Seasoned city-stroller, John McCullough, returns to the Poetry School with his new course, The Sound of the City, a cross-town train ride through the exciting sounds, juxtapositions and energy of modern urban life.
With their dense, swarming zones of activity, cities have long provided powerful sources of poetic inspiration, giving form and impetus to many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most innovative movements. Simultaneously modern while striated by the ghosts of previous generations, cities continue to startle us with new encounters and the sense of enduring human presence.
I spoke to John about his upcoming course and the expressive possibilities of our urban sprawls:
Cities can often be surreal places to live in, and at times delightfully extravagant and otherworldly. There’s a great sense of this in your own work. What is about the city that lends itself so well to the uncanny?
John: One of the most wonderful things about cities is their startling and often bewildering range of different words and sounds, cultures and images that arise from having large numbers of people moving through and interacting every day. People and ideas are always coming in from outside and stirring up the mix. Cities can’t help surprising us because they’re always creating new forms and impressions out of these encounters, combining disparate elements in ways which haven’t happened before, which can’t be predicted. Walk around the centre of somewhere like London, Brighton or Manchester for even a few minutes and soon enough you’ll encounter something unfamiliar, some kind of clothing or phrase, food smell or group of people you weren’t expecting: fire eaters, a festival of lights, someone handing out free noodles, fifty drag queens dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Every day is different and I think the best city poems create similar surprises for their readers.
Your collection ‘The Frost Fairs’ is deeply concerned with history. Is it possible to write about the city without bearing witness to the past?
John: To the extent that words carry about a web of meanings from the past, writing always involve raising spectres and conjuring up people and cities long vanished. Words are always metaphors, substitutes for what’s not present too. At the same time, language can’t help evolving, accruing new meanings. I think this tension between the past and modernity is especially vivid in urban spaces where history looms up suddenly in the form of buildings, statues and particular sounds, smells, materials as well as language. The collisions that result offer a lot for poetry with its intimate obsession with loss.
How have Brighton and London variously influenced how and what you write?
John: I think both Brighton and London have their own distinctive mixes of history and sensory impressions, as well as their own unique linguistic textures from the people who live there. Living by the sea, you can’t help but be shaped by this massive presence at your shoulder. People have always used oceans as metaphors for travel and death, for what lies beyond everyday human experience, and that tends to infiltrate the lives of those who hang about by the sea. At the same time, Brighton has a character very different from other seaside resorts in the UK; it has a strangely young population and there’s been fairly constant building and regeneration over the last thirty years. It doesn’t have that traditional whiff of stasis and decay (though that itself offers much to poets). Brighton’s full of movement and colour and, as you say, there’s a close relationship with London in terms of people always zipping between the two. It also has a unique identity in terms of always historically having been associated with outsiders, with dirty weekends and gangsters, with jugglers and vegans, alternative sexualities and subcultures. Central Brighton is much more like Soho than Blackpool or Eastbourne; it’s a gloriously weird bubble, about as un-British and unconservative as a British city gets, and the feelings evoked by inhabiting such a space can’t help but shape what I write from living here. London is, of course, much larger and older. There are many Londons, some like Brighton, some more tightly tied in with the mainstream of British history, with empire, monarchy and war. My poems set in nineteenth century London locations like the frost fairs or the Crystal Palace often dramatize encounters between the history we think we know and something more chaotic and surreal, between the centre and the margins.
There is a very strong tradition of poets writing about cities, particularly architecture (such as Wordsworth’s poem about Westminster Bridge). What is it that specifically appeals to you about architecture?
John: Living in a city, it’s unavoidable. It structures the way your mind thinks in the same way that trees and mountains do living in the countryside; it presents certain possibilities, particular ways of looking and the biggest difference is that there’s a degree of human control. Someone has made built it like this for a reason. At the same time, no one’s in overall control and walking through a city usually involves jumping between different decades and centuries of style which are all bound up with their own sets of ideas and aesthetics too. There’s a fantastic poem by Peter Didsbury called ‘Part of the Bridge’ which explores how architecture naturally becomes invested with emotion the more time we spend with it.
I know you have a special interest in dialect and slang, such as Polari. Cities are great breeding grounds for new dialects as there are so many languages cross-pollinating at once, but that also brings with it a source of conflict. For instance, some people consider common speech as a degenerate version of a ‘better’ or more ‘correct’ language. Do you think cities challenge this attitude?
John: Yes, I think cities are quite democratic in that way. Polari itself is an urban mix of thieves’ cant, Italian, Yiddish, Cockney slang and a range of other sources. That kind of magpie approach happens to quite a lot of language users who live in cities and visit the Polish shop, the Chinese supermarket and overhear different dialects and registers all the time on buses and trains.. You can’t help but come to realize how arbitrary notions of ‘proper’ language are, how words are always in flux and forming new combinations.
Cities offer infinite riches, but there’s a dark side too: more crime, more pollution, limited space, constant noise and interruption. They are often complex and frustrating places to live in. Will you be exploring this shadowy underside in ‘The Sound of the City’?
John: The excitement of cities would be nothing without this darker side. A writer as ostensibly cheery as Frank O’Hara will still in the midst of a rush of celebration drop in lines about how ‘even the stabbings are helping the population explosion’. The truth of human experiences of cities is far from simple, and full of tensions, contradictions, opposites being present simultaneously. There are always unintended consequences that city planners can’t foresee and that cuts both ways. I was reading the other day about how urban birds often line their nests with cigarette butts which provides an unexpected benefit in terms of the nicotine discouraging mites, lice and fleas. Similarly, in Tokyo in the absence of trees crows sometimes build nests entirely out of coat hangers stolen from apartments. There’s something irreducibly ugly and beautiful about these unforeseen behaviours, and good poems are often energized by such paradoxes.
What are some of your favourite city poems?
John: That’s a tough one! I’d give a different list of favourites if I’d answered this question last year, or I was asked again next year. I love the way Frank O’Hara captures the immediacy of cities, that exhilarating onslaught of public information and how it frames the private in pieces like ’A Step Away from Them’, ‘The Day Lady Died’, ‘Steps’, ‘Having a Coke with You’. Rosemary Tonks seems to build whole new fizzing, electric Londons inside the heads of her speakers too in poems like ‘The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas’, ‘Epoch of the Hotel Corridor’, ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’. August Kleinzahler, D. Nurkse and Gerald Stern have written many of my favourite urban poems, and then there are individual pieces that swim back into mind when I least expect it, like Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Way We Live’ or W.S. Merwin’s ‘Departure’s Girlfriend’.
What can we expect from your course?
John: I want to encourage people to write poems that draw on the mix of speed and information that dominates urban life, and that makes writing about it such an exciting task. As I say, as well as the honk of taxis, smell of pizza, chatter of a thousand conversations, they’re full of lots of different kinds of word, different dialects and phrases from adspeak to hiphop, sushi restaurants to gay bars, all bumping against each other in strange new combinations. I’ve designed the assignments on the course to help students harness that. I hope there’ll be a bit of research too, and that students will take their notebooks into the different backstreets and byways in the places where they live, and pull into their work the rhythms of buses and trains, the sudden intrusions of architecture and how this colours their relationships and experiences. I want the course to help produce an array of urban poems where words collide in fresh and surprising ways.
If you fancy giving your poems a metropolitan punch-up, then you can book your place on John’s The Sound of the City course online, or call 0207 582 1679.