time I would memorize a poem and perform it for her—an experience that was probably quite pivotal, now that I come to think of it, in my twisty path to becoming a poet. It was only when I was older that I started to notice how, apart from me, all the children attending her classes were from nearby South Asian families—Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Sri Lankan. (A satellite town just north of London, Watford has a large British Asian community.) My coeditor at Prac Crit, Vidyan Ravinthiran, once told me he had a very similar experience as a child in Leeds. He wrote a poemabout his own “Years / of speech class,” which is wittily incisive about accent, assimilation anxiety, and immigrant aspiration. It ends: “Let the reader understand / I have already found my voice/ something to lose.”

In other words, I’m aware that “the sound of my voice” isn’t a natural or neutral thing, but is massively overdetermined by culture, by my parents’ anxieties about race and class, by my experience of assimilation. Funnily enough, the horrific Private Eye parody—which I’ve come to regard with something like anthropological detachment, in the wake of my initial rage—clarified for me various things about voice in Loop of Jade. I could suddenly see how double-voiced some of the poems are, and how certain readers will be more primed to tune into their sub-vocalizations than others. In Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, Dorothy Wang has written illuminatingly about similar moves in the work of poets like Marilyn Chin and John Yau. The odd thing about seeing my voice parodied in that way was that the book already relies so much on devices like irony and parody, especially when it inhabits what we might call a “Chinoiserie” register.

Of course, I don’t think Private Eye’s columnist, merrily slapping on his yellowface, armed with his comedy “Chinese” names (my ten-year-old schoolpals were more creatively racist), would have had in mind these complicating layers: that even as he was ventriloquizing me, I was already busy ventriloquizing Pound, who was ventriloquizing Li Po, and so on. One constant here is Western culture’s fondness for speaking over the (female) Chinese voice, whether the anonymous Private Eye hack, Michael Derrick Hudson, or the Pound of “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” With all that noise, it’s a wonder we can be heard at all.

LB: Having watched your TEDx talk numerous times, I’d like to know what it was like to read, or rather perform (as you did so well) a poem from memory.

SH: I found that TEDx talk quite a nerve-wracking experience. The assignment was to speak a poem to a huge hall full of people who might not normally have any contact with poetry, and were really there for the talks by Harvard stars about overpopulation and asteroid mining. And so the “performance” strategies—moving round the stage, using gesture, summoning a bigger vocal range than normal—all arose out of a desire to engage with a crowd most likely unfamiliar with the conventions of poetry readings. I had a lot of help from, and a couple of rehearsals with, a voice coach found by the TEDx team, whose background was in theater. It was a really interesting experience. It taught me a lot about the poem and the range of emotions it moves through, many of which were far from obvious to me as I wrote it.

The experience brought home to me how much the challenge (and thrill) of readings is to reconnect with the poems’ originating sensation and emotion—to feel them again in the moment as if for the first time. On the other hand, I don’t want to feel them so much that I get overwhelmed and end up ugly-crying at the audience. There’s a risk of that with some of the poems, including “Loop of Jade” itself, which means I often end up not reading those ones.

LB: In a recent interview, you talk about investigating the “mind’s eye” in your PhD, and what that phrase means. I am very interested in the idea of learning something “by heart,” and why we put it like that. Did memorizing your poems change your relationship to them?

SH: Something I came across in my PhD work was this Renaissance idea—you see it in Shakespeare and Donne—of memory being like “writing on the heart.” It’s from the Bible, but also ran through the medieval Art of Memory. I love the literalness, the materiality of it: that when we memorize poems we’re engraving them on our hearts. As it happens, I do know many of my poems by heart, which seems to be a byproduct of the way I write them: tweaking them in my mind’s ear on the walk to work, or (does anyone else do this?) muttering lines-in-progress in the shower. I don’t usually recite from memory at readings simply because I find it too stressful, the thought I might get lost and not be able to pick up the thread. The TEDx performance was, I think, the first time I’d really experimented with it. One thing I noticed was how vulnerable, how exposed, I felt without a book between me and the audience.

