Poetry Recommendations from Andrew McMillan
October 5, 2022
We asked one of our favourite people and poets, Andrew McMillan, to recommend some poetry collections on this year's National Poetry Day theme – 'The Environment'. Here Andrew guides us through the environment he's in and some poetry collections to seek out.
I’m lucky that my office sits on top of a brand-new environment that I can explore at my leisure: the Manchester Poetry Library, part of Manchester Metropolitan University.
My secret is that I’ve never been a fan of what we might call the ‘outdoors’, but sitting here, with large windows that bring the outside in, quietening the hum of Oxford Road, feels like a nice compromise.
I’m sitting with a stack of books in front of me, so allow me to guide you through some of them for this National Poetry Day. How about starting with a prayer? Jake Morris-Campbell’s ‘A184 Hymn’ from his powerful debut collection Corrigenda for Costafine Town, published by Blue Diode; it is a timely reminder that every environment, and every place, is worthy of poetry. So too is Geoff Hattersley’s fantastic Harmonica, published by Wrecking Ball Press; turn to the poem called ‘The Depth’ and thank me later.
I can’t sit still for too long; I get up, roam the shelves, find the great Kapka Kassabova’s Someone Else’s Life, one of the first books my dad ever gave to me when my interest in poetry was beginning to grow. To touch it and see its cover again takes me back to the environment of childhood.
That environment is so rich for writing, and for poetic exploration – it’s something Rita Dove does really well in ‘Adolescence 1’, part of her Collected Poems that I carry back to the reading chair.
One of the great things about being in the library is the new publishers one discovers, the deeper and richer environments than might usually be possible on bookshop selves. So I grab fukudapero’s flowers like blue grass, from Crocus, and Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka, from Tilted Axis.
The environment isn’t something that exists purely in the present (obviously) and nor is it mono-lingual. The Grail Roads by Rob Hindle, from Longbarrow Press, which fathoms the depths of history and place, and The Trickster’s Tongue, an anthology of translations from Africa and the African Diaspora, published by Peepal Tree Press, reinforce this point, and further add to my pile of reading and rereading.
Sometimes, perhaps most often, the poems we love are the ones we know we could never write ourselves. I think that’s why I love the singular mind of Harriet Tarlo, on display in Poems 2004–2014, and perhaps this is also true of activities too: I can lose myself in Swims by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett without ever happing to dip my toe into the waters in real life.
Poetry and the environment are perhaps so keenly linked because of the connection to place and how it resonates with us. I notice Seamus Heaney’s 100 Poems and remember going to his HomePlace memorial museum with my-inlaws over the Irish Sea.
Environments are also time-specific, so as the Freshers fall into their first classes like the slow-turning autumn leaves outside, I read the ‘September Notebook’ of Robert Hass.
The environment of a library should always be exciting, and vibrant, and new. Manchester Poetry Library offers me a card game based on Robert Macfarlane’s work, an LP recording of Robert Frost. Mostly, though, the thing I value most is the chance to sit and spend time with work I love. Gëzim Hajdari’s Bitter Grass, published by Shearsman, sings still inside my mind: ‘No one knows if I still hold out / in this corner of the burnt earth’. I do! I am! Here in Manchester Poetry Library. Come say hi.
credit: Urszula Soltys
Andrew McMillan’s debut collection physical was the only ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). It was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. In 2019 it was voted as one of the top 25 poetry books of the past 25 years by the Booksellers Association. His second collection, playtime, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2018; it was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2018, a Poetry Book of the Month in both The Observer and The Telegraph, a Poetry Book of the Year in The Sunday Times and won the inaugural Polari Prize. His third collection, pandemonium, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2021, and 100 Queer Poems, the acclaimed anthology he edited with Mary Jean Chan, was published by Vintage in 2022. Physical has been translated into French, Galician and Norwegian editions, with double-editions of physical & playtime published in Slovak and German in 2022. He is Professor of Contemporary Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.