Aaron Schneider Interviews Tom Cull
Born and raised in Huron County (Treaty 29 territory), Tom Cull currently resides in London, Ontario near the banks of Deshkan Ziibi on traditional lands of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lunaapéewak and Chonnonton Nations. Tom works at the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority and teaches creative writing at Western University. He is the author of two books of poetry, Kill Your Starlings (Gaspereau Press) and Bad Animals (Insomniac Press 2018), and two chapbooks, What the Badger Said (Baseline Press, 2013) and Keep Your Distance (Collusion 2021, co-written with Kerry Manders). His work has also appeared in This Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The Rusty Toque, Long Con Magazine, The Windsor Review, The New Quarterly, and The Goose. Tom was poet laureate for the city of London from 2016–18. He is the director of Antler River Rally, a grass roots environmental group he co-founded in 2012 with his partner Miriam Love.
Aaron Schneider: Can you talk about the origins of this book? Did it start out as individual poems that you assembled into a book or were you thinking about this as a book as you were crafting the poems?
Tom Cull: The book began as individual poems. But as I added more to the pile, I got a general sense of the book’s shape, which, in turn, shaped the poems that came later (and what poems made the final cut). While my first book Bad Animals, was a container for poems that I’d written over the course of a decade or more, Kill Your Starlings came together in a shorter time span.
Aaron Schneider: This is your second book, and I want to ask you a few questions about the difference between it and your first book. Has your understanding of poetry changed between this book and your first one? And, to what extent, if at all, has your writing process changed?
Tom Cull: I don’t know if my understanding of poetry has changed (gosh, what IS my understanding of poetry—that’s a tough/big one!) My writing process hasn’t changed much--I write poems as they come to me (in the pockets of time I find here and there). The poems then go through many drafts and eventually make it to my workshop group where they get stress-tested by the group. That’s basically been my process since I started writing. I would say that the big difference now is that the process is now more structured, fine-tuned, and established.
Aaron Schneider: The two books deal with quite similar themes, in particular, ecology, the environment, and climate change. Has your understanding of these changed between the first book and the second, and, if so, how?
Tom Cull: Yes, I think you are right. The two books are shot through with similar themes/questions—about ‘home,’ family, ecological relationships, environmental collapse, and where social and environmental issues converge. I think this collection is perhaps more focused on (or affected by) time and temporality. This has to do with a number of things: me turning 50, feeling that age in my body, and reflecting both on the 5 decades under my belt and the limited time ahead; the current state of our planet as we blow past Co2 reduction targets and attempt to normalize and metabolize the accelerated pace of generalized bio-precarity (expressed in both wild swings of weather and politics); thinking about the time and history of this country (and my home county) and a collective unwillingness to reconcile ourselves with that past and a greater history of colonial violence and genocide; witnessing my son turning 13 and watching him negotiate the funhouse of adolescence; and, finally, mourning and pre-mourning of loss of friends and family that I love, both human and non-human.
Aaron Schneider: You write consistently about the environment, and this dovetails with your role as one of the co-founders of Antler River Rally, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the Thames River in London, Ontario, and your current position at the Upper Thames Conservation Authority. How do you understand the relationship between poetry, politics and activism? Where does poetry fit into environmental work? How does poetry matter for you at what is a pivotal moment in the climate crisis?
Tom Cull: My poetry (and my understanding of myself as a poet) is shaped by that matrix: poetry, politics, activism, conservation work, and teaching. I have said before that these things are all on a continuum, and that they feed each other. My poems come out of my river-work, and those poems keep me coming back to the river. This is a bit of a swerve, but I’m realizing that the world communicates with me more than it did when I was younger. I see signs everywhere. Every time I see a vacuum, or a starling, or a river—I’m reminded to get back to the things that make me productive. It all sounds a bit flaky or soft-spiritual, but the world feels like it is becoming more charged, more in direct communication with me. Or perhaps I’m just getting old, sentimental, and scared—looking to find meaning/direction/etc. That’s fine too--
Poetry is how I make sense of the places I live and poetry helps me understand the ecology of place—the networks of life and meaning that I’m enmeshed in and that I want to protect from destruction. And poetry is a place where science and art and politics and culture can meet and mix it up.
