Issue 17, Small Town

Fireside Chat with Andrew McMillan

Hi friends,

For this issue we’re pleased to bring you a format that’s a little bit different from usual.

But first, some news: Henry St Leger, poet, journalist & editor extraordinaire is joining us as co-editor! Henry previously contributed to Issue 12 of Found Poems and was part of the @arvonfoundation cohort where the idea of FP was born.

Back in Issue 12, Henry actually covered a poem by the writer Andrew McMillan, which led, incredibly, to Andrew joining us as a guest in this issue (synchronicities!). Andrew is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and his debut collection, physical, was published in 2015. It was the first collection of poems to win the Guardian First Book Award and also won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. His second collection, playtime, was published in 2018, and won the inaugural Polari Prize. This next collection pandemonium is due to release in May 2021.

So, on a recent Sunday afternoon we had the great fortune of chatting with Andrew about one of his favourite poems. What followed was 15 minutes of appreciation for Jill Osier’s poem ‘Small Town’ – from her collection The Solace Is Not The Lullaby. While the poem may be small, the more we pored over its seemingly simple statements, the less sure we were of what was going on – and whether we needed to be worried.

In our chat we moved through analysing the scene, its narrator, and what the poem might be trying to convey. We marvelled at the poem’s ability to give us specifics without giving us any context, and how that can open itself up to so many storylines – skilful language that reveals precisely what it needs to in order to draw the reader in, and no more. 

You can hear our full thoughts in the video linked below, or read the poem for yourself below that.

Small Town

By Jill Osier

Listen. The rug is wet because
I stood here. Because
it started pouring. Because
your door was open and I was
under a tree. Because
it was raining. Because the rain
and tree both
were in your backyard. Because
so was I. Because you 
weren’t home. Because I knew 
you were bowling. Because 
I walk your road. Because your road 
goes by your house. Because 
I felt like a walk. Because 
it was going to rain. Because your door 
is never locked.

Excerpt from our Fireside Chat below...

Andrew McMillan
So, I mean, it was interesting because when you emailed me about it, Sana, you were saying the more that you read it, it becomes kind of creepier! I think that's one of the first times I've really felt that – the strangeness that comes into that point at the end. When I first ever read it (Jill wasn't a poet I'd ever known before), I was just kind of beguiled by it. I felt it was really romantic, but then you find the more that you read it, it's actually, there's something intensely creepy about it – it's like that song by The Police: Every Breath You Take (I'll Be Watching You), which kind of sounds vaguely romantic but actually is incredibly sinister.

Sana Rao
Yeah, I think it also depends on who the narrator is and what the relationship is. Because that's very uncertain: you don't know the boundaries of that relationship, and the closeness of that relationship. So given that it's titled ‘small town’, and it starts with ‘listen’, it feels like she’s telling you a secret, which is an open secret, but you don't know who these people are. And ‘you’, it's there's the sense of you can't get away from it. And so, yes, it definitely at least from a gendered reading point of view, it’s definitely quite creepy.

Henry St Leger
In our conversations about it, after Andrew sent the poem over, the word that kept coming up was ‘unease’ – and just looking at it now, the whole poem sounds like an explanation that keeps going. It's all because, because, because, but you basically learn nothing more. And for me, that's where the unease is: it's like I'm talking, I'm talking, but I'm not giving you anything.

Andrew McMillan
That's one of the really cool things about this point, isn't it? The reason I'm attracted to it, I think, is because it really breaks the rules on a lot of what we might spend time telling people poetry should do. It compounds a lot of the same information. And so at one point the speaker is there because it started pouring, because your door was open, or I was under a tree, because it was raining, and so you're both in your backyard. Part of the rhythm of the poem is just doubling down on things that we already know. We know it was raining. You might imagine taking a point like that into a university workshop and someone saying, I think those two lines are saying the same thing. So there's a kind of swagger to the poem in terms of that, and I think there are  lines that are very much saying the same thing but seen in slightly different ways – which I guess goes back to what Henry you were just saying about the ‘because’. This kind of explanation, this attempt to justify something, just as we do when we're doing that kind of thing, almost doubling back around and kind of rehearsing the same argument or occasionally repeating things that may or may already have been said.

Henry St Leger
Yeah, and it's interesting that the sort of responsibilities switched in that. At the start, you've got ‘the rug is wet because I stood here’. I did something but by the end, we've got to ‘your door was never locked’. In a way it's your fault that I'm stood here, inside your home, making your floor wet for whatever reason.

Sana Rao
Yeah, there's a definite sense of a shift of agency, where it's like I'm telling you something. here's a secret, I made this choice. And then, it was no longer a choice for me.


P.S - Arvon Foundation, where Found Poems was born has been badly affected by the pandemic. Please do consider donating to their crowdfunding campaign to support Arvon and the livelihoods of writers who work with the organisation.

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