Ahead of our Poetry Prize, which opens 1st May, we caught up with one of our two esteemed judges to get his perspective on prizes, publication and what he’ll be looking for from this year’s entries.
You’re a very active figure in the contemporary poetry world, as well as a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. How do you juggle your writing with your other commitments? Do you have a strict routine which incorporates writing?
I’ve never been one of those writers (how I envy them!) who can just sit down and write at a certain point of the day, every day. Certainly with poetry I just have to wait and let it come to me, oftentimes when I’m travelling on trains, or thinking of something else entirely a line will come to me, and then another line and eventually it might grow into a first draft – I’m lucky in academia that there is space for thinking, for research and for writing.
Could you tell us a bit about the process which led to the publication of your first pamphlet back in 2009?
I’d started writing ‘seriously’ I would say when I was about seventeen, and was writing bad pastiches of Gunn and Larkin, who were the first two poets I read seriously, and who I still adore. I went off to university, and my English degree had a minor in Creative Writing; towards the end of my first year I decided I wanted to start getting things published in magazines, so I sent some off to The North, and The Cadaverine and, because of beginners luck, they got accepted. There followed a string of other successes, and a lot of rejections of course, and then I started to get asked to read at the launch of a magazine, or an open mic night and I started feeling that I needed something I could give away or sell at such events.
The Michael Marks competition had just started so I looked at all the people who’d submitted, all the different pamphlet publishers and found Red Squirrel Press who seemed to be doing something really exciting – I emailed some poems over and the wonderful Sheila Wakefield said ‘send me some more’. I’d worked with the great poet Sarah Hymas through a project at Lancaster Literature Festival and so I asked if she’d help me edit it as well, and in 2009, when I was a second year undergraduate, it came out.
You’ve participated in a lot of community writing projects, workshops and residences. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences of working with aspiring poets, and comment on the important role established poets can play in encouraging new voices?
I genuinely believe everyone should write, in the same way doctors tell us everyone should exercise even if we don’t want to be in the olympics – some people don’t want to be published writers, but for anyone writing can really help you get a sense of yourself and your place in the world. I think as a poet you never want to be someone who pulls the ladder up after you; I’ve always been immensely grateful to the poets who really helped me when I was first starting out, Sarah Hymas, Michael Symmons Roberts, Paul Farley, and countless others, who didn’t have anything to gain from helping me and yet they did. And I want to be like that – I never want to be one of those poets who is bemoaning a new, younger generation of poets coming up behind them. If anyone ever, and they likely won’t, wants to ask me for help or advice, I’d always hope I gave it honestly and sincerely. Poetry is such a long game that you’re still a young voice when your 40, and I find that reassuring too.
What role do you think competitions can play in the development of a poet?
I think for some poets who are only just starting out they can catapult you into the wider poetry consciousness – they can give you a calling card, they can make your name. They can also give you an aim – I think when you’re starting out, there’s a sense in which you might not be motivated to write for a particular reason but then if you have a deadline, if a competition is closing next Wednesday, that can motivate you.
Do you have any advice for poets entering their work into competitions?
Don’t try to write to what you think the judge’s taste will be; I write a certain way, about certain subjects, but I love a broad range of poetry about a plethora of different things. That’s not to say homoerotic, unpunctuated verse won’t win just because I’m judging a competition; we very often like things which we know ourselves we couldn’t write.
Without being too prescriptive, is there anything you’ll be looking for from entries into this year’s London Magazine Poetry Prize?
Something that feels effortless and fresh, something which isn’t trying too hard, something which isn’t ‘poetic’, and something with a coherent thought-process of images.
Lastly, could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about/generally digging at the moment?
Eileen: A Novel, by Odessa Moshfegh is stunning and upsetting and arresting
I’ve just started watching House of Cards (I know I’m late to that one, but everything people said about it was true)
Poetry wise, Vahni Capildeo’s new Carcanet collection is unlike anything I’ve read, and the great indie Valley Press have just realised a posthumous first collection of David Hughes, edited by Antony Dunn which is reminding me of Ian Hamilton and John Riley in all the best ways.
Interview by Rachel Chanter
For information on entering our Poetry Prize, click here.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988; his debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. In 2014 he received a substantial Northern Writers’ Award. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.