Poetry News

Sarah Howe Confides in Best American Poetry

By Harriet Staff


T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Sarah Howe is a guest author at the Best American Poetry blog. Not only does she start her blog entry with a quote from Denise Riley, one of our favorites, she also writes very beautifully about her childhood and her writing practice. More:

This Easter I spent five weeks or so living and writing in Hong Kong. It was only the third time I had been back since my family left for England in 1991, when I was almost eight. That childhood migration didn’t surprise me or, I think, my Chinese mother (though my little brother was tearful for days after it was announced, believing he would have to leave all his toys behind). My father had swapped East London for the Far East thirty years earlier, but had always encouraged us to think of England – a country we had scarcely visited – as ‘home’. I had it marked with a toothpick Union Jack on the world map in my childhood bedroom. But two decades later, it was Hong Kong that had come to feel for me like a place in the imagination.

People often ask me how much I can remember of it – and the answer is, surprisingly, a lot. But of course they’re a small child’s memories. The yellow-crested cranes in the enclosure at the park. The banyans hung with fishing-line hairs that sentried my walk down the hill to the school bus. The neon-silver vista of the skyscrapered harbour, peered at through the kumquat trees that lined our living room window. But I had no residual sense of the island’s geography, of how those memories would relate to each other plotted on a map. So this year, in what turned out to be an unusually wet and sultry April even by Hong Kong standards, I went on long walks, trying to knit together the places I could remember, or at least could remember being told about – sometimes a bit of both.

My hope was that all this would seed new poems, but what I didn’t expect was the unintended fact checking of older poems I fell into. Unintended, because it hadn’t really occurred to me I might have got things wrong – or that it would matter if I had – in the handful of poems about Hong Kong I’d already written over the past few years. One long poem, ‘A loop of jade’, which interleaves my early memories with my mother’s childhood in ’50s Hong Kong, proved especially problematic. Some errors were simply factual – retelling a Chinese fable, and embroidering one particular scene, I’d placed the draped bride at the ‘head’ of her wedding procession rather than in its midst. If I hadn’t stumbled on a traditional bridal sedan (plus explanatory plaque) in the history museum, I would still be oblivious of that modest howler. With its smoothed dark wood carry-poles, it looked much too small to fit a person inside.

Continue at Best American Poetry.

Originally Published: February 9th, 2016