David TaitNanjing, China

David Tait Interviews John McCullough

In early 2017 I had the good fortune to come back to the UK to undertake a Clarissa Luard Award Residency at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. While there I spent most of my time reading books, none more so than the poems of four amazing contemporary poets: Polly Atkin, John McCullough, Caroline Smith and Daniel Sluman.

When The Poetry Business invited me to take part in this online residency I contacted each poet to ask if I could interview them about their work, and use one poem from each poet as a writing exercise for readers. Each poet very generously agreed!

The second poet I interviewed was John McCullough, whose critically acclaimed collection Spacecraft, shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Prize and named as a Guardian Summer Read, has quickly established itself as one of my all-time favourite books, with lichen blooming like love, archaic words making a comeback, bizarrely constructed oubliettes and churches of rain building themselves and falling from the sky.

Thanks very much indeed to John for agreeing to be interviewed!

D: I’d like to start by asking you about the title to your second collection, Spacecraft. What is the significance and meaning of the title to you? Why did you choose it?

J: The manuscript went through a number of different titles relating to the word ‘space’. From an early stage, it focused on the idea of absence and emptiness as creative forces, and in the end Spacecraft was the title that captured that side of things most succinctly. There was debate over whether to have it as one or two words, and even whether to separate them with a forward slash. Finally, however, I liked the fact that the word Spacecraft also had connotations of unusual flying machines of which there are quite a number in the book, most obviously in the first quarter with the church of rain, the hang-gliding photographer etc. Later on, the anger room literally does fly through space, too, and there are other references to our molecules passing through stars and a poem that sees two lovers floating above the planet. I was keen not to have misleading spaceships on the cover, though, and fortunately my editor Tom Chivers agreed!

D: One thing I love about your book is the unexpectedness of some of the images and phrases. A church of rain falling on you, and lichen used as an extended conceit for love: ‘as though it were love itself, giddy and bountiful, living on rain and dust’. If the question isn’t too ridiculous and impossible to answer, where do your ideas come from?

J: It’s different every time. I think one of the reasons I use surprise and surrealism quite often in my writing is that for me to get a poem started there has to be some kind of phrase or image that I’m curious about, some kind of spur that keeps me going back to the poem and investigating. Each poem takes a long time to write and if there’s nothing like that, it’s hard for me to summon the motivation to put in the necessary hours unless it’s an elegy or it emerges from a similar emotional need. Sometimes these unexpected elements drift into my life accidentally in that they are things I see, hear or remember. Otherwise, they spring up when I’m freewriting or I use a form that causes collisions between elements that aren’t normally paired together. I like banging words together like stones and seeing what sparks.

Having said that, I think my surrealism tends to operate differently to that of many other male writers. It’s usually a device for exploring or generating emotion in my writing. I’m not so interested in surrealism as a vehicle for probing ideas, or as an end in itself, though there are brilliant poets who do take those approaches. I try to use rhythm, sound and imagery to recreate the intensity of what I feel. The highest achievement for me is still when someone I’ve never met says they were moved by a poem, when it’s stirred them. That’s what I’m aiming for.  

I like banging words together like stones and seeing what sparks.

D: A lot of your poems tackle rooms or confined spaces: ‘The Angelfish Cafe’, ‘Queens Road Books’, ‘The Anger Room’, ‘The Restaurant Over 1000 Feet’. I wonder if you could tell me what attracts you about a place and makes you want to write about it?

