‘In trying to enthuse the students, I definitely enthused myself’

The recipient of the Costa book of the year for The Kids, Hannah Lowe may have just about achieved her goal, learns Anna Lamche

Thursday, 10th February — By Anna Lamche

Hannah Lowe

Hannah Lowe

TRACKING down a physical copy of Hannah Lowe’s The Kids has been difficult since the poet won the Costa Book Award last week, a fact she attributes more to a “national shortage of paper” than to her publisher’s surprise at her unexpected win.

Hannah won the prestigious prize last Tuesday for her book of sonnets, a beautiful and haunting ode to teaching and childhood. Her collection reflects on the junctures between education and the superstructures of history, class and race – the result is a tightly rendered meditation on human experience, spanning birth to death and grief to laughter, often within a matter of lines.

At the centre of these poems are the students she taught at City and Islington College between 2002 and 2012 – students like “Deniz, Tyrone, Alicia, Chantelle” – although later sections of the book expand to deal with her own childhood and that of her son, Rory.
The poems, Hannah says, were not penned while she was teaching.

“They were written from memory much later on – I left the sixth form in 2012. I always had the idea I might write a novel, but what happened is I was teaching poetry, and in trying to enthuse the students, I definitely enthused myself. I only started writing in any serious way in 2009,” she said.

Swinging rapidly between the silly and the profound, Hannah’s poetic voice has a compassionate, childish quality – throughout, she refuses to act the grown-up. This compassion underwrites her encounters with her students, and instead of demonising the difficult kids, the poet recognises in them parts of her younger self.

“I have always thought that empathy is the most critical quality you can have as a teacher,” Hannah said. “Can you put yourself in your student’s shoes, into their political and material realities? It’s about: how can I make this interesting to them so they can see the profit in learning, and teaching from that place – rather than the curriculum.

“I felt an enormous amount for those kids, they had very varied and diverse experiences,” she added. “Speaking to some of them, you realised what a different life they were living. How do you talk about that without reproducing those structures of power?” Hannah asked.

Born to a “half Jamaican, half Chinese” father, Hannah’s own experience – she recalls being called “white wog” at school in one poem – allows her to relate to the alienation of her own black and diasporan students in the wake of the 7/7 bombings and beyond. The Kids continually demands we consider “the stakes when teachers rarely look like those/they teach”.

At moments, the poems are prickly with grief for the father she lost, whose death serves as the impetus for her teaching career, along with her mother, who suffers a stroke, the break-up of her relationships, and the “unretained” students she couldn’t get through to.

But grappling with these feelings still leaves room for humour. The sonnets are also packed with jokes – often at Hannah’s own expense. One poem, Pepys, recounts her mispronunciation of the diarist’s name: “though/ I’d seen his name, I’d never heard it – Peppies,/ I said it, Peppies, over and over, until/ one girl spoke up: Do you mean Pepys?”

“It’s meant to be funny, this book,” Hannah said. “I suppose because I’m a very honest person, I had no issue with sending myself up – so many funny things happened to me teaching.”

This being said, The Kids should not be mistaken for memoir. “I used anonymising, I didn’t want the kids to recognise themselves,” she said.

Some critics have zoned in on the poems dealing with the sexual politics of teaching, like Boy, in which Hannah bumps into a student “seven summers later” with whom she shared “half-bold, half-clandestine” glances while at school. “I think the media fixation on that poem does disservice to the book’s broader themes of class and race,” she said. “It’s a constant negotiation between memory – and mine is pretty fallible – and the formal requirements of the sonnet. The little details are often there for the metre, not the truth,” she said.

In one poem, Dear Professor, a younger Hannah describes her university tutor’s life as the summit of human achievement: “to have a brain and use it, to be paid to think”. The Kids has just won Hannah £30,000 – has she finally achieved her goal? “I guess so,” she said. “No one is more surprised by that than me – I am paid to think.”

The Kids. By Hannah Lowe, Bloodaxe, £10.99

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