Sarah Howe

A Loop of Jade

Greg McCartney

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Greg McCartney: Welcome Sarah to the HU. Great to be able to interview you. Congratulations on winning the Eliot prize. You must still be on cloud nine?

Sarah Howe: Thank you, I’m really happy. In some ways it’s been a surprisingly shaking experience as well, but I think with a bit of distance I’ll feel happier about the future. I suppose if I spend the rest of my career trying actually to earn this accolade, maybe it’s not the worst thing!

GMcC: I noticed a quote from someone saying you were going to change British poetry – so I thought no pressure on her then!

SH: What I’ve learnt from the experience of these last weeks is that the work is the most important thing. At the end of the day, you need to try to forget what people say and think, both the lovely things and the less lovely things. The main job is writing the poems. Loop of Jade is still exactly the same book it was six months ago, and the fresh page is no less blank than it was before.

GMcC: I agree completely: If you take too much notice of that you’d never get out of bed in the morning. Could I ask how does your writing process work?

SH: I guess I have a lot of different ways of beginning and generating poems. I think that reflects something of the stylistic range and variety of approaches that I’m aiming for in my work. Sometimes it does feel like there is an image or an idea that I need to pursue, and so I sit down with that little nub and worry at it, building up around it until it becomes a node in something larger. A lot of the time, I’m interested in this state of mind people call ‘flow,’ and how you get there. The idea is that you’re so engrossed in the task at hand that it almost involves getting away from the conscious intelligence. Your decisions become intuitive. It feels very much like accessing some slightly more hidden or mysterious place within yourself. For me I sometimes find a helpful way to get there is to use what experimental poets would call ‘procedural techniques’ – that is, making word lists, treating language in a way that doesn’t rely purely on meaning but opens up the work to chance, to patterns of sound, or grouping words purely on the basis of how they chime and jostle with each other – that sort of thing. That said, I feel like hard graft is also a necessary part of the process. It’s just that what you’ve learned taking poem X through thirty painstaking drafts is sometimes what creates the space into which poem Y falls without apparent effort, like a gift from the sky. 

GMcC: I do that for the Abridged magazine. I riff off a line of poetry or a song. It doesn’t have to mean anything particular on its own, but it leads down a path that takes you somewhere you hadn’t figured on going. I was wondering, as you work in the academic field, can you separate the two, the academic and the poetic?

SH: That’s an interesting question. I suppose for a long time I was trying to keep a separation between those two parts of my life. It was even sort of a geographical divide for me: scholarship happened in Cambridge, while poetry happened in London. Even as I worked on my PhD, I felt that poetry was a necessary thing for me to keep going – that if I allowed myself to throw my entire being and identity into the world of academia, that would be a type of loss. I needed whatever it is the pursuit of poems gives us to make my life feel worthwhile and whole. Still, I’ve become aware in recent times that some of my habits of thought as a scholar of Renaissance literature have been bleeding into my poems after all. I’ve written a few poems that deal explicitly with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century themes, but hardly any of them made it into Loop of Jade. Only one or two poems in the book are set in that period of the English past, which I’ve spent so much of the last decade inhabiting as a researcher.

And yet I wonder if there is a subtler colouring that comes through, especially in what we might call the poems’ ‘philological’ impulses – that is, their self-conscious tracing of language’s past routes/roots, often through half-buried etymologies or puns. Because English has changed so much in the four centuries since Shakespeare and Donne were writing, I spend a lot of my day job engaging with language used in very different, sometimes quite estranging ways. It’s not just a question of unfamiliar vocabulary, but of syntax too, and the way that shapes one’s thinking. You don’t have to read much of Milton’s prose, with its elaborately cantilevered, semi-colon linked structures spanning half a page, to realise that sentences worked in a very different way back then. You might say all that gives me a sense of how you can’t take the surface of language for granted. It’s also left me with a fascination for the history of words, which comes through in the poems: where they come from, how far they’ve travelled, what company they’ve kept on the way. So, for example, in the sixteenth century the word ‘yesternight’ (which incidentally opens one of my poems) lived happily alongside the word ‘yesterday,’ but a few centuries on, one has died out from common usage while the other survives. The reasons for that fascinate me. For half a day I wanted to call the collection Yesternight, until a friend told me it sounded like the title of a second-rate Oasis album.

GMcC: I know what you mean. I still use the word wireless for the radio! It’s come back into fashion again so I feel justified! Your poetry to me is very visual. Is that a conscious decision?

SH: I can see from your other magazine, Abridged, how interested you are in the connection between words and the visual – and I am too. In fact, my PhD explored that very relationship. For years I’ve been exploring the idea of the ‘mind’s eye,’ which is a phrase that starts to pop up in English around the time of Shakespeare, or just before. I’m fascinated by what exactly the ‘mind’s eye’ might mean in psychological terms: how positing its existence might affect the way we read poetry, but also the way we might write poetry – poetry designed, say, to appeal to its brand of hypothetical sight. The idea is that language might achieve a visual or sensory immediacy that would make us feel as if we’re daydreaming or hallucinating as we read. I can’t say that my poems quite achieve that state, but sensory vividness is a quality that characterises some of the writers I most admire.

