Tom Cull was born and raised in rural Southwestern Ontario. He is on the board of Poetry London and is a co-facilitator of their poetry workshop. Tom holds a PhD in English Literature from York University and is an adjunct professor at the Centre for American Studies at Western University. Tom created and runs Thames River Rally, a volunteer group that meets monthly to clean up garbage in and along the Thames River. His first book of poetry, What the Badger Said, will be published by Baseline Press in September 2013.
The interviewer is Stan Burfield, organizer of London Open Mic Poetry Night.
Burfield: When and why did you begin writing poetry?
Burfield: How has your poetry evolved?
Cull: Well, I hope it has gotten better, but even if it hasn't my poetry has become more confident and stylistically coherent. As cliche as it sounds, it has taken time to figure out how I write. As someone who had studied poetry for years, I found it, at first, almost impossible to write poems. I was trained as an academic and I was a good enough critic to know that I was a pretty bad poet. But of course I was; I hadn't practiced writing--I hadn't worked on it. Also, I'd read a poem and think, 'well, that's perfection. Nothing more needs to be said.' This is, I think, what Bloom means by "the anxiety of influence"---great poetry always left me mute, or at least I funneled my creativity into analysis and criticism rather than poetic response. But as I got some space from the study of poetry (my academic focus moved towards prose), I felt less beholden or responsible to the tradition of great poetry. I realized that I just needed to write because I enjoyed writing. And that I should start sharing my work to see how others might react to it.
Burfield: There is a tremendous sense of humour in a large portion of the poems you have shared with us here, something not that common in poetry, outside of limericks and so on. Yet these poems are serious at the same time. The humour feels like an expression of your sheer enjoyment of writing since moving away from "the anxiety of influence". Is that at least partly true?
Cull: Well, I should say, just to clarify, that while there is such a thing as the anxiety of influence, there is also the joy of influence, and the importance of influence. I guess what I'm trying to say is that influence is not necessarily detrimental to writing--in fact I think it is essential. It's just that you can't let it paralyze you. In terms of humour, I think it has less to do with feeling liberated and more to do with who I am and how I think. I take seriously the act of not taking oneself seriously. You are right, humour is about "sheer enjoyment" but it is also about negotiating the serious and the severe. I've always loved humour for its subversive irreverence and intelligence. A great comedian is a master at social commentary---humour is a mode of thinking and communicating and that's why I think it is so well-suited to poetry.
Burfield: What has had the biggest influence on your poetry? Any particular poets, genres. etc?
Cull: The answer to influences intersects with your question about my poetic evolution. My academic study of poetry leans towards modernism, the contemporary and the savant-garde movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries. When I started writing, I felt obliged to break new ground—to create something new. And so I experimented with all kinds of styles. While I still like to experiment, I have found in recent years that my work tends toward narrative form and lyric expression, quite the opposite of what I found initially exciting and interesting about poetry. When I started writing, I was studying sound, concrete and performance poetry. I was interested in spoken word, slam, beat poetry and hip-hop. I was also excited by the Black Mountain poets, the New York School (Ashbery and O'Hara). I had also spent a lot of time with the American modernists (Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost to name only a few). It is hard to point to any one of these poets or traditions (and there are many more poets whose work I admire) as having a specific influence on my work. They’ve all taught me about the writing process—about language, linguistic play, show vs tell, form, mechanics, etc, but, these poets/genres have also inspired me to develop a style that fits who I am and what I'm interested in. I'll poach from anything or anyone.
Having said all that, the biggest influence on my poetry was my move to London, Ontario, where, as you know, there is a rich, vibrant and supportive poetry community. As much as I'm influenced by my academic history, I think I'm even more influenced and inspired by the poets who read for the Open Mic Night, Poetry London and London Poetry Slam readings series, not to mention all the people in this city who are writing, reading, editing, organizing and publishing. Since moving to London, I've run workshops, taken workshops, judged numerous poetry contests, met great poets from London and beyond, and taken part in all sorts of poetry events. This has been crucial to my development, and a whole lot of fun.
