14th October, 2018
Old Cinema Launderette
Interview by Emily Pritchard
Conversation with poet Andrew McMillan is a delightful thing. We covered our favourite poems about urination, why MMA is ‘the gayest thing ever’, and the importance of knowing the history of queer generations before us. McMillan won the Guardian First Book Award for his 2015 debut physical, and is a key voice in contemporary British poetry. His second collection, playtime, was released earlier this year.
Despite his success, there’s no danger of McMillan becoming complacent. He tells me that he wrote an ‘Andrew McMillan poem’ on the train to Durham, but that this wasn’t good enough ‘because I’ve written that poem before’. To recognise when you’re writing an easy version of your own work, rather than creating something new, is an impressive level of self-awareness. Whilst reading 15,000 poems for the National Poetry Competition, McMillan realised that what separated the very good poems from the very best poems was the element of risk involved; with the former, ‘it wasn’t a tightrope walk, it was just a stroll down the boulevard’. In his own work, therefore, he always aims to write in discomfort: ‘there has to be a risk, there has to be something on the line. It has to have cost me something to have written this’. This comes across when reading McMillan’s work, where the reader is made to share in the uneasiness which is an essential part of puberty and early sexual experiences.
Noting that both physical and a new collection by New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird begin with poems about urination, I asked McMillan why he was drawn to it. McMillan believes that ‘there’s something about poetry that shouldn’t look away, that shouldn’t flinch. It’s not that it has to be urination, but these bodily actions that everyone does…’ McMillan argues that in these poems, as in Sharon Olds’ work, we are presented with ‘the body as it is, in its smelly, falling apart, disjointed kind of grotesqueness’, and that this body is worth writing about. For McMillan, important poetry is that which ‘will bear witness, rather than poetry that will romanticise.’
McMillan’s work examines what happens to the body; his subjects span from circumcision to hair transplants to sex. ‘The body is how we enter and present ourselves to the world’ he tells me, and so ‘anything done to the body is either tender or violent…sometimes both.’ This intersection is what interests McMillan in both his own work and the work of others. Referring to painter Francis Bacon’s wrestlers, McMillan says they are ‘almost an erotic thing…but at once it’s also violent and grotesque.’ A more innocent version of this dynamic is found in playtime’s title poem, where ‘me and another boy would try out wrestling moves / on each other’. Whilst we laugh at mixed martial arts, which McMillan says is ‘nearly naked men rolling about on each other, for prolonged periods of time’, there is something serious and sad going on here. ‘In a world of toxic masculinity, violence almost replaces tender touch, so that men will fight to have an excuse to touch each other.’ McMillan’s work explores this toxic masculinity, whilst making a place for a tender alternative which allows all sorts of touch.
We ended the conversation by reflecting on the work that poetry can do for the queer community. Firstly, McMillan says, it’s a matter of representation. This word is used so often it can come to feel impersonal, but when McMillan talks about it, representation regains its full sense. Reading Thom Gunn, he says, was ‘the first time that I’d ever seen myself or someone I wanted to be or hoped to be, reflected back to me, and that was so important. I thought, oh God, my life is worthy of literature.’ He tells a wonderful story about a letter Thom Gunn wrote to a fan, saying, ‘If I can imagine an ideal reader, it would have been me at twelve or thirteen, and put my arm around him, and say it’s alright really.’ This kind of representation is still vital, and what McMillan (who was initially hesitant to call himself a gay poet) seeks to achieve with his own work: ‘That’s all I ever want my poetry to do, and that’s all that queer community is about – it’s putting our arm around that younger generation and going, look, it’s alright. It could be like this. Tell me your stories and they’re worthy of being poetry.’ As a young queer person, I certainly feel this when reading McMillan’s work.
Poetry can also tell us where we’ve come from. ‘What we forget,’ McMillan reminds me (and having been born in the mid-nineties, I do need reminding) ‘is that we lost an entire generation of queer people, during the eighties and nineties, during the AIDS crisis, who could have born witness to what was happening.’ Although there is an exciting new wave of queer poets in the UK and the US (McMillan lists Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, and Richard Scott as examples, and I would add Mary Jean Chan), we cannot forget the loss of the past, and how recent it was. It is just thirty years after Section 28 – fifteen since it was rescinded. McMillan tells me about a lesbian he met in Manchester, who in her youth only narrowly escaped lobotomy.
‘This was in lived memory,’ McMillan stresses, ‘these people are alive now, and it’s important to remember that, because it’s a kind of cycle, and as quickly as things are given they can be taken away… These things can be taken away very quickly… The way that we fight back against that as creative people is to write about it, to bear witness and to remember where we’ve come from, and to remind other people of that as well.’
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.