14th October, 2018
Old Cinema Launderette
Review by Dani Watson
In the intimate setting of the Old Cinema Laundrette, Andrew McMillan reads from his second poetry collection, playtime. It is a reading which takes us back to the messy days of early adolescence: a time when our identities are still being formed and shaped by the inevitable trauma that comes with navigating this difficult period of life.
playtime follows McMillan’s debut collection physical, the first ever poetry collection to win the Guardian First Book Award. There is a real rawness to McMillan’s writing, which examines sexuality, violence and masculinity, and how they are all connected. Reading in front of the Laundrette’s washing machines, you could almost forget that this is a Festival event. The frankness of his writing combined with the warmth of the venue makes it feel as though you are sitting in someone’s kitchen as they recount their deepest confessions.
Given its focus on adolescence, his collection contains a series of poems written around the theme of ‘first experiences’. McMillian performed ‘First Sexting’, which reveals the trauma of having intimate texts with another boy shared in front of fellow classmates: ‘the ooze of a secret / split open’ and his phone vibrating ‘like a heartbeat / refusing to be silent maybe / half wanting to be discovered.’
In other poems he read, McMillian linked sport with violent idealisms of masculinity: whether in P.E. changing rooms, or the cage of an MMA fight where opponents tussle with each other like ‘lovers reuniting’. In McMillan’s reading of ‘Personal Trainer’, he addresses the misconception that strength and masculinity stem from the endurance of violence: ‘I will punch you so your body / grows more resilient / so it learns the centre /of its own gravity.’ Another poem, ‘What 1.6% Of Young Men Know’, examines the unrealistic expectations of body image and its negative impact upon young men: ‘to get the body of their favourite sports stars / they must starve themselves… the muscles are there already / if they could only / get at them.’
The reading ended with a short Q & A session, opening up a discussion about wider themes surrounding the work. During this time, McMillan spoke about the failings of school systems to educate children about sex, and the way in which young men are forced to turn to to pornography to learn about these issues.
In his own work however, McMillan shies away from nothing. His reading was an uncompromising exploration of the painful experiences of early adolescence and the difficulties that arise when transitioning into adulthood. It was a great end to the Book Festival.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.