Thursday, 30 June 2011

Author Interview: John McCullough & Sophie Mayer

I'm very very happy to welcome poets Sophie and John to my blog. They both have new collections out with Salt and are currently touring together. They're here to talk to you about poetry, LGBT literature, and then the three of us are going to make a poem for you all. Because we're nice like that.  

Make yourselves comfortable!


Welcome, both of you! Take a pew, grab a glass of wine etc etc. So, how did you guys first meet?

SM: We met at a reading at the Sanctuary at Brighton in 2001, organised by Leo Mellor: Leo and I had been at university together, and he and John were doing the same MA at Sussex, while I was doing mine in Canada and I’d come home for the summer. Then we met again nine years later through the weird wonders of Facebook.

JM: It was fantastic when we found out we had books coming out with Salt at the same time with similar themes.  The tour was a wonderfully logical step.

When did you first start writing poetry?

JM: I began in 1995, though my first poems were terrible.  The oldest piece in The Frost Fairs is a tiny, rather sordid poem called ‘Dragons’, from 1999.

SM: My primary school was very keen on creative projects – as long as you followed the rules! I can’t remember when I started writing poetry, but I remember having my first poem published in the school magazine when I was in Infants 1 (age 6), which was about our class butterfly-hatching project and began “I’m an Adonis Blue, happy and gay” [JC: love that!]. Although its queerness wasn’t evident at the time, it was considered controversial for having a non-rhyming final couplet. I was more interested in writing stories at that point, and remember having “writer’s block” for at least a term in Infants 2 after a collaborative illustrated story assignment went south. I didn’t really write poetry outside school assignments until I was a teenager and became obsessed with Sylvia Plath and (the shame!) Jim Morrison. I had a great English teacher from Year 9 onwards who introduced me to amazing, innovative poets and encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. It was the 1990s and the height of zine culture, so I sent poems to lots of amazing riot grrrl and grunge zines. That eclectic, experimental, remake-it-new attitude really starting me writing for readers, rather than for my diary.

Which poets have inspired you?

JM: One of the longer poems in The Frost Fairs is called ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’ and features the speaker imagining a meeting with said poet.  He certainly helped to broaden my outlook, showed me how to employ a more diverse range of tones.  In fact, a lot of my influences are American or Anglo-American: August Kleinzahler, Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop have been especially important to me.  In terms of UK poets, I’ve been inspired by a good number of poets who emerged in the late eighties and early nineties such as Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott and Sarah Maguire.  I like writers who are able to marry emotional depth with a fresh way of looking.

SM: Broadly, poets who have spoken “slant” (to steal from Emily Dickinson): written outside of established traditions or communities; made their voices heard against and despite social and cultural suppression. As a woman and feminist, there is a slanted genealogy of women poets that I return to frequently, and I’m always excited to discover further female voices emerging from historical research or in translation. The same is true for queer poets. At the moment I’m playing around with poem-fragments from a Spanish anthology of medieval women Arabic writers from al-Andalus. Peter Cole’s anthology of poetry from al-Andalus foregrounds a gay male tradition, often using the trope of David and Jonathan, and I am playing with that in a series I’ve been writing.

My work is very openly intertextual and I feel that it’s crucial to make attributions were possible to demonstrate the cycling of ideas and inspirations: my poems often begin with a named painting or photograph or a film, often interconnected with a conversation with or lines from another writer. In the new collection, there are epigraphs from the American poet Elizabeth Willis, who I took a writing workshop with, and from Australian poet Geraldine Mackenzie, who I heard recite her work at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry in 2002.

There are also poems in the book that work explicitly with, on, towards, around, into the work of Sylvia Plath, Sappho, Federico Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke (the latter two are translations) – who are such dominant figures that it’s hard to call them influences. They are more like givens, gifts, myths. I love translating, entering directly into conversation with another writer across time and language, allowing their formations and inventions to work on and in my language.

How well do you think LGBT literature is represented at the moment? 

SM: Represented where? And to whom? And how?

