Prize winning poet, John McCullough, speaks with Angela Dye

Angela Dye in conversation with Polari First Book Prize winner and Costa nominee, John McCullough.

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John McCullough’s first collection of poems, The Frost Fairs, won the Polari First Book Prize, and was a Book of the Year for The Independent, as well as a Summer Read in The Observer. His 2016 collection,Spacecraft, published by Penned in the Margins was named as one of The Guardian’s best books for Summer and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize. His most recent poetry collection,Reckless Paper Birds, published by Penned in the Margins in 2019 was shortlisted for The Costa Book Awards. John teaches creative writing at The Open University and the University of Brighton.

Angela: Hello John. How did you ‘become’ a poet?

John: I started writing in 1995 (yes, in the womb). Like most new writers there was a strong autobiographical element to my early work, a firm focus on self-expression. As with many teenagers I was also filled with conflict and felt hugely alone. For the first few years, my poetry was quite violent and often focussed on death and solitude. Looking back, I find it very melodramatic. (I was a Goth which probably didn’t help.)

Angela: What has been the most pivotal moment in your writing life?

John: Winning the Polari First Book Prize in 2012. It was completely unexpected and led to lots of newspaper coverage and reviews. Doors opened after that, though being a writer always involves putting in a lot of hours editing. 

Angela: What is your greatest writing achievement? 

John: Although it’s lovely to win prizes and be shortlisted for things like the Costa, the most amazing feeling is when someone I’ve had no previous interaction with sends a message to tell me how a book of mine has made an impact on their life. Just connecting with another human being at a really intimate level is so special. Most writers are introverted and socially awkward. (There is nothing worse than a party full of only poets. Even the wallpaper wants to leave.) It comes with the territory that folk like me spend a lot of time locked in our own heads, imagining worlds then editing language. When a stranger says my work has moved them to tears or helped them achieve change in some small way it makes me feel fantastically linked up to the realm of other people again: I’ve managed to send a deep message from a tiny place inside my private skin suit to a tiny place inside someone else’s! Magic.

Angela: Your books are kaleidoscopic, swirling with images, such as a giant tongue- where does it all come from? 

John: Many different places. I read a lot of collections of facts and strange trivia and am always combing the internet for unusual photographs, objects and animals. Most often, the weird metaphors stem from me happening to bang together two words that don’t normally appear next to each other and noticing that they spark. A great part of my writing is investigation: I tend to start out with images I find arresting without quite knowing what they mean. I unfold their significance slowly, over many drafts.

Angela: Which poets dead or alive inspire you and why?

John: Among those no longer with us, I’d have to include Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, Lee Harwood, Rosemary Tonks and Emily Dickinson. A great many living poets electrify me too: Anne Carson, August Kleinzahler, Gerald Stern, D.A. Powell and Alice Oswald are among them. I like mavericks, writers with passionate imaginations who aren’t afraid to be wildly different, to build their own road. 

Angela: As an academic you give lots of advice but if you could only offer one poetic pearl of wisdom what would it be? 

John: Read more contemporary poets. I give feedback on many student poems every year and I also judge numerous competitions. The most common problem is an over-reliance on self-expression and what’s cathartic for the writer but unlikely to draw in an outside reader. Very often there is a lack of awareness of how to use techniques and structure to engage someone who’s never met you which doesn’t usually happen if, for instance, you just name a feeling you’ve experienced lately and the first phrases that come to mind, without shaping the language. Reading a variety of modern poets in depth isn’t something to do just to display appreciation. It’s vital because it makes you learn lots of disparate ways of handling words so you have a really broad array of tools to help you solve the sundry problems that come up when writing a poem.

Angela: How are your poems born?

John: This varies quite a lot for me. As I say, sometimes a piece can be sparked by a musical phrase – a collision of two words or ideas that aren’t normally combined.  A string of language floats into my ear when I’m least expecting it and I spend time investigating the weird universe it seems to suggest (one poem of mine literally came from the phrase ‘a church of rain’). On other occasions, poems have come from reading a non-fiction book or magazine and saying ‘what if’. And I like to write in all kinds of places rather than just at home. If I can, I will always try to make notes in the location I’m writing about or in front of an object that features in the poem. I like to get up close, sense my own vulnerability. (At least that’s my excuse when someone asks me why I’m scribbling manically underneath a railway bridge or at a goat farm.)

Angela: Reckless paper birds is quite experimental in form, how has your style developed across books?

John: Each book is a departure from what I’ve done before. My first, The Frost Fairs focussed quite a lot on queer history, mostly with a crisp, careful style and neat structures like tercets and the sonnet. With Spacecraft, I tried to break that open and play around with very free verse that employs spacing and the white silence of the page in ways that suggest the effects of loss and absence. Reckless Paper Birds continues that boldness in terms of form but it’s a much more energetic and political book than the first two. The style is more passionate as it revolves around vulnerability. The phrase-making is often raw and spiritual, exploring dark corners of mental health and queer experiences but ultimately aiming to be uplifting and friendly, a book you could turn to when you need a boost.  

Angela: How do you create a book? Do you have a central concept, a through line, an idea you wish to explore, or is it a random collection that you piece together and then establish a through line?

John: Yes. The biggest difference between now and my first collection is that I usually write individual pieces with a specific book in mind. There tend to be one or two miscellaneous pieces between collections but fairly quickly I concentrate on crystallizing the identity of the next book and direct my energies to completing it rather than just writing anything I fancy.

Angela: Do you have a favourite poem of yours and why? 

John: It changes all the time. In Reckless Paper Birds, it’s ‘Stationery’ because that’s a love poem to my partner which captures quite a lot of my personality. I’m pleased with ‘Strange Stories and Outlandish Facts’ for similar reasons. (In terms of earlier books, I’m still especially fond of ‘!’, ‘I’ve Carried a Door On My Back for Ten Years’ and ‘The Other Side of Winter’ too.)

Angela: What do you think the role of the poet is: prophet, social commentator, catalyst for change, protester, dreamer, other? 

John: I think the poet can be all these things as well as many others. The kind of poetry I’m most interested in tends to be not only political but about evoking feelings like loss or discovering something of the wonder and mystery of the world. I believe poetry should surprise you and make you see something afresh. That or make you snort with laughter. Maybe both. People don’t expect modern poetry to be humorous but that’s always been part of what I do.

 Angela: Which five words describe you best?

John: Energetic, curious, tracksuited, hopeful, incompetent.

Angela: Which five words describe your writing best? 

John: Surreal, emotional, political, humane, bouncy.

Angela: What is next on your horizon?

John: I’m about 70% of the way through the first draft of the manuscript for my fourth collection of poems so finishing that is my main goal for this year.

Angela: Where can people find out more about you/ buy your books?

John: People can buy my Costa-shortlisted collection Reckless Paper Birds from my publisher Penned in the Margins – www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk. My books are also available from the usual places online like Amazon, Waterstones website etc. My own website is www.johnmccullough.co.uk.

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