Costa winner Hannah Lowe: ‘Should teachers write about students? That question’s too categorical’ | Books

2021 Costa Book of the Year: The Kids by Hannah Lowe

Many writers have dreamed since childhood of being published. Not Hannah Lowe, who has 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-formers that her interest in writing poetry was piqued.

“I started writing quite late,” says the 45-year-old poet, speaking from her kitchen in north London after a late night celebrating her win. “I was trying to enthuse my students with an anthology of 1,000 years of English poetry, and that, along with an anthology of contemporary poetry my mum bought me, Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive, just spoke to me. I started writing in secret.”

It took her a couple of years before she enrolled at a poetry workshop; her first collection, Chick, explores the world of her father, a Jamaican-Chinese migrant. The Kids, her third collection, is “a book to fall in love with”, according to the judges, who chose it as winner of the prestigious £30,000 Costa book of the year award on Tuesday. “It’s joyous, it’s warm and it’s completely universal,” they said.

Lowe began writing the book of sonnets in 2016, four years after she left a 12-year teaching career, “because I was just really aware of how profoundly those years shaped my thinking”.

2021 Costa Book of the Year: The Kids by Hannah Lowe
2021 Costa book of the year: The Kids by Hannah Lowe. Photograph: Costa Book of the Year/PA

“I was trying to destabilise that relationship between the teacher and student – the idea of the teacher being 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 also, I didn’t have any knowledge to impart, I had a degree in American literature and I’d done a completely radical curriculum. So when I was having to teach things like the Restoration, I was learning them the week before, sometimes the night before I was teaching them.”

Lowe writes sonnets about students – “Monique – / kiss-curls and diamanté nails, Queen Bee / who fixed me with a fuck you stare”; and Janine, who “was a Monday-morning-queasy-feeling” until “somebody / said the thing – and finally bought ease: / my dad was half Jamaican, half Chinese”.

In Boy, Lowe ventures into even more delicate territory, writing of a fictionalised pupil, “half-boy, / half-man”.

“He’d catch my eye across the packed canteen / and hold me there – half-bold, half-clandestine” she writes. “Or else I’d watch him from the mezzanine – / he’d raise a hand and wave a little joy / into my day, ignite a little flame … I didn’t even know his name.”

The poem is paired with another about the film Notes on a Scandal, which she took her class to see – without quite realising it included a teacher-pupil relationship. “My boys careen / around me, play confused. Why that film, Miss? / They’re cocky, amused. But, Miss, do you want us?

“I suppose I was trying to capture a very singular experience, it certainly wasn’t commonplace in my career. I was very young when I started teaching and my students were young, too – you put a load of people in a building together, you might find rare moments of attraction,” Lowe explains.

“But,” she adds, “No lines were crossed, no code broken. Work asks us to conform, in all of our professions, to certain rules and regulations. But that doesn’t mean that private thoughts don’t bubble to the surface.”

She adds that, as in her other sonnets, the scenario is a piece of fiction. “So much of it is made up. That boy never waved at me: it’s fiction. The only thing that is true is there was a very beautiful boy at the sixth form, who I noticed, and I saw him seven years later, and out of that I’ve spun a poem.”

As another poet and teacher, Kate Clanchy, faces widespread criticism for her depictions of former students in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Lowe is clear that her sonnets feature “fictionalised portraits, and conflations of students into one”.

“There’s loads of anonymising, obviously, of names, and there’s also fictionalising going on,” she says. “And poetry doesn’t have the same autobiographical pact that memoir does, this agreement between the writer and the reader that what you’re saying is true, as far as you can remember it. Poetry is very much more in the territory of fiction, even though readers might be invested in the book as being true.”

Having written a memoir about her father and about the Chinese-Caribbean community, she has “a solid grounding in some of the ethical concerns that exist in creative writing”, she adds.

“This book, it does inevitably invoke a power dynamic, right? Because I’m a teacher writing about students. To me, the question is not about whether you should or you shouldn’t; I think that’s too categorical,” she says. “It’s about how you do it. And I try to be respectful and compassionate towards those students, which is just a reflection of how I felt about them.”

The Kids moves from tackling the syllabus – “all summer term reading poems – / down in the mud / of words, wanting / the kids to hear what I heard – / breaking the poems apart, slapping / their parts to the board” – to her mispronunciation of Pepys, when teaching Restoration comedies. “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? she said, / her voice pulled taut as a noose, as if I were the girl / and she the teacher.”

The collection also tackles 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 myself at that age”.

Lowe has now returned to teaching, but this time in further education, as a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University, London. “Poetry has a reputation for difficulty, and for elitism, and perhaps it’s about the ways in which poems have to be taught in school. It’s not teachers doing a bad job, it’s often slightly ‘poems by numbers’, or decoding the poems,” she says. She wrote The Kids – which Costa judges said was “so direct that actually you feel that you’re being talked to by somebody” – for “all learners, all students, all the kids. I wanted to write poems that reach out a friendly hand, that say, come with me. Let’s go. Let’s see what’s here.”