01 February 2022

Former University of East London MA student Hannah Lowe has won one of the most prestigious awards in the literary calendar, securing the Costa Book of the Year award for her sonnets, inspired in part by her time studying in East London.

Dr Lowe had already beaten a strong field to come top in the poetry category of the 2021 Costa Book Awards with her collection The Kids and has now secured the £30,000 top prize which recognises "the most outstanding books of the year".

Talking to UEL, she said, "I very much didn't expect to win. It's wonderful to have the recognition and to know that the book will find its way to more readers – especially because it's about education, which everyone has experience of."

The 45-year-old began to write the poems which became a collection of 66 sonnets in 2016. They are drawn from her experiences of teaching and studying at various institutions in East London, including at UEL where she studied for an MA in Refugee Studies in the School of Education and Communities.

"The poems are informed by my education at all stages," she said. "There's one poem in The Kids - Sonnet for Noah - that I wrote about my time studying at UEL."

Reflecting on her time at the University, she said she recalled the excellent teaching and "an inspiring student body comprised of refugee/asylum seekers and those that worked in the field".

She added, "The classroom is really like a microcosm of the world, the poems are about facets of lived experience."

Copy of poem

Although always interested in writing, Dr Lowe started entertaining ideas around poetry in her late 20s.

"I always liked rhyme and rhythm, the latter probably from learning to play music - the piano predominantly," she said. "But I didn't start writing poetry until I was in my late 20s, and I wouldn't say I had a gift for it then. It took many bad poems, a lot of poetry classes and workshops!"

Dr Lowe took four years to compile The Kids, with each of the 66 poems in the collection painstakingly shaped, honed and crafted. She was driven to complete the task by a desire to not only share her voice with others but to also understand her own viewpoint of the world.

"I needed the space, the time to reflect back on how studying and teaching had shaped my thinking," she said. "The political, personal and, particularly, about multicultural London, and the legacies of the empire that are still so alive in the education system."

Now a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Brunel University, Dr Lowe hopes that winning the coveted prize will introduce new audiences to her work while playing a role in demystify the often-perceived challenging at form.

She said, "Many pupils leave school with the idea that poetry is difficult and that poems are like codes that need to be broken. One way into a poem is through reading it aloud, not just once, but many times, so that it becomes embodied, and perhaps so people can take ownership of the poem - by hearing it in their own voice. That's how I would encourage people to read the poems in The Kids.

"Poetry is important in so many ways - not least that it tries to distil something about the human condition or experience from the raw material of life. It can both interrogate and testify to experience, whether they be specific or universal or both - and it's a wonderful thing to hear a good poem read aloud."

The University of East London offers a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the School of Arts and Creative Industries. To find our more, visit the course web page.

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