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Ian McMillan interviewed by Eloise Unerman

It’s not every day you wake up to find you’ve been offered a new title. In my case – Young Poet Laureate for Barnsley! An honour bestowed on me by the lovely arts people from the Hear My Voice project in Barnsley. But what does it mean you might ask? Needing some insider tips, there was only one thing to do – sit down for a good chat with Barnsley’s first Poet Laureate, the magnificent Ian McMillian.

Ian was kind enough to answer all sorts of burning questions I had and give some of the best advice for young poets starting out. He was warm and funny and told me some very odd stories about men in capes and Dosestos bleach and said blimey a lot. What a role model for me to get started on my young Laureate journey. I hope you enjoy reading or listening as much as I did spending time with the Bard of Barnsley! 

Eloise Unerman

Listen to the interview in full here or read highlights below>>



Someone said to me the other day – do you maintain a base in Barnsley? I said, yeah, I call it my house.

How did your writing journey start?

I was born in 1956 and, in the 50s into the 70s, Darfield was called West Riding. It was a separate education authority that had a Chief Education Officer called Sir Alec Clegg, who was a genius. He said that all children are creative. In my school, Low Valley County Primary, we just wrote all the time. We’d have a lesson, then we’d sing about it and dance about it and write about it. It just felt like the most natural thing in the world. Writing was not something that other people did and you didn’t do.

Sounds like paradise.

It was. But it didn’t prepare you for the world and I went to Wath Grammar School and the teachers weren’t West Riding. We had one fantastic teacher, Mr Brown, who got me back into writing. I was so thick I thought essay was spelled S.A. and I wrote, ‘my S.A. by Ian McMillan, future Nobel Prize for Literature winner.’ He took me to one side and said, ‘Ian, Nobel Prize Winners don’t come from Darfield.’ Which I disagree with, I think they can. But he was great. If we could point to one teacher who really got us going, he was the one.

What were your influences when you first started writing and what are they now?

When I first started, they were comics. My mum used to get her hair done once a fortnight in Great Houghton and, when she came back, she’d bring me this brown paper parcel with comics in: Dandy, Beezer, Victor, and what she called a Commando Book which was a little one. At the same time, I was getting books out of the library. I never saw any difference between them, they were both exciting writing.

Then I started reading John Steinbeck, he was my favourite. And, in terms of poetry, I didn’t read a lot. Then Mr Brown gave me Crow, Ted Hughes’ 1970s book – here’s a book of jokes by comedians. I read them and they made laugh and he said, by the way they’re not jokes, they’re poems. And I thought, blimey. Then we were doing this book called Nine Modern Poets so it’d have people Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, John Betjeman.

I went to college in Stafford and I was still reading stuff, and standing up and performing it. In those days, there was a network of folk clubs where they had these singers’ nights like open mic nights. They were so welcoming. You’d read your stuff and they’d go, good lad. Me and my mate Martin used to work together and we’d do comedy and poems, and that’s what got me started in enjoying being a performer.

These days, I read all the time – books just keep arriving. When I get home tonight, because I went out at seven o’clock, there’ll be two more Jiffy bags full of books. It’s great. My wife says – why have we got all these books? And I’ll just go – I’ve been presenting this show on the radio about books for sixteen years so they’re going to keep coming in. At the moment, my favourite in terms of performance is John Cooper Clark, partly because he has a northern accent. Whenever he sees you, he knows you vaguely but he always says, alright lad, how’s the project? So then you go, I’m still writing, John.

My favourite poet of all time is Roy Fisher. One of the first readings I ever did, in 1978 in a pub in Toddington, he was the headliner. It was the weirdest gig. The organiser was drunk and he kept standing up and selling vegetables. We’re doing this poem and he stands up saying, get your carrots! This other bloke goes, I’m going to kill that fella for interrupting the poets, the drink has destroyed him. I was a teenager thinking, god, this is great. This is how the literary life should be. Then this man ran in, Jack Trevor Storey who was a novelist, with a cape and a flying helmet and goggles and he ran round the room shouting, I am the president, then he ran off.

There was a Doncaster Literature Festival years ago and I saw a reading by Ted Hughes, and he stopped halfway through. I can’t do anymore, he says, I’m spent. Those were my influences but, I’m also influenced by every book I read. I’m just reading Louise Gluck, she’s one of my favourites, an American poet.

What draws you the most to poetry?

