University of Southampton student, Callum Holgate, is a third-year English student publishing his first book of poetry. Boys will be Boys, is a compendium of poems written over the years; some of them previously appearing on Callum’s Instagram or Twitter, as well as including more intimate poems and ones written specifically for the book. As Boys will be Boys comes out in March, I sat down to chat with Callum to talk about all things poetry and how he was feeling about his first self-published collection.
Going into the collection, Callum talked about its four sections as well as the difficulty “to pin down the things I write about.”
“There’s kinda these three sections dealing with these things that you more typically expect to see in a book of poems, or from someone who takes their poetry somewhat seriously, and then in the end there’s all my weird dumb stuff about cats and stuff.”
It’s through the multiplicity in Callum’s writing that makes him feel like such an accomplished poet already, one-day writing poems like the humorous ‘WORM’ that reads in a familiar tune, to offering snapshot scenes of brooding seriousness like ‘ghosts’ or even ‘Robin’. Callum is anything but a one-note poet, and it’s something that became important in the creation of Boys will be Boys.
“One day I write something kinda serious, and then the next day I’ll write about a crisp packet. I wanted to reflect all of that.”
Callum wanted to emphasise that “I don’t take myself too seriously, a lot of the time,” and this comment was particularly important when he was talking about the more weighty aspects of the collection.
“More often than not, I’m trying to make people laugh, or think about something upsetting in a funny way or see some degree or some silver lining.”
It’s only apt then that Callum listed his favourite poet as Philip Larkin, attributing it as probably one of the reasons his own poetry is often “ironically pessimistic […] starting off one way, and then I like to take a comedically dark turn at the end.” Even when delving into the depths of himself or with significant themes, humour is at the core of Callum’s poetry, at times offering a dichotomy aimed to make the reader laugh and occasionally think. It’s this contrast that’s also important entering the collection, especially with the title Boys will be Boys and where the title arose from.
“So there’s definitely a sort of an overall, I won’t say argument, but a point I’m trying to hammer. […] Boys have some sort of responsibility for their actions, and you can’t use ‘boys will be boys’ to batter off some particularly problematic issues.”
Describing to me how the first section of the collection is the “Boys will be Boys section”, Callum wanted to drive home the fact that there is something that he challenges in the book’s conception as well at times in its own ambiguity.
“I wanted to take that very valid concept which is that the phrase “boys will be boys” is a bad thing. Because there is no such thing, what a boy or man should be. The first section […] asks ‘how does one be a man’? What does it mean to be a man, is there such thing as the man that someone should inspire to be? There is a lot of poetry in there that looks like it is suggesting that, but it’s the total opposite and is actually quite critical of people being forced into boxes or being given a particular role.”
What I took away from this is that for a guy that very much sets out to make people laugh or smile, there’s also an element of social critique, an urging to look out to the bigger world and just think, even if only for a moment. While the books promise to be filled with poems designed to make you laugh, it’s also at times going to make you evaluate problematic situations surrounding this idea of what it means to be a man. As brought up in conversation, the title-poem is in part a “response to the Harry Styles debate”.
Back in November, Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue wearing a dress that sparked controversy, most notably coming from Candace Owens’s call to “bring back manly men”. Callum flashed me his painted nails as he commented on the event and its significance.
“I feel that was a considerable turning point for everyone’s perception of gender politics and what it meant to be a boy or a man. Whether men should be allowed to wear dresses or whether clothes can be gendered, whether painting your nails makes you a girl.”
It’s an important moment and one that works brilliantly as inspiration for the title poem because it hints at how many different things Callum may attempt to challenge in this upcoming collection. Although, it remains important to bring us back to the main point of the collection. While it may set out to challenge certain issues and themes, it’s always going to at its heart in making me laugh and validating those who read it:
“If at least one person buys my book and reads one poem and says “I feel somewhat seen by what is here”, then I will feel like I have achieved something in my writing that’s not just an expression of something I feel. It’s something that someone else can appreciate and if it makes them feel slightly better about something they’re dealing with or going through, then I feel like I would have achieved something.”
It was an admirable wind-down to our interview, offering a glimpse into Boys will be Boys, but before we finished, Callum had one last thing to say.
“My favourite comment I get from people is when they say “this made me laugh” or “this made me smile”. All I ever want is for people to enjoy what I write, or smile at what I write – to have their life affected in any way they can be by the silly words I have written down on paper.”