FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
JOHN MCCULLOUGH: I started writing poems in 1995 with very little natural ability – I’d say less than the average. I wasn’t the best poet in my creative writing classes at university. I wasn’t even the second-best. Looking back, I find my work from then very melodramatic. (I was a Goth which probably didn’t help.)
All I had was a love of other people’s poetry. After those years of generally floating about like a little thunder cloud, I spent many years reading, reading, reading. I learned through paying close attention how different approaches to phrasing, techniques and structure have particular emotional effects. It puts lots of tools in your toolbox that you can use to solve the various problems that crop up when writing and drafting your own work. Gradually, my awful poems got better. I spent longer crafting and editing each one, digesting feedback from friends and striving to make my writing more poignant. Unpleasant events had to happen too. I needed to have my heart broken and to feel broken by forces like politics and mental illness and then I needed years to reflect on those experiences.
Poetry for me is a craft and like any craft it takes thousands of hours of quiet honing. There’s no way around this. I guess my biggest piece of advice to anyone starting out in poetry is try to enjoy the journey of discovering writers who reshape the way you see the world and each little breakthrough as you refine your editing strategies. If you’re willing to devote yourself to reading and taking on board feedback you will keep growing. And as long as you see development in your work, as long as you see yourself pushing forward and breaking what is new ground for you, then as a writer you’re already winning.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
JM: Being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem is a wonderful surprise. ‘Flower of Sulphur’ arrived after I’d had a year away from writing owing to ill health. When I returned, I felt suddenly able to tackle areas I’d found too painful to write about before, using experimental forms. It was the first of many such pieces which form the heart of my forthcoming collection, Panic Response, out in spring 2022 with Penned in the Margins. If readers want to find more of my poetry, my most recent collection is Reckless Paper Birds (Penned in the Margins) which won the 2020 Hawthornden Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
JM: I’m still always on the hunt for writers new to me that open my mind to possibilities. I’ve always been a big fan of Frank O’Hara for his relentless enthusiasm and Elizabeth Bishop for her scope and suggestive use of observations. More recently I’ve especially enjoyed the work of poets who fuse deep emotion and experimental form such as Anne Carson, Nuar Alsadir, Franny Choi and I especially enjoyed Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love.