A Familiar Tune With New Words

Andrew McMillan
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I came out to my dad when I was 16. A couple of weeks later (maybe months, maybe days, this is only memory) he came into my room with a copy of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems and a copy of his newest collection Boss Cupid. “I think you might like to read these” he said. He was right. It was the first time I remember reading poetry that seemed to speak to me, only to me. Here were poems about gay relationships, gay sex, gay friendships, nights out on ‘the scene’ and, most obviously, poems of love.

When I left undergraduate education, with magazine credits and a first slim pamphlet of poetry under my belt, I went on a pilgrimage to find Gunn in America. I spent two weeks in his archives in Berkeley, San Francisco, as part of a two week stay in the city which began a month in which I took the train across the whole of America. In San Francisco I did the tourist trail but also the writer’s trail, going to City Lights Bookshop in search of the Beats but I found myself also unconsciously mapping the city by what I knew, by what I read. Ginsberg, somewhere, has a bit about sitting in a Chinese restaurant alone in China Town. I went and did that (I was travelling alone, so all meals were sitting alone apart from the odd one shared with a fellow traveller met at the Hostel). I went out to the nightclubs in the Castro with a friend of my then boyfriend and all the while, just inaudible behind the heavy beat of the music, were the poems of Gunn. I didn’t do Alcatraz; I didn’t follow my tourist guide map. I wrote my own map of the city and followed it around.

I’d forgotten much of this. There’s a box of memories in my parents house back in South Yorkshire which contains a local newspaper from each place I stopped, ticket stubs and a daily journal I wrote to remind myself of what happened. The journal is mainly full of meditations on how much I was missing my then boyfriend, how I couldn’t wait to see him. In many ways the whole trip was a journey away from him, to the true love of my life in San Francisco and then a slow progress back to him. I remember when I arrived at Cardiff Airport and he said “what’s that on your arm” (my new tattoo, gotten in the Height as a souvenir) and “what’s that on your head (a pork pie hat I’d took great pride in buying from a New York milliners). I’d been expecting a big romantic welcome. I’d come the length of America. I’d mapped it with Gunn, with Ginsberg, with the great novelist Tom Spanbauer. The destination wasn’t him anymore. The journey was more important.

After getting home from America I moved to Manchester. I lasted there a year but, unable to cope with the infrequent payslips afforded to a freelance writer I realised it was time to leave. At the same time a commission came up from Adam Lowe and the Young Enigma LGBT writers group, to create a new commission for LGBT history month. It’s my poetic map of Manchester which you can see here.

Just as I followed Gunn around San Francisco, I wanted to create an alternate route around the city centre of Manchester. I lived there for a year and yet I’m remarkably bad with street names. But I know where I first kissed someone. I know where I danced until the morning and then sat for a while before walking home. Or maybe I don’t. A funny thing happened, in retrospect, when I was writing the poems. Cities conflated. People conflated. Some of the poems are based on things that, in reality, happened in Edinburgh, or London. Some of the people are separate but have become one ideal. It doesn’t matter. This is my map of Manchester. You should write your own, of your own city. You realise there isn’t a destination, there’s just a constant adding to, a continuing accumulation of life.

About Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and regularly delivers workshops in school and community settings, as well as teaching for Edge Hill University and The Poetry School. His latest pamphlet is 'protest of the physical' (Red Squirrel Press, 2013) and his work has also appeared in anthologies such as The Best British Poetry 2013.