John McCullough: blog tour guest post no. 4

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John McCullough had been on the poetry scene for ten years or so and had three pamphlets published (including the Tall Lighthouse pamphlet, The Lives of Ghosts) by the time his first collection came out in 2o11.  The Frost Fairs – one of the many generation-changing first collections made possible by the Salt – won the Polari first book award in 2012.

John’s work is fantastically colourful, formally attentive and varied, and rooted in language; The Frost Fairs comes at its subjects through language, using the underworld slang, Polari, to tell stories of gay history, and bringing a number of voices alive through dramatic monologue and other forms. His new work, such as I’ve heard him read from since then, is very exciting and I for one am eager for his next book to find a publisher. (Look for his amazing poem about exclamation marks, published in Poetry Review – I thin in Spring 2013, as that’s the one I now can’t find anywhere in the house…)

John was ‘tagged’ for this blog tour by AB Jackson, and I’m very glad to host this piece.

Q1: What am I working on?

I’m putting the finishing touches to a manuscript for a second collection of poems, themed around notions of space and absence.  It contains a series of poems exploring a personal loss but also explores more philosophical ideas about emptiness and a large number of imagined geographies. In addition, there are quite a lot of poems that play with the history of punctuation, etymology and obsolete words.  Another series of poems focuses on the architecture and cityscapes of Brighton, where I live.

Q2: How Does My Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

The most important difference for me is how it departs from what I did in my first book, The Frost Fairs.  I wanted to get away from themes and stanza shapes that recurred in that collection, which had a strong focus on transatlantic relationships and the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, plus many sonnets and poems in regular tercets. Structurally, this new gathering is more varied in terms of it being free verse in a wide array of shapes.  There’s quite a lot of ruptured lines, indentations, right-aligned margins and other disruptive techniques, depending on the demands of individual pieces.  Many poems employ dream-like swerves and leaps.  Whereas my biggest early influences were Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop, this time I’ve been re-reading a lot of D.A. Powell, John Ashbery, Lee Harwood, Anne Carson, W.S. Graham – though there is a poem about Bishop too.

Q3: Why Do I Write What I Do?

Like most poets, I write because I have to. I’m not sure I could categorize exactly what that drive is, though I always hope to give a reader somewhere the same kind of pleasure I get from reading my favourite poems.  I’m not interested in self-expression or in writing cathartic pieces, partly because language has a habit of communicating all kinds of information regardless; you can’t help but unconsciously tell a reader things about you whatever you write but the speakers of the poems are constructs of language rather than mouthpieces for myself, even though they might like to suggest otherwise.  The challenge is to communicate through the intricacies and paradoxes offered by poetic form, to speak to the reader in words that can’t be paraphrased, finding techniques and structures that stir someone who isn’t me.

 Q4: How Does my Writing Process Work?

It’s different every time.  There are moments when I wish it was as regular and organized as the word ‘process’ implies.  As Michael Longley says, ‘If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.’  Sometimes a piece can be sparked by a musical phrase – a collision of two linguistic things that aren’t normally combined.  A string of words floats into my ear when I’m least expecting it and I spend time investigating the little universe they seem to suggest (one poem literally came from the phrase ‘a church of rain’).  On other occasions, poems have come from reading a factual book or magazine and saying ‘what if’.  I have poems inspired by photographs, Dr Johnson’s dictionary, National Geographic articles, Pasolini films and no one knowing the exact origins of the exclamation mark.  Exploring ideas through rhythm and imagery helps to build up and often switch an emotional current.  What’s remained constant over the years is things like storing observations in notebooks, using freewriting and spending longer than I think I have to on both reading and editing.  I have to feed my imagination with a fairly constant supply of fresh images and language to sustain its energy.  Bishop is also still my role model for the waiting needed to get a poem to the right standard, which often takes more than a year.  I’ve learnt to enjoy that process now.  It’s a different kind of pleasure, but I think editing is as much fun as the initial rush of ideas, especially when you hit upon the way to fix a line or stanza that’s been haranguing you for months.

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