Andrew McMillan is one of a brilliant generation of young British poets in their twenties, and also one of a growing number of British LGBT poets. His work has been called “electrifyingly fresh and lyrical” (David Morley) and “a glorious, vivid exploration of the body” (Michael Symmons Roberts). His first collection, Physical, was Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, is also currently shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award, and won the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize
McMillan was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire. After studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, he gained an MA in modernism from University College London. He has been an active presence in the UK poetry scene for years, both with his own poetry and as a founding editor (with Martha Sprackland) of Cake Magazine.
His first pamphlet, every salt advance – published by Red Squirrel Press in 2009 – was followed in 2011 by the moon is a supporting player, also with Red Squirrel Press. In 2013, Red Squirrel published his third pamphlet, protest of the physical. This was formed of a single long poem, now the centrepiece of Physical.
The poem, ‘protest of the physical’ – whose stanzas float across the page in broken sentences, with McMillan’s characteristic lower case letters and lack of punctuation – is a series of fragmented meditations on about sex, love, being young, and being from the north of England – from, as the poem mimetically says, ‘Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarnslie’. It’s a raw, heartfelt poem that feels universal:
seemed like hours the light from the bay
window of the balcony was making rainbows
when I don’t miss you or even love you
that much anymore
which is prehistoric which is horrifying
to be undressed so quickly someone else looking on
lines we cannot cross
the naked flame the burning boy
we still sink
The poem is also a tribute to the poet Thom Gunn, whom McMillan counts as his first poetry love, and a major influence (along with Sharon Olds, Diane Wakoski, and Kenneth Patchen, among others). Its youthful sense of fantasy and destiny is captured in the lines:
open at the spine face pushed deep
These lines also get at something of the flavour of McMillan’s take on the ‘physical’: it’s about the body – what Michael Symmons Roberts has called ‘the loved and broken ground on which we meet and are transformed’ – and the longing psyche, which is where the transformation occurs. They exemplify a sleight of hand that seems a signature of the poet’s style: a punning fluidity that enables a poem to convey multiple layers of meaning with a minimum of words.
McMillan’s physical sensibility is sited specifically in gay culture, as he notes in an article he wrote for The Independent. He felt that Gunn’s poetry ‘gave him permission’, writing: ‘Here was a poet who I felt was speaking directly to me, not of things I'd experienced but of things I wanted to experience’. This was, he says, meaningful for ‘a young lad trying desperately to lose weight and fit into a gay world driven by pursuit of physical perfection’.
But his poem recognises that the youthful drive for sex, love and an attractive body is universal. There is human recognition from across the gender divide. In ‘protest of the physical’,
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double carried
as long as it could but spinebroken
had to let them go
McMillan’s work interrogates men, masculinity, maleness, how this is expressed through the body. The opening poem in Physical, ‘Jacob and the Angel’, describes a chance encounter that could be sexual, but is presented as a fight with an angel. This rapturousness, or a readiness for heightened feeling, is ever-present throughout his work, whether wrestling the angel, or lying in bed, or standing at a urinal. The boundary between the self and the other, the nature of intimacy, seems to be McMillan’s real subject, and he finds it in the quotidian places of the everyday.
In a review written for The London Grip, the poet Peter Daniels has written:
sharpen penblade moonglint
now think of Hemingway swallowing a shotgun
. . . because
what is masculinity if not taking the weight
of a boy and straining it from oneself?
and knowing that this is love the prone flesh
what we expel from the body and what we let inside
– from ‘Urination’
Physical, Jonathan Cape, London, 2015
every salt advance, Red Squirrel Press, Northumberland, 2009
the moon is a supporting player, Red Squirrel Press, Northumberland, 2011
protest of the physical, Red Squirrel Press, Northumberland, 2013
The Salt Book of Younger Poets, Salt, Cromer, 2011
The Best British Poetry 2013, Salt, Cromer, 2015
The Best British Poetry 2015 Salt, Cromer, 2015
McMillan’s own website
Physical at the Jonathan Cape website
Interview for the Forwards Arts Foundation
McMillan on ‘Starting a Magazine’ for the Young Poets Network
Profile at Liverpool John Moores University
Review of Physical in The Guardian
McMillan explains ‘How I Did It: “protest of the physical”’ for Campus at The Poetry School
McMillan’s Ted Hughes Award judge profile at The Poetry Society
Video of McMillan reading ‘Finally’ as part of 21 Poets for Sheffield