METERAny writer has dreamed of being published since he was a child. Not Hannah Lowe, who just won the Costa Book of the Year award for her poetry collection The Kids. It was only when she was teaching English literature to sixth graders that her interest in writing poetry was sparked.
“I started writing quite late,” says the 45-year-old poet, speaking from her kitchen in north London after a night celebrating her victory. “I was trying to get my students excited about an anthology of 1000 years of English poetry, and that, along with an anthology of contemporary poetry my mother bought me, Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive, she spoke to me about. I began to write in secret.
It took him a couple of years to enroll in a poetry workshop; His first collection, Chick, explores the world of his father, a Chinese-Jamaican migrant. The Kids, his third collection, is “a book to fall in love with”, according to the jury, which chose him as the winner of the prestigious £30,000 Costa Award for Book of the Year on Tuesday. “It’s cheerful, it’s warm, and it’s completely universal,” they said.
Lowe began writing the book of sonnets in 2016, four years after leaving a 12-year teaching career, “because I was really aware of how profoundly those years shaped my thinking.”
“I was trying to destabilize that relationship between teacher and student: the idea that the teacher is the figure with knowledge to impart and the student as the passive receptacle. It was never like that in the classroom for me,” she says. “And furthermore, he had no knowledge to impart, he had a degree in American literature and he had done a completely radical curriculum. So when he had to teach things like the Restoration, he would learn them the week before, sometimes the night before he was going to teach them.”
Lowe writes sonnets about students – “Monique – / kiss-curls and diamond nails, Queen Bee / who fixed me up with a Fuck off stare”; and Janine, who “had a nauseous Monday morning feeling” until “someone / said the thing, and she finally settled down: / my father was half Jamaican, half Chinese.”
In Boy, Lowe ventures into even more delicate territory, writing about a fictional student, “half boy, half man.”
“He would look at me across the crowded cantina / and hold me there, half bold, half clandestine,” he writes. “Or, she looked at him from the mezzanine, / Raised a hand and waved a little joy / To my day, lit a little flame… I didn’t even know his name.”
The poem is paired with another about the movie Notes on a Scandal, which he took his class to see, not realizing that it included a teacher-student relationship. “My boys run around / around me, play confused. Why that movie miss? / They are conceited, funny. But, miss, do you love us?”
“I guess I was trying to capture a very unique experience, certainly not commonplace in my career. I was very young when I started teaching and so were my students: when you put a bunch of people together in a building, you might find rare moments of attraction,” explains Lowe.
“But,” he adds, “no lines were crossed, no code was broken. The job asks us to conform, in all our professions, to certain rules and regulations. But that doesn’t mean private thoughts don’t surface.”
He adds that, as in his other sonnets, the setting is a fiction. “A lot of it is made up. That boy never greeted me: it’s fiction. The only thing that is certain is that there was a very beautiful boy in the sixth form, whom I noticed, and saw him seven years later, and from that I have woven a poem.
As another poet and teacher, Kate Clanchy, faces widespread criticism for her portrayals of alumni in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Lowe is clear that her sonnets present “fictitious portraits and amalgamations of students into one.”
“Obviously there are a lot of anonymous names, and there’s also fiction,” he says. “And poetry doesn’t have the same autobiographical pact that memoirs have, that agreement between writer and reader that what you’re saying is true, as long as you can remember it. The poetry is much more in the realm of fiction, even though readers may be convinced the book is true.”
Having written a memoir about his father and about the Chinese-Caribbean community, he has “a solid grounding in some of the ethical concerns that exist in creative writing,” he adds.
“This book inevitably invokes a power dynamic, right? Because I am a teacher who writes about students. For me, the question is not whether you should or shouldn’t; I think that’s too categorical,” he says. “It’s about how you do it. And I try to be respectful and compassionate to those students, which is just a reflection of how I feel about them.”
The Kids goes from tackling the syllabus – “all summer term reading poems – / in the mud / of the words, wanting / the kids to hear what I heard – / pulling the poems apart, slapping / their parts on the blackboard ” – to his mispronunciation of Pepys, when teaching Restoration comedies. “Although / I had seen his name, I had never heard it: Peppies, / I said it, Peppies, over and over, until / a girl spoke: You mean Pepys? she said she, / her voice tightened like a rope, as if I were the girl / and she the teacher.”
The collection also touches on motherhood (she has a young son, Rory) and her own days as an A-level student at Barking College in East London, “because I had such brilliant teaching at that age.”
Lowe has now returned to teaching, but this time in higher education, as a professor of creative writing at Brunel University London. “Poetry has a reputation for difficulty and elitism, and maybe it’s about the ways that poems should be taught in school. It’s not about teachers doing a bad job, it’s often about ‘poems by numbers’ or decoding the poems,” she says. She wrote The Kids, which the Costa judges said was “so direct you really feel like someone is talking to you,” for “all the students, all the students, all the kids. I wanted to write poems that extend a helping hand, that say, come with me. Let’s go. Let’s see what’s here.