Creatives in Profile: Interview with Andrew McMillan

McMillan photo credit Urszula Soltys

Andrew McMillan. Photography by Urszula Soltys

Few writers have exploded onto the literary scene with quite as much acclaim as Andrew McMillan. The South Yorkshire-born poet’s 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. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.

It is a true honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

MCMILLAN

I just bought a house in Manchester with my boyfriend, so for the first time I feel I can say I permanently live somewhere. I was born in Barnsley in 1988 and lived there until I went away to university, and then a couple more times after university as well- I moved to Liverpool when I first started working at LJMU,  and now I’m moving on to MMU in September which I’m really excited about. I like decorative bowls, which I guess is a lifestyle choice, and I got drunk the other week and told Ben we could get a dog, so that’s going to be a new thing as well.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

MCMILLAN

It was always writing. From being very young, I used to write little horror stories and then moved on to writing poems; there was a magazine called Young Writer, which I don’t think is around anymore, that would publish work and run competitions and send you a proper contract to sign and things like that so it felt like something special. Then I ran away from it for a long time in my teens, I wanted to be an actor, and then a politician, but really what I liked was standing up in front of people and talking to them, and using words in an eloquent way and so when I started reading 20th Century poetry again at college, and I found Larkin and Gunn, then I started writing poetry again.   I’m passionate about all different art forms, I think all artists always wish they were proficient at something else, but I have no other skills, I can only write (and most days I can barely do that); I’m very interested in fashion, in clothing as another form of communication. If I had the right skills I might have liked to have been a fashion designer.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MCMILLAN

Too many poets to mention by name, but I’m a writer because first and foremost I’m a reader, I read as much as I can, of contemporary poetry; you can be inspired by what you don’t enjoy too, you can frame yourself in active opposition to a thought or an idea as well as taking inspiration from others’ work in a positive sense.

Jon McGregor, and his novels, are the reason that I write poetry the way that I do.

Tom Spanbauer, another novelist, and in particular The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, changed my life.

It’s a terrible cliche but I’m inspired much more by urban dilapidation than I am by beauty, a wreck rather than a masterpiece (that’ll probably be my epitaph too)

My parents, their lives, their warmth, their support, is a constant inspiration. And I’ve only ever wanted to make them proud.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut poetry collection, ‘Physical’ was released by Jonathan Cape in 2015. Its themes of and focus on masculinity seem particularly appropriate for our society right now – much has been made, for instance, of the ‘crisis of masculinity’. What do you think it means to be a man in the 21st Century?

MCMILLAN

Any discussion of masculinity has to really start from an acknowledgement that men still occupy a very privileged place within society; but for young men, particularly young working class men, things are really bad. It’s no one cause, but a confluence of things, such as a stigma around mental health for young men, an economic earthquake in the latter half of the 20th Century that ripped away traditional manual jobs and didn’t replace them with anything,  so what you have is a generation of young men who feel they shouldn’t talk about their emotions or hurt, who can’t see themselves in the role their fathers or their grandfathers might have had, which was to exchange their strength for money in the workplace, and so they feel they don’t have a place, or they feel they don’t know how to be a man, and so that lack has been replaced by, in some cases, getting bigger and bigger at the gym, or getting a ‘status’ dog- a loss of identity or position is being replaced by caricatures of masculinity because these young disenfranchised lads don’t see how else to assert the fact that they exist.

What has been really interesting, as I’ve grown up, is to see the change in fashion in what men are being told they should look like. So a pressure women have felt since the dawn of time, is now being focussed on men. And its often a male gaze on other men – so you know see heterosexual men posting topless pictures on Instagram, not to try to find sex; but so other heterosexual men will comment on how good they look; they need validation, and they’re not getting it from outside, so they’ve got it from each other, in a competitive way I’m not convinced is entirely healthy. As with everything, its also economic; so the idea of the ‘new man’, which came around in the 1990s, was intrinsically tied to wealth and middle-class status, so for young working class men, they’ve had to create a hyperbolised identity in order to survive.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?

MCMILLAN

Poetry is in a really good place now and I look around at my peers and think I’m lucky to be part of a really exciting generation. I think the key thing for anyone to remember is that they only write because they like reading, so keep reading, keep involved, go to invents; BUY as much as you can afford to- if everyone who writes poetry bought poetry we’d all be millionaires. It might seem daunting on the outside, but poetry is a very small, very friendly world and people help each other out, and remember each other too, so showing your face at events or holding the doors open for writers at a literature festival (as I did in Lancaster for three years) is always going to help you out in the community. I would say as well that I think whilst its good to set up your own nights, to read poetry in front of your friends etc, its also important to seek out an audience and criticism from outside people you might already know.

