Here is Naomi’s next review of another outstanding book shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award. When I first read this book of poetry last year I was so struck by its distinct direct voice and connected so strongly with McMillan’s original perspective that it became one of my favourite books of the year. If you want to read my review of ‘Physical’ click here.


Since the publication of his debut poetry collection Physical, Andrew McMillan has been hailed as the poet of masculinity. It was interesting to be aware of this approaching the collection as a feminist and – if I may be so bold – I’d dare to say that McMillan is also a feminist, at least to the extent that he understands that patriarchal ideas of masculinity are as damaging to men as they are to women.

The collection’s divided into three sections. In the first, also titled ‘physical’, McMillan explores what it means to be male in the 21st century, alongside experiences of loving relationships and one night stands. In ‘Strongman’ the narrator bench presses his nephew asking ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight/of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ while conceding that his own attempt is one ‘not even a minor Greek would see as fit to sculpt’. While in ‘The Men Are Weeping in the Gym’, McMillan creates a picture of those who do sculpt themselves ‘and because they have built themselves/as statues this must mean that God/has entered them’ but juxtaposes this with the vulnerability that lies beneath, created with an image of the muscle tearing ‘itself/from itself’.

McMillan excels in moving from the general to the specific. In ‘Urination’ (the poem he tells us at the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event his mum has asked him never to read again), the narrator begins by describing the potential horror of bumping someone at the urinals, leading to thoughts of the times the bathroom is shared in intimate settings and the specific moment when he takes ‘the whole of him in your hand/and feel the water moving through him/and knowing that this is love…’. It’s these moments when he writes of love – whether of a one night stand in ‘Just Because I Do This, Doesn’t Mean’ where ‘the kisses that wanted to stay for longer than a night’; or a lover who’s with someone else in ‘If It Wasn’t for the Nights’: ‘if it wasn’t for the nights       Steffan       I’d come home’; or the rescued relationship in ‘Choke’ ‘we talked ourselves together’; or the break-up in ‘Today’

today    you will break the life of someone
or you’ll break yourself apart from them
and   having dressed themselves in you for months
they will be naked and half in shadow as you close the door

– where you find yourself catching your breath. McMillan captures the vulnerability that close relationships bring in many of their different forms.

The third section ‘degradation’ deals with death, whether literal or metaphorical, and again ties into ideas of masculinity and how men are expected to face death in a society that equates masculinity with bravery and stoicism.

For me, however, it was the second section ‘protest of the physical’ which really interested me. This interest was twofold: firstly, in terms of structure, this is the most ambitious section of the collection. Here nine untitled poems – five leading on to a second page; four very short and all beginning with the word ‘graffiti’ interweave moments in relationships, McMillan’s love for the poet Thom Gunn and snapshots of the northern town, Barnsley. The latter is the second thing that interests me, having grown up in Barnsley, like McMillan (although I was born eleven years prior to him). The poems that begin and end the section both start with a crane: ‘lame arm of the crane       circling/unstocked shelves of half built car park’, a nod to the town which still hasn’t recovered from the miner’s strike and Thatcherism (call centres and ASOS and Next warehouses aren’t enough to replace an industry). In the second of the longer pieces, McMillan juxtaposes a relationship – ‘love/is giving everything too easily/then staying to try and claw it back’ – with the decimation of the town – ‘town coughing something up/watching    breathless    as it rolls into a crack in the earth’ – using a structure and a rhythm that echoes the town’s industrial heritage – ‘people were shouldertoshoulder/as in a cage waiting to descend’. It’s no coincidence that the industry the town was built upon is one synonymous with masculinity and that part of the town’s challenge is also that of 21st century men: how to reconcile itself with having that stereotypical, patriarchal view of what a man should be stripped away.

Physical is an interesting, often ambitious, sometimes breath-taking look at love and masculinity. If this is what Andrew McMillan is capable of in his debut collection then I can’t wait to witness the rest of his career.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s good that the day after the Booker Prize longlist was revealed, the shotlist for the Polari First Book Prize was announced at Polari’s regular literary salon held at the Southbank Centre. Concerns are rightly raised about the diversity of authors listed for any prize when announcements are made because it highlights how the industry and our society in general might be prone to elevating people of a certain gender, race, class or sexuality above others. The more prizes we have like The Polari First Book Prize (which honours debut books that explore aspects of the LGBT community), the more voices from all corners of our country are heard.

I attended Polari last night to hear the announcement and it was a pleasure to hear imaginative poet John McCullough read from his latest collection “Spacecraft”. His poem ‘Cat Flap’ went down particularly well with the audience. It was fitting to hear him read as his beautiful book “The Frost Fairs” won the prize in 2012.