I think the way that it’s democratic and anybody can do it. Even if you can’t read or write, you can speak it. I like theatre and I like art but, to make these things, you’ve got to have a space and other things. But, to make poetry, all you need is a blank sheet of paper or your voice. It feels like a universal form that’s been going on forever and, whatever happens, it’s not going to break. It’s endless resilience. When I first started, I thought it was a precious vase and, if I dropped it, it might shatter but it’s not. I think people turn to poetry at times of either great personal or national and international turbulence, like we’re having now.

How did the radio work start and what do you like the most about presenting The Verb?

A mate of mine, Dave Sheasby, was a radio producer in Sheffield. He rang me up and said, I want to interview you about your writing. So he interviewed me and I made him laugh, and he said, can you make me laugh every week?

My advice to people is always say yes, at least to great adventures. He said, can you write me a thing every week called A Letter from Barnsley, just a little 15-minuter? Not live, recorded. And that’s where it started. Then they invited me and my mate Martin to review the papers on Radio Sheffield, and that was a live thing. Then Dave said, do you want to present a show on Saturday mornings on Radio Sheffield from nine until twelve?’ So we said yeah, and that was so exciting. Then Dave moved to Radio 4 and he said, ‘have you got any ideas?’ And I said yeah – I had no ideas. So he thought of some ideas. He had The Blackburn Files, which were just like a detective story set in Barnsley, and then made documentaries.

And then, about sixteen years ago, (I love Radio 3 but I always thought it was elite) the Radio 3 boss rang up and he went, ‘would you like to do a pilot for a show on Radio 3?’ I felt like, I’m with the big boys here. Scary. So I did the pilots originally going to be called Saturday Speakeasy and then Pure Verb, because that’s a line of a Seamus Heaney poem, and then they said, we’d like you to present this thing called The Verb.

I’ve been doing it for sixteen years now and there are so many good things about it. On Radio 3, you can stretch out and do what you want. You can ask people difficult questions, you can get people to mesh with each other. I’ve got a fantastic group of people. For ten years, it was down in London and then they said, ‘Ian, good news, we’re moving to Salford.’ And I said, ‘you think the north’s a small shed and Salford is just there and Barnsley’s there.’ It takes me twenty minutes longer to get to Salford than it does to get to London.

Every week is an absolute joy. Last Saturday we recorded one of the last nights of The Proms, so we had Michael Palin talking about his new book. We had Jason Singh beatboxer, Anne Dudley who wrote the music for The Full Monty and American slam champion Mojdeh Stoakely. Before the show I always give the guests apples and, after, we have cake. We try and make it like a party and, at the end of it, I’m buzzing with ideas and excitement.

You must’ve met some interesting people in your career – who stands out and why?

Very early on, there was a poet called Harold Massingham who was in the same class as Ted Hughes at school but has always been a bit forgotten, and he was such an interesting fella.

He came from Mexborough, wrote these amazing poems that were really difficult and, when I met him, he had a real odd charisma. I saw him do a reading at Lumb Bank at the Arvon Foundation – he turned up with a white shirt on and a goatee beard and he said, I am a complete sensualist, I drink Lager and I take snuff. I was a young man and I thought – this is fantastic. There was a guy called Ken Campbell who was a theatre maker and writer, and we had him on The Verb a lot.

He was an amazing person, his thing was improvisation. He set up these improv-a-thons where he’d just get people to improvise for twenty four hours. He said – you’ve got to get your lizard brain, stop thinking. He did these fantastic things for us on The Verb. One of my favourite people is Liz Lockhead who’s a wonderful poet from Scotland and she was one the first people I met in terms of performing.

Has being northern and having an accent ever affected how you’re seen or how you work as a poet?

It’s never affected how I see myself but often people think all kinds of things, like they think you put your voice on. He talks like Prince Charles in the house. Can’t stand that Ian McMillan, professional Yorkshireman. Someone said to me the other day – do you maintain a base in Barnsley? I said, yeah, I call it my house. They didn’t believe that someone could live here and be cultured and interesting and intellectual. Sometimes I know that I’m picked as the token northerner for things, when they’ve got a panel.

I’ve being doing voiceover on Channel 4 for this show called The Dales and Lakes and I had to keep going, ‘Later in The Dales and Lakes,’ before each advert break, and this fella on the train the other day came up to me and asked me to say it. So I said it. And I went, ‘oh, great.’ Then Sean Bean who’s in Sheffield did a voiceover and they thought he was me. ‘I thought I’d hear you on the telly.’ I said, ‘no, you didn’t. It was Sean Bean, a blade. I’m a Barnsley fan.’

