Congratulations on making the shortlist. Tell us a bit
about your book.
Thanks. The Frost Fairs is a book of love poems spoken by a range
of voices - lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, bisexual, even
straight! Many of them are set in the historical past,
especially the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A
lot of them deal also with transatlantic relationships and
questions of empire. One of them is in the voice of Marion
"Joe" Carstairs, an English woman who abandoned her girlfriend and
a career as a successful motorboat racer in order to set herself up
as the ruler of an island in the Bahamas (Kate Summerscale wrote a
brilliant biography of her called The Queen of Whale Cay).
The book uses a lot of surreal imagery but it's essentially about
exploring questions of love. I hope it moves people.
How difficult is it to get published as a poet
I think it's always tough but if you're prepared to put in the
time then anyone can do it. It involves a lot of hard work,
not just writing every week but constantly trying to broaden the
range of your reading in order to feed your imagination. I
teach creative writing for a number of universities and literary
organizations and I can never stress enough how vital it is to feed
your brain with unfamiliar language, ideas and images through
engaging with writers from other countries and centuries.
How long have you been writing poetry for? Do you remember
the first poem you ever wrote? What was it about?
I started writing poetry in about 1995. I wanted to study on
an undergraduate creative writing programme at the University of
East Anglia and they asked you to submit work with your application
so that was the initial spur. I think the first poem I wrote
was a monologue by a bacterium. The idea of it makes me
cringe now, but some kind soul at UEA obviously took pity!
What do you think makes a good poem?
Surprise. A good poem fundamentally makes you see the world
from a fresh angle. It grabs your heart through a bold act of
imagination. I like poems that take risks.
Which poets do you most admire and/or who has been most
influential in your development as a writer (and
Elizabeth Bishop, a lesbian American poet, has shaped my work more
than anyone else because of her absolute commitment to crafting and
editing. She was determined to make every poem as good as it
could possibly be and wasn't afraid to wait over a decade to finish
a piece like 'The Moose'. She also uses surreal perspectives
in her work to draw the reader in. I think that's related to
her queerness which gives you the advantage as a writer of already
viewing the world, and relationships in particular, from a position
that's different to the majority of your peers. Love is
always improvised, but queer love is especially improvised because
when we're growing up we're not given the same guidelines as others
through culture; you don't tend to hear about homosexual couples in
books or pop songs or see them on TV as much so you're forced to be
creative in terms of imagining the shape your relationship is going
to take. Frank O'Hara and Seamus Heaney have also been strong
influences on my poetry - O'Hara for his energy and Heaney for the
texture of his language, his fine sensitivity to the weight and
feel of words.
What are you working on now?
I've been working on the manuscript for my second collection for
the last year. It's going to be a very different beast to The
Frost Fairs, as far from a sequel as I can make it. I don't
want to give too much away but it's more experimental. It has
quite an intense palette - it goes to darker places but there's
also a lot of movement and upbeat rushing about. If The Frost
Fairs is blue and white, the new book is orange and black.
What would you do with the £1000 if you win the
Like Bishop, I find travel of benefit as a writer. I don't
tend to write directly about the places I go to, but it really
fuels my imagination in terms of helping me to come up with those
surprising angles of approach I was talking about. I've just
been to Burma and Vietnam and would really like to experience
Japan. Alternatively it might just be an adventure play park
for my cats. They're both girls and are named Nan and Flo
after the main couple in Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet.
Nan is, appropriately enough, a very intrepid, adventuring tomboy
but Flo is more of a Bridget Jones than a campaigning
socialist. We're ever hopeful though.
The Frost Fairs by John McCullogh (Salt Publishing) has been
shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. The winner is
announced 26th November.
The Frost Fairs is available to buy on Amazon Amazon
Visit John's website: www.johnmccullough.co.uk
For more information on the Polari First Book Prize, visit Facebook