Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Catherine Ann Cullen

selected poems catherine Ann Cullen

-Dr. Catherine Ann Cullen was inaugural Poet in Residence at Poetry Ireland 2019 to 2021. She is an award-winning poet, children’s author and songwriter, and recipient of Arts Council and Irish Writers Centre bursaries and the prestigious Kavanagh Fellowship. Her poetry collections include The Other Now (Dedalus 2016). Beehive publishes her seventh book, The Song of Brigid’s Cloak, in October 2022.

The Interview

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

  1. What inspired you to write poetry?

It must have been the state of being a restless child with a head full of nursery rhymes and songs, as I was writing poems, or rhymes at least, from about the age of five. I’ve always been interested in legends and storytelling, in family lore and local history, and in ballads, street rhymes and games, and all of those interests came together early to make poetry a way of navigating the world for me.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

The credit has to go to my Dad, although I was lucky that both of my parents knew a lot of poetry by heart. My Dad would quote Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Burns as well as Irish poets from Raifteirí to Pearse, Gogarty, McDonagh, Kavanagh and many others. He also enrolled myself and my five siblings in the library as soon as he could, and borrowed anthologies of poems for me most fortnights. We had a lot of songbooks at home because my father played guitar and was interested in songs, and I read these songsters as if they were children’s books. I was always very involved in the ballads and the stories that they told, and I didn’t really differentiate in my mind between songs and poetry.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

When I was a child, I was more aware of dead poets than of older, living poets. I became more conscious of living poets in my teenage years. While I was aware that there were certain poets, such as Heaney and Mahon, whose work seemed to be known to everyone, it wasn’t a cause of concern to me. I read poetry voraciously, from the Beat poets to the Metaphysicals to the shabby poets who sold their self-published books on the streets of Dublin.  I remember getting a ticket for the adult section of my local library for the first time at the age of 12 and making a beeline for the poetry shelves. I took out every collection and anthology in turn. I shamelessly imitated the styles of poets I liked. So, while I was aware of older poets and the ‘canon’, I suppose, they didn’t get in the way of my appreciating everyone else.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I usually write around other commitments and work, so I fit writing in either early in the morning or late in the evening. I also often write in bursts, so I have a quiet period and then a few months full of poems. Covid has taken a chunk out of my regular writing time as, since the first lockdown, I have visited my mother most evenings to keep her company. I don’t regret that, it is a choice I have made willingly, and I consider myself extremely lucky to still have a parent alive and lively. But I hope the lost writing time will affect the quantity rather than the quality of my writing. I have definitely written less over Covid, and given each poem or song more time than usual.

5. What motivates you to write?

Deadlines are the most effective motivator, but I’m also driven to capture particular moments or images that stay with me, to tell stories of my own life and family, or to respond to the stimuli of human rights issues, politics, art, nature and ideas.  I often wait for a few weeks to let an idea percolate in my mind and allow all of its aspects to emerge before I put pen to paper. It’s almost as if I am staging the poem and I visualise the movement of it, the scenes of it, and allow them to crystallise in my mind before I commit it to paper.

6. What is your work ethic?

I’m not sure I have one. Although people close to me know that I work hard most of the time, I find the phrase ‘work ethic’ a bit distasteful. To me, it conjures up a class of people which has exploited others and is likely to use labels like “workshy”, “lazy”, “scroungers” or “welfare cheats” while living off the work of others. Hearing the phrase “work ethic” makes me want to while away my hours drinking Campari sodas in a hammock. 

