Students & Alumni. Writing and English Literature.
Sam Millar graduated from our BA (Hons) Writing and English Literature degree in 2019. His first poetry collection Retail Park was published in 2022 by Querencia Press.
What have you been doing since graduating from ARU?
Since uni I've been working on my poetry. I had my first anthology published last year, called Retail Park, which was incredible, and I've been painting a lot. I started painting and selling my paintings occasionally, which has been good. That was a new thing, but mainly working on my poetry and trying to sell myself.
My poetry covers life, death, drugs, and family, I think that's the four main things! A lot of what I do is informed by family relations. I write a lot about Basildon – I'm from Basildon in Essex – and people's relationships with their home town, leaving and coming back, and how that shapes you. I find that really interesting.
Did you always know that you would go to university and if not, what changed your mind?
It was sort of a mix. When I was in secondary school in Basildon, I did think I was going to go to uni. I didn't know what I was going to do ever really, but I knew uni was the path, and my parents were really encouraging. But when I got to college, I didn't really enjoy college as much. I was going through some other things, and I didn't really go. I sort of fell out of love with education, learning and books. Things that I used to get if not excited, at least enthusiastic about. I sort of lost that completely. There were different things affecting that, and my attendance was abysmal.
Then afterwards I took a year out, and I didn't know how long that year was going to last, but I started reading again, and writing for the first time. It was the first time I really loved the idea of doing something, really wanted to pull myself into at least trying to make a career out of it, or just learning, fundamentally. Then, seeing the course on the ARU website, it was just perfect. I didn't know there was a degree you could do in writing, I didn't think that was ever a possibility, and I wasn't looking for it at the time because I didn't know I wanted to go to university. It all just came together in this really nice, perfect way. And now I look back on it, it was the best experience. A real informative, fun and challenging experience, and I'm glad I did it. I'm glad I found something that I loved to do, and I got to learn from people who were amazing at it.
Is there anything in particular that inspired you to get into poetry in the first place?
I wrote a lot of poetry in year 7 and 8. I don't know why I was doing it, but I really liked it. I had a little book I was writing poetry in. Then I stopped it for so long, until uni. Even before uni, the writing I was doing was sometimes poetry, but mainly I was reading poetry, but writing short stories and things like that.
I met a lot of people very quickly that liked poetry, and reading and performing it, or just liked talking about it, and that just made me want to write it. I think it's the most immediate medium of writing, and when it hits it can destroy you, or it can make your day. It can stay with you forever. I know you can definitely get that from any sort of art or writing, but there's something about poetry that's so musical. Sometimes it's just the most gorgeous and immediate thing.
I had poems that stuck with me that I enjoyed. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, there's a poem in that that changed a lot for me. Frank Bidart is one of the best poets that I've ever read, and I was reading a lot of his stuff during the pandemic and when I was writing Retail Park. The first book I got of his was called Metaphysical Dog. He does this confessional, very personal, very introspective poetry, but also talks about love, death, the beyond. He does these fantastic poems from other people's perspectives, imagining himself in their shoes. There's one I think is called Herbert White, about this horrendous serial killer. It's really vivid and disgusting in a way, but you find yourself sympathising and believing in what Frank is saying through this person. Just a really incredible poet.
What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your education?
From an academic point of view, planning was something I took away that I didn't really do before, but now I think is the most important thing for me personally. I wasn't always fantastic at getting essays in, and not doing them the night before. But having a plan, you're always constantly thinking about it, and now with every bigger project I work on I plan it quite meticulously and make sure I know what I'm doing before I do it.
But also, that you get back what you put in. Everyone that you're learning from is what you're trying to become, is a published, knowledgeable person – so take advantange of every opportunity. Put the work in; read the book; really listen to what you're being taught, because it's coming from the best place possible.
One of the lecturers on the course in particular, Caron Freeborn, who was poetry lecturer at the time, was and arguably still is the biggest influence on my writing at the time. Caron was also from Basildon, and seeing someone who was such a fantastic writer, and so easy to be enthused by, and was published, and living as a lecturer and a poet, and a performer, and all of this briliant stuff – and she was from Basildon, and that was such a big thing for me. We would talk so much about home, and our relationships with it, and became really good friends. Really good friends. Retail Park is dedicated to her. Just a really incredible person, and a really fantastic teacher.
