John McCullough

john mccullough

John McCullough is an English poet. His poems have appeared in places including Poetry Review, London Magazine, The Guardian, and Poetry London.

His debut full-length collection The Frost Fairs was published by Salt in 2011 and won the Polari First Book Prize. His second collection Spacecraft was published last month by Penned in the Margins.

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Hi John. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection Spacecraft. Can you tell us a bit about it and, now that you’ve had time to live with the book, how do you think it compares with The Frost Fairs?

Thanks for having me! Spacecraft came about when I realized I’d written a number of poems that were in some way about absence and emptiness not as simple lacks but as strangely productive, almost magical forces. Something within me unlocked and the poems just kept arriving. I was overwhelmed by nothings.

Eventually I started focussing on the concept of crafting space more deliberately, thinking about how the pieces might work together. I was very aware of the way different poems talked to each other, presenting complementary or contrasting viewpoints.

I think this gives Spacecraft more of an overarching structure than The Frost Fairs, even though the settings for the poems are quite diverse. It probably helped that a large proportion of the book was written in one two year period, whereas The Frost Fairs gathered poems from across twelve years.

 

 

I understand you’ve had a few launch events in London, Brighton, and Oxford alongside Claire Trévien to promote the new book. How have you found these and is reading poetry to an audience something that you enjoy as much as the act of writing poetry?

I have very much enjoyed the launch events. I love the way the energy of a performance can help you break into the heads of people who aren’t familiar with your work. I’ve been testing out new poems on audiences for a couple of years to see which ones translate best into performance, which ones send out the best tentacles.

Though I compose aloud to judge the effects of sounds, there’s no substitute for having a group of actual humans in front of you, listening and watching and waiting. You have to hold their attention but simultaneously leave a gap for them to reflect and engage.

Many of the poems have quite unusual approaches to spacing and I like the challenge of trying to communicate some of that disruption through pauses, pacing and delivery.

 

 

The second section of Spacecraft contains a sequence dedicated to and inspired by your late partner. I’m curious if you felt any hesitation in including such personal poems in the book or do you think it’s the responsibility of poetry to tackle difficult subjects, even at the risk of exposing yourself to scrutiny in the process?

It was certainly new territory for me. I’m a writer who generally finds inspiration in sources outside myself. I tend to begin more often from an image, phrase or cityscape rather than a memory. A photo of a ping-pong tree sponge or an overheard phrase on the bus sets a series of questions in motion and I start investigating.

I’m not interested in poetry as a vehicle for self-expression. A degree of that happens automatically anyway, however hard you might try to prevent it. Even with the poems in that central sequence, though the freewrites I began with did have a cathartic element, I was always more concerned with shaping language to channel the electricity of feeling into someone else’s body.

The ‘I’ in each poem is never quite the same as me, even when the poem seems to try to convince the reader otherwise. I think in that sense it’s always the speaker under scrutiny, despite there being many links to my own life.

I agree that poetry should confront disturbing topics. The intensity generated by rhythm and compression makes it uniquely suited to that. And there’s no easy way around grief. It’s something which makes all kinds of people turn to poetry who wouldn’t normally.

I know I’ve benefited from other people’s poems when I’ve been in that state of mind, so I suppose I hope some similar good might come of those poems.

 

 

I understand you collaborated with Ricky Horscraft recently to write the lyrics for a song cycle called ‘The Seven Doors of Danny‘. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and did you find the adjustment of having to write words that were intended to be set to music a difficult one or something that came fairly naturally because of your poetry background?

The Seven Doors of Danny‘ is a cycle of seven songs which tells a story of queer burglars and gangs that’s rooted in Brighton. It was originally inspired by Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, and follows one character from child to young offender and beyond, jumping forward ten years each time.

The songs were performed by the Actually Gay Men’s Chorus, the Sussex University symphony orchestra and the drag queen Miss Jason. I loved this collaborative dimension to the project, how other people would interpret my phrasing and enrich it with their own subtexts and nuances.

It was very exciting to see the final show emerge slowly through people reacting to what I’d written and taking it to places I hadn’t expected. It was quite a relief to be able to let things go too. As a solitary writer you get used to spending months reworking the same few lines, but you can’t be too precious with lyrics.

In a live show with music, the audience isn’t able to absorb every last word; there are too many other things going on. It was also great that everything I’d learned through writing in rhyme and metre many years ago came back into play. I write almost exclusively in free verse now, but it was lovely to draw again on those skills.

 

 

What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to headlining for Polari at Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 28th July. That’s always a lively gig with lots of theatre, lots of people dressing up. It’s a great environment for the kind of poetry I write, which often draws on surrealism.

One of my favourite parts of my own poetry year is summer when I have little teaching and am able to read as many poetry books as I like. I teach one course at New Writing South where we look in detail at twenty contemporary poets each year from around the world.

I always make myself do a different twenty every time as I love hunting through stacks of collections for writers new to me that give me something of that same rush as when I first encountered, say, Frank O’Hara or Anne Carson. I have to feel the right degree of passion in order to teach on someone’s work in depth so it takes a lot of reading but it always enriches me as a writer as well as a reader and tutor.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

‘The Desert Photographer’ emerged out of my fascination with the work of George Steinmetz, a photographer whose experimental aircraft allow him to take startling pictures of places like the Sahara and the Gobi.

I liked the idea of trying to evoke something of the tension between the brevity of a photograph and the vastness of desert landscapes through poetic form. It’s one of the first poems in Spacecraft to engage explicitly with notions of framing emptiness, so it lays the groundwork for what’s to come.

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The Desert Photographer

I glide to be closer to the dunes      to understand the life
of nothing.      Height unlocks perspective.      I am not

afraid of accidents.      I trust in the threads
of my harness      the rasp of the motor’s prayer.

Near a sunken village      camel bones jut
from apricot fur.      I add my shadow      to the pattern

watch it thin      like the yellowing woman      I cherished
reassured but could not save.      It slices the ground.

I counter shifts of glare      unbroken hues.      The eye
needs a focus      acacias      the twisted shell of a truck

nomad tracks      across ripples that open      like brackets.
To stop thinking of her face      I imagine burrowing

through sand      grains filling my throat      as I lie prone
a figment in the desert’s dream.      Then I return

to the rhythms      of wind and sun      buff and ochre
on every side      the brackets      still opening.

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