Andrew McMillan - why poetry matters

Andrew McMillan has just won the Guardian First Book Award for his debut poetry collection. Yvette Huddleston caught up with him.

Poet Andrew McMillan

“IT was just astonishing – I don’t think it has really sunk in yet,” says poet Andrew McMillan who heard last week that his debut collection, Physical, had won the prestigious Guardian first book award. “I kept saying how wonderful it was to even be on the longlist and then when I was shortlisted… so I was just amazed when I won.”

It is quite an achievement – it is the first time that a poetry collection has won the prize in the 17 years it has been running and only the second time that a poet has made it on to the shortlist. McMillan – who was also shortlisted for the Forward Poetry First Collection Prize and is in the running for a Costa Poetry Prize – was up against two novels, two collections of short stories and a work of non-fiction. However, it was his poetry collection which emerged as the clear winner for the judges – who included broadcaster Emily Maitlis, historian Tom Holland and critic Alex Clark – and five selected reading groups from around the country.

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Poetry, which is often regarded as rather a niche interest, has been enjoying a well-deserved resurgence in recent years. “There are so many different media today,” says McMillan. “And there is also a blurring between poetry and music so that you have an exciting young performer like Kate Tempest who wins poetry prizes and has also won the Mercury Prize. I enjoy reading my poems out loud but I wouldn’t call myself a performance poet – my poems are more traditional and on the page – but poetry is reaching out to a broader audience and that is bringing people in to reading books like mine.”

Poetry distils emotion in a way that prose cannot – it speaks to the reader or listener with an immediacy and potency, making an instant connection. And it is this intensity that comes across in McMillan’s collection which is an exploration of male friendship and male love, and, as the title suggests, a celebration of physicality, sensuality and the body. His poems are robust, vigorous, bold, tender and candid. They tell stories of love and loss, of desire and decay – of lust, hunger, joy and disappointment. Although many of the poems speak of a specific type of experience – young, male, gay – the honesty of expression and the power of the language communicate to a much wider audience. The more personal the poems become, the more universal their message.

“I think a lot of people when they write feel that they have to be quite vague but I feel that the more specific you get, the more people can relate to it,” says McMillan. He has said in the past that all he wants for his poetry is for it to “live sincerely in the world and take everything that happened… and give it back to the reader – in the hope that it might move them or be ‘useful’.”

Born near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, McMillan studied English with Creative Writing at Lancaster University and went on to complete an MA in Modernism at University College London. Given that he is the son of well-known poet Ian McMillan, it might be safe to assume there was always the likelihood he would follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I don’t think it was inevitable,” he says. “I have two older sisters who aren’t in that world at all, but what my upbringing gave me was that I grew up surrounded by poetry books. Like any kid when you are a teenager you are embarrassed by what your parents do – I wanted to be a politician or an actor at various times – but then the more I read and thought about poetry, the more I realised it was the only thing I could do. Also, I think one of the big challenges of wanting to be a poet is – what does that even mean, but I had a great example of how you could be a poet and seeing how hard my dad worked at it was really inspiring.”

Other poets who have inspired him include Allen Ginsberg, Brian Patten and Thom Gunn – to whom there is a tribute in the collection. In Saturday Night McMillan takes Gunn’s poem about his visit to a gay sauna and creates his own version incorporating lines from Gunn’s original. McMillan has long been a fan of his work. “When I came out to my parents as a teenager, my dad gave me a collection of Thom Gunn’s poetry saying that he thought it might help,” he says.

He cites Philip Larkin as another influence, as well as popular South Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley. “His poems make the mundane really beautiful.”

This influence can be seen in the centrepiece of the collection Protest of the Physical, a long poem set in the prosaic surroundings of a slightly down at heel northern industrial town – a ‘town that has lost something… sunk from its centre/like a man winded by a punch’. “I’d finished university and moved back to Barnsley and I could see from my window the outline of a car park that had been abandoned mid-build due to the recession,” explains McMillan. “And that was the starting point for the poem”. It throws up an eloquent visual image – ‘lame arm of the crane circling/unstocked shelves of half built car park/ the day’s spent itself already’. He says it took him two years to write that poem, while the others came together over a period of four to five years.

The poems in the collection also explore what it means to be a man today and they interrogate the whole notion of masculinity. One, entitled How To Be a man, is a moving poem about grief – and about being too young to comfort a parent who is suffering a loss. ‘You thought you knew how men were meant to grieve… you thought men simply carried on/when your dad unfolded in front of you/nobody had taught you how to fix him back together’. In the rather bleak Things Men Take an unhappily married man’s frustrated imagination is the focus for a contemplation on paternalistic attitudes ‘they take so much it’s easier/to list what it is they leave behind/ or they take without asking’. And I.M. is an incredibly affecting, compassionate and kind poem in which a bereaved electrician whose young granddaughter has recently died pulls out switch boxes that resemble ‘intricate rooms in a doll’s house’.

McMillan now has a permanent post as a lecturer in creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University and balancing a demanding academic career with his own creativity has had its challenges, as well as its benefits.

“It’s really hard, actually,” he says. “It is difficult to find the time to write, but I am constantly thinking about writing and what works in poetry; giving advice to my students, asking them to look at things again. And if I’m doing that then I have to look at my own work again, so I think it has made my poetry stronger.”

Despite the lack of time, however, he is already thinking about his next book. “I’m starting to gather new poems together,” he says. “The scary thing after having a first book published is that suddenly there is a blank page with nothing on it and you have to start all over again.”

Physical by Andrew McMillan, published by Jonathan Cape, is priced £10.