Forward prize-shortlisted poet Hannah Lowe offers her top tips to young poetry writers.
Hannah Lowe (born 1976) is a British writer, known for her collection of poetry Chick (2013) and family memoir Long Time, No See (2015).
Lowe was born in Ilford, Essex, in 1976. She taught English, and went on to teach Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. She began writing poetry at the age of 29 after her Jamaican-Chinese father died and her English mother had a stroke.
Following a suggestion by John Glenday at a course in 2010, she began to write about her father and this formed her debut collection Chick (Bloodaxe Books, 2013). This work was shortlisted for the Forward and Fenton Adelburgh First Collection Prizes. In September 2014, the Poetry Book Society included Lowe in its list of Next Generation Poets, published each decade.
Lowe’s family memoir Long Time, No See was published by Periscope in July 2015 and was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Lowe cites Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Sexton, and Mark Doty as influences for her work.
Hanna offers the following tips to novice writers who are starting out on their poetic journey.
Read lots of different poems, from books at school, home, the library, bookshops, or poems you find online. The Poetry Library in London and the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh are great places to start. Look at their websites if you can’t visit them. Read poems for adults as well as for children. What do you like? What makes a good poem in your opinion? Read poems aloud so you can hear their sound effects and music. Learn a poem off by heart and see how you find reciting it from memory
To be a poet, you have to write poetry. This may sound obvious, but try to make writing your habit. This might be deciding to write a poem a week, or keeping a notebook where you scribble down ideas which are bolts from the blue, or things you see written on the wall, or snatches of overheard conversation – any of these might find their way into one of your poems.
3. What do you know?
Write about it! Many poets draw on their own life experience to write poems. Choose to write about your grandmother, your brother, a good friend, or the memory of a dramatic incident, or a place or an object you love.
4. What don’t you know?
Write about it! The imagination is a wonderful thing and it’s fine to allow yours free rein and write about whatever you want – a monster, or life on the bottom of the ocean, or what goes on in your strange neighbour’s house. Things you do know about may well slip into these sorts of poems. The important thing is to have fun with your writing
5. What can you see?
I often think of poetry as “painting with words” – the poet’s job is to show the reader the people, places and events of the poem. Even the feelings. Try to get the images you have in your mind down on paper. It’s not just the sense of sight that can work brilliantly in poems – think about including details of taste, touch, hearing and smell as well. Remember you don’t have to use flowery or special language – poetry can (and should) be written in every day language
6. Redraft, redraft and redraft again
Your first draft won’t be perfect – it’s better to write freely, without worrying about spelling or line length or getting exactly the right expression – these things can be worked on as you redraft. Many poets redraft tens of times, often cutting down or making small changes – expect to do the same. Poems can be very short but it often takes a long time to write a good short poem.
7. Read your poems aloud
One of the best ways of editing is to read aloud, listening to the sound and music of your poem. Does the rhythm sound right? Have you chosen exactly the words you want? Say your poems aloud when walking down the street, or in the bath, or whisper them before you go to sleep. Sometimes it’s easier to make the changes in your head, than on the paper. But make sure you remember what the changes are!
8. Use writing exercises
Sometimes you might be stuck for an idea for a poem. The mind is like an engine – sometimes it needs cranking up or stimulating to get it going. There’s plenty of writing poetry exercises on the internet (or your teachers may have ideas). Here’s one I learnt from the poet George Szirtes:
Follow these instructions:
• Choose a number between 1 and 20 (eg 15)
• Choose a number between 1 and 100 (eg 30)
• Choose a colour (eg purple), a mood (eg sad), a kind of weather (eg sunny), a place (eg the laundrette), an animal (eg a rat)
Now: The first number is the number of lines your poem should have. All the other choices have to be in the poem eg can you write a sad 15 line poem about a man who goes to the laundrette every day to avoid the rat in his flat? He’s washing 30 pairs of socks a week (some of them purple) to keep out of the house, all through summer. These might be the basic ingredients – where you go with it is up to you…
Try writing different sorts of poems – poems that rhyme (poems don’t have to rhyme), poems with very long lines or in tall narrow columns; try writing in traditional forms with rhyme schemes, or poems that are shaped to match their content (concrete poetry).
10. Enjoy, learn and share
It takes time to become a good poet. Don’t worry if your poems don’t turn out the way you want. Keep reading and writing. Enjoy the process of learning about poetry and, when you are ready, share what you’ve written. You might look for other poets, join a group, or even start your own.