I’ve read three out of the six titles shortlisted for the prize and you can read my full reviews of them by clicking the titles below. Fantastic to see Andrew McMillan in the running for yet another award and his inclusion gives a nice continuity as he read at Polari when the 2015 shortlist was announced last year. Stevan Alcock also read from his gay coming of age novel “Blood Relatives” set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. This makes a nice contrast to Paul McVeigh’s equally powerful coming of age novel “The Good Son” set in Belfast during the Troubles. Last night, Juliet Jacques also gave an excellent reading from her memoir “Trans” which gives a meaningful perspective on the everyday reality of a trans individual. I’m eager to read the other books on the list.

Have you read any of the below or are you interested in giving them a try?

Physical - Andrew McMillan

Blood Relatives – Stevan Alcock

Sugar and Snails - Anne Goodwin

Trans – Juliet Jacques

Different for Girls – Jacquie Lawrence

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

This has been a year of great personal change for me. More than ever, I'm aware of how books work like a conversation informing our lives and that it's important to talk back. (This blog is me talking back.) My reading this year increased somewhat largely because I joined in on a shadow jury for the Baileys Prize and as a judge for this year’s Green Carnation Prize. I read 96 books in total, but this doesn’t count the dozens of books I started but put aside after fifty or even two hundred pages. I’ve become more cutthroat because the truth is there isn’t enough time to keep reading a book that’s not doing it for you. You might not connect with it only because of where you are in your life, but I think it’s best to move onto something you feel passionately engaged with rather than slogging through something you feel you should read. There are rare examples like “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which took me longer to read than any other book this year and which I found incredibly difficult. Ultimately it was rewarding and I’m glad I stuck with it till the end, but such cases are rare.

There are dozens of really superb books I’ve read this year. I’m always passionate about reading short stories and the books I’ve read by Donal RyanTom Barbash, Ali Smith, Mahesh Rao, Stuart Evers and Thomas Morris all contain stories which have really stuck with me. Because the Green Carnation Prize is open to books in all genres, I also read more memoirs, young adult novels, poetry and nonfiction than I usually do. I hope to continue reading more widely as some of these books like Erwin Mortier’s profound/heart-wrenching memoir and Mark Vonhoenacker’s meditation on flying have been truly fantastic.

Book podcasts have also been a welcome new presence for me this year. I’ve always avidly listened to The Readers, hosted by two of my favourite book bloggers. But I’ve also started regularly listening to Sinéad Gleeson’s The Book Show and Castaway’s Bookish, hosted by the owners of two Irish bookshops. These two definitely have struck a chord with me because I’ve been reading so much Irish fiction. The country does seem to be going through something of a renaissance producing a profuse amount of writing of sterling quality. This has been debated about in the media such as this Irish Times article about a Guardian article which highlighted the “new Irish literary boom.” Although, to my mind, the best Irish book of the year is Mrs Engels which seems strangely missing from all these lists.
If you have favourite book podcasts please do comment and let me know about them as I enjoy finding more.

Finally, here are my top ten books of the year which have all made such a strong impact on me and left me thinking about them long after finishing the last page. Click on each title's name to read my full thoughts about these books.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
It’s funny looking back on this post I made last year about books I wanted to read and hadn’t yet got to (including this one). At that point, Marlon James’ most recent novel had received praise from critics, but hadn’t made many sales. I didn’t get to reading it until this summer as part of judging the Green Carnation Prize. It went on to win as well as taking that obscure award called the Booker. What a difference a year can make in the life of a book!

The Green Road by Anne Enright
I felt slightly suspicious starting this novel because I was worried it wouldn’t do anything new, but Enright proves again with this novel that she's an enormously creative writer. She creates a fresh structure for this book and takes her characters into territories unlike any of her other tremendous novels. It all works to present a complex and entirely new kind of portrait of a family.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
Lizzie is headstrong and tough, but she possesses rare passion which bleeds through every page of this beautiful novel. It pierced my heart and stayed with me like nothing else I’ve read this year. Sometimes it's like I can still feel her near me with all her earnest judgement, wisdom, humour and tender feeling. I'm deeply saddened she isn't a part of my life any more.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
I wasn’t expecting to like this novel much since I’d only felt a mild response to Robinson’s writing in the past. To my delight, it gripped me and held me all the way through. Lila is a girl who came from nothing but through the generosity of a scant few people and her own determination she makes a life for herself and finds a rare kind of love. This is writing which is profoundly moving and it’s a story which completely captured my imagination.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
History books are strewn with footnotes about fascinating women like Lizzie Burns in "Mrs Engels" who probably never became more famous because of the simple fact that they were women or from a lower class. Bergman honours a select and fascinating few to create mesmerizing short stories with immense emotional depth. The points of view they pose allow us to re-enter history and question what we find there.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I was introduced to Groff’s writing last year when I read her impactful story in the Best American Short Stories 2014. What a thrill it was to discover that her compressed and strong style of writing can also work in such a long novel. This book was an absolute pleasure to read giving such a unique perspective on relationships and the secrets we keep from those closest to us.

