John McCullough’s poetry has appeared in publications including London Magazine, The Guardian, The Rialto, Poetry London and Magma. He teaches creative writing at the Open University and the University of Sussex. His first collection is The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011).
John’s website: www.johnmccullough.co.uk
• One thing that’s always worth getting out of bed for
There are usually books within arm’s reach of the bed so I can’t say poetry. Radio 4 is similarly less than a metre away. One of the first things I actually do most days is go downstairs and hug or play with my two cats, Nan and Flo (named after the main lesbian couple in Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet). Acquiring cats – or being acquired by them – is the best thing I’ve done in recent years. They keep me positive – it’s never time wasted. They’re very active late at night though, so I frequently have to return pot plants to vertical positions too.
• One thing about myself that often obstructs me
Strangely enough, I think perfectionism can be an enemy. I find it difficult to share work unless I feel it’s already reached a certain standard which is a type of vanity and stops me getting feedback that might prevent hours of useless toil. I’ve been known to write to people asking for poems back that I’ve sent to them to read because I’ve suddenly decided one of them is too terrible for human eyes. It then later transpires, of course, that it’s that poem that everyone likes and that ends up in my collection, and the work of brilliant genius it shared an envelope with is in fact destined to end its days quietly in a drawer.
• One thing I’ve learned the hard way
This is related to the above: the arbitrariness of personal taste (including my own) is something I’ve slowly learned to live with; there’s no single poem by anyone alive or dead that everyone loves. I remember the joy of having a poem enthusiastically received by a whole workshop of poets who had several books behind them. It remained unpublished till it was collected in my first book The Frost Fairs. Conversely, again, poems which the first readers weren’t too keen on have ended up winning prizes or being published in the bigger magazines. It makes me realize that there are many great poems out there that I can’t appreciate purely because of the limitations of my own taste which is frustrating; the gap between reading poems that give you that feeling of the top of your head being taken off is always too long.
• One thing that gets under my skin
Creative writing students who want to be published but have no interest in reading anything from the last thirty years irk me. Also: published poets who now never read contemporary poetry by those outside their circle of acquaintances. In both cases, it makes me wonder who they think is going to approach their own work and read it. One of the great things about having Roddy Lumsden as an editor for both The Frost Fairs and an earlier pamphlet was being able to talk to someone who tried his best to be aware of absolutely every new writer who’d done a first collection, pamphlet or even just been in a large number of magazines. He opened my eyes to a wealth of exciting things going on in America and in different parts of the UK; even if he didn’t like someone’s work he had enough familiarity with it to give an intelligent opinion. That breadth of knowledge is something I aspire to possess.
• One thing I’d love to change
Like most of us, I’d love there to be a broader readership for contemporary poetry. Much of the battle as a creative writing tutor, as I’ve said, is convincing students to really take the time to engage with a variety of recent books. There are widespread perceptions that there is no skill involved in writing free verse and that poetry is unnecessarily difficult. I actually like a lot of ‘difficult’ poets now but there are plenty who are much more accessible and it was reading those other poets that first gave me a taste for it. Though I think it helps if people don’t go to poetry wanting it to be as simple and functional as everyday prose, if they can learn to appreciate rhythm, implication and the weight and texture of different combinations of sounds.
• One thing I hope for
As a reader I’m always waiting for the next poem – or, even better, the next book of poems – that will leave me astounded. There’s nothing like that tingle in the marrow when you know a set of words has burrowed into you and now cannot be ignored, that it’s irrevocably enriched and extended the way you see the world. The last time it happened to me deeply was when I ‘discovered’ August Kleinzahler’s work. I just couldn’t get enough and ordered book after book, immersing myself in poems that created music through a thrilling mix of vocabularies from science, hiphop, mythology. Each time I open a book I’m hoping to find something like that euphoria again.