INTERVIEWER

When looking to submit poetry, what are the steps and key aspects to consider before doing so?

MCMILLAN

If its to a poetry magazine/journal- have you read the magazine before, do you know if they take that kind of work, what’s the poetry editor’s name, have you read their guidelines etc- all those basic things that will get you in the good books before an editor even gets to the poems. Also get ready for rejections, you’ll get a lot. Tons of them. Some will say encouraging things, some will just be a little slip of paper saying ‘Thanks but no thanks’. It isn’t a criticism of you as a person, or even that the poem is bad, it just meant it wasn’t the right fit for that editor for that particular magazine. So perseverance too, if you believe in the work, keep at it. Most of the poems in physical got rejected from nearly every magazine you could name, and the book still did alright 😉

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

MCMILLAN

Not to end the poem too soon, and not to have any sense of where the poem might end, you have to surprise yourself, if its predictable or too simple a journey for the reader to make, they won’t want to make it again.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

MCMILLAN

I always like to steal an answer of Thom Gunn’s when I answer this, in response to a fan letter he said something along the lines of:

‘If I had an ideal reader, I think it would be myself, when I was younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and to say to them, its OK really’

I think that’s probably true of me; but I also don’t just want a gay audience, or a male audience – I’m really just writing poems about the body, so they’re for everyone.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MCMILLAN

Any act which seeks to make an interruption to the crushing and terrifying monotony of being alive.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

MCMILLAN

Someone who wants to put on some spandex and power slam words into the page

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. Many have argued that poetry has an element of truth to it that reality sometimes does not. What role do you think poetry has in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

MCMILLAN

Again, I’ll quote someone else much more articulate, Rita Ann Higgins ‘To get to the poetic truth, it is not always necessary to tell the what-actually-happened truth, these times I lie.  Poetry has to have a truth in it, it has to be driving towards some universal truth, otherwise there’s no heart in it, but around that, it can make things up. Poetry shows us the real truth in something, and to do that it might often have to make things up.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the Masque of Anarchy, poetry has been used by writers and artists as a means of revolt against the status quo and to champion causes, giving voices to those who perhaps would not otherwise be heard. What are your thoughts on poetry as protest?

MCMILLAN

Maybe the very act of writing a poem is a protest, its always a peaceful political act in many ways I think, however angry the poem. Poetry shouldn’t just be polemic or rant though, it has to be more nuanced than that I think. But in an age of Trump or ‘strong and stable’ or Twitter or 24hour news, the very act of slowing down, of going to a page with a pen, and saying what can I do with this ancient language that is new, how can I compress and distill, that feels like a protest against something, perhaps.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MCMILLAN

I’m just finishing up a second collection of poetry which I’m excited about, so hopefully I’ll be able to talk more about that soon.

INTERVIEWER

Aristotle said that poetry was “finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular”. Do you believe in a universal language – or any sense of universal human thought?

MCMILLAN

I don’t think I do, really; I think there are brief moments of connection with another human being, but they’re very often transitory.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MCMILLAN

I got drunk: We bought dog.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

MCMILLAN

  • Read
  • Read everything
  • Read stuff you hate
  • Read stuff you love
  • Read novels
  • Read poetry
  • go to art exhibitions, watch strange films, talk to strangers
  • put yourself out in the world in a way which allows things to happen to you
  • never get drunk and promise to buy your boyfriend a dog

 

You can keep an eye out for updates on Andrew’s projects and upcoming shows through his website, and purchase copies of his debut collection ‘Physical’ online

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One thought on “Creatives in Profile: Interview with Andrew McMillan

  1. Greetings. Let me start by saying: I enjoyed reading this interview. As a “phantom writer” (that is what I call myself since I have all these ideas in my head and appear to have a ghost of a chance of expressing them in written or verbal form but that could be just my anti-ego spattering), I find that it’s the individual moments of inspiration from others who are established in the literary world which help push me to seek out the means to finally start to pen to paper what I dream about and desire to make “real” at long last. I cannot say when (or if) the day will come that I either make a mark for myself or stumble and fall and either decide to get up and try again or if I’ll somehow gain the courage to accept my calling and do myself a favor and stop procrastinating in terms of writing (and a few other life choices, too). LOL — This is me clearly rambling and what I really wanted to say was “thank you’ for sharing some insights about yourself for the rest of the creative world to see firsthand. So, yeah, “thank you” for presenting this!

    Liked by 1 person

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