Within academia, the trends began by feminist writers in the 1960s continue for both women’s and LGBTQ writing: the recovery and/or re-analysis of historical writers and historical understandings of gender and sexuality (for example, the recent critical anthology _Queer Blake_); and the broadening of the curriculum so that period and genre studies include queer, female and authors of colour in a non-tokenised way. Experimental queer writers such as Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy are being re-evaluated and their influence is increasingly apparent on the current generation of writers. There is also, in the US and Canada more than here, attention to diversity _within_ contemporary LGBTQ literary identities: not only with the exciting current wave of trans and intersex writers such as Ivan Coyote and Thea Hillman, but also culturally different ways of doing/being sexualities – the rise and rise of Two-Spirit (Native American queer/trans) writers is really exciting (check out the blog BlackCoffeePoet; and also Salt’s publication of Walking with Ghosts by Qwo-Li Driskill).

Despite the appointment of Carol-Ann Duffy as poet laureate (accompanied by plentiful references to her non-appointment in the previous round, speculatively due to her having a female partner) and the ongoing brilliance of Jackie Kay, there are fewer high-profile LGBTQ poets (high profile being reviewing for broadsheets, headlining festivals, etc), while in literary fiction, there are exciting writers such as Ali Smith and Emma Donoghue who challenge the marketing-friendly and increasingly coercive portrayal of gayness often seen in tokenised gay and lesbian characters on TV.

JM: It’s got a lot better of late, especially with path-breaking figures like Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Alan Hollinghurst and Emma Donoghue who have attracted mainstream attention.  In terms of UK poetry, there haven’t really been any gay male poets under forty releasing books with the bigger presses in the last ten years which is slightly odd, though I don’t think that’s down to homophobia.  There have been many brilliant female LGBT poets who have helped us all like Duffy, Jackie Kay, Patience Agbabi and Maria Jastrzebska.

Who would you love to perform alongside?

SM: I’m reading alongside Ali Smith on July 5th which fulfils a dream: I absolutely love her work on the page, and her readings are so mischievous and engaging and conversational, I think it’s going to be an absolute blast [JC: so jealous of this!!]. It’s also at the lovely Clerkenwell Tales bookstore in Exmouth Market, so it will be a fun audience in a beautiful space.

Anne Carson would be top of my list for future readings, although I’d also be terrified to read alongside her because her reading style is utterly unique. In her Paris Review interview she describes it, and herself, as “unbearable”. I admire the ferociously individual discipline and diction of her work on the page; her readings are both dry (ironic/scholarly) and unlatched (nakedly affective). I wouldn’t like to read _after_ her but I’d love to read alongside her!

Closer to home (and possibility): I saw Anthony Joseph read at the Brand farewell party and I was blown away by his combination of intensity and verve, the playfulness of his language and the work it’s doing. I thought, wow, I’d love to read alongside him because it would feel like a jam.
I’d also love to visit Melbourne to read alongside my friend Alison Croggon: I think I stole her reading style ten years ago and should really give it back!

JM: Lady Gaga would be fun [JC: Ha!].  More seriously, I haven’t read with Kleinzahler, Shapcott or Maguire so I’ll opt for them.

Tell us about your poetry tour.

SM: Two poets are better than one… John and I felt that the co-incidence of our books being published in the same season by Salt was too good to pass up, and that we could help each other find gigs! We approached a combination of bookstores, local reading series (queer and general), academic reading series, and festivals, and so have built a laconic series of travelling events thanks to the tireless organising of hosts like Maria Jastrzebska and Kit Fryatt. Sadly, my visions of a tour bus with AC, Nintendo Wii, a masseuse and a chef (based on old dreams of being a rock star) have been harder to actualise.

It’s been amazing to feel how we respond to each other as the tour has gone on. Although our styles are quite different, there are lots of odd and wonderful tangential connections between our work: lips, Julie Christie and Captain Haddock spring to mind. Come and see us read to learn more...

