As poetry is my first love, it gives me great pleasure to welcome, Poet, John McCullough, (shortlisted for Costa Poetry Award 2019) to ‘Patricia’s Pen’.
John talks about his writing, and offers advice to other writers. Without further ado let’s go over to John.
Laying a Reckless Road:
Reflections on Being Shortlisted for the Costa
In November 2019, it was announced that my third collection of poems, Reckless Paper Birds was one of the four books on the shortlist for the Costa Poetry Award. In a press release, the judges said:
This collection – hilarious, harrowing and hyper-modern – offers a startlingly fresh insight into vulnerability and suffering.
It was a glorious surprise – I haven’t stopped fizzing since. From the start, I’d set out with this publication to do something very different from my other work. I wanted to write a political book, one that probed the idea of having a soul and focussed on the side of myself that is anxious and fallible, incompetent and manic. I’m so glad if it connects with other humans who feel the same.
Here’s the thing though. I started writing poems in 1995 with very little natural ability – I’d say less than the average. I might be up for prizes now but 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.
This needs saying because there are still many who believe in the Romantic idea of writing ability as an innate gift, what I call the genius myth. Perhaps it is a gift for a rare few but it wasn’t for me or most folk I know. Poetry is a craft and like any craft it takes thousands of hours of quiet honing. There’s no way around this. Try to enjoy the journey of discovering new writers who reshape the way you see the world and each little breakthrough as you refine your editing strategies.
Almost every one of the larger poetry magazines that have published me actually rejected my work first too. Don’t let knock-backs stop you from submitting again. I could wallpaper a room with my rejection slips from the early years. It’s OK to sulk for a bit, I think – I know I do! – but the same day try to pick yourself up again and consider any comments given. (Always promising when these appear: they don’t have to do this.) If you can see the editor’s point, redraft. Think whether you chose the right kind of outlet. Then send out again as soon as you’re ready. Keep the wheel of regular submissions revolving as this maximizes your chances and it also feels a little less personal. And imagine there is a giant bar where only writers who’ve had a rejection are allowed to go. I am there. I showed up so often they gave me a lifetime membership.
It’s important to be kind to yourself as a writer. We each have to lay our own unique roads and in most cases the process is long and slow. Resist beating yourself up by comparing yourself to others. Celebrate the success of friends who’ve worked hard. When you make a habit of supporting other people, you’ll find support returns to you when you least expect it. I couldn’t be without my own group of writer friends whose events I go to and who I regularly swap work with for warm, constructive criticism. It makes the whole process less isolating. Writing is communal and we’re all in it together, doing the best we can.
Maybe, like me in the nineties, you’re someone who’s progressing at a slower pace than people you started out with but, listen, you’re still progressing. 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.
Thank you, John. Some very helpful advice for my readers. John makes a very good point about rejection.
About John McCullough
John McCullough lives in Hove. His first collection of poems, The Frost Fairs (Salt) won the Polari First Book Prize in 2012 and was a Book of the Year for The Independent as well as a summer read in The Observer. It was followed by Spacecraft (Penned in the Margins) which was a summer read in The Guardian and shortlisted for the Ledbury-Forte prize. His latest, Reckless Paper Birds (also Penned), explores vulnerability and mental health. It was recently shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. John teaches creative writing at the University of Brighton and for the Arvon Foundation.
You can find out more about John and his books by visiting Penned in the Margins
Books also available via Amazon.
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