I tend to worry that my voice isn’t expressive enough, especially when reading off the page; that in my stress I switch to autopilot, and my tone settles into something too regular and smoothed-over. But then I was surprised by something a friend said to me the other day. She’d watched a video of me reading, not the TEDx one, but the talk I did last October at the Radcliffe Institute. What had struck her was the disconnect, as I read some of the more emotional poems, between the evenness of my voice and the agonized looks that periodically passed across my face. I laughed when she said it, because I had been completely unconscious of what my face was doing. If it’s true, that observation does seem to chime with a quality in the poems themselves, where so much work is done by an ostensibly calm or affectless surface, through which you glimpse the turbulence underneath.

LB: I have read that you use writing procedures as starting points for some poems and I would love to know more about these (although don’t feel you have to give away any secret recipes). Throughout Loop of Jade, you seem to be having so much fun with sound and your word choices. Is any of that the result of an exercise, or procedural? 

SH: My writing process usually begins with a ritual akin to what they used to call the Sortes Vergilianae, where you would flip open your copy of Virgil and chance upon a verse meant to tell your fortune. I open up books at random and copy into my notebook long lists of whatever individual words catch my eye—they don’t have to be particularly odd or special. These days the copied-out words don’t usually make it into the final poem, though that was never really the point. It’s more about helping me cultivate the right state of mind to access the place poems come from, where words temporarily float free of their meanings, becoming just texture and sound. That said, when I have a sense a certain word choice in a draft is wrong, it’s amazing how often I’ll cast my eye down the columns of random words and find the right one waiting for me.

It happens that my interim project, Two Systems, is entirely procedural and concept-driven—so much so that I find it hard to think of it as writing in any sense I’m used to. It’s an erasure poem that takes apart the Basic Law or mini-constitution of Hong Kong, as a way of exploring the politics of disappearing words, disappearing booksellers, disappearing freedoms. But it’s rapidly evolving into something more like a public art project, in which many people—many citizens—would be involved, all creating their own versions of erased pages that could become part of the piece’s larger architecture. I have a feeling video projectors might need to be involved. It took me a while to realize this, but creatively intervening in a constitutionaldocument seems to demand an interplay between individual and collective voices—the I/we I was talking about before.

LB: I would ask you the rather predictable question of who you are reading at the moment, but I can find some of the answer to that question by turning to Prac Crit, which should certainly get a mention in this interview. As the founding editor, what were your motivations in starting the journal? What has the experience been like? In looking at other poets’ work close up, have you been able to see your own any better?

SH: I’m very excited about Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which I’ve just finished, and am about to go in for a second sweep; likewise, the first two books by Harmony Holiday, who I saw read mesmerizingly the other week, and whose work is just as compelling on the page. On my bedside table right now, in various states of dipped-into-ness, are books of poems by Patrick Rosal, Anne Boyer, Mary Ruefle, Ken Chen, Alice Lyons, Ross Gay, Natalie Eilbert, and Sarah Gambito, as well as novels by Ibrahim al-Koni and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. I’ve been trying to take advantage of being in the States to buy as many books as my creaking suitcases will permit. On the other side of the pond, I’m excited about new collections by Mark Waldron and John McCullough, as well as a spectacular debut pamphlet from Alison Winch, which I’ve been lucky enough to see in proofs.

I do see Prac Crit as a sort of extension, or intensification, of my own reading—its pleasures and discoveries. Thinking back, my coeditors and I did have vague ambitions when we first started the magazine that it might intervene positively in the UK’s critical culture. But increasingly I think of our double-sided features—essays and interviews that take place at the level of the individual poem—as pursuing quite different aims to book reviews, which have their own distinct skill set. Prac Crit emerged out of my own frustration at the lack of space book reviewing permitted, with its need to give a five-hundred-word overview, for getting into the nitty-gritty of poems. That intensity of focus was always what excited me most about encountering poetry as a reader: that you might live with a single poem for years of your life, and not exhaust it.

I love working with Vidyan and Dai George to put together each new issue, and swell with delight and pride when I think of the poets and critics we’ve managed to involve so far. One of the things I enjoy most is interviewing poets, a task I quite often take on myself. I don’t know if it helps directly with my own work, except that I often end up asking them about matters of poetics I’d personally like to ponder. The journal’s transatlantic flavor has been a conscious thing, by the way, and we’re hoping to expand that internationalism in the future. We’ve got some great stuff brewing for later in the year, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

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