J: I work in quite an unconscious way. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and sometimes a room or landscape will engender a deep feeling I don’t quite understand. Again, it’s about being excited or intrigued, and that emotion triggering a process of enquiry. I start making observations, trying to be as precise and accurate as possible regarding both sensory specifics and the effect they have on me in that moment. I want not only to conjure up a vivid picture in the reader’s mind but to capture my mind actively engaging with what surrounds me, and how as a human I can’t help projecting myself onto it, with my feelings colouring how I view objects and details.
I want to transmit energy, electricity. Elizabeth Bishop is one of the biggest influences on my writing for that reason. Sometimes it can take many years after my initial experience of a place before it ends up in a poem. ‘Queens Road Books’ is based entirely on a gloriously chaotic  second-hand bookshop that used to exist on the road to Brighton station, but I couldn’t find the right approach to writing about it till many years after it closed. By contrast, I wrote most of ‘The Restaurant at 1000 Feet’ during and straight after my visit to the CN Tower with my partner, who was born in Toronto. Not all of the places are real, of course. Often they are composites, as is the case with ‘At The Angelfish Cafe’ and ‘The Anger Room’. Again, my primary goal is to move the reader rather than to record an objective reality. If it would have more impact if the carpet was red rather than blue, then red it will be.

Nothing fuels me quite as much as discovering a new poet whose work I love. It stirs up the mix and gets my mind racing, newly alert to the possibilities of language.

D: I really liked that you mentioned surrealism as being a way to get at emotion rather than exploring ideas. I confess I’d never thought of it in that way, and yet a number of poets I admire arrive, it seems, at similar destinations. I love poets like Thomas Lux, Charles Simic, Geoff Hattersley, Cliff Yates and Katia Kapovitch who in my opinion, do exactly this. I wonder if you could talk a little about the poets who inspire you. Who do you like reading, and who help you to write?

J: What a lovely question! If I was to list the poets I go back to most often, I’d have to include Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, August Kleinzahler, Anne Carson, Lee Harwood, D.A. Powell and Rosemary Tonks. One of the things I love about teaching is being able to introduce such work to students. If the writing fills me with energy and enthusiasm, I can transmit that in the room and it makes me actively look forward to the class. There are many other poets who have inspired me though. Often it’s a case of reading whoever chimes most with the frame of mind I’m in i.e. who resonates with the structural approaches and topics that dominate my thoughts. And nothing fuels me quite as much as discovering a new poet whose work I love. It stirs up the mix and gets my mind racing, newly alert to the possibilities of language. Suddenly I can solve problems in poems that have been unfinished for months or years. It isn’t only about writers too. Sometimes just an individual poem can unlock a door. I’m not a big reader of Allen Ginsberg, for instance, but ‘A Supermarket in California’ is one of my all-time favourite poems, to the extent that it’s been almost a talisman, keeping me on the right track. 

D: I’d like to ask you about your poems ‘Flittermouse’ and ‘Flother’, which both use archaic words for familiar things. What led you to write these poems? Also, I’m really interested in the mode of address you choose for each, particularly ‘Flother’, where it feels like you are addressing the word head-on while also communicating with some deeper figure.

J: I’ve always liked Auden’s remark that “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” I feel a great attachment to certain words that goes beyond their meaning. It’s a physical thing, a bodily response to the weight and texture of particular combinations of sounds. A word like that embeds itself in my brain. When that’s fused with the word having vanished from English, it’s like having fallen in love with something irretrievable. There’s a productive sadness. At the same time, however, by speaking or writing the word, you do give it a little extra life: if someone hears or reads the poem, it returns to circulation in some small way, defying the tyranny of dictionaries that list it as obsolete. In that sense, I am addressing the word at the same time as using it metaphorically to explore more human kinds of absence and emptiness, whether that’s a vanished lover as in ‘Flittermouse’ or social isolation across a range of people as in ‘Flother’.

D: Finally, I wonder if you could share a few recommendations for readers – books and poems you have most enjoyed in the past few years?

J: Recently, I’ve enjoyed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver. Going back further, Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation and Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake both really stayed with me too. I’ve come across several exciting debuts by UK poets as well, including Marion Tracey’s Dreaming of Our Better Selves and Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda, and Richard Scott’s pamphlet Wound is fantastic.  

John McCullough’s first collection of poems The Frost Fairs won the Polari First Book Prize in 2012 and was a Book of the Year for the Independent. His new collection Spacecraft was named one of the Guardian‘s Best Books for Summer 2016, and was shortlisted for the Ledbury-Forte prize. He lives in Hove.

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