Poetry Profile – John McCullough
John McCullough is an award winning poet, writer and teacher. His poems often blend the physical with the surreal, the sublime with the everyday, never failing to elicit an emotional, instinctual response. His latest book, Panic Response was chosen by The Times for its list of Notable New Poetry Books of 2022. I caught up with him to talk panic, process, Poetry and cats.
Hello John! Tell us about your writing, what motivates it?
I’ve been writing poetry fairly consistently since 1996. Originally I turned to it as therapeutic, but nowadays I write very much with the idea of moving a reader who doesn’t know me. And in live performance, moving an audience. My new collection, Panic Response, is borne of the last few years – it’s focus is personal and cultural anxiety, and the ways humans respond by adopting different behaviours, including coming together. I find each of my books begins as a reaction against the one before. I might begin by exploring new themes, techniques and structures, but each collection has love poems of one species or another. I’m interested in how people connect to each other, or don’t, in different social contexts.
What makes a ‘good’ poem?
I think poetry exists as a range of poetries. The sort I’m most interested in uses rhythm, imagery, concision and sound patterning to create emotional effects in a reader or audience. Some of my poems are poignant, some joyful but I always want to generate strong feelings – give people goosebumps, make them laugh and the like.
There are lots of ways for a poem to succeed. A number of them involve surprise, the language achieving its aim via an unexpected route. For me, a good poem is memorable as well, usually because it contains some kind of striking image or phrasing.
Is there a difference between poetry and spoken word? Does it matter?
I think spoken word is one of many categories of poetry, the same as page and avant-garde poetry. I don’t think it matters hugely, there’s a great deal of overlap. For example, my style of performance is seen as more typical of a spoken word artist than a page poet because I’m very energetic on stage; I like to use my voice to capture and hold an audience’s attention. I write poetry books that are designed to be read by strangers who’ve never heard me perform and don’t need to. But once they’re published, I convert selections into performances and little shows. Some of my poems only exist as spoken word texts and haven’t been published.
What makes a good performance? Do you enjoy it?
I absolutely love performing. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a writer and a skill I’ve honed over time, just as I’ve learned how to craft and edit language. For me, the most important thing is that the audience and performer are connected, that they feel plugged into the performer’s vitality. The best performances have a sense of electricity about them – there’s a transmission of energy felt deeply by the audience.
Have you had to overcome any barriers to write?
The way I write now is much freer. I censored myself in the early years – it used to be much more difficult to get poems with queer content published in a UK poetry magazine if they weren’t about someone dying from an AIDS-related illness. That’s no longer the case. The landscape of poetry publishing has transformed dramatically in the last ten years, and very much for the better.
Has anybody helped or inspired you along the way?
I’ve never had a formal mentor. I suppose the most influential figures have been my favourite poets who I’ve internalized and who nudge and inspire me. It’s a very long list but they include Frank O’Hara, Anne Carson, Elizabeth Bishop, August Kleinzahler, Gerald Stern, Rosemary Tonks, Lee Harwood . . .
Is there a piece of advice that somebody has given you that has been particularly helpful? Do you have your own that you pass on?
Don’t beat yourself up comparing your creativity to that of other humans who don’t have your brain, body or commitments. Your own pace is just fine.
Do you have a favourite word or words?
Plunge, butterscotch, spool, icicle, burnish, jug, leaf, sizzle, hexagon, nuthatch, scoop . . .
What comes next?
My collection Panic Response was released in March of this year so I’m touring during 2022, but I’m also working on my fifth collection of poems. After it’s finished, I’ll probably take a break of a few months and then, well, we’ll see!
Tell us a joke
Will a misprint do? The menu at a café here in Brighton once promised to ‘sever all sandwiches with freshly made bread’. It conjured a fabulous image of someone violently striking everything with a baguette…
Tell us a secret
I have a black belt in karate and used to teach it in Watford. Most of my teenage years were spent training and entering freefighting tournaments. I even have a couple of trophies somewhere, including one from the glorious time when I was the only entrant in my age band.
Cat, dog or reptile?
I think the two felines who live with me would be rather put out if I said anything other than ‘cat’! I have spent significantly more hours with them than any dogs or reptiles and love them very much. I still have time for dogs and reptiles too though, and other animals. (Please don’t whisper a word of this to my cats.)
John’s collection Reckless Paper Birds won the 2020 Hawthornden prize for literature awarded for overall best UK book of the year and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. His first collection The Frost Fairs (Salt, 2011) won the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Book of the Year for The Independent and The Poetry School, and a summer read for The Observer. His second collection Spacecraft (Penned in the Margins, 2016) was named one of The Guardian’s Best Books for Summer 2016, and was shortlisted for the Ledbury-Forte prize. His new collection, Panic Response was chosen by The Times for its list of Notable New Poetry Books of 2022.