Young Poets Network talks to prize-winning poet and judge of the National Poetry Competition 2017 Andrew McMillan about his upcoming collection playtime, the poets who inspire him, and the importance of diversity in poetry.
What was the first poem that you ever published about?
There used to be a magazine called Young Writer which was great – it would have different competitions, writing tips etc. – the Young Poets Network of its day, but not just for poetry. If they published a poem of yours, they’d send a very professional looking contract for you to sign, it was all very exciting. I think the first poem of mine they ever took, and the first one I ever really remember writing opened with the lines:
“my teacher has an alien
I’ve seen it once at school
my best friend thinks it’s horrible
but I think it’s rather cool”
physical is dedicated to your parents. What role did they play in your writing growing up – did they particularly encourage or inspire you to become a poet? Do you and your dad (poet Ian McMillan) edit each other’s work, share tips and poetry books now?
Like a lot of kids do, I wrote a lot for fun when I was growing up; my parents always encouraged me to do whatever it was I wanted to do, through my phases of wanting to be an actor, a politician – even a pretty fervent desire to be football referee at one point. Me and Dad talk a lot about poetry, but he reads the work when it’s finished.
You’ve often talked about Thom Gunn’s influence on your life, from the moment you first read him as a teenager. If you had to pick just one, which of his poems would you tell our young poets to go and read right now and what would you say to convince them?
Ooh good question; I’d say ‘The Missing’, because it does what all great literature, on some level, needs to do, which is to bear witness.
Which living poets inspire you most now?
I’m excited by the ways in which the long poem is returning, possibly as an antidote to the supposedly transient nature of our lives now: Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a remarkable debut collection which I’ve just been blown away by; Robin Robertson (my editor at Jonathan Cape) has just published The Long Take which pushes the boundaries of narrative long-form poetry; and Claudia Rankine’s work seems to suggest that the complex issues of our time need all the language they can get their hands on.
I have Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems by my bed, and every night before I go to sleep, I read two or three in the way one might read a passage from the Bible. My aim is always to look at the world more and more in the way that she does.
You wrote an essay on sexuality and the working class which recently appeared in Know Your Place, a crowd-funded essay collection about and by working class people. How do you think class has shaped you as a writer?
Class is an incredibly tangled thing; and it’s often much more about outward perceptions of you, rather than inward recognition – so we might not often, perhaps, identify as a certain class or with a group of people until we meet someone else who labels us as such. I’m thinking of two recent-ish moments: being at a house party and someone saying to me ‘I can tell by the way you speak, you haven’t had the easiest start in life’ (which isn’t at all true by the way), and being in the literary world, in the world of prizes and events, and having my book introduced as being about the wastelands of a northern town, as though it might take place in Chernobyl rather than Barnsley. In general, publishing needs to reckon with its problem with class – its accessibility around events and getting into the jobs etc. All national literary events should take place outside of London by 2020. That would be a great start I think.
You’ve just finished judging the National Poetry Competition 2017! What has most surprised you, and what has been most enjoyable about judging this huge competition?
It became oddly addictive, waking each morning, reading about 200 poems, before I had to get ready for the rest of the day – clutching sheets on the train, on the tram, in the office in brief pauses between meetings or classes. It’s great to see so many people writing great poetry, about a real range of subjects; I’m always reminded with things like this that people are drawn to write about things that, collectively as a species, we’re looking for answers to. So lots of poems about death, dementia – often perhaps the first poem that person has ever written, but they’ve been drawn to poetry as a way of expressing their feelings. We’ve ended up with a list of winners and commended poems that is incredibly varied and thrilling, and I hope when we announce the winners that people are as excited about them as we are!
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming collection playtime? Is it a re-examination of or a departure from the themes, forms and voices in physical?
playtime focuses, in its first half at least, on childhood and early adolescence, so there are lots of poems about ways in which we might come to terms with our own bodies, with who we are, and how we might grow into our sexual selves. In many ways I’m still interested in the body, masculinity and sexuality, as I was in physical, but I’ve gone (hopefully) deeper. It feels like a more expansive book, and it feels like a much better book (whether other people will think so is for them to decide). It’s a lot more explicit and exposing than the first book; people tended to think physical had a lot of sex in it but it didn’t really, it’s just that it had a bum on the cover. playtime is pushing that envelope more I think.
physical has been translated into several languages. Were you very involved in the translation process? What was that like?
It’s been a thrilling thing. When you’re first writing poems you never really imagine anyone will read them, let alone that the words will travel into other countries. It’s a process that one is removed from in a way: the foreign publisher buys the rights from my publisher, assigns someone to translate it, and then I tend to jump in when they have specific questions about a line, or when a word is ambiguously translated and has more than one meaning. It’s always a real honour; the Norwegian translation came out last year, this year it’ll be the French one, with a couple more in the pipeline as well hopefully.
You’re currently teaching Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University. What do you think is the best piece of advice that you give the young people you teach?
I think showing them what contemporary poetry is now, in all its different modes and guises; showing them that perhaps what they’ve already studied is just a fraction of its potential, and that everything we’re showing them, even if it was published last week, is already a historical document. It’s their job, as a new generation, to once more re-invent the form.
February is LGBT History Month in the UK. You recently wrote an essay about Section 28, which prohibited UK schools from teaching about LGBT people and sex education. How important has poetry (writing and reading it) been for you in your own journey?
It’s always important for anyone to see their own stories (or potential stories) reflected back to them, which is why diversity of all kinds is so important in terms of the representation of stories we are given. Reading Gunn, Doty, the novelists Tom Spanbauer, Edmund White, showed me these glimpses of a world I think I’ve been chasing ever since, which possibly doesn’t really exist anymore.
Poetry still occupies a very high place within our culture. People who don’t engage with poetry at all might want a poem read out at a funeral or a wedding, because they see it as worthy of an important moment. So if someone can see their life as worthy of being in a poem, or worthy of writing about, that can be an incredibly empowering experience.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988; his debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). It was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. Most recently physical has been translated into Norwegian (Aschehoug, 2017) and a bi-lingual French edition, Les Corps Des Hommes(Grasset, 2018). His second collection, playtime, will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2018. He is senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School at MMU and lives in Manchester.