Which aspects of the course most helped your career development?
We did group feedback – honest critical feedback from peers and lecturers – and being able to give that feedback is scary. It's brilliant when you're praising, but I used to get a bit scared when I was critiquing at the beginning. But learning how to have those discussions, and being critiqued and being told not "This is wrong" but "Have you thought about it this way?" or "Is this what you're trying to saying? Can you say it better?". I think that that is huge, being able to internalise that and turn it into self-critiquing, looking back and going "Oh, this is not what I was trying to do. This is how I can do it better. This is the image I'm trying to make with my writing." That was massive, and really encouraged on the course.
Everyone was always enthusiastic about doing different things, but there's always people who, really, their thing is short stories, or their thing is historical fiction, or their thing is poetry. And hearing people who wouldn't necessarily say that they were poets, or sometimes didn't enjoy poetry as much - hearing what they thought was fantastic, because you're not just writing for the people that love poetry, you're writing for the people who don't and you want them to like poetry, or be hurt by it, or be taken by it in some way. So that feedback is invaluable, and was always delivered with honesty by people. It's huge, to get any perspective possible.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
There's a lot! If I was talking to Sam from back then, I would say "You are going to do a lot of time doing things because you are scared that they won't be perfect, or they won't be a recereation of the feeling or the thoughts that you have in your head, and politely, that's wrong. Do things. Start things. Fail at things. Enjoy them for what they are, and don't get too in yourself. Do what makes you happy." Because the happiest I've been is when I started writing again, and progressing from that.
I think I missed out on a lot of ideas and things in my head, those stories that you really fall in love with. I got so wrapped up in the idea that if the first thing on the page wasn't perfect, then it was a failure, and that's not the case. You can't edit a blank page. You have to just do it, and go from there. I do think I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Actually, I know I'm a perfectionist!
What was your favourite thing about studying in Cambridge, and what did you learn about the city that you didn’t know before?
I loved Cambridge. I think the place itself is gorgeous. You can go anywhere, and it's always a good walk. A lot of shows, and open mics, and different things. We have a theatre in Basildon, but it never had open mics and stuff like that, especially not for spoken word and poetry. So coming to Cambridge, there's so much celebration of that. It was incredible. Really, really fun. It's such a beautiful city.
There was so much to do everywhere you went. I was at the top of Mill Road, where I was staying after I moved out of halls, and there was a constant buzz of people, and you're only half an hour away from the town centre, and then there's everything. Or you can go the other way, and there's colleges and gardens. There was just always something to do, and that was really lovely. When you need a pick-me-up you go for a little walk, and there's just greenery everywhere.
A number of the poems in Retail Park I started at uni, one of my favourite ones was Jesus is Coming, Look Busy, and I wrote that in poetry class at uni. When you're in those spaces, you just want to do more. Not just because you're learning it, but because you love it. Being in Cambridge just made me want to write more, do more. Attempt different things as well.
What projects are you currently working on, both at work and outside it?
Sadly, my poetry isn't my work yet. I'm hoping that if I keep working, keep writing, keep painting, but it's been a weird few months. I'm getting back into the swing of writing and painting every day now. But I'm workingon this hybrid thing, a poetry/graphic novel/illustration-style thing. I got a bit obsessed with the idea of stories in graphic novels, and putting the poetry into it, in a similar way that I've been doing with the paintings on instagram. But actually having a story, and trying to weave it and do something with that.
I've got something like 33 or 34 poems ready for that, and I've got most of the drawings started, but that's taken a lot of time to start. But I'm excited about it. It's the first thing since Retail Park. I've started things that I thought would be good, but I've just not finished them, or they need editing. But this is the first one where I've been like "Oh, actually I'm really having fun here." I'm writing, I'm having a really good time, and I'm drawing, and it's all coming together in the right way. So I hope it finishes well, to be honest! But that's what I'm working on at the moment.