GMcC: Talking of words that evolve, I’ve been interested in the evolution of the word ‘curate’ or the term curation. It occurred to me that putting together a book of poetry is a curatorial exercise. Could you tell me about how you put the book together?

SH: I love that idea that there might be an analogy between putting together a book of poems and curating a room in a gallery or museum. I can’t say I was conscious of that metaphor as I assembled Loop of Jade, though I guess there are a fair number of (indirectly) ekphrastic poems in the manuscript. I thought for a long time about how to arrange them in relation to one another – all in a row, or distributed far and wide. But the idea of ‘curating’ does describe quite well the sort of decisions – the balancings, the juxtapositions, the settings-off – I was trying to achieve in arranging the poems into a book. I guess the funny thing about first collections is that here they are often a miscellany drawn from many years’ work: the greatest hits of what you’ve managed to achieve in your apprenticeship as a poet. On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly common, especially in America, for books and even first books to have a sort of conceptual arc or overarching story. I was somewhere between those two positions, looking at the body of poems that I had to sift and sort into Loop of Jade. I was trying to tune into sub-structures and sub-themes in the work, which I might not have put there at a conscious level. Many of these only became apparent as I laid out all the printed A4 pages of the manuscript on the floor to try to get some sort of aerial overview.

I think the analogy with visual art is doubly interesting when it comes to the question of narrative. While there is a sort of elliptical story that Loop of Jade tells, particularly in the three long poems about my mother, it’s not the sort of narrative you would encounter in a novel. The story, such as it is, emerges through individual images or fragments, a bit like the panels in a series of narrative paintings where you have to intuit what has happened in the gaps between them. Freud says that dreams share the paratactic nature of paintings, which is to say they both work through unarticulated juxtapositions: how one image or frame in the sequence relates to another is often mysterious to the dreamer, and seems to demand interpretation. I think that’s often true of poems too, especially when collected together into larger wholes.

GMcC: The books, films, art, even cartoons I love create their own world – or sounding a bit pretentious  - eco-system - where you can find your own path through if in a maybe somewhat abstract manner. I think there’s a mythic quality to your poetry. I think you curate a world that I find fascinating.

SH: The strand of Chinese myth and folktale that runs through the book was important to me from quite early in its writing. But equally, the reference points of my Western education mean that a poem like ‘Tame’ arguably draws more from Ovid or Grimms’ fairytales, in spite of its Chinese setting. For years I felt a gap in my life where I didn’t really have a relationship with what it might mean to be Chinese. My adult travels in China were one way of trying to think about and negotiate that side of my tentative identity. But I also I found myself reaching back into my childhood for the legends and tales my mum told me when I was small: I think was her main way of trying to keep up my sense of connection with my Chinese heritage, even after we moved to England. As I reached into the past, those myths started showing up in the poems, blurring into the stories of my mother’s own life. I find it interesting that, as more and more Chinese readers start to be interested in the book, they will surely receive this particular strand in a different way to a Western readership. The Chinese myths and folktales would probably seem comfortingly familiar to them, even humdrum, while the English and European reference-points might become the strange and exotic part.

GMcC: I like that you have previously referenced the Derek Mahon poem, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush.’ It’s a very romanticised poem about what perhaps a Chinese restaurant owner was thinking as he stood at the door of his business. I wonder if that’s why you included Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge as a way of articulating the silliness (or worse) of our tendency to catagorise that which we don’t understand?

SH: Absolutely. I have long been fascinated by Borges’ fictional taxonomy – the  supposed entry on ‘animals’ from a made-up Chinese Encyclopedia wonderfully titled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. As well as making you laugh out loud, that passage from Borges’ essay is such an incisive comment on otherness and the limits of our imaginative horizons: how looking at another culture is often really a way of teaching ourselves what we value in our own. Via figures like Borges and Erza Pound, I became interested in the notion of ‘Chinoiserie’ – usually defined as a Western fantasy of the distant East, like a willow pattern plate – as opposed to the ‘authentically’ Chinese. . . realizing of course that ‘authenticity’ is no less problematic an idea. Ideas of the exotic Orient became enshrined in European decorative art from the eighteenth century, then through works such as Pound’s Cathay and Cantos took up residence in modern English-language poetics. That my work might be dismissed as merely ‘pretty’ or ‘decorative’ is a racialized (and gendered) reading many of my poems consciously pre-empt, though I think you need to see them within the book’s wider structure to appreciate how that play of irony unfolds.

I’m glad you mentioned Mahon’s ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush,’ a poem I’ve written about briefly before. In it, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in that seaside town stands with his back to a ‘framed photograph of Hong Kong,’ watched by a Northern Irish diner. Looking out at the passing boats, the Chinese man ‘whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.’ I think Mahon is quite conscious that what looks at first like empathy here is actually, on closer inspection, a kind of overwriting: the speaker projects his own sense of homelessness onto the immigrant ‘other,’ in a way I find moving –sympathy is the driver here – at the same time as slightly troubling. It’s the same dynamic Borges tries to illustrate with his Chinese encyclopedia: in trying to inhabit the perspective of another, you always risk saying more about yourself. But I think Mahon understands that. The idea here is that both men are equally outsiders, in a poem that implicitly ties together the colonial history of Hong Kong with Ireland’s own. ‘What's the difference between an exile and an expatriate?’ Mahon once joked in an interview. ‘It seems to me that an Englishman in France is an expat, but an Irishman is an exile.’

