I wanted to know: how did University of Waterloo English alumnus Tom Cull become Poet Laureate of London, Ontario? So I asked him if he’d do an interview telling me all about it, and he graciously consented. Read on to find out what he’s reading, writing, and how he feels about time spent at the Bomber. Thanks to Tom for participating! –JLH
JLH: What made you decide on UWaterloo for your undergrad?
TC: My grade 13 English teacher, Mr. Armour, told me to apply to Waterloo. He said the classes were small and the professors good. He was right on both accounts. I didn’t even apply to another university. His word was good enough for me.
JLH: Do you feel the program or specific courses shaped you in any particular way?
TC: Yes. The program had great balance. It gave me a great basic grasp of the English canon (I, like everyone else, lugged around that huge Norton anthology) but there were many courses that added to it, subverted it, questioned it, upended it (Norton hears a Who?!). More than any specific course I remember professors: Linda Warley, Fraser Easton, Kevin McGuirk, Kathy Acheson, Brenda Cantor, Dennis Denisoff—I’m forgetting some names here. These professors taught me how to think, read, write, speak, and teach. They prepared me to tackle my PhD (did you know I did my MA at Waterloo also?). I look very fondly upon my years at Waterloo (and my years working at the Bomber).
JLH: You are now poet laureate of London, Ontario–can you tell us how that came about?
TC: When I moved to London about 8 years ago, I was living a pretty lonely existence. I was holed up in my mom’s basement finishing my PhD dissertation at York. I didn’t know too many people in town, but I started to meet a lot of folks when I began attending the Poetry London reading series. I was just starting to take my own creative writing seriously at that time and I met a great community of writers and literary arts organizers—many of whom have become close friends. Within a year or two I was on the organizing committee for Poetry London and about to publish my first chapbook. Around the same time, I started working in the English and Writing Studies Program at Western and was lucky enough to teach some creative writing courses. I have, over the years, become very involved in a number of not only arts-based groups, but also civic/community organizations. Applying for the position of PL seemed a way to bring all of this together. And so I applied.
JLH: How would you characterize your current work?
TC: I’m just finishing up my first full-length manuscript which I’m tentatively calling Bad Animals. As the title suggests, many of the poems deal with animals. Some of this stems from my environmental work (my partner and I founded and run an Antler/Thames River conservation group), but I’m also interested in the categorical slipperiness (like a fish) between humans and animals, and the ways we talk to, for, and about animals. Not to mention how virtual animals mediate our virtual selves. For example, what’s up with so many interspecies love youtube videos (cats rearing rats sort of thing)? What’s the relationship between the population explosion of animals on the internet and the extirpation of animals in the real world? That sort of thing.
But I’ve also started a new project that focuses more on my childhood and upbringing in rural Huron County. I’ve started to revisit the gravel runs, funerals, fist fights, and hockey games of my teenage years.
JLH: Finally, can you tell me a bit about what you are reading?
TC: As with everyone, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. I am, however, reading a lot of contemporary Canadian poetry. I have Liz Howard’s amazing book by my nightstand. I’m also currently reading Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. Di Cicco is a former Toronto Poet Laureate; his book is like a blueprint for my tenure as Poet Laureate. He’s all about art as an essential mode of civic engagement and city building.
I have read one novel this term: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. As a fellow Americanist, I’d love to know what you think of that novel. In fact we should do something fun like organize a symposium on it. The poet Jeffery Donaldson wrote a collection of poems called Slack Action which, among other things, is about his dad who worked on the railroad. “Slack Action” is a railroad term that refers to the necessary play in the couplings between railroad cars. It allows trains to bend around corners and such, and it works through a certain jostling back and forth between cars as they bump together and are pulled apart. I find it a useful way to begin thinking about Whitehead’s book. Not just about how the chapters fit together, but also how the book fits together/jostles with other African American novels. Train of thought so to speak.
Photo credit: Kerry Manders