The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates
It’s so rare for Oates to reflect on her own life in her writing. It’s unsurprising that she approaches the subject of childhood and her formative years in a deeply questioning and philosophical manner. In this creative and deeply-personal book she reflectively looks at her own life and her life as a writer/reader to produce a profoundly surprising point of view about the nature of identity.

The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson
Many anthologies of short stories are a patchwork of good and fair stories, but few contain great after great like this revelatory volume of Irish women writers. Several stories are by writers whose books I've read and admired over the past couple of years such as Anne Enright, Mary Costello, Eimear McBride and Belinda McKeon. Other writers like Kate O'Brien, Maeve Brennan, Molly McCloskey and Anakana Schofield are new to me. There are stories of high drama and stories of subtle power, but all utilise language to capture exactly what it is they need to say. In addition to the fascinating diversity of styles and subject matters covered in this entertaining and lovingly-assembled anthology this book serves as a fantastic jumping off point for reading more of these talented writers' work which I'm now eager to track down. Each story is prefaced by compelling short bios for each writer which serve as helpful prompts for discovering more. This is a book to always keep by your bedside. 

Sophie and the Sybil by Patricia Duncker
It’s rare that I find a book where I love every minute of the reading experience. This novel which functions as both a love letter and critique of George Eliot is tremendously fun, immensely clever and makes a truly romantic story. It takes a lot of bravado for an author to insert herself into a narrative, but Duncker does so with fantastic results.

Physical by Andrew McMillan
Poetry can be such an intimidating form of writing to engage with because much of it can feel opaque. McMillan’s extraordinary writing spoke directly to me. I’ve found myself going back to several poems in this book again and again. I’ve also recommended this book to a huge amount of people because I think these revelatory poems will connect with many.


Have you read any of these or are you now curious to give them a try? I've enjoyed reading through many end of year book lists so please comment to let me know your own favourites. 

Last night at the Southbank Centre in London there were a series of readings for the Polari Literary Salon which primarily featured musical ladies and sensitive men. Alex Klineberg read hilarious passages from his short book “Dear Sebastian” about his friendship with the notorious ‘Kind of Soho’ Sebastian Horsley, a truly flamboyant and uncompromising artist/raconteur. Next Andrew McMillan gave an arresting reading from his debut poetry book “Physical.” He’s a particularly effective reader with the hushed intensity of his voice. So his opening poem ‘Choke’ instantly seized the audience’s attention with the emotional power of the words and his confidential tone. Performer Celine Hispiche closed the first half of the evening with a rousing series of impersonations/tributes/songs to lost personalities and performers of London. Her instant embodiment of each past soul was far more convincing than anything Derek Acorah could pull off. Another impersonation/performance was given by female duo ‘All the Nice Girls’ who invoked the theatrical and musical escapades of Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney in 1920s London. James Dawson finished the evening reading from his new young adult novel “All of the Above.” He spoke meaningfully about the complexity of teenage desire and confusion of sexuality. He also vigorously defended the need for sexual education in schools and scorned the snobbery surrounding novels about teenage experiences.

Writer and editor Alex Hopkins read the books shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. I was thrilled to hear Kirsty Logan’s fantastic book of short stories “The Rental Heart” made the list. I read it at the end of last year when it was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. What I appreciate so much about the Polari First Book Prize are the LGBT books it introduces me to which I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. Bindel’s hilariously titled and rousing polemic about changes in the lesbian and gay movement sounds really powerful. I’m eager to read Al Brookes’ topical novel about assisted suicide after reading this article about it in the Guardian. I’m intrigued by the sound of La JohnJoseph’s experimental fiction. David Tait’s poems mix autobiography and love story. Below is the complete shortlist. I’ll be excited to hear who is announced as the winner next month.

