In this installment of Lyric Essentials, we have the pleasure of welcoming poet celeste doaks to the series. celeste reads two poems by British poet Hannah Lowe, “Dance Class” and “B-Boy Summer,” and shares her insights about how these poems help “excavate” childhood moments and how diving into these everyday moments can help us grow. celeste tells us why she is drawn to Hannah’s poetry and why she believes other readers relate to it as well. Thank you very much, celeste, and as always, thank you to our readers for supporting this series!
(Editorial note: celeste prefers her name stylized lowercase.)
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these poems for Lyric Essentials?
celeste doaks: While there are many poems I could’ve chosen by Hannah Lowe for this series, these two stood out to me both as metaphorical and aural gems. Often, I think when the literary world views work that’s simple, they tend to overlook it or think of the work as simplistic, reductive. Especially when it comes to narrative poems. However, Hannah’s work has internal rhymes that are working on a complex level. She is attentive to sound and how that governs a poem’s internal structure. And lastly, I wanted to share her wonderful work with an American audience who may have never heard of her. When I met her on my UK book tour, I found her to be delightful—both on the page and in person.
celeste doaks reads “Dance Class” by Hannah Lowe
RS: What are some of your favorite lines or phrases from these poems?
cd: One of my favorite lines in “Dance Class” describes who I assume is the dance instructor: “And Betty Finch … / swept her wooden cane along the rows.” This line is such a strong image, but also the wooden cane seems to clank against the floors as she moves along each row. I can almost hear it! And when a visual can conjure sound, I think this is when you know a poet has been successful in their conceit. In “B-Boy Summer,” the descriptions are razor-sharp.
When the narrator talks of “caps and shell-toe trainers” or “baggy jeans and neon laces,” I get an instant visual that ironically matches the hip hop uniforms that black boys also donned in the Midwest. “Loaded / with desire to be a boy” is just so psychically heavy for me. The use of “loaded” made me think of weapons, but also connotes a general heaviness which is in tension with the childhood admiration here. I also love how this poem is loaded with muscular verbs like “rocked,” “springing,” and “fling.” Those words come alive all by themselves. And the poem’s magnificent return to itself starting with the early line of “Beautiful boys / in the flower garden rocked to the noise” to the penultimate line of “loving boys who never saw me / in the silent garden” was perfect.
celeste doaks reads “B-Boy Summer” by Hannah Lowe
RS: What do you admire about Hannah Lowe’s work in general?
cd: Hannah’s work is very much about memory and childhood, intersecting with race, gender, and class. This resonates with me and my work. Her poems also take time to investigate the everyday, minutiae that makes up our lives. That’s what Neruda did and therefore elevated the mundane to a kind of holy status. By examining our childhoods as adults, we have a chance to return to various sites of embarrassment, excitement, and awkwardness.
Humans can truly begin to evolve by fleshing out these moments. So honestly, one of the reasons I love Hannah’s first book Chick is because it echoes many of the themes in my first book Cornrows and Cornfields. My poems take a trip backward to excavate and sometimes reinvent, those memories. Many of my favorite female contemporary poets such as Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, and Dorianne Laux have done the same in some of their early poems. I think it was Cicero who said, “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” I truly believe that and enjoy poets who at one point see childhood as a foundational site for memories.
RS: As I read them, both of these poems tell us about the speaker’s feeling of difference from the people around her and her desire to belong in those worlds where she feels like an outsider. I think poetry can be a powerful way to bring feelings and situations like these to light. What’s your reaction to those themes within these poems — do you think Lowe is successful in conveying them? What effect do they have on the reader?
cd: It’s funny you used the word “difference” here. Hannah Lowe is a mixed-race British woman who had a Chinese-Jamaican father and an English mother. It might seem to readers that the two of us are as diametrically opposed as Superman and Kryptonite; however, those differences are exactly why I’m drawn to her. As a black female in America, I can see my otherness in her otherness. However, there are also moments in which Hannah’s work transcends race, gender, and class constructs. When Hannah’s narrator says, “but I was never a B-Girl, just a body / growing,” I recall my girlhood growing up around men and boys and wanting to possess some of that authority in the world.
As a young black girl growing up in the Midwest, I also craved that equality and freedom (that Hannah wants) without fear of physical danger or societal scrutiny. Even though this poem is very gendered, I know every human can remember a moment when they wanted to be a cool “insider.”
Poetry can indeed become a way to translate and transcend your own helpless moment. I live for poetry like this. And of course, I think Hannah’s successful in her attempts, but I’m clearly biased! Hannah can suspend a moment in time the same way Gwendolyn Brooks does when she talks of “And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall” in her poem “kitchenette building.” I believe every reader enjoys being drawn into new worlds that have a “familiar” feeling or reading experiences that they can map their own perspectives onto.
Hannah Lowe’s first poetry collection Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013) won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award for Best First Collection and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. In September 2014, she was named as one of 20 Next Generation poets. She has also published three chapbooks: The Hitcher (Rialto, 2012); R x (sine wave peak, 2013); and Ormonde (Hercules Editions, 2014). Her family memoir, Long Time, No See, was published by Periscope in July 2015 and featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Her second collection, Chan, was published by Bloodaxe (2016). A new chapbook, The Neighbourhood, was published in January 2019 (Outspoken Press). She has been Poet-in-Residence at Keats House and a commissioned writer on the Colonial Countryside project with the University of Leicester and Peepal Tree Press.
Poet and journalist celeste doaks is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields (Wrecking Ball Press, UK, 2015). She is also the editor of, and contributor in, the poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy, and Sexuality (Mason Jar Press, 2017). Her chapbook, American Herstory, was Backbone Press’s first runner-up prize winner and will be published late Summer 2019. Her journalism has appeared in Huffington Post, Village Voice, Time Out New York, and QBR (Quarterly Black Book Review). She is Pushcart Prize nominee and her poems have been published in multiple online and print publications such as The Rumpus, Chicago Quarterly Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Baltimore Magazine, Bayou Magazine, and others. In the fall of 2017, she was the recipient of a Rubys Literary Arts Grant. Doaks is the University of Delaware’s Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing for 2017-2020. In her very spare time, she enjoys co-hosting the literary podcast Lit!Pop!Bang!
Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.