A poet has won the Guardian first book award for his collection of poems exploring the experiences of gay men.
Andrew McMillan, aged 27, has become the first poet to win the £10,000 prize since it was established in 1999 with his collection, which is entitled Physical.
The Guardian’s books editor and one of the competition’s judges, Claire Armitstead, praised McMillan’s work, highlighting his achievement not only in becoming the first poet to win the award but also only the second to even make the shortlist.
She said: “It is wonderful that a collection so tightly focused on masculinity and gay love could have such a wide appeal, across age and gender. It surprised us all with the best sort of ambush, emerging from an extremely strong and vibrant shortlist as the unanimously agreed winner.”
McMillan, writing in the Guardian Review, explained that his primary motivation was to create poetry that “lives sincerely in the world and takes everything that happened, turns it, distils it, and gives it back to the reader – in the hope it might move them, or be ‘useful’”.
Indeed, McMillan doesn’t seem to care how we are moved – whether to arousal, enlightenment, sentiment or despair – so long as we feel the raw power of his words.
The centrepiece of Physical, the long poem Protest of the Physical, considers the anxieties of a gay man living in a northern industrial town, “a town that has lost something…like a man winded by a punch”. Given McMillan grew up close to Barnsley in South Yorkshire, the poem appears to draw on the poet’s own experiences of life in bleak and apparently hopeless environments. It contains bleak observations, such as “the fear is to die untouched love lost”.
But Protest of the Physical, while exploring fear and isolation, offers hope – that of the nervous intimacy of physical encounters (“your hoodie halfway up your body and my cock half out in your hand”) and of finding the intrinsically beautiful in the most unexpected of places (“there is beauty in the ordinary, the row of shops on Shambles Street, the day chasing its own shadow”).
Often raw but frequently moving, Physical is nothing if not a modern take on modern realities. It speaks of love, lust, loss, pain and vulnerability in a refreshingly honest way. It’s also mythbusting, exposing the gulf between perception and truth, authentically describing the pain and ecstasy of ordinary men grappling with their identities, their emotions, their passions, and – ultimately – each other’s bodies. Strongman depicts a man lifting his nephew to the ceiling, asking “because what is masculinity if not taking the weight of a boy and straining it from oneself?” The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental considers a relationship breaking up for no other reason than its central character “could not have sat through one more night of silence”.
Woodwork takes a brutally physical view of sexuality (‘the teeth marks of a vice’; ‘the metal lip of the plane’), but while the inescapable eroticism is powerful, it is not the object of the poem. That is a young boy, the real focus of the poet’s affections and attention, who is only introduced later in the poem once the sexual nature of the relationship has been firmly established. Woodwork is typical of Physical as a whole: primarily celebrating the sexual bond between men, but finding a sensitivity and warmth in its human focus.
Physical oozes masculinity. It does not apologise for this; questions of male identity are as central to McMillan’s work as the themes surrounding same-sex love. It is a collection of hymns to male homosexual desire
The BBC’s Emily Maitlis, another of the judges, found McMillan’s poetry to be “curiously conversational” and a “genuine celebration of the muscular male”.
Physical was also the winner of the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.
Physical is published by Cape Poetry.