Andrew McMillan was commissioned to write a poem for the Nymphs and Thugs Disarm Hate x Poetry project. He talks about how he did it, about the impact of public art, and about how a commission can challenge a poet to make something completely new
Last year I got an email inviting me to submit a poem to the Disarm Hate x Poetry project that Nymphs and Thugs, under the brilliant leadership of poet Matt Abbot, were organising. The plan was for an online release of a digital album, followed by a beautiful double vinyl which arrived last month and prompted memories of the commission. The documentary Disarm Hate follows a group of queer activists fighting for tougher gun-control laws and LGBTQ protections following the devastating Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. The resulting poems, from voices such as Dean Atta, Joelle Taylor, Ella Otomewo, lisa luxx and Andrés Nicolás Ordorica, are incredibly moving. You can read more about the Disarm Hate x Poetry project here.
My first question upon being asked to do anything is “who else have you asked?”, a question which comes from the privilege and security of being able to pass things over. It’s a useful question, not only to ensure vital diversity of voices in myriad ways, on panels, at events, in commissions, but also to get a sense of the scope and framing of the enquiry. Invariably you get to a position where the response might be “you’re the first person we’ve asked”, in which case you can suggest interesting people who might benefit from the exposure and experience as well, not to mention the money. When I first got the email to get involved in the Disarm Hate commission, I replied with a no, with thanks for being asked but feeling that someone else could probably do a better job. I was persuaded by the range of contributors and a second, kind email from the organiser.
Once I’d been persuaded to do the Nymphs and Thugs Disarm Hate x Poetry commission, the next issue was how I would approach it, what would I say. I remember my horror at waking up to news of the Orlando shooting; I was actually in America at the time, taking a group of students around a university over there, and so woke to the news before my boyfriend, still back in England, did. There seemed to be something in the timeline of that, of knowing and not knowing, but that alone wasn’t enough. Poetry, after all, is always more than one thing leant up against each other. A commission is often about finding what you can lay up against the thing / idea / subject which is being presented to you.
The political activism of the people I watched in the Disarm Hate documentary inspired me. There was one interview, where somebody said something along the lines of “I had to stand up, I couldn’t be silent”. That line struck me in my core, a feeling of guilt for not having used my voice enough, not being outspoken when it was called for. My anxiety at the time, that I was just beginning to take medication and seek therapy for, had seen me shrink from the world, wanting to disappear, wanting not to say anything to anybody on any topic, feeling unworthy of a voice or an opinion. Part of the commission was that we were to record the poems ourselves, and so, sat on a side table pulled up to an old Ikea desk in the loft of our house, I recorded ‘apology’. It’s short, though it felt like the sum total of what was possible for me at the time, and it is somehow borne of all these different swirling things; pride at being asked, a determination that to do a good job mattered, suffocating anxiety which feels as though it’s there as much in my voice as it is in the words of the poem. You can hear mine, and everyone’s poems, read here.
A commission is often about finding what you can lay up against the thing / idea / subject which is being presented to you
I’ve been lucky enough to do a range of commissions over the years; many more when I was freelance in my early twenties, now more infrequent but perhaps higher profile ones. In the past I’ve written poems about the Pennine Watershed (one of which is still engraved on a sculpture at the exact watershed point of the Rochdale canal; I know it’s the exact watershed point because I went out one cold morning where a group of people debated its exact location with measuring equipment in something reminiscent of a long scene of dialogue from a Ken Loach film). I’ve written poems for places I’ve been in residence which adorn the walls (or used to) of Basingstoke Discovery Centre, for the LGBT Sexual Health Clinic in Bournemouth, for a company which specialised in making a specific technical part for hydraulic engines (or something like that) to celebrate their corporate anniversary. I was proud and pleased to do all those things; they each ask of a poet a slightly different thing, and maybe speak to the question of what the role of a commission really is.
Sometimes a commission comes because the commissioner is a fan of your work and wants to give you the freedom to write more — what is being asked in this instance is sometimes a kind of tribute act of the self, or simply the opening of a door (of free time, of a bit of money to buy that free time) to explore something which might not otherwise have the space to come. Sometimes a commission is a product which is being requested — my poem for the anniversary of the engine manufacturer had certain bits of company trivia and personal in-jokes which needed to be added, ingredients to a pre-prepared recipe I was being asked to make and perform. Sometimes a commission is deliberately requested to speak to people who might not always encounter poetry, who might not have space for it in their day to day lives. Some celebrate a particular anniversary or moment of history; your particular ‘voice’ as a poet put through the prism of a subject, to see what emerges on the other side.
All of these ideas of what a commission is seem to me valid, and interesting, and exciting. I don’t think my writing of a poem for the private company to celebrate their anniversary diminishes the work I’ve written which begins as purely for myself. I don’t think that poetry written in ways that might be more accessible to people who don’t usually encounter poetry diminishes or demeans the work I’ve done which perhaps speaks more inwardly, is more self-referential (and what even do those words accessible, public, even mean, what words are accessible to who, and why?). Words can be used in different ways for different things, they are flexible, not brittle.
Commissions are your poetry getting invited to a place it’s never been
I love catching a glimpse of a poem on the side of a building, at a bus station, at the base of a monument, causing me to pause, to take something in, to shift — if only for a moment —how I feel about my surroundings, to look at things in a different way, which is really all any good public art can do. Some poets seem to feel stuck between wanting poetry to have a higher profile, to be more public, but then declaring “not that kind of poetry”, “not that kind of public”. It’s a feeling which comes from the idea of poetry as single noun, as opposed to something for which we all carry a personal definition and use.
No commission of mine has ever appeared in my full-length collections; there are a couple which might in the future though they will probably be heavily changed. Again, I’ve never thought this mattered — they are something different, and apart, from the work that I do for myself. Occasionally those venn diagrams of the given subject and the self overlap, and then something else happens. Maybe one day I’ll do a collection of commissions, and I’ll call it paid, because it will have to be a one-word title beginning with a p.
Often I find myself waiting for an idea to arrive from wherever it is that ideas arrive from. Then occasionally there’s an email, out of the blue, one cold morning which, when you bring yourself to open it, and bring yourself to accept the challenge, asks you to take your unique perspective, your singular way of looking at the world that we all have as singular humans in the world, and to lay it over, or pass it through, or stitch it together with, a subject outside of yourself. Speaking through the window of the commissioned opportunity, your voice becomes refracted, bounces in a different way, finds a new way to show you yourself, or the world, and something new exists in the world that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Commissions are your poetry getting invited to a place it’s never been; if there’s no one else you can send in your place, if you feel up the journey, it’s always a fascinating experience.