Burfield: To me the most intriguing poem in the batch you shared with us is 'Crepuscular', which the dictionary says is 'of twilight', about a boy who seems to be living in his own personal Twilight Zone. It's humourous and eerie and scary and unreal all at the same time. So far I`ve read it six or seven times and am still not finished. I`m sure others feel the same. Please tell us about it. Read 'Crepuscular’ (Poem #2)
Cull: Yes, twilight is a good description of the mood and space of this poem. When I was writing the poem, I was thinking of crepuscular in the sense of its other definition: describing animals that are neither nocturnal nor diurnal, but are active in the hours of dawn and dusk. From what I understand this is a behavioural evolutionary trait adopted to help certain animals avoid predation. The concept of predation (and predation avoidance) is central to this poem. As is the notion of family--that place that is both a haven but also sometimes a hell. I won't say much more than that because if I have a reader like yourself going back to a poem six or seven times, well, I am doing something right! I'm not sure myself what is going on in that poem--but I love your description of it as simultaneously "humourous, eerie, scary and unreal". I’d like to think that the poem shifts continuously among these things and that this is the secret to its secret.
Burfield: Your poem 'Choosing the Animal Laureate' is very funny. But it's also serious. Could you give us your take on it?" Read 'Choosing the Animal Laureate' (Poem #3)
Cull: Well, as I think you are pointing out, the funny and the serious are mutually engaged. The poem playfully pokes fun but the humour is also meant to be sharp, pointed. Many of my poems ask questions about human relationships to animals--the way we make the animal both radical other and intimate associate. How we represent them, how we use them to represent ourselves, and how we imagine they might represent us. Moreover, these poems also try to understand how these kinds of representation affect our ‘real’ relationship with animals. The Zanesville Zoo tragedy was/is to me a horror. Kind of a slow-moving train wreck where everyone involved sees simultaneously the horror of the moment and the horror of the conditions that made that moment possible. That places like the Zanesville Zoo even exist, suggests to me a widespread and hugely disturbing assumption: that animals exist for our pleasure. It seems to me pathological and perverse that we display and venerate animals as we lay waste to the eco systems where they might otherwise live. And so the absurdity of the poem, I think attempts to engage our often absurd understanding/appreciation/use of animals. I think the Lion for example, is funny and ludicrous but also menacing and dangerous. And of course he speaks in the language of avant garde poetics—as a send up of the literary tradition, but also as a serious invocation of rebellious artistic movements that arose out of an initial desire to tear the tradition to shreds. It’s like watching a cat play with string—it’s funny and cute but it’s also a rehearsal for the mouse.
Burfield: What can we expect from you in the future, after 'What the Badger Said' is released?
Cull: I'm not sure exactly what is next but, I'll keep writing, keep sending things out, keep applying for grants, keep trying to find homes for my poems. In the fall Baseline Press will launch my chapbook here in London and later in Toronto. I'm really looking forward to those readings. I'm also really looking forward to another season of Poetry London--both the readings and the workshops, and of course, I'm excited about your next season of London Open Mic Poetry Night. I will admit, it is hard to think much past this upcoming Wednesday--It is going to be a fun night!
FIVE POEMS BY TOM CULL
Our other featured reader:
OUR INTERVIEW WITH FRANK DAVEY
FOUR POEMS BY FRANK DAVEY
‘TAKING A LOOK AT DAVEY‘S BOOK’
NEW FRANK DAVEY INTERVIEW BY ‘OPEN BOOK’
FEATURED POETS: Frank Davey and Tom Cull will read startting at 7:00, followed by Q&A
OPEN MIC: We will have our traditional open mic for part of the last hour. As usual, readings will be five minutes maximum, and will be randomly chosen. They will end at 9:00.
MUSIC: From 6:30 to 7:00 we will open the event with live music: Bernie Koenig on vibraphones and Emma Wise on cello. See: more info and a sample.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Donate for a raffle ticket. Three prizes include Brick Books (the best Canadian poets) and two include a book by Frank Davey plus a frameable 'broadsheet' of one of his poems. See: Where Our Income Comes From. Please help us stay afloat. Donations are our only source of income.
WHERE: The event will be held in the Landon Library in Wortley Village, in the large basement room where Poetry London holds its readings. (We return to the Mykonos Restaurant in May.)
WHEN: 6:30 to 9:00 pm on Wed. April 24th, 2013.
NOTE: This month only: APRIL 24TH, AT LANDON LIBRARY, in London's Wortley Village, then we return May 1st to the terrace of the Mykonos Restaurant.
Afterwards, many of us retire to the Roadhouse Pub across the street to wet our whistles.