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

My teenage years spent reading Dylan Thomas, Donne, Keats, Milton, Plath, Bishop, Yeats and many others have somehow made me internalise the sonnet form. When I need to write something in a hurry, my default form is the sonnet, which “makes one little room an everywhere” as Donne said of love. I fall back on form in general when in doubt, though I write a lot of free verse. Even with free verse, if I see a shape emerging, I will go with it – five lines and two, five lines and two, or some kind of mirroring, rhythm, shape in the placing of lines. The idea of ‘shaping’ my thoughts into something with a distinct form is still very appealing to me.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I love Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work and have done since I was a student of hers back in the 1980s in Trinity College Dublin. It is perfection: textured, intellectual and emotional, and reaches far beyond Ireland and Irish concerns, although it can reflect them too. Eavan Boland was recently enough with us for me to count her among today’s writers. Again, she has a voice that transcends Ireland while being part of it – a cool, precise and unfaltering voice. I’m sticking just to Irish writers here because otherwise there are just too many to name. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Paula Meehan, Sinéad Morrissey, Martina Evans, Ailbhe Darcy, Aifric Mac Aodha – there are so many women whose work I admire and never tire of reading. And there are men too, of course – Theo Dorgan, Ciaran Carson, Dermot Bolger, Stephen Sexton… an endless list.  I’m also very influenced by songwriters and singers, from Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchel, John Prine, Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Taylor Swift, Mick Hanly, Frank Harte, Niamh Parsons, Karan Casey…    

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

My first instinct is to answer, ‘because I can’t draw’. But I write to make sense of the world for myself, to take hold of beautiful or difficult moments and to face them, to shape them into something I can countenance.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would say, write, read, love, listen, and pay attention. Keep at it. Submit your work. Join a group of writers if you can, especially if you are interested in reading other people’s work and giving good, encouraging and helpful feedback on it in exchange for their feedback on your work. In almost any group – certainly in any I have been part of  – there will be people whose feedback you instinctively trust more than others, people who are genuinely interested in making your work better and don’t have any other agenda. Listen to and carefully consider what they say. You don’t have to take every piece of advice, but some advice is invaluable.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment:

I have a children’s book coming out in October with Beehive Books, based on a song I wrote on one of the legends of (Saint) Brigid. It’s a joy to be working with a wonderful illustrator, Katya Swan, and my editor Síne Quinn, and to see the book developing. It’s a different experience to producing a book of poetry, which is a much more solitary occupation, although it does involve an editor too. I also have an anthology of children’s poetry with one other author which is, like many books in these Covid times, in a long queue for publication – but will eventually appear! I have a broadsheet of poems written during my Poetry Ireland residency on the history of the Poetry Ireland building at 11 Parnell Square, which is awaiting final design tweaks. I’ve been slowly reworking my fourth poetry collection – and I’m also writing my first non-fiction book. (although I’d argue poetry is really non-fiction.) I’m sworn to secrecy about the non-fiction one, but it will be announced in the autumn. Throw in various academic papers, mostly on ballads and street poetry, and a few song projects, and I probably have enough to be going on with on the writing front.

12. What is it about poetry rather than prose that appeals to you?

Brevity, to be honest, is a big factor in the appeal. I like the condensed aspect of poetry, the fact that it can be almost like a novel in its impact, in 14 lines or 40. I like the fact that I can give a poem my full attention and that it repays that, I find it hard to sustain my attention over longer forms.

13. What role does nature play in your writing?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘nature’ poet in particular, although of course it does worm its way into my work on occasion, and certainly through the pandemic there has been some reflecting on the solace provided by the garden and the park, for example. I think I write more about humans and their stories than about our natural surroundings in general.

14. How do you know when a poem you are writing is finished?

Paul Valéry said a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. There are certainly some poems that I am not completely happy with, but they have gone out into the world in their imperfection due to a deadline, or a sense of impatience, or the knowledge that I have done all I can to improve them. Other poems quickly make a perfect circle, or seem to complete themselves without much effort, and I’m always surprised that these are the poems that people seem to particularly enjoy and admire, as if the ease in which they were born gives them an appealing air.

15. After reading your poetry what do you hope the reader will leave with?

I’d be delighted if they left with any reaction at all, but especially with a sense of being able to identify with or empathise with the poem in some way. And, if the reader is a poet, I would be honoured if they saw anything to admire in the way I shaped the poem and my choice of words.

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