The possibility of empathy – as the effort to extend yourself into the life and viewpoint of another person – is an important idea running through Loop of Jade. The poems create these repeated scenarios in which the speaker attempts a sort of imaginative communion with other figures whose experiences seem remote or hard to inhabit, whether my mother talking about her difficult past or the anti-Semitic Pound in his traitor’s cage. Sometimes these poems fear that empathy isn’t possible: ‘I can never know this place,’ the title poem despairs at one point, when speaking of my mother’s childhood. There are a couple of lines in one of the poems: ‘At empathy’s darkening pane we see / our own reflected face’ [‘(n) That from a long way of look like flies’]. That metaphor speaks to my sense that some sort of projection is hard, perhaps even impossible, to escape in the project of empathy. That’s just a psychological truth we have to be aware of and try to work within – not least as writers. What I had in mind was how window glass is either transparent or reflective depending on the light conditions. If it’s dark outside you can’t see through the pane of glass anymore, you can only see your own face reflected back: and that seemed to me an apt metaphor for the workings of empathy and ego.

GMcC: I love that line ‘She was always taking in abandoned things. I think she saw her sadnesses reflected in them.’ I was wondering, was interrogating your past a thing you felt you had to do?

SH: I think that’s certainly how Loop of Jade began: I wanted to try to excavate in poems a part of my inheritance I felt I’d spent many years, especially my teens in England, trying to suppress. But as I got further into the book and its headspace, I realized that to write about the Chinese part of myself I had to write about my mother, which meant I had to write about her adoptive mother, which meant I had to write about the history of Hong Kong and twentieth-century China, which meant I had to write about. . . and it just spiraled in that way. The book ceased to be about interrogating my own past, so much as about how individuals are shaped by larger systems and structures – nation, race, family – and how one might want to embrace or fight against those givens.

GMcC: You’ve mentioned hybridity – and that has always been an interest of mine – those things, ideas or people that fall between the cracks of definition. It runs through your work I feel. Do you feel full of different cultures, histories etc?

SH: I think we all are, to a greater or lesser degree. I guess that’s why I hoped Loop of Jade’s preoccupation with what it means to be biracial might chime with readers straddling other sorts of worlds and borders. The sense I had as a child of being slightly odd, monstrous, not fitting in, is (I suspect) a fairly universal one, paradoxical as that might seem! The hybrid monsters of my Borges encyclopedia poems – Sirens, Sphinxes, transgenic mice with their jellyfish glow – became an interesting vehicle for exploring these ideas. A friend (the singer and writer Emma-Lee Moss, who happens to be Eurasian too) recently introduced me to something that Junot Díaz once said: the way to make a human being ‘a monster’ is to ‘deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’ ‘Growing up,’ he says, ‘I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”’ As a Dominican-American novelist, Díaz now sees one of the missions of his work as being to give people like him ‘a couple of mirrors’ so that they ‘might see themselves reflected back, and might not feel so monstrous for it.’

GMcC: You have an interest in science? I'm fascinated that you wrote a poem for Stephen Hawking and I love the line: ‘For what’s sure in a universe that dopplers. . .?’  I love the idea that every decision you make creates a new universe and that nothing is therefore sure.

SH: It was a wonderful experience writing that poem for Stephen Hawking: I spent a couple of months reading about nothing but theoretical physics! I ended up revisiting my teenage fascination with black holes, the possibility of time travel, other universes, through the lens of contemporary developments in cosmology. But it also reminded me how much I always loved – still love – science fiction, because of that speculative, world-building, imagination-stretching dimension the genre enables. I’ve heard American poets like Stephen Burt and Geoffrey G. O’Brien talk in a similar way about how they feel science fiction and poetry might have a sort of underlying kinship, related perhaps to their ability to conjure alternative worlds. Writing my poem ‘Relativity’ made me wonder if the same might be true of poetry and the abstract realms explored by minds like Hawking’s or Einstein’s. Another American poet, Jorie Graham has said that advanced sciences like particle physics allow ‘a young mind to experience the paradox, ambiguity, irrational thought, associative “leaping” any good poem teaches us to think and feel in.’ Poetry and physics might open the same ‘synapses in the brain. . . Once open, such minds can think differently in any field.’

GMcC: And one last thing - what is next? 

SH: I’m currently working on a series of ‘erasure’ poems, which are more conceptual and politically directed than the work that featured in Loop of Jade. I’m now thinking they would make more sense as a chapbook or even art installation than as a collection. As for the next book, I suspect that’s still quite far off: I’m in no rush! I’m waiting to find some new obsessions and see where they take me.