Sunday Poem – John McCullough

I’m writing this in the garden this week, in dazzling sunshine, so if there are more spelling mistakes than usual, you will have to excuse them – I am slightly blinded by the light.  I’ve also had some visitors this week – I’m looking after two of my sisters terriers, so there are four terriers currently running around the house.

My main news this week is I’ve been awarded full funding for 3 years from Manchester Metropolitan University to do a PhD in Poetry.  The PhD is full-time and when I went for the interview, I’d already made the decision that if I got it, I would hand my notice in as a brass teacher.   So, although I’ve known for about 2 weeks, I’ve spent those 2 weeks handing my notice in at Cumbria Music Service, telling my schools and the staff that I work with, and then finally, telling the 300 odd children that I teach.

It might sound strange, but it feels like this is the first time in my life I’ve committed to just one thing.  I think this is why I keep myself busy, I like to have lots of things on the go – teaching trumpet, conducting bands, playing in bands, writing poetry, reading at festival, running workshops, because then if any of them go wrong for whatever reason, something else that I do will catch me and be my safety net.

When I was 21 I auditioned to to a post-graduate degree at various music colleges.  I didn’t get in – I wasn’t ready, having spent my years at Leeds College of Music playing transcriptions of Chet Baker solos instead of the orchestral excerpts I should have been learning.  An amazing trumpet player, John Holland who was the Principal Trumpet of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (as well as teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire) said he would take me on privately and get me ready to audition the year after for a post-grad.

When you are 21 a year seems like a lifetime, and although I went to John for lessons for a year, and although at the time I thought I had committed my whole heart to it, looking back now I think I was deluding myself.  I decided I would do a PGCE in Birmingham at the same time, as a safety net, so I would always have something to fall back on.  As anybody knows who has done a PGCE, they are really hard work, and very time consuming.  When I look back now, it kind of breaks my heart.  I was 21 and should have believed I could do anything,but I bottled it, and did the sensible thing.

I did my PGCE in Secondary Music, specialising in Instrumental Tuition and I enjoyed it.  I only practised maybe one or two hours a day instead of the three or four I should have been doing.  At the end of the year, I didn’t audition to do a post-grad, although there was nothing I wanted to do more.  I decided to get a job as a full-time brass teacher instead, telling myself I could go back and do a post-grad, once I’d earned some money.

That isn’t the full story, of course.  There were other things going on as well.  I was in an abusive relationship while I was in Birmingham, and maybe it is not surprising that I didn’t have the self-belief or confidence to audition to do what I wanted to do.  Looking back, I can’t believe I finished the PGCE under those circumstances.  I wanted to teach as well, of course.  I enjoyed teaching, and even if I’d got onto a post-grad course, I probably would have taught eventually, most musicians do.  My point is, I bottled out of trying.

When I was between 16 and 18 I had a lovely brass teacher called Paul Bennett.  He had long hair that he tied in a pony tail and he was always rushing around between schools and gigs.  He gave me my first paid gig playing 2nd Trumpet in Singing in the Rain when I was 17, and then I’d regularly play 2nd trumpet with him in shows.  His life seemed very glamorous and I remember thinking I’d like to do that.  I’d like to rush around teaching and going through the drive through at McDonalds because there was no time to eat anything else (yes, McDonalds did seem glamorous to me age 17)

So I left the abusive relationship behind, far behind and moved up to Barrow and began teaching brass full time.  I don’t know why I’m writing all of this, except it all fits somehow, with finally committing myself and not leaving myself a safety net.  Maybe I wouldn’t have started writing if I’d done that when I was 21, and I know things happen for a reason, but if I could go back to my 21 year old self, I would tell her – what would I tell her? Maybe not to plan for the future so much.  To chill out a little bit, and just do what you enjoy at the time.  To not be afraid of what you really want to do.

I’ve loved the 13 years I’ve spent teaching.  I am a completely different person to the 22 year old who moved up here, alone and not knowing anybody.  I want to say that I was damaged and traumatised when I came here, after that relationship, which sounds melodramatic.  I was damaged and traumatised, and an expert at hiding it.

Somewhere in all of what I’ve just written, is the reason why I am finally leaving my teaching job, after gradually reducing my hours for years, after trying to juggle music and poetry. I haven’t worked it out myself yet, and it is not just about time, or feeling guilty that I’m not giving enough.  It’s something about finally, irrevocably admitting what I really want to do, and going for it, without a safety net, or a Plan B to fall back on.



I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the future – and about my PhD.  My working title at the minute is Poetry and Everyday Sexism.  I’m interested in writing poems about annoying small acts of everyday sexism, and what happens if we elevate this into poetry.  I went in and did a voluntary workshop in a men’s prison this week and had an amazing afternoon – thought-provoking, challenging, and moving.  I’d love to go in again as part of my PhD and work with the prisoners on ideas about masculinity, which I think would work really well with the poems I’ve started writing about sexism and interrogating my own reaction to it.

So the Sunday Poem today is by John McCullough.  I came upon this book by chance, when I was in London a couple of weeks ago, and having a look in the Waterstones (or is it Foyles?) on the South Bank.  The poetry section there is quite impressive and I bought John’s latest book, on the basis of the beautiful production values of Penned in the Margins (the publisher) and the first two poems, which I read there and then in the bookshop.

This is what bookshops should be for – to make new discoveries like this.  The first poem in John’s book is simply titled ! and explores the exclamation mark.  It is clever, and moving and original, but I kind of fell in love with this poem when I read it.  Wordpress is evil to format when there are spaces in the poem, so the fact that I’m going to try tells you how much I love this poem!

Flittermouse – John McCullough

That old English word for bat returns
******to me at sundown, beneath a screeching cloud.
Shapes zigzag while the moon watches, thirsts.
******I think of you with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary
beside a shelf, your long fingers splayed
******across the spine.  Unable to swallow
one entry, you squealed and burst the library’s
******hush, then froze, astounded by the echo.

You fled town three weeks later, disappeared
******without a text or email.  Flittermouse,
what happened? In which rooms do you track
******down words like insects now, combing books
and specialist websites, open-eared,
******as you wait for your own strange voice?

Maybe I love this poem because one of my favourite emotional states to read about in poetry or to try and capture in my own writing – a kind of mixture of longing, or regret, but not quite either of those things.  Not even yearning.  A word for the moment when life could have gone one way but went another.

I love the word ‘Flittermouse’ although I’d never heard it before reading this poem.  I also like that I felt like I knew something important and true about the ‘you’ of the poem, without knowing their name, or anything that would normally be considered important.  We know that the ‘you’ has ‘long fingers splayed’ and in excitement will squeal.  I wonder now if this poem is really all about knowing, or not knowing a person.  By the end of the poem, we read that the you is surprised by their ‘own strange voice’.

John McCullough’s first collection of poems The Frost Fairs was published by Salt in 2012 and won the Polari First Book Prize.  It was Book of the Year for The Independent and The Poetry School and a summer read for The Observer.  He teaches creative writing at the Open University and New Writing South, and lives in Hove, East Sussex.  This poem is taken from his second collection Spacecraft which is published by Penned in the Margins, and you can buy a copy here at support a fabulous independent press at the same time.

Thanks to John for letting me use his poem this week.

4 comments on “Sunday Poem – John McCullough

  1. Best of luck, Kim! You’re sailing into the future on a fabulous voyage. There will be high seas and low Cs and masses of friends to cheer you on. It will be ACE. x

  2. excellent news for the PhD Kim. I attended your read regional at Hull and enjoyed it very much.

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