Is there anything young writers have now that you wish you had when you were starting out?

The internet. You’d write a poem and I’d get my mum to cut up cornflake packets to fit an envelope so my poem was flat. Then about five weeks later it might come back. And you’d have to think, who was that person who wrote diddly-dee? So you’d go down to Darfield Library, you’d look, you’d ask your mate. Nowadays, it’s all there. Also I like Twitter so much and I wouldn’t be able to tweet all the time.

And is there anything you had when you were starting out that you wish young writers nowadays had?

It’s the other side of the coin we just talked about. I quite liked the mystery of not being able to find things, which will never happen again in human history. You’d think, what was that thing? Where was that? Who wrote that book? What is that tune? Who said that? Knowledge was a mystery whereas now knowledge is a very practical thing that you can find anywhere. Sometimes I wish that young people had that sense of things that you can’t quite grasp.

Is there anything that you would say to the young poet version of you if you could go back in time?

I’d say, take more opportunities. I’ve took plenty but I remember getting third prize in a competition in York and I won something like ten quid. And the idea was that I was going to go read my poem and I was so nervous that I daren’t go. I remember, on the morning, saying that to my mum and going and sitting in Darfield Library. I wrote to the woman because we didn’t have a phone, and she wrote back saying – you silly boy. And maybe – work harder at school, McMillan.

What have you enjoyed most about being Barnsley Poet Laureate?

I resisted the name for ages. I said – can I be Barnsley Poet Champion or Barnsley Poet Tsar? I don’t like that word, laureate. Because I’ve been here a long time they all know me so, when I’m walking about – he’s here. Don’t say anything, he’ll write a poem about it. Or – Put that in a poem.

What’s good about it is – here’s a poem I’ve written. I get a lot of that when I’m at the football. I like being a public person. There used to be a fella going round Barnsley who’d stop me and go – I’ve got a quick one for you, Ian. I thought that Laureate felt like you were distanced from that. What I’ve enjoyed about it is that it’s legitimised what I do anyway. Also, it’s concentrated the mind wonderfully because they’ve gone – we’d like you to write a poem about this, or about the Tour de Yorkshire.’ What I’m writing is not aimed at people who read poetry, it’s aimed at everybody. I did like the word in the end – my mate drew a picture of me with a lorry on my hat because I’m Poet ‘Lorry Hat’. That’d be good, wouldn’t it? Or a hat made out of a lorry.

You’re judging Hive’s Young Writers Competition early next year. What do you look for in a competition poem?

With a competition poem, it arrives and it’s got to stand on its own two feet. It’s got to say, here I am. There’s no point sending in a poem that might just be one of the ones you’ve written. If you’re entering a competition, you may as well try and win so it’s got to be the best thing you’ve ever written and the most different thing. So, when the judge reads the first line, they think -I can see what’s coming next, then they say, wait a minute, I was wrong. Blimey.

It shouldn’t be your first draft. Maybe you should look at it and really polish it. I know that Hive have got some fantastic hints and tips on how to edit poems, because it’s not an easy skill. But, if you look these, that’ll show you how to do it. I wish I’d had people giving me hints and tips when I was younger. Send me something that, if you were a judge, you would give a prize to.

Is there any advice that you were given about poetry that’s really stayed with you?

I asked somebody what poetry was and he said it’s the music of what happens, and that’s what I like. Wherever you go, whatever you see or hear, whatever you encounter is a possible poem about to happen. Absolutely anything can have music in it. That’s my favourite phrase.

Write as you talk. Just use everything that happens to you as the idea for a poem. Hugo Williams, fantastic poet, writes very much about his life. He wrote this poem about splitting up with a girlfriend but then put, ‘even as we leave the room, I’m working out where the line breaks are going to go in the poem I’ll be writing about this.’ Also, carry a notebook. Write stuff down. Something’ll happen to you and if you don’t write it down, all you remember is you had a good idea.

Any pearls of wisdom to young and emerging writers in South Yorkshire – or anywhere?

I would say always believe that you can do it. Believe that it’s not an exclusive club, it’s an inclusive club that everyone can join. Write poems all the time, read poems all the time. Find out where things are happening. Hive will tell you where things are happening. If things aren’t happening near you, maybe try and start something. Maybe get together with other people who write because you often think that you’re the only one. And, in fact, there are lots of people writing everywhere. So I would say keep your eyes and ears open, keep your notebook open, and keep your book of poems open.

With big thanks to Ian McMillan