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Read: Q&A with John McCullough, Hawthornden Prize 2020 winnerJohn McCullough

John McCullough
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Tell us a bit about your current work on environmental issues and the pandemic, and your book about personal and social anxiety.

My collection of poems Reckless Paper Birds contains a large number of poems that inhabit my experiences of severe anxiety and vulnerability. Since it came out, I’ve written a number of poems exploring these further in relation to wider patterns of human fear and panic linked to climate change and COVID-19. I’ve been looking at how responses to the virus take place beside oceans suffering from bleached coral and plastic pollution, how interwoven it all is.

I had wanted to write about the bioluminescent plankton that feature in ‘And’ (see below) for some time. When researching what biologists had to say about the phenomenon, however, I was struck to hear that what we see as a gorgeous blue light is a panic response. When these tiny creatures are pulled toward unfamiliar shores, they light up so that nearby predators will be illuminated too and perhaps be targeted in turn. Poetry is often about probing how contradictory emotions can be simultaneously present in a single situation: here, beauty and terror.

The plankton suggested to me that when humans respond to enormous, horrifying threats like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, when they are at their most fearful, they can also be at their most inspiring and magnificent. The new social formations that the pandemic has forced – neighbours coming together, people not using planes and trains but instead working more from home – may have come from necessity but there have been unexpected positives too, including a revived sense of people belonging to local communities and a broader emphasis on humans pulling together for the common good. Extinction Rebellion was similarly forged in the furnace of the most terrifying circumstances – the potential end of our species and of many others – but I find the creativity and imagination of its projects beautiful.


Do you believe that poems can be therapeutic? How could poetry be used to help people face up to the climate & ecological emergency and their grief over everything that is being lost?

Yes, I think poems often are therapeutic. When they work, they engender a specifically emotional response from a reader because of the way they deploy rhythm, imagery and sound patterning in a really compressed way. Often that leads to catharsis which can be especially helpful with grief, though it can also lead to renewed compassion both for fellow humans and for other biological organisms. It reminds us that we’re all part of the same larger organic structures and that there is work to be done to save them.


What do you think might be the role of poets in the Anthropocene?

I think the role of poets is primarily to do with inspiring passion, revitalizing commitment. A poem can’t change the world on its own but it can lead to a clarification of purpose. Poetry doesn’t appeal to the rational mind as in debate and scientific studies. Its unique gift is that, through stirring someone emotionally, it allows a little window to be opened in their mind, a compassionate determination, which might then lead to action. And in this age of mass extinctions of species, polluted oceans and poisoned skies, we need as many little windows opened as possible.


What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about nature or the climate & ecological emergency?

Back in the middle of the twentieth century, the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote an apocalyptic piece called ‘The End of the Owls’ in response to the threat of mass extinction through the Cold War. It touched not only on animals but on the likely impact on things like icebergs, lichen – all the ‘unspeaking witnesses’. I still find it really resonant today.


If you could live for a day inside the mind of a writer or poet, to experience life as they do, who would you choose?

I’ve always been fascinated by how the work of the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson soars with imagination despite or perhaps because of the tight constraints of her life. Her phrase-making and idiosyncratic approach to punctuation create little universes like nothing else in her time or since. I’d love to see the magic happen, how she came up with her electric combinations: ‘A Quartz contentment’, ‘An Everywhere of Silver’. She’s always especially vivid when capturing giant natural events like thunderstorms: ‘It loosened acres, lifted seas / The sites of Centres stirred / Then like Elijah rode away / Upon a Wheel of Cloud.’


Do many of your creative writing students address environmental and political issues? Do you think all creative people have a responsibility to address these issues, or do you think there is value in creating art for art’s sake in the darkest of times (perhaps a certain defiant beauty in the band playing as the Titanic went down)?

In the MA poetry course I teach at Brighton University, we always spend a week looking at eco-poetry and eco-criticism and how these interact with people’s experiences of health conditions, impairments, sexuality etc. I find a great many of my students have already been working on pieces that address environmental and political issues too. One lovely thing about living in Brighton-and-Hove is that these things are very much in the air in terms of local conversations.

I wouldn’t say all creative people have a responsibility to address any single issue in their art, even one that affects everyone. We’re all uniquely orientated with respect to which aspects of larger social problems enter our awareness day to day and in which forms. Living by the ocean, for instance, I can’t help but have its health at the forefront of my mind. I suspect I’m always going to be more drawn to looking at things like plankton, coral and the impact of plastic on marine ecosystems than someone who lives far inland. Though my own work tends to focus on political and social issues, I think there is a place also for art for art’s sake, as you describe. I know, for instance, how much I’ve valued books, TV programmes and web content that is pure, escapist comedy. Every writer and activist deserves to have thirty minutes a day where their brain is less busy and they can just unwind and recharge so that they’re at their best when they head back to the front, striving for change.




March 2020


The radiance is visiting again,

a bloom of shimmering plankton at low tide―

blue souls that lift the shore to space.


Conditions must be perfect for them to glow,

the darkness total. They must be far from home,

completely lost, exiled by currents


then panicked by the foamy smack

of breakers. This is no bounty for them. It’s horror,

this brilliance that quivers, arcs.


Picture it now so you’ll remember the image

one lonely midnight when your heart assaults

your ribs: the galactic light of tiny selves


that never wanted anything like this

but, together, finished up terrified, magnificent,

brightly living the only way they know.



John McCullough lives in Hove. His latest book of poems, Reckless Paper Birds (Penned in the Margins, 2019) won the 2020 Hawthornden prize for literature and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. He teaches creative writing at the University of Brighton and New Writing South.


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