Aaron Schneider: Your poems oscillate between larger environmental issues and deeply personal moments. How do you see the relationship between these? Are they separate veins of material? Are they in communication with each other, and, if so, how?
Tom Cull: Poetry and paying attention to (and learning about) the living world have helped me think (and, I hope, act) wholistically. The personal moments are pockets within pockets—my longing for home is complicated by an understanding of how my ‘home’ was shaped by historical forgetting – a historical forgetting created by colonial violence and theft. That newer understanding doesn’t invalidate/erase my personal history, but it does inform it in very important ways. I still very much love my rural upbringing—Huron County, the people and the landscape are who I am, but my accounting of my history now is forever changed. Many of the poems in the collection wrestle with this change.
Aaron Schneider: There are a some quite revealing lines in these poems, lines that have to do with you, but also with people who are close to you. I’m always interested in how a writer decides what personal details to share, and how, in particular, they think about this decision when the personal details belong to someone else? How did you approach deciding to include these lines and how do you think about what to reveal, and, just as importantly, what not to reveal?
Tom Cull: Yes, the personal stuff. I try to approach this with caution and consideration. I rarely start out wanting to explicitly convey deeply personal things, but sometimes the poem calls for them. The poem “Seedless,” for example, began as a Covid poem—a poem that tried to capture the challenges of feeling trapped indoors, of turning our homes into work places, of switching to virtual encounters—all that within the larger context of the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic. The poem is about a particularly rough day for my partner, and the way that our son tried to comfort her. But that image called to mind for me another story of grief and loss that we both live with and share—grief that comes to the surface from time to time. So I included that layer because the poem had led me there. But before I could share it, I had to let my partner read it, because it is her story too. If she had had a strong feeling that she didn’t want that shared, I would have shelved the poem. Part of proceeding with caution and consideration is consultation—generally, if the poem shares someone else’s personal details, I consult with that person before I share/publish the poem. It gets tricky sometimes when you also own that memory or detail—or, better yet, when you share that experience with someone who has an entirely different take. Other than proceed with caution, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules—it really comes down to the poem, the details, the people, the power dynamics, gut intuition, and your priorities. And sometimes you get it wrong. And often it is complex and layered. And often these considerations shift with time. Our son often appears in my poems—and again, when he does, I discuss this with my partner and with him (now that he is older). Some of the details of his life have appeared in these poems—maybe things he would not share himself. But ultimately, what I hope the poems are (and become) are love letters to him and the life and family that we have built together (and continue to build) together. I do think that a poem is a much safer place for revelation (of all sorts) than on social media.
Aaron Schneider: The poem “Autopsy Report” about your father and his death ends with three lines from a poem written by your mother. It works beautifully, but it also a fascinating choice. Can you talk about why you decided to end the poem with lines that aren’t yours and that are from a poem that is otherwise inaccessible to the reader.
Tom Cull: I owe much of my brain to my mom. She taught me how to write, which also meant she taught me so much about how to think. After my dad died, she wrote many poems—poetry and her grief went hand-in-hand. And when she used dad’s autopsy report as found poetry for the final line of one of her poems, I thought it was just brilliant and perfect. And so when I was looking for a way to end my poem about dad, I tried to figure out a way to use the report without simply replicating what my mom had done. But nothing worked and I realized that nothing worked because she had already provided an ending. So I quoted her ending, which brought her more into the poem, and let me share a bit more about her and where my writing comes from. After that fact, I realized too that ending it in this way says something about the communal and intertextual nature of grief—and of poetry. And in addition to stealing her lines, I stole her title!! (again, with permission and after having shown her the poem).
Aaron Schneider: So far, I have made the poems in the book sound quite serious, and they can be somber and deeply affecting, but they are also shot through with humor. There is, obviously, the title of the book, and I find it difficult to imagine reading a few of the poems, such as “Auto Erotica,” with anything other than shit eating grin. Can you talk about how you understand and use humor in the book?