Straight Expectations – Julie Bindel

The Rental Heart – Kirsty Logan

Self-portrait with The Happiness – David Tait

Everything Must Go – LaJohn Joseph

The Gift of Looking Closely – Al Brookes

The Informant – Susan Wilkins

I work part-time as a massage therapist and this job has made me highly conscious about how we inhabit our bodies. Although the basic structure of our physical being is the same, the way we carry ourselves varies dramatically. The relationship between mind and body can be as changing and tumultuous as our relationships with other people. The poems in “Physical” by Andrew McMillan speak beautifully and meaningfully about how we live within all this flesh and bone, the ways in which physical intimacy can make us redefine ourselves and the transformative impact our presence has upon our surroundings.

Many poems in this book focus in particular on the male body and queer experience from relationships with boyfriends to anonymous gay encounters. ‘Saturday Night’ creates a dialogue with a poem by Thom Gunn bridging commonalities of gay life over time touching upon the disappointment, exhilaration and insecurities tied up with cruising and romance. Online porn is an inevitable part of men’s experiences and in relationships it can play both positive and negative roles. In ‘Screen’ McMillan shows the complications which emerge from mingling mental images with the physical presence before you. More darkly, a mixture of violence and sensuality permeate the poems ‘Choke’ and the mythological-inspired ‘Leda to Her Daughters.’

Masculinity is referenced directly and indirectly in several poems. In ‘Strongman’ the challenge from a male family member is recalled. This physical provocation takes on deeper meanings than simply a macho test of strength. The closeness of the encounter provokes questions about intimacy and homophobia within the family. A unique challenge to all men is the experience of standing beside one another at urinals. In ‘Urination’ McMillan uses the mixture of embarrassment and excitement of these encounters to speak about the degrees of closeness we have with others throughout our lives. As in several poems in this collection, there is a switch partway through from the impersonal to the personal. Here, the commanding voice speaking to “you” evokes the sensory experience and power of connection found in the most intensely domestic morning setting.

Sometimes the form of the poems themselves casts scrutiny over the way men are meant to behave. ‘How To Be A Man’ is set out like a dramatic play where a man is prompted how to react to the impending loss of his father. It’s a contradictory aspect of traditional notions of masculinity that a man should build muscle and puff himself up physically, but also keep all his emotions in. McMillan literally bursts this understanding in his poem ‘The Men Are Weeping In The Gym’ where emotions spill out not in tears but in sweat. The denial of feeling takes on an eerie destructive sensation as McMillan observes how the process of weightlifting tears muscles apart to make them stronger.

The poem ‘Yoga’ speaks about the way we relate to our own bodies and the way physical connections with others can change the way we see ourselves. However, others poems such as ‘I.M.’ and ‘The Gift’ are about the insurmountable gaps created from lost connections and repressed emotions where physical distance exists. But unity is found in the poem ‘The Schoolboys” where a young group witnesses the burning of Thatcher dolls following the former prime minister’s death where they have little understanding of the historical context which has led to such celebrations.

Listen to McMillan read the final poem in this book 'Finally'

The most sustained poem in this book ‘Protest of the Physical’ fills the entire second section and it begins with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf from her ingenious prose poem of a novel “The Waves.” In a way, this is the most hypnotic and elusive piece in McMillan’s collection as it weaves together elements of a physical local landscape and a broken relationship. Language breaks down “what town of day is it?” Images and ideas literally slosh back and forth across the page as if the words are grasping for escape from the confines of the page and the voice from the confines of the body.

The poetry in "Physical" has the unique and astounding ability to make you reassess how you exist in your own body. It provokes ontological questions about whether a person’s mind is couched in the gray masses in our heads or the neurological connections within our bodies. Throughout the book the author has a disarming way of dividing physical acts from the body and then drawing them back in to distil the accompanying feelings so they are more concentrated. What's left are the intense emotions which have overwhelmingly permeated the memories of physical encounters. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with many of the poems in this forceful, moving collection. I discovered fresh insights and asked more questions with each rereading.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrew McMillan

I am a big fan of debut fiction. So I was thrilled to see the Guardian First Book Award long list appear today and with such a fascinatingly diverse group of titles. As many of you probably know, I’ve been a huge supporter of Mrs Engels from the day it came out. Gavin McCrea is an astoundingly good writer. The Fish Ladder is a fantastically beautiful and original memoir I read early in the year. The Shore was long listed for the Baileys Prize and I was hoping it would make the short list as it’s a strange and surprising family saga. Coincidentally, I’m already in the middle of reading the startling and beautiful poems in Andrew McMillan’s book Physical. The Fishermen is also on this year's Booker long list. I’ve been hearing such praise for Grief is the Thing with Feathers and The Wallcreeper so I’d really like to read these as well.

What do you think of the list? Have you read any of the below titles? Are there any outstanding debut books you’ve read this year that you think deserve more attention?

AuthorEric Karl Anderson