Nancy Jo Cullen is know for wild creativity, irreverent wit, and her ability to work in multiple genres with ease, including poetry, short fiction, and novels. Indeed, Cullen is undeniably one of Canada's small press superstars, with the critical acclaim and nominations to show for it. Her newest collection of poetry, Nothing Will Save Your Life (Wolsak & Wynn), is filled to the brim with her vital, keenly insightful voice. The poems are largely written in formal constraints, including sonnets, and they show not only Cullen's technical skill but her ability to elevate strict and traditional forms to vibrant pieces that are by turns funny and gutting, ranging as they do to cover sex, pop culture, religious hangovers, and the constructs around motherhood and femininity. Fierce, relatable, and always on point, these are living poems about the wonder, pain, and surreality of being alive.
We're thrilled to welcome Nancy Jo, a former Open Book columnist, to the site today to talk about the poetic journey that brought her to Nothing Will Save Your Life. She tells us about the iconic Auden poem that she connected to while in mourning, about being inspired by Midsomer Murders, and why she enjoys a poem that can "slap [her] hard at the end."
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
Nancy Jo Cullen:
I think a surfeit of feeling that I didn’t want to carry inside my body contributed to my very first poems. (And, yes, they were terrible poems.) I wrote my first poems knowing very little about poetry, but I knew something about voice from my theatre training. I think I was trying to understand something about myself and grief that was all mixed up with feelings of hubris that seemed particular to being in my early twenties. Everything felt so crucial and so those poems were awful but that’s how I began. That and the whole thing about Catholic confession. I suppose my poems lean toward being one long confession.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
“Musee des Beaux Arts” by WH Auden is the first poem I recall connecting to in a visceral way. I was in my early twenties when I read it. My dad died when I was twenty and his death was still very fresh. I was often struck by how everyone else went on with their lives as though nothing remarkable had happened even though my dad was dead. It seemed impossible that ordinary daily life could exist alongside my terrible loss. Auden’s poem succinctly articulated that experience for me. I still return to that poem on a regular basis.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
I’m going to say I hope nothing is an unlikely source of inspiration. I want to be influenced by everything or anything, really. Recently though I wrote a poem that references a romance novel hero trope (thank you romance novels for helping me manage the stress of living through a global pandemic, the absurd cost of living, and more fucking war). I’ve also just recently written a couple of poems that reference the UK series, Midsomer Murders. My partner and I watched the entire 22 seasons over the last year and as I was thinking about disposing of a dead mouse from a trap (after the task was done) and murder in a pretty English village just seemed suited to the death of a mouse in my tiny old house.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
When I first began writing poetry it was a one-poem-at-a-time situation and, after many years, I had a collection. The two subsequent collections were built around concepts, so I wrote with a view to putting a narrative of sorts together. This most recent collection was well over half finished when I thought I might be writing a collection. I had stopped writing poetry for several years and then fell back into it without really meaning to. I was working to loosen up my own brain—which was tired from working on a novel— by working within formal poetic constraints, mostly sonnets, but my subject matter was pretty much all over the place. This feels ideal for me as an approach to building a collection. Now I am working from both places, my new collection will explore certain ideas and form but that most poems inside that book are stand-alone.
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What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
Honestly, I think both are very important although I lean toward punchy endings. I want to be drawn into a poem by its opening and then I’d like it to slap me hard at the end. Of course, I’m talking about a very specific kind of lyric poem in this instance. Other poems might require other approaches depending on the goal(s) of the poet. Ultimately, I think all parts of a poem should be deeply considered from word usage to punctuation to openings and closings.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth. The collection explores and illuminates Black identity in Alberta. Bickersteth’s use of voice is terrific, and his collection really shakes up traditional ideas of a prairie landscape. I loved it.
Nancy Jo Cullen’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Puritan, Grain, filling Station, Plenitude, Prairie Fire, Arc, This Magazine, Best Canadian Poetry 2018, Room, Journey Prize and Best Canadian Fiction 2012. Nancy is the 2010 recipient for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ+ Emerging Writers. She’s published three collections of poetry with Frontenac House and a collection of short stories, Canary, with Biblioasis. Her first novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was shortlisted for the 2020 Amazon Canada First Novel Award.