We're beyond thrilled to have the award-winning poet, memoirist and academic Hannah Lowe as our Patron of Writing. Hannah discovered Writing Room as a busy poet and working mother with lots of pressure on her time. Jehane Markham’s six-week, day-time poetry course proved a great way to focus and generate wonderful new material. As our Patron of Writing, Hannah champions Writing Room’s inclusive stance as ‘a welcoming online home for all creative writers’.
Author photograph by Lealle Brady
“I’m delighted to be Patron of Writing at Writing Room, an organisation that welcomes all creative writers at all levels, offering courses across a range of genres as well as mentoring and supportive
workshops on developing your practice.
It's a wonderfully inclusive space, making writing workshops and teaching available and accessible to all through bursaries and its dedication to inclusive practice and engaging writers with diverse
Since 2013 Writing Room has been on an exciting journey, developing and widening its offer across the sector. I’m so glad it was there for me when I needed space and support to write and I’m excited to be on board for the next chapter of this wonderful organisation’s development.”
Hannah Lowe is a poet, memoirist and academic. Her latest book, The Kids, a Poetry Book Society ‘Choice’ for Autumn, won the Costa Poetry Award and the Costa Book of the Year, 2021, and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her first poetry collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award for Best First Collection. In September 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation poets. Her family memoir Long Time, No See (Periscope, 2015) featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Hannah undertook her AHRC-funded PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and now lectures in Creative Writing at Brunel University.
In Conversation with Hannah Lowe
Alison Chandler: Thank you so much for chatting to us today, Hannah. You know how delighted we are to have you on board as our Patron of Writing because we haven’t stopped talking about it since! It’s especially satisfying as you and I actually met on a Writing Room poetry course taught by Jehane Markham, back in 2016, just as your second full length collection Chan was launching.
We’re so grateful that you’re bringing your perspective as both a writer and a teacher to Writing Room – thinking about the ways in which creative writing is taught and explored is a big focus for us.
So, first question…
AC: We know you’re a fan of writing courses and have been known to take one or two yourself (see above!) What makes them such a good idea?
Hannah Lowe: Writing courses were integral to my development as a writer. I started writing because I'd read some contemporary poetry, but it was really through writing courses that I became familiar with the whole contemporary poetry scene. I took back-to-back courses for three or four years. It's amazing how much brilliant tuition, from a wide array of tutors, is available through adult education. There was also a wonderful sense of community at the writing classes I took. I didn't know many creative people, let alone poets, and I made many friends through taking classes. These courses offered me invaluable feedback on my writing as I developed. I also believe that giving feedback and listening to the feedback of others is crucial in learning about your craft.
AC: What’s the best thing you’ve ever taken away from a writing course?
HL: I found mentors through taking writing courses - writers who taught the courses and then helped me develop my work over a longer period. One of these is Mimi Khalvati, who is still my mentor now so perhaps she is the best thing I took away from a writing course!
AC: You have a wealth of experience of teaching both in schools and higher education. What has it taught you?
HL: One of the main things I've learned is that empathy is critical in developing a good teacher-student relationship. As a teacher, you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your students and understand what they want from their learning experience, what difficulties they might face, and the best way to overcome these. I certainly didn't always get it right, but I definitely had empathy with my students. So on a rainy afternoon when it was getting dark outside and we were lumbering through a big thick novel, I understood why they looked bored or restless. I'm not saying that I had the solutions, but one of the things I found to be effective, and still do, is telling the students what is the profit and purpose of the task. And also, from the offset, telling them what we're going to do, what to expect, from this hour or two hours we’re about to spend together
AC: What are you most proud of in your writing and teaching career to date?
HL: Well, I think it has to be my last poetry collection The Kids. When I was a teacher at the sixth form I had absolutely no idea that one day I would go on to write about my experiences. I didn't always find that job easy, and my life outside the classroom wasn't always easy either. So to have written a book, to have made art out of those experiences, and for that book to have connected with so many readers, makes me very proud.
AC: Our creative writing courses are all about giving writers the tools to write the books they want to write, and we’ve always said we are as interested in the writer as the writing. In terms of creative writing, what do you think can actually be taught?
HL: Lots of things can be taught through creative writing classes, although I think an awful lot could also be learnt just through the act of reading. If a burgeoning writer is really committed to their craft and curious in their reading, they will be learning how to write by looking at how others have done it. But courses do more than this - often the tutor will share their own experience of using a certain element of craft or how they discovered something in their reading and then repurposed in their writing. And tutors often set writing exercises in class, which I’ve always found to be very generating. It's a form of constraint in a way - the writer wouldn't have written what they wrote in that 15-minute timed exercise had the exercise not been set. There’s both a challenge (do this…) and limitation (in 10 minutes!), and this often produces very interesting work. Some people don’t like writing exercises and struggle to write anything coherent in a set time, but they might well find an idea for an image from the exercise that they wouldn’t have necessarily found otherwise.
AC: Who are your writing inspirations and why?
HL: My inspirations started with black American women writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, whose work I studied at university, and later taught. In terms of poetry, the first poet that I really fell in love with was Philip Levine, the American poet who writes about immigrant communities in Detroit and working-class experiences. Levine’s work offered me tangential possibility to do similar things, in writing about my own upbringing with an immigrant father in a working-class community. Levine writes with this great fluidity and uses these long rolling narrative verses - I definitely tried to emulate his style when I was first writing. It feels strange I've ended up writing so many sonnets since then!
AC: What do you do when you feel stuck with your writing?
HL: I try not to beat myself up if I'm not writing as much as I'd like to. I don't have any regular routines, unlike some writers who write in journals every day for example. I write when I can and when I have an idea. Reading poetry often helps me want to write, and I've come to trust in that process. Other times I need a change of scene - even going to a café or for a walk can help. I don't think we can constantly generate creative work. We also have to take in creativity, whether that’s through cinema, art, theatre - so if I’m stuck I’ll often look outwards to other forms of creative expression. But broadly, I try not to worry about it.
AC: Thank you so much, Hannah, for your thoughtful answers. It feels like I should ask you about a luxury now, but maybe that can wait until you get the Desert Island Discs call!
Good luck with your work in progress and thank you again for inspiring all of us at Writing Room and beyond.