Tom Cull: I like to think I’m a real funny guy. I do love making people laugh and I love the way humour collectively cracks us up. That cracking is important, I think. It disrupts, subverts, and opens space for perspective – and for coming together. Laughter can dissolve individuals into a whole. And there has been lots written about how humour can help us survive terrible things and how it can help us negotiate the dark depths of the self. And I think all those things are true. So I love to connect to a reader through humour. And I often think of my poems as existing both on the page, but also in a room at a reading. Poetry readings need some humour—poets often take themselves (I’m including myself here) too seriously. A good laugh wakes us up and brings us back down to earth (two things that are needed at a poetry reading).
Aaron Schneider: I’m always fascinated by the granular elements of craft. Can you pick a line or two from the book, either a favourite bit of writing or something that you had to really wrestle with, and walk me through the process of composing it? How did you think about it? What decisions did you make? And why did you make them? How do you see the finished piece of writing working?
Tom Cull: The original first line of the poem “Gizzard Shad,” (Gizzard shad is a species of fish) was “We’re off to see the Gizzard!” While the poem is about a mysterious schooling of thousands of Gizzard shad in a tributary of Deshkan Ziibi/Thames River here in London, Ontario, and how that natural phenomenon became a destination for scores of bored Londoners during the pandemic lockdown, I was bound and determined to weave into the poem a recurring allusion to the The Wizard of Oz (which is a favourite movie of mine). I really wanted to juxtapose this spectacle of nature with the spectacle of the wizard (do not look behind the curtain!!). There seemed to me (still seems to me) something generative in that comparison—especially during a time in the lockdown where there was a prevailing discourse of nature “healing itself.” Earlier versions of the poem include Wizard quotes, flying monkeys—it was a giant mess of a poem. It was trying to do too many things and so it wasn’t doing anything really well. It took me a few weeks and a lot of attempts before I finally realized that I was holding on to the whole Wizard of Oz thing simply to justify that first line: “we’re off to see the Gizzard”—once I realized I was drowning the poem for a bit of self indulgent wordplay, I cut out all of the Wizard stuff and the poem finally fell into place. I did, however, keep/adapt an image of Oz’s curtain. The final line of the poem describes the school of fish as a curtain that is momentarily pulled back enough that you can see what is happening behind these pandemic fantasies of nature healing:
I stand hypnotized by those bodies
swishing. Pop cans, trash on the creek bed,
something flashing red and blue through
the undulating screen of fish.
Aaron Schneider: Finally, what question do you wish someone asked you about this collection, and can you answer it?
Tom Cull: What is a favourite poem that didn’t make it into this collection?
A poem that I really enjoyed writing that didn’t make the final cut is called “Trash Panda.” It is a list poem of slang terms for animals: trash panda, fur baby, fart kitten, hissing cobra chicken, etc. As with many of my list poems, it begins with actual terms and then slips sideways, the names getting sillier and more bizarre: Sky Weasel, False Professor, North American Commenter, Gossamer Sea Pigeon, Pileated Stadium Boar, Droning Podium Slouch, Helium Beetle, Three-Chinned Label Reader, and on it goes.
I like list poems, especially about animals because they focus attention on the ways language both tames and bewilders the natural world. Lists are also functional forms—it is fun to subvert that functionality. I also like how list poems put language under a microscope—something about the ways lists concentrate language and pare down the line. But list poems also work as an aggregate form (they take on different meanings as more items are added). List poems also allow the poem to make logical/aesthetic/critical jumps. It occurs to me that I’m making a list about list poems. So, I’ll stop there. So, yes, I like “Trash Panda” but it just didn’t belong in this collection and so it’s sitting this one out. Thanks for your question Aaron—and thanks to your readers for tuning in!
Aaron Schneider is a queer settler living in London, Ontario. He is the founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review, the publisher at the chapbook press 845 Press, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at Western University. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Ex-Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, BULL, Long Con, The Malahat Review and The Windsor Review. His stories have been nominated for The Journey Prize and The Pushcart Prize. His novella, Grass-Fed (Quattro Books), was published in Fall 2018. His collection of experimental short fiction, What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press), was published in Fall 2021. The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books) is his first novel.