Masculinity Under The Microscope: In Conversation With Callum Holgate


Callum Holgate, a third-year English student, has built an audience on social media, following the footsteps of digitally savvy poets such as Rupi Kaur and Brian Bilston. Holgate’s new poetry collection, Boys Will Be Boys, is the product of three years worth of writing, from poems about toxic masculinity and identity, to rats in Southampton parks and the legality of feeding ducks.

After the tragic death of Sarah Everard, which has shed light on widespread harassment towards women, it is vital more than ever to have male voices critiquing the way we socialise men and boys to a receptive audience. I had the pleasure of discussing with Holgate his debut collection and the thought that went into it.

Mental Health and Poetry

From the very beginning of Boys Will Be Boys, Holgate is extremely open about his struggles with mental health and his pursuits towards professional guidance and seeking coping mechanisms, including poetry. Inspired principally by the sardonic styles of Phillip Larkin and Brian Bilston, Holgate was eventually able to find thematic balance in his works:

“I used to only write as a coping mechanism when I felt the emotional necessity to vent. But eventually, it became part of my routine for that, but also just for fun. I’ve become more comfortable in writing, so I no longer feel the need to make my writing match what poetry should be, rather than my own material.”

With upbeat rhymes to discuss serious topics, such as men’s mental health and masculinity, Holgate touches on the importance of comedy. Oftentimes, turning to comedy has been a productive way to process strong emotions and difficult parts of his life. Comedy has served well in poems such as ‘I’m Not Sure What to Call This One; Probably Overthinking, Or Something’, in which we see the inevitable comparison of ourselves to our parents. Holgate compares himself to the stoicism of his dad while on an NHS therapy waiting list. Holgate’s father is clearly an affecting figure in his life whom he looks up to, as someone who “always has it together” and “somehow never overthinks”. This brought us to an essential point in his work surrounding masculinity:

“Something I really didn’t want to do was vilify any position of masculinity. My dad (someone you would call traditionally masculine) and the gay man with no family are just as masculine as each other.”

To Be A Man

Holgate didn’t distil his words when we came to discuss men’s mental health. The stigma against men seeking help for their mental struggles is something that Holgate makes a point of confronting. Expressing nonchalantly his confidence in organisations such as NHS therapy schemes and The Samaritans, he decided while at university that he would actively share his struggles with the people around him. Naturally, if he felt no need to hide his emotions from other people, “why would I hide it in my poetry?” The tendency to sweep men’s mental anguish under the rug is a major reason behind his exploration of toxic masculinity:

“In my poems about relationships, I try to stay open about making mistakes. You know, I don’t want to make out that I’m perfect. When I was closed off from my emotions, I didn’t understand what I was going through […] which meant that I couldn’t be there for other people.”

Our Current Climate

However, Holgate’s poems exploring masculinity do not only discuss men’s mental health. This was a conscious decision in order to avoid the all-too-common use of men’s mental health to detract from the very real problems that arise from the repression of men’s self-expression and the treatment of women. ‘Harpsichord Solos for Men Who Wear Pink to Family Functions’ and ‘One-Sided Conversation with a Looking Glass’ delve into the complex relationship that men can have with femininity.

“This was a very strange and unfortunate time to be contributing to this discussion. But I’m glad my book brings it up. If I have an audience, I want to be a friendly male voice that also holds other men to account for their behaviour, myself included.”

Upon asking if another poetry collection is in the works, I was met with a resounding “absolutely!” In the meantime, you can see what Holgate is up to on Callum’s Canon and can buy his book Boys Will Be Boys via Amazon.

Words by Elizabeth Sorrell

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