For our eighth Foyle Friday, we’ve invited Foyle Young Poet and Young Poets Networker Meredith LeMaître to interview award-winning poet, lecturer and fellow Foyler Sarah Howe. They discuss Sarah’s first introduction to the poetry world, what she is doing now to improve diversity in poetry and reviewing, and the questions she’s been trying to explore through her writing.
What are your favourite memories of winning the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and the awards ceremony?
It was all pretty overwhelming at the time – I’d never experienced anything like it. I have very happy memories of my English teacher in particular on the day, who took me to the awards ceremony at Southbank Centre rather than my mum or dad. She was an incredibly supportive and nurturing presence, and in a lot of ways she did a lot to turn me on to writing poems. I think it was her who had put up a notice in the school English corridor about the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in the first place. Before then, I’d never set out to write a poem – it just hadn’t occurred to me to write off my own steam. That teacher had probably pinned the advert to the noticeboard hoping that it would create exactly those moments of serendipitous risk-taking in her students. I saw it and thought to myself, maybe I could do this.
How did winning the Award impact your life?
I still have very vivid and fond memories of the prize writing week at Lumb Bank. It was a pretty formative experience, even though I didn’t quite know at that age how to process it. It felt like a real unfurling, a revelation in many ways: I’d never met other young people who had the sensibility that leads one to write poems before. I was actually so sad to leave Lumb Bank that I cried on the train home, in front of all the other Foylers! It was embarrassing, but it shows how much it meant to me at the time.
That week gave me a sense that being a poet was something that people could do. Before then, it never occurred to me that it was still a living profession: ‘poet’ never showed up on the computerised careers service as an option. Foyle started me on that path.
Despite that, I didn’t really continue writing poems except very haphazardly through my undergraduate English degree, because I didn’t really know what I was doing.
What made you go back and take writing seriously?
When I was a graduate student in the US, I signed up for a poetry workshop with an amazing poet Jorie Graham, who I hadn’t even heard of at the time. I guess it was the happy memory of the Foyle week that made me think I’d like to rekindle that feeling of sitting in a room with some really switched-on, sympathetic people, and read poems.
It was that second try that made it all click into place. I just needed a few more years to mature. When I first set out to write the poem that I entered into Foyle, it was totally unconscious – I had no idea about craft, skill or technique. It was pure instinct. It took those intervening years to work out some of the technicalities.
What was your Foyle winning poem about? What inspired you to write it?
This is a difficult one to answer! It was quite problematic at the time – a poem called ‘Why Do I Hate You Now?’ It was about a scenario that many schoolgirls will find familiar, the chopping and changing (sometimes quite dramatically) of friendship groups. At the time it felt like the greatest cataclysm, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse in the world.
The poem was very Plath-inspired and came at a time when I had decided she was amazing and I needed to disciple myself to her. I was channelling everything I’d read of Plath, in English lessons, and all I went on to devour outside of class.
What was the last poetry book you read?
This year I judged the Griffin Poetry Prize which means that over the last few months I’ve read most poetry books published last year in English from around the world. So I find this question somewhat difficult to answer – I think the answer might be all of them!
Probably the most recent book I’ve read is Amy Key’s Isn’t Forever which launched earlier this year. It’s a very exciting book by a poet I love very much.
Would you say that there is enough diversity in the poetry scene today?
This is a question very close to my heart. Questions of diversity need constant vigilance and attention: we can’t start to rest on our laurels, or there’ll be backsliding. But thanks to initiatives like Complete Works and others, the diversity of poetry publishing is looking much healthier than it was five, even ten years ago. I think the statistics suggest 12% or so of British poetry books are published by ethnic minorities.
I and Sandeep Parmar have been working on the reception of poetry books, another aspect of the poetry eco-system that could do with attention. We’ve been trying to bring on the next generation of BAME poetry critics with the Ledbury Emerging Critics scheme. Our first round of eight critics have just graduated, and they’re publishing fantastic reviews all over the place including in broadsheet newspapers. One of the critics on the scheme is Jade Cuttle, who is absolutely brilliant, and is also a Foyle Young Poet. She’s been very busy for us – published on the TLS blog, with upcoming work in The Poetry Review too. She’s a great example of our cohort and the variety of skillsets they possess.
