Getting Physical with Andrew McMillan at the Hyde Park Book Club Book Club
Three months in and the Hyde Park Book Club Book Club is looking suitably, well, bookish. For those thinking the repetition of ‘book club’ is a typo, it’s not: it is a book club held in a venue called, confusingly, the Hyde Park Book Club. Our focus on contemporary northern writing has spanned short stories, novels and, as of September, poetry. More specifically, Andrew McMillan’s award-winning debut poetry collection, Physical, which spawned one of our liveliest discussions yet. We huddled around a vegetable-adorned table in Hyde Park Book Club’s lovely new second space and—more terrible puns alert!—got down and dirty with Andrew’s collection. Reading it is less like reading poetry, more like wandering through someone’s heart and then out into a wild northern night out.
There were certain poems, like ‘The Men In the Gym Are Weeping’, which made some of us cry, others of us laugh. There was one poem translated from the Medieval Icelandic which left us all a bit confused. Yet we were all struck by Andrew’s unflinching portrayal of everyday human intimacies and awkwardnesses. After the book club, I emailed Andrew some of our questions, and he was kind enough to answer them.
The collection seemed to challenge the conventional divide, in poetry as in life, between the physical and the intellection or metaphysical. Yet this challenge had shifted shape considerably by the end of the collection. Did you write it with this change in mind or did it come as a surprise?
I think I began writing the book, as I think most poets do, just as occasional, individual poems, and so I’m always surprised when that turns into something that has a coherence to it.
The first section deals mainly with intimate relationships, the second with those between individuals and their towns. How do you find the two relate?
I think, in the second section, the long poem, I was thinking of loss on a personal and community level. The first poems are often about people leaving, or about things that didn’t quite work out, and Barnsley, as a town, suffered really hard in the last recession. It felt like a loss, too: the loss of potential, the loss of a future. In many ways to the two are similar.
Everyone in the group was struck by your sensitivity in illuminating the mundane moments of physical intimacy in relationships at a level of detail we’d rarely come across before. Were you conscious of this?
There are a lot of great American poets, like Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, who are doing a similar thing. I think its less done here, and certainly for a young man I think it was something a bit new, a bit different. I didn’t set out to uncover new ground though, I think I was just trying to be honest with what attracted me, what moved me.
The translation of the Skaldic poet Egill Skallagrimsson… I have to admit we were all a bit confused…
Yes its a bit of an odd one! It comes from a project I did with Cambridge University where different poets were given ancient skaldic, or Viking, poetry to translate into modern day, so its not my work originally. I was interested in ideas of masculinity and war, in people like Hemmingway, and of that generation of men post-World War II who couldn’t go to war to prove their masculinity, and so found themselves slightly lost.
You’re probably sick of people asking this, espeically given Physical’s phenomenal success, but what’s next?
I never get tired of it. There’ll be another collection in a couple of years, looking at childhood and growing up, thinking how we are before we’re the types of people in Physical perhaps.
The Hyde Park Book Club Book Club runs every month. Focussing on contemporary northern writing, it usually involves people, books and—thanks to our lovely venue, the Hyde Park Book Club—excellent craft beer and veggie chicken. The next meeting is on Tuesday 11th October at 6.30pm and the book up for discussion is Sunjeev Sahota’s gripping debut novel Ours Are The Streets. If you like books and people and beer, you should definitely come. If you’re still not convinced about the veggie chicken, well, you’ll have to try it and see… Let us know you’re coming and find out about future events on Facebook.