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1) Tell us a bit about yourself!
Born in 1954 in Widnes, moved to Blackpool on my fifth birthday, went to teacher training college in Liverpool when I was 18 back in 1972 and have lived there ever since. I was a teacher for sixteen years and also taught Creative Writing for Liverpool University but also began working in Community Arts. I left teaching in 91 and have been trying to make a living as a writer ever since. I’m married to Danielle (a McGregor), no kids but two cats…
2) How did you first get into writing?
3) You tend to favour poetry and have written many poems - what draws you to this style of writing?
Hard question. What makes you fall in love with one person rather than another? I think it began because I was lousy at sports and couldn’t sing or play the guitar – this was the 60’s – and it was a way of trying to make myself look windswept and interesting…and attract women. I grew out of that phase after listening to Dylan and realising that poetry could be so much more than “I really love you so why won’t you go out with me?” OR “Why’d you dump me…I’m sensitive I am…you’ll be sorry when I’m dead!” And when I got to college I began writing even more – three a week on average – and showed them to an English tutor called Matt Simpson who was a published poet. He said a few encouraging things and told me to lose all the adjectives…and from there he was my first mentor. I wrote, organised college readings and began exploring pub readings in Liverpool. I had my first poem accepted by a proper magazine, met a lot of other poets, kept writing etc. So, I suppose it’s an addiction…
I also believe that poetry is a natural as breathing and that people turn to it in times of strong emotion because nothing else will do. I remember after Hillsborough one of the kids from the school where I was teaching died there & a lot of the pupils witnessed the full horror unfold. That Monday a poem was posted up on my classroom notice board. It was followed by others, lots of others. By the end of the week every bit of available wall space in the school was covered. The poems were raw and un-crafted and so vastly superior to the utter drivel thar the Beeb pumps out on National Poetry Day, that there really is no comparison. Poetry isn’t a substitute for stand-up any more than it’s the sole province of the inbred privately educated “elite” – it came from the people and it belongs to us. To paraphrase Bill Shankly: Poetry isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.
4) Your books include Diary of a Shapeshifter and Ov - tell us a bit more about them!
Diary exists because I got invited to be part of the Poets in Schools scheme – I was going into schools getting kids writing poetry but had nothing of my own to read them so began writing poems aimed at children. I had a couple accepted by Usborne for a new anthology they were doing and then started getting requests from other editors…which meant I read a lot of children’s poetry and thought a lot of it was dreadful. Badly scanned, twee and ultimately boring…John Foster being one very notable exception. He taught me a lot. Once I had a big enough body of work, I began hawking it round…and there was rejection after rejection and some really rude ones (your work’s on file…in the bin) but being a stubborn get, I persisted and eventually found BA and Mandy. The book’s got a back story (when life’s crap, day dream) and is very influenced by Blake (love him!) – his Songs of Innocence was intended to be a children’s book and it is…but what it also is, is a collection of poems that can be understood by kids and enjoyed by adults and that’s exactly what I set out to do. I wanted to produce well-crafted poems (as opposed to “that’ll do – they’re only kids”) that an adult could like as well.
Ov started life as a vague notion to maybe write a novel. I’d made numerous false starts but this one wouldn’t go away. It took me a year to write the first draft and three to finally polish it. It was hard work and I loved it. I’d shown it to a cousin who was a publisher’s reader – her response was to tell me I had no real talent but at least writing was “a nice little hobby for me” – the fact that I found out later she’d rejected the first Harry Potter gave me some small consolation!
The book itself is about a second-generation Irish child who’s an isolate – like I was – and like me he consoles himself with daydreams and fantasies fuelled by the stories his Uncle Liam’s told him. And from there it becomes a hero’s quest. I’m working on a sequel. Progress is slow.
6) Do you enjoy the freedom of creative expression and imagination that writing for a younger audience brings, and how does it differ from writing for adults for you?
Yes, I do but it only differs in my subject matter and vocabulary. I think writing aimed at children should be just a carefully crafted as work aimed at adults….and quite frankly I hate (note that word) the kind of “say knickers and make them laugh” school of poetry just as much as I despise the “your dreams are like rainbows” pseudo inspirational tripe I also encounter. Poetry should be as well crafted as possible, emotionally true and create an emotional as well as an intellectual response. If it doesn’t, the it’s failed…and don’t get me started on the poetry as a moral instruction school…
5) Going back to your work as a poet, what poets/poems inspire you and why?
So many…back in school (apart from Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats) it was Dylan Thomas, Brian Patten, Owen, Sassoon, Lewis Carrol, Yeats, Eliot…but I think it was reading Patten and listening to Bob Dylan that started me on writing myself. The forms they used were form I could at least attempt. As I got older, I read much more and tried out new forms as I went along. I think a lot of people choose to write poetry because they think it’s an easy option. Learn these seven rules and you too can be a poet! It isn’t and you don’t choose poetry – She chooses you. And from there it’s a lifetime of work, study and frequent disappointment. But you carry on anyway because you have no choice but even if you did, you’d carry on anyway…because there’s nothing like it. Nothing.
And when it works the buzz, you get is like nothing else.
I often think of Pasternak. He was a truly great poet who suffered greatly during his lifetime. His work was suppressed or “re-edited” (rewritten by hacks) – his great novel Doctor Zhivago was denounced as anti-Soviet (it isn’t – read it!) and he died a broken man. Compared to that my life’s easy. You asked me who inspires me – him above all others.
6) When you aren’t busy writing, what do you like to read?
Anything that takes my fancy. Novels, short stories, poetry…I also love bio’s
of writers, actors, painters, musicians and technical books. To me they’re all
adding to my knowledge. I also read a lot of political stuff. I don’t believe a
poet should be above politics – quite the opposite. My Uncle Bill (a West Cork
man) told me when I fifteen that if I was going to be a poet, I’d spend my life
“agin the government” – he was quite right.
7) What is next for Kevin Patrick McCann?
I’m working on a new collection of adult poems, writing short stories and a sequel to Ov. I read a lot, watch very little TV and hope I don’t die of Covid. I’m still hoping for the Nobel Prize for Literature – if Dylan can win it, I’ve got to be in with a shout – and being an agitator for socialism.