August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with John McCullough by Jessica Scorah
1. What inspired you to become a poet?
I was inspired to start writing poetry during my A levels because I loved reading it so much. In my teenage years, my favourite poets were those with very wild, visceral imagery such as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (my tastes have changed as I’ve got older). I then saw that the University of East Anglia offered a degree in English with Creative Writing so I set about crafting two poems that might allow me to study on that course.
2. During the course of your education, did your writing style change as a result of the ‘rules’ of language, and if so do you regret it?
My writing style has changed very much over the years. I’m not so sure it’s been to do with the rules of language. Early on, my poetry was too densely written and obscure so I had to work hard on making it more accessible for someone without my personal experiences. Later on, I also made a conscious decision to reduce the amount of imagery and poetic techniques like alliteration and assonance in my work in order to concentrate attention on the few times they do appear in poems. I think less is more.
3. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory? In your poem ‘Known Light’ I found the imagery particularly strong. The words ‘blinded by a white heat’ I found the most memorable.
I tend not to write about strong emotions immediately. Usually it takes me several years to digest an experience so that I am able to draw on its capacity to move me without overwhelming me. I feel I need that distance. I like to vary where I write from week to week – mostly at home, but sometimes in cafés and on trains. I prefer to write on paper first of all, in notebooks. I also store ideas, observations and odd phrases in these. I have more than one crate stuffed full of old notebooks.
I’m glad you like the imagery of ‘Known Light’. That poem emerged from a fusion of what I really did remember from A level chemistry and a longing I had at the time for someone who lived in America. I’ve always been very interested in science which offers a range of metaphors as well as a Latinate, clinical vocabulary which can create a variety of useful effects when juxtaposed with more conventional, musical phrases.
5. When writing, do you play around with different adjectives before settling on one, or do the lines come to you almost as a whole?
I wish the lines did come to me almost whole all the time! Often I’ll begin with some phrases that do survive but the vast majority of verbs, nouns and adjectives in a published version of a poem are not the ones with which I began. When I’ve completed a first draft, my habit is to leave the poem alone for a few months so that I can come back to it with a fresh eye. By this point, I’m not so sentimentally attached to whatever inspired the poem and I’m able to be more objective about what might communicate what I want to an outside reader.
6. I notice that in many of your poems you use lots of punctuation, especially on the ends of lines, and lesser use of enjambement. Is this a concious decision, and if so, why?
I hadn’t realized about my privileging of end-stopping over enjambment in poems. That makes me want to use more of the latter in future. I suppose it’s probably to do with reducing ambiguity where I don’t want it and making things clear for someone else. The rationale behind my punctuation depends on the individual poem – sometimes it’s instinctive and often it is, as you say, to evoke an idea contained in the poem. I strongly believe a poem’s form is a great way of complementing or contradicting the meaning of its language.
7. Do you punctuate where feels right, complementing the desired tone, or to make a statement?
It’s intentional that the phrasing in my poems has both an instant connotation and more subtle, implied meanings. I think it’s important to grab a reader with something immediate on their first reading that makes them want to go back and re-read the poem and discover all its little tricks and secrets. Such as in ‘and stopped.’ at the very end of Ghosts, emphasising the end, mirroring the words.
8. I like the often frank and realistic way you use language in description, giving the reader a sense that the words mean what they say and yet have another, less obvious implied meaning. Your poem ‘Sneakers’ has a semantic field of boats and ocean, juxtaposed with the seemingly unrelated description of sneakers, What was your thought process behind this unusual combination?
‘Sneakers’ emerged from an article in National Geographic about a cargo of trainers that really was washed overboard in a storm, and which made their way across the Pacific. The image stuck in my head, partly because of its surreal nature but also because I’d already written a few poems about transatlantic relationships. I often begin from factual stories about weather or events at sea.
9. From your experience… What advice would you give to young writers to write poetry?
The biggest piece of advice I would give to any young writer is to read as much contemporary poetry as they can. This will give you an idea of what moves a reader who doesn’t know you. It also means that you will learn unconsciously from all the examples that you digest as you go along. You begin to realize that most of the ideas you have from day to day have been done before countless times and it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this history so that you can build on it and recombine words in a fresh way. Getting honest critical feedback on your work from people who aren’t friends and family really helps too.
10. Do you think poetry should be confined by rules of language, or be free to be manipulated?
I don’t think poetry should be confined by any rules, though rules are sometimes there for good reasons rather than simply being arbitrary. I wouldn’t want all poets to write in the same way – I love the diversity of the world of contemporary poetry, how you have some people who exploit the benefits of really tight forms, and others who take you to unexpected places through a looser approach. There’s more than one way to write a successful poem.
11. What does poetry mean to you? – Professionally, personally, or a combination of both.
Poetry to me is language that is original and alive, words that grab you by the heart or by the throat. It’s compressed, rhythmical language that surprises you and moves you. It makes you see the world with new eyes, as though for the very first time.