So if anyone reading this would like to put themselves forward for the next round of the Ledbury scheme they should definitely come our way if we manage to secure the funding. Watch this space!
How does your dual heritage influence your writing?
I think it was extremely important to my first book, Loop of Jade, and in many ways was the instigating question of that collection. Even though there are poems in that book that have nothing to do with racial and cultural self-identification, the overall sweep of the book leads to me asking the question, ‘who am I and where do I belong?’
That book felt like something of an exorcism in that it let me ask and answer lots of questions I’d had from my childhood about who I was in the world. The conclusion I came to at the end of that book is not one I expected, which is to say that it’s not a question I’ll ever be able to settle. Paradoxically, I think that’s allowed me to lay it to rest.
In my work now, questions of Chineseness are not personally motivated, autobiographically or through family history, as that first collection was. I recently did a commission for BBC Radio 4 where I wrote poems in response to hours and hours of interview footage of people moving through Chinatown in London. That was more an oral history, a weaving together of different voices and immigration experiences.
So the movement of people, migration, ethnicity, race, why people move from one side of the world to another are still questions that interest me, but they don’t feel particularly urgent in relation to my own story.
Lastly, what advice would you give to the young poets of today?
I get asked this question quite often. I try not to answer it the same way every time, but I’m inevitably going to answer with bits and pieces of my own experience.
One thought that’s occurred to me recently: don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It can feel like the end of the world sometimes, when you’re in that gap from poem to poem. Remind yourself that writing poems is a pleasurable thing, and the stakes don’t have to be terribly high. That can free up the work a lot.
Writers often say read widely, everything you can get your hands on, and I think that’s good advice. Especially read across different genres as a poet – read history, non-fiction, essays.
But as well as widely, read deeply. Apprentice yourself to one poem that you think is amazing. It might just be pure instinct, just a feeling in your chest, or a tingle in your spine that makes you think it’s great. Set yourself to working out technically speaking where that amazing frisson comes from, in the words on the page. That might involve taking a lot of different coloured pens and underlining or circling words until you see the patterns. As a technical exercise for furthering your writing, I can’t think of anything better – that’s certainly how I’ve proceeded through the years.
Sarah Howe is a British poet, academic and editor. Her first book, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award; it was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother, she moved to England as a child. Her pamphlet, A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia (Tall-lighthouse, 2009), won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. She has performed her work at festivals internationally and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She is the founding editor of Prac Crit, an online journal of poetry and criticism. She was a winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2000. With Sandeep Parmar, she is a co-founder of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics Programme. She is a Lecturer in Poetry at King’s College London.
Meredith LeMaître is a 14 year old writer from Brighton. In 2017 she was a Poetry Rivals finalist, a commended Foyle Young Poet, and recently won second prize in YPN’s End Hunger UK challenge and had her poem filmed to camera. You can find her work in Risen Zine, Hebe Poetry and Foxglove Journal. She usually wears something pink to poetry events.
The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is an opportunity for any young poet aged 11-17 to accelerate their writing career. Since it was founded in 1998 the Award has kick-started the career of some of today’s most exciting new voices. This year the Award celebrates its 20th anniversary, with lots of exciting activity throughout 2018.
Each year 100 winners (85 Commendations and 15 Overall Winners) are selected by a team of high profile judges, this year Caroline Bird (herself a former winner) and Daljit Nagra. There are loads of exciting prizes up for grabs, including publication, mentoring, poetry books and long-term support from The Poetry Society. Teachers can also access free teaching resources. Find out more at foyleyoungpoets.org
Don’t miss the other features in our Foyle Friday series…
- 2017 FYP Andrew Pettigrew interviews 2008 judge Ian McMillan
- We speak to former winners Helen Mort, Ankita Saxena and Richard O’Brien
- We interview FYPs Jade Cuttle, Richard Osmond and Laura Potts
- We catch up with FYPs Amanda Chong and Phoebe Stuckes
- FYPs and novelists Michael Donkor and Anbara Salam talk about their latest work
- We interview literary agent Hattie Grunewald and once-YPN-editor Phoebe Walker
- Margot Armbruster interviews fellow FYP Peter LaBerge, founder of The Adroit Journal, in an American special
- Jay Bernard, Phoebe Power and Imogen Cassels reflect on winning the Foyle Award
- FYP Rachel Hard speaks about her job in children’s publishing now