Andrew McMillan’s debut collection, Physical, was not only the first book of poetry to win The Guardian First Book Award, but also swept the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, an Eric Gregory Award, and a Somerset Maugham Award. He’s had a busy summer – besides judging The London Magazine’s Poetry Prize, his heartbreaking essay in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings appeared in the most recent issue of The Poetry Review, and he’s just been featured in a section of BBC 2’s new programme, Railway Nation: A Journey in Verse. We caught up with Andrew over the summer to find out more about his first forays into the world of writing.
– Editors, The Kindling
Like many young poets, you chose to study English Literature as an undergrad, along with Creative Writing. If you could choose again, would you do the same? Or is there another field that you’ve been drawn towards since then?
I’d definitely do the same – I wanted to go university because I loved thinking about books, about writing, about literature, and it offered me the space to do it. I’d gone through a lot of ideas about what I might do in the world during my teenage years but by university I’d definitely decided what it was that I wanted to do.
What was your writing community like at Lancaster, and later at UCL? Have any of the connections you made in either of those universities shaped your writing in a lasting way?
Lancaster was great, I met a lot of great writers there; Martha Sprackland was a very dear friend – we set up Cake Magazine together (we’ve since given back editorial control of it to the university) and she’s been a good friend in the writing world; James Trevelyan, who just recently had a pamphlet with Emma Press was in my year, as were lots of other great writers – you don’t realise it at the time, but it’s just a real privilege to sit in a room and talk about writing, about words, and that that’s really your ‘job’ whilst your there.
Some of the best connections I made were through volunteering for Lancaster Lit Fest, holding doors open, taking ticket stubs, etc., and I met some incredible writers, sat in on incredible readings, got to go to dinner with Tom Spanbauer. I also met my very good friend Sarah Hymas there – she edited my pamphlets with Red Squirrel Press for me and was one of the first people to ever take me seriously as a writer; she’s remained a very close friend. UCL was a bit different, as I was studying there part time, and living up north, so I’d just pop down every week for the seminar and come home.
You’ve since returned to the university, as Lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores. I’m aware that your students might be reading this interview – but here’s a cheeky one – as a writer, is it hard to practice what you preach?
I think teaching has really made me a better writer – I think when you first start writing you get praised, in school, and then if you’re OK and get something in a magazine or an anthology you might get people telling you you’re good. When you’re very young I think that it’s very easy to then become complacent and think you’ve made it – so I think maybe I started coasting a little bit – but if you’re asking a student to really consider that single word, or that line break, or what their poem is really trying to say, deep in the very heart of itself, then you have to take that kind of precise eye, and pedantic nature back into your own work as well.
In a recent interview with The London Magazine, you described poetic development as a ‘long game’ – in the sense that you’re ‘still a young voice when you’re 40’. Did Physical mark a new direction from your earlier pamphlets, and do you see your work moving in a different direction after Physical?
My first pamphlet, published back in 2009 when I was just moving into my third year as an undergraduate, was really very close to the style that Physical is in, in that its quite confessional, quite plain, quite personal. It got a review that said it was just too teenagery and nobody would be interested in that kind of writing and, even though other people said much nicer things, it stuck with me – so the second pamphlet the moon is a supporting player was me trying to write in a style that was never my own, being ironic, being overly playful, etc. and it never really sat well with me – protest of the physical was a long poem published as a pamphlet and then in Physical – Physical was really the culmination of all that work, but the diverse reading as well, so reading underground British beat poetry (such as in Children of Albion, edited by Michael Horovitz) as well as Larkin and Sharon Olds and Thom Gunn.
Beyond poetry, you’ve also written academically and journalistically in various capacities. Do you see these as different settings for essentially the same process, or are they fundamentally different from your ‘creative’ work?
Well, all writing is meant for an audience but you just have to know your audience, in the same way a public, commissioned poem might have a different style to one that is just for me and my own work- you always have to know your audience and speak to them. That being said my academic writing is always skewed towards the accessible, as is the journalistic work I’ve done; why would you ever want to not engage people, entertain them, inform them? I don’t get writing that wilfully wants to exclude an audience.
Finally, it’s easy for many young poets to feel swamped by the journals, grants, websites, competitions, and residencies that are out there – and at the same time, there is always a sense that there aren’t enough opportunities for young writers. What would your advice be for someone in their 20s who’s trying to navigate this strange world?
Come to the world as a reader, rather than a writer. That’s how we all start out right? I write poetry because I loved reading poetry and eventually I decided I would start writing it myself. Come to it as a reader, follow the stuff you like, be adventurous, eventually you might find you read a lot of Cape poets, or a lot of Shearman poets, etc. and then look in the back of each of their books and see what magazines they list as having published in, and that might be where your work ends up being suited to.
But most of all just read, and write the poetry you want to write, not what you think is in fashion, or winning awards; you will develop a voice (hopefully) that is uniquely your own, and when its ready, you’ll be ahead of the game if you have that roadmap in front of you – who is publishing what kind of work, where might you fit in that ecosystem.