The long poem which makes up the centre of physical took about two years to write and then another three to sculpt into the version that exists in this collection.
Around 2010 three things happened; I graduated from undergraduate study, I found out I’d got a grant to go on a free Arvon course and, about 6 or 7 months later I broke up with my first long term boyfriend. The Arvon I chose was about long poems, that’s where I started writing what would become POTP.
In truth, I’d started writing it many months before- I kept trying to come at the same thing, essentially heartbreak and loss, and everything I wrote came out in three or four line bits that weren’t much use on their own. The course, which introduced me to things like David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’, and re-reading long poems like ‘Howl’, suggested to me that maybe I could start stitching these disparate bits together into a long poem. It was literally in various scraps on the desk in my first flat in Barnsley, some on the wall, and I had to start thinking of ways it could come together.
Long poems, I think, need very certain things; they need a sense of movement and a momentum that gives the reader something to be carried on by. I came to think of it like a score of music. I’d have five sections; I’d float a different idea in each of the earlier sections. Once these three themes were established I wanted to start trying to blend them, play them off against each other, mix them up. All poems fail too, ultimately, in what they want to do; the poem is about failure, of me, of love, of a town, of its people, and so the poem itself had to fail.
‘protest of the physical’ (extract) from physical
town that lost something
town coughing something up
watching breathless as it rolls into a crack in the earth
town on its knees trying to find it
town that shrank into a clenched fist sweated
on itself choked one day
so that the roads tied up together
and people were shouldertoshoulder
as in a cage waiting to descend
town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double carried
young men and women and younger men and women
as long as it could but spinebroken
had to let them go
awake after waking for what
seemed like hours the light from the bay
window of the balcony was making rainbows
on the floor there are days
when I don’t miss you or even love you
that much anymore
something of a naked man and fire
which is prehistoric which is horrifying
to be undressed so quickly someone looking on
empty gallery of silence
lines we cannot cross
the naked flame the burning boy
The poem weaves imagined graffiti, things seen on trains, things people said to me, it’s mostly all factual though some bits needed artificially linking – I think a long poem needs to give itself permission to invent its own reality. The ‘burning boy’ bit is an amalgamation of the Bishop poem ‘Cassabianca’ and seeing Roger Hiorns’ art piece Naked Flame at the Hayworth Gallery in London; neither of those things matter to a reader, the long poem absorbs them- poems, I think, should wear their influences lightly.
Long poems also need a structure, in order to be able to sustain their own momentum; I read Tadeusz Różewicz and he had a great line:
“it takes to the streets, staggers from right to left, like a drunk prostitute”
That’s what I wanted the poem to do and hence now it staggers, to the right and left of the page. The drunk prostitute form. I’m still waiting for that one to catch on.
Finally the title; Harry Ricketts’ great book Strange Meetings, about poets in the first world war, had this great quote that Ivor Gurney wanted his poetry to be a “protest of the physical”; I decided that’s what this poem was attempting (and failing) to do.
Andrew McMillan was born in 1988. He is a lecturer/senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. physical was published with Cape Poetry in July 2015 and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015 as well as being shortlisted for the Forward Prize’s Felix Dennis Award for Best First Collection 2015. Follow Andrew on Twitter here.