John McCullough’s first collection of poems, The Frost Fairs, won the Polari First Book Prize, was a Book of the Year for The Independent and The Poetry School, and a summer read for The Observer. He teaches creative writing at the Open University and New Writing South. Eric Page pokes him with the annoying question stick.
What attracted you to poetry?
“My early work was autobiographical, a firm focus on self-expression. As a teenager in 1995 I was filled with conflict and felt hugely alone. My poetry was quite violent and focussed on death and solitude. Looking back, I find it’s melodramatic but I was a Goth.”
What motivated you to focus on a career in writing?
“Halfway through researching a PhD on friendship in English Renaissance writing, everything collapsed. I didn’t have the slightest enthusiasm for my plan of being an early modern academic. I realised that what set my heart racing wasn’t deconstructing other people’s poems but creating my own –moving a reader and giving the same rush I feel when I’m electrified by a great poem. I had to move toward what I was passionate about. The career path I took was less stable –working in bars and hustling for teaching contracts – but it worked out all right.”
How have you evolved as a writer?
“After a few years of floating about like a little thunder cloud, I began boring myself. I started looking outward and broadened my reading and lengthened my editing process. Swapping pieces with other writers for detailed feedback has always been crucial. Now I write individual pieces with a specific book in mind. I concentrate on forming the identity of the collection and direct my energies to completing it.”
Do you think poetry has a purpose?
“It has a range of purposes. The kind of poetry I’m interested in evokes feelings like loss, or capture something of the wonder and mystery of the world. Poetry should surprise and make you see something afresh, or make you snort with laughter. Maybe both – that’s always been part of what I do.”
“Connecting with other human beings at an intimate level. There is nothing worse than a party full of only poets. Even the wallpaper wants to leave. Writers are introverted. We spend a lot of time locked in our own heads, imagining worlds then editing language. When someone reads a book or a poem then messages me to say it moved them, helped them in some small way, it’s a fantastic feeling. I’ve managed to send a deep message from a tiny place inside my private skin suit. Magic!”
Why are you a poet?
“Because I’m no good at anything else. Seriously: embarrassingly crap at most things people earn a living from. On a visit to an estate agent’s, my partner pointed out that I’d spelled my own surname wrong. My. Own. Name. Olympic level incompetence.”
Do you have a particular process to write?
“A piece can be sparked by a musical phrase – a collision of two words that aren’t normally combined. A string of language floats into my ear and I spend time investigating the weird universe it seems to suggest (one poem of mine came from the phrase ‘a church of rain’). Poems have come from reading a magazine. I like to write in all kinds of places. I will always try to make notes in the location. I like to get up close, sense my own vulnerability. At least that’s my excuse when I’m scribbling manically underneath a railway bridge or at a goat farm.”
Who moves you to tears?
“Finding Nemo every time. And Tori Amos. In terms of poets, Thom Gunn and Lee Harwood.”
Where do you find your startling metaphors?
“They arrive from many places. With Reckless Paper Birds, from contemplating the emotional consequences that might be attached to strange pieces of trivia about wildlife, the human body and the world at large. Some metaphors start life as part of Facebook statuses. The fairy tale where five penises live together under a little blanket sprang from seeing a photograph of a granulated sea star!”
Any advice for young or new writers?
“The biggest tip is work on improving your use of technique. Think of it as a craft and put in the hours looking closely at how to employ the tools of your trade. In poetry, this involves learning many different ways of employing phrase-making, syntax, metaphors, line breaks etc and finding the most effective structure for each piece. You don’t need a creative writing degree but you do need to spend time getting to know the genre you work inside out, reading a great deal of what’s been published rather than just what you studied at school. It’s not about being a literature academic. It’s about your brain absorbing thousands of examples so it’s able to select from a range of approaches when it’s trying to solve each little problem you come up against. When you look at all the great writers like Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, they were voracious readers who had many influences and didn’t rely just on what was inside them. It’s vital to know what’s been done and what publishers want. Hunt out honest critical feedback too: everyone needs a lot of mistakes in order to develop. I certainly did! When a writer you trust reads your work carefully and suggests how it might be strengthened, don’t block your ears: absorb it and think about how you might refine your approach.”
What makes a good Queer poet?
“Taking risks, pushing against boundaries. And amazing stationery.”
How can people find your work?
“My latest poetry collection, Reckless Paper Birds, was shortlisted for the Costa. It explores queer life in Brighton with poems about homophobia, mental health and vulnerability as well as comical and love poems. Be warned – there are quite a few cat pics and strange facts. I posted about how every spider has 48 knees. This is why spider gangsters avoid knee-capping as a punishment. Just takes too long.”
more info or to buy John McCullough Reckless Paper Birds here. Published by Penned In The Margins
Facebook as John McCullough,
Twitter @JohnMcCullough_ (don’t forget the underscore)