McCullough – who now lives in Brighton – was born in the less than inspirational greyness of Watford and moved to Sussex to read a Masters degree. Over a decade later he is one of the UK’s leading young voices in poetry and in 2012 won the Polari First Book Prize for his collection, The Frost Fairs. The book garnered widespread praise for not only its tender exploration of love and gay and cross-gendered voices from the past, but also its meditation on the beauty of the Sussex countryside.
McCullough’s soft voice is almost trancelike as he speaks of one of his favourite stretches of outdoor Sussex: the stretch of cliffs that run between Brighton Marina and Rottingdean – the Ovingdean area. “It’s full of so much unusual wildlife,” he says. “As well as the beauty of the cliffs. There’s a flower called Hoary Stock and it only grows on that cliff and on another cliff in in Isle of Wight, in the whole world. It’s a real marker of local Sussex identity.”
His poem The Floating World was inspired by walks through this area. He was entranced by the way the light ricochets sharply off the cliffs – particularly at noon. McCullough is an expert and seemingly limitless source of information on the local landscape.
“Did you know they found hippos in the cliffs there?” he suddenly remarks. This detail found its way into the poem in a haunting image of figures being stuck inside the cliffs, as the speaker imagines his far-away lover, “suspended in rock, silent, reaching out/from a crowd of frozen men.” It’s a powerful and ingenious reflexion on the pain of absence.
A number of poems are set in The Seven Sisters Country Park in Seaford. McCullough loves the sound of skylarks and the acres of wild flowers and, again, it’s the serene and unexpected transformations in the wildlife that so intrigued him. In Seascape the speaker is staring at a white cliff, and what he thinks is flint in the cliff eventually turns out to be a great black moth that flaps its wings and rises resplendently to “spiral away into sky.” As McCullough explains, “That actually happened to me, and it seemed to be quite a useful metaphor for someone who is looking for the bad in things and has perhaps a very dour, severe mindset. It shows that when you look at something more closely it can actually be quite joyful.”
Looking so closely at Sussex’s nature was something that McCullough first learnt to do while running through the fields in an effort to get fit. He admits that he knew nothing then about the county’s famous chalk landscapes or the unusual flowers that he can now so easily identify.
“Most of my poems are love poems, with the speaker looking out on the countryside and thinking about the love object. The metaphors of the landscape explore their state of mind.
“The thing about the Sussex landscape is that it is so tall and huge and you’re really exposed. There is nowhere to hide. The landscapes are not jagged and violent, but are gently rolling, like the backs of whales – so it’s quite open. When you’re in a space like that it deepens your sense of solitude. It means I spend quite a lot of time inside myself, I think. This county really is a gift to a poet.”
For me poetry is rhythm and language that has been impressed to make it more intense. I think it was Emily Dickinson who said that a truly good poem makes you feel like your head has been taken clean off. Your body has a strong, almost violent reaction which is almost beyond logic.
Tips For Finely Perfecting Poetry
My biggest piece of advice is to see poetry as a craft – something that will take you a number of years to slowly get better at. When people start out they often have notions of, “I’m either a genius and brilliant straight away or I will be terrible forever.” But if you spend the time and swap your work with other people and really try hard to read as much poetry as you can, then you will improve. I judge a lot of poetry competitions now and the biggest thing that I think helps people to move forward is to read, read, read. What is it about your favourite poems that inspire an emotional response in you? Spend time going back to poetry you like but also broaden your reading – and be open to changing and developing as a writer.
Many people think it’s all about self-expression – pouring your agony out onto the page; then it can’t be changed because it’s come from the heart. But as you get older you realise you can craft it more, make it enjoyable for an outside reader who has not had your experience.