JM: Yes I was surprised and mightily chuffed to find the number of points of contact which makes the evening feel very much like a dialogue, something which we’ve enhanced with each event.  I like to think that as a pair we deal with alternative desires from both a female and a male viewpoint.  We’ve been touring since the beginning of May, reading at various bars, theatres, universities and bookshops.  We’re always looking for other places to visit if anyone fancies an evening of queer poetry.

Both of your collections are published by Salt – how do you think Salt are fighting poetry’s corner?

JM: Salt are doing very well in the current climate, despite losing Arts Council funding like many poetry organizations.  What I love about Salt is they are more pluralist than most publishers; there’s a genuinely wide array of writers, both experimental and mainstream, together with a big online presence; like me, Chris Hamilton-Emery is often on Twitter, Facebook and poetry forums.  There’s a real enthusiasm for new ways of publishing too, with Kindle editions for most of their releases.

SM: Just by being a small press with a big list, Salt are fighting for poetry as diverse, contemporary and resistant. The range of voices – across styles and generations – published by Salt is enhanced by the press’ efforts to bring its writers together in the Salt Cellars and reading series.
I know John is keen on e-publishing as a solution to poetry’s woes, but I’m less sure… I’m a firm believer in bookstores like the wonderful Clerkenwell Tales, and the book as an object that can be held in the hand and passed around! I think that Salt are working out a keen compromise across the challenges of publishing and distribution as they are affected by digital media: Chris is flexible and proactive.

JM: I love books as objects too!  I like the physical relationship you can have with an individual book and don’t own a Kindle myself.  I would second Sophie on independent bookshops – in Brighton-and-Hove you can only buy The Frost Fairs in City Books on Western Road which is one of my favourites. [JC: Hurray for Indies!]

Pitch your books for us:

JM: The Frost Fairs is a collection of love poems that shifts between the present day and various periods in history, with a particular focus on the nineteenth century.  A range of gay, straight, transgender and intersex voices are conjured in pieces that I hope are moving and tender.  The book explores transatlantic relationships but also probes other urban and scientific themes.  It’s a mixture of free verse and formal poetry – there are lots of sonnets which come at subjects from surprising angles.  Alongside the more poignant work there are also playful, humorous poems that are designed to leave the reader feeling uplifted.

SM: Remember the Buffy episode where Buffy reads Emily Dickinson? That’s the DNA of The Private Parts of Girls: half facing down your demons and half really good kissing.

Sophie, which poem is your favourite from ‘The Frost Fairs’ – and John, what’s your favourite from ‘The Private Parts of Girls’?

SM: One of the things I love about The Frost Fairs is that it’s such a coherent collection with resonances that reach across the book. On each reading, I’m struck again by the way multiple discourses interweave: queer history, critical theory, and natural science forging a new language of observation and desire. For that reason, even though ‘Foucault’s Spoons’ charms me every time John reads it, I’m going to pick ‘The Floating World,’ which for me is the fulcrum of the book: looking ahead to ‘The Cure’ and ‘Tropospheric’ (‘Cloud sex’!) and building on ‘Sneakers’ and ‘Known Light’. In all of them, the precision of scientific terminology and natural observation are brought together to speak of transatlantic love, love across the distance enforced by lyric’s language of compulsory heterosexuality: the distance rewritten into intimacy by the refiguration of the ocean as a connection rather than separation, even as the phone hangs ‘ringing, ringing’ over a stanza break.
‘The Floating World’ is stunning: there’s a riff on WC Williams (the box / of fetid plums left outside your flat / all week) that’s not just a nod to the loveliest love poem: the plums are sea-gifts full of time (the poem, one of the longer ones in the collection, takes its time), like the ‘fossils / of iguanodon’ and ‘whelks’ eggs’: decay, death, birth, this is a poem in love with the precarious body, with recovering the drowned.

