With praise such as “the patron saint of poetry” and “Liverpool’s poet laureate,” I was nervous about speaking with the poet Roger McGough, whose uproariously funny and moving poetry has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. This only increased when McGough told me he’d recently turned down a request to complete a festival tour to Singapore and Bahrain, because he didn’t feel like travelling. “I now get to be pickier in what I do,” he smiles, “and I need to make space for writing – I’ll publish work only when I’m ready.” But it’s alright: it seems he’s given himself time to talk to me.
Roger McGough is an integral part of Britain’s poetry scene. Moving from initial involvement in the so-called ‘Merseybeat’ to international prominence, and contributor of the famed The Mersey Sound poetry collection that propelled his work to the world’s stage, he’s done things as diverse as form part of musical trio The Scaff old to regularly hosting Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme; not to mention a plethora of highly-praised children’s and adult’s poetry collections. Whilst discussing his new collection, Poetry Pie, McGough stresses how the poetry is for both adults and children. “I’m not deliberately trying to be accessible – it’s the only way I can write.” Somewhat poetically, it
wasn’t his education but whilst as a teacher in Liverpool that McGough found his inspiration for writing: only after receiving encouragement from his pupils when he was reading his poetry did McGough began to consider becoming a poet. “I felt the need to write, so I did,” he tells me. When asked whether it took years to perfect, he informs me that there’s nothing intentionally difficult about writing poetry: “everybody should try it, it’s for everyone. So I
always write for everyone.”
Unfortunately, others haven’t always agreed with McGough. He is unhappy at being pigeonholed as an ‘upbeat poet,’ sometimes being sidelined as writing for the masses. “It’s too easy to be labelled”, McGough says. When called a ‘pop poet,’ people immediately link him to Pop Art whilst in reality, his poems can be used in any context. One only needs to look at the use of his work in his band The Scaffold to see that. “In the past being a ‘Liverpool poet’ was a put down, you were not to be trusted”, McGough says. He admits he’s enjoyed helping to put Liverpool on the map through his distinctive work, “though it always spoke for itself.” So surely that worry of being put down has diminished after all this time? The fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and President of the Poetry Society chuckles. “What people think always matters.” When we talk about the reasons for his most recent book, McGough’s voice becomes more animated.
It’s really important to keep writing for children, he says. There is worryingly little money in poetry books for publishers, especially ones for the younger generation, meaning fewer are published. McGough’s new book Poetry Pie is an attempt to rectify this, “it’s vital to inspire young poets as well as to entertain others.” McGough wants to use his poetry to make people laugh, and to reassure people around him: “poetry can be a hug.” And what about bigger global issues? McGough hasn’t written anything about Syria or migration yet. He doesn’t see it as his place to write ‘worried poems’ as he wants to be more positive about the world, a view which he suggests may stem from his strong Catholic faith. “I don’t want to spread my perception and create lots of mini McGoughs – we’re all individuals.”
But does this mean McGough fi nds it difficult to write serious poetry? McGough has admitted it took time for this to happen, meaning his later work is more personal. Now, with age, his work can be “more focused on darkness,” spending longer on poems and wanting to keep them for longer before publishing. This style change, like his humorous, ingenious take on the everyday world, has in his words “just happened.” McGough believes our attitude to the world shapes our own unique voices, using different forms and shaping new types of poetry. This can clearly be seen in his collection Everyday Eclipses, which focuses in on everyday events. “More people should take up this outlook,” I’m told, as it forces introspection. And this focus on the details of writing is important. Despite his versatile and commanding stage presence, McGough doesn’t like looking at himself performing. The words keep him grounded in an art where the writing is always more important than the performing. “Some poets want to be songwriters. Not me.”
Despite his wide span of work, and the fame this has brought him, Roger McGough sees himself simply as a poet. “I live in a world of poetry, so I see it everywhere.” And the wry humour and sideways look on life he is known for is still as active as ever. When asked whether he wanted to be remembered as part of the trail of great poets, he responds “depending who the others are, of course!” Despite never going out searching for glory, McGough lets himself enjoy the luxuries it brings. “I get to do more work, I can pick which commissions I want. I just love the intensity of writing the poems!” This enthusiasm for creation perhaps sums up McGough’s sparkling work. He does not want to be defined as any particular type of writer just a poet that makes us smile. “Of course, I’m not looking forward to being a ‘late poet,’” he laughs. I unconsciously grin. McGough has that effect on people.