JM: I think my answer changes depending on the day I’m asked.  Touring with Sophie, I get to appreciate different poems more when I hear them read aloud. ‘FIRE / white warrior’ and ‘On Being Dismissed as ‘Plathlike’’ are fantastic on the page yet are also transformed by the urgent, sassy way Sophie reads.  Her book gets off to a magnificent start with ‘Trial Proof for The Blue Feet (Kiki Smith)’ too which brims with startling imagery and ingenious line breaks.  One of the most impressive things about the book is how distinctive it is on the page, how it makes numerous fabulous switches between stanza shapes and different styles of punctuation to make particular points.  The boldly imaginative ‘Horticulture’ is a lovely example of Sophie’s gift for urgent, intimate poems with a killer last line and shows well how diverse her talent is with its complex use of half-rhyme.  Others not to miss: ‘Sappho’s Cookbook’, ‘Belle est la bete’, ‘L’espirit d’escalier’ and ‘WATER / Blue Warrior’.

On our book forum we have a ‘Book Tree’ where members choose their favourite novel/poetry collection/play and post it round to each other in a circle. If you were each to choose a book to send round the Book Tree, what would you pick and why?

SM: I work in a bookstore so I would probably encourage the tree people to buy books. So if I were sending something around, it would probably be something rare or out-of-print. I must have “lent out” (as in: and never had returned) half-a-dozen copies of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer, a brilliant Women’s Press speculative fiction novel that seems highly relevant to how we survive the current eco-crisis. I was part of a rather lackadaisical email group last year where we read and talked about Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (still in print, but about anarchism, so beg/borrow/steal). Science fiction is ideas-driven, and the ideas in both of those books  – about environmental politics, economics and storytelling – are urgent and original, so to me a science fiction novel would be the perfect book to share.
I would also love to share Anne Carson’s Nox, which was published in a limited edition. In a box. It’s an object of wonder and deep satisfaction but it’s so gorgeous I would be a bit worried about whether I would ever get it back! [JC: We have had the Royal Mail eat a couple of our books, it's true...]

JM: Again, I’d find it hard to choose just one.  Off the top of my head, the novel I’ve re-read the most is Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.  It examines England and Australia in the nineteenth century from a really quirky, panoramic perspective, and it’s beautifully structured through extremely short chapters so you keep seeing the book’s universe through different characters’ eyes.

What are you both working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?

SM: I’m working on extending my use of the series poem across a number of ideas: the poems about David mentioned above, which are also a riff on Wyatt’s Penitential Psalms and the lyric tradition; a very long sequence of narrative poems about Medusa, some of which I’ve just put together in a chapbook, Incarnadine; a series called Kiss-Off which I’m experimenting with publishing on Facebook (oh, the instant, addictive hit of Likes).
Compiling and editing the manuscript slowed down the generation of new work, so my aim for the near future is to see if serials can keep me writing, rather than the concept of the ‘poem’ leaving me stymied by the need to generate a ‘new’ idea and form for each piece. I’m interested in the Modernist use of the serial in visual arts, and its poetic echo in Gertrude Stein’s work.

JM: I’m working on individual poems at the moment rather than a longer project.  The Frost Fairs gathers together work from eleven years of writing and it’s taken a long time to assemble a collection that works as a whole thing rather than a more random assortment of poems.  I think it’ll take me a fair while to put together another.

Finally, I’ve never tried this before, but let’s give it a go. Let’s see if we can write a poem between the three of us. 

[Jen is in black, Sophie is in red, John is in blue]


It happened the day Isabel’s wings broke. Tore on
the sky: those ragged clouds lightninged
a tree on her way home. Her bloody feet an envelope
pushing on my doormat. I let her in. Gave her a beer.
(nothing to see here.
her fingers
nothing to hear.
curling hair around her ear)
Let her peel herself across my living room carpet. 
The cigarette burns my cat used
to fall in. The prowl.

She edged onto the sofa – a knot of feathers, now
not featherfallen but down
self-reproach and faulty angles.  Do you want me
to phone the ministry? I said.  She met my gaze
gauzed and vaselined and haloed
(that’s how they do it
in the movies)
blue angel
then took a swig.  Clutched my wrist and pulled mmmmmmme o! close.

The Private Parts of Girls & The Frost Fairs are available from Salt.


You can view the most recent poems of mine in the new issue of Agenda.


  1. Some great poems Jen. I really liked 'Girl Red.'

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.