Books·How I Wrote It

Nancy Jo Cullen muses on mortality in poetry collection Nothing Will Save Your Life

The Canadian poet and writer spoke with CBC Books about the inspiration behind her fourth poetry collection Nothing Will Save Your Life.

'What I'm looking at a lot of times in my work is how everything is transitory'

Nothing Will Save Your Life is a book by Nancy Jo Cullen. (Wolsak & Wynn)

Nancy Jo Cullen is a poet and writer based in Kingston, Ont. Her fourth collection of poetry, Nothing Will Save Your Life, was published this spring. 

From kitten videos to confirmation bias and vintage Vivienne Westwood, these poems are an explosion of pop culture, femininity, sex, religion and motherhood. Nothing Will Save Your Life tackles topics like body image, aging, climate change, capitalism and death, revealing what it's like to be alive in this moment. 

Cullen's other work includes the poetry books Science Fiction Saint, Pearl and untitled child, the novel The Western Alienation Merit Badge and a short story collection, Canary, which won the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. In 2010, Cullen won the Dayne Ogilvie Prize, which recognizes emerging LGBTQ writers. She has been twice nominated for the Writers' Trust McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize. 

Cullen spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote Nothing Will Save Your Life.

Working within form

"I published three collections of poetry in the late nineties and early aughts. I kind of thought I was finished with poetry, but around 2015 when all that Donald Trump stuff was starting, I had a lot of intense emotion. And so I started writing. 

"I had hardly written poetry from 2009 until that time, which was around 2015. I started with TBH — the seven part sonnet corona. Then, over time, it felt good to write poetry again and it felt good to work within form. 

"So I thought, I'm just going to do it to feel good about writing and to stretch that muscle or oil the machine. Working within form as a constraint allowed me to narrow my focus and tighten the approach. And then [the poems] just gathered over time. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, now it's a book.' But maybe a third of the way through, around 2017, I thought, 'I'm gonna get to finish this. I'm going to have to start sending out poems and making a book.' 

I'm just going to do it to feel good about writing and to stretch that muscle or oil the machine.

"When I started really enjoying working within form, I thought, 'I'm going to keep writing within form and put together a collection of sonnets.' 

"In the end, I know it wasn't just sonnets and it wasn't entirely form because I make a rule and then it starts to feel too tight. So I think that's when I was enjoying it enough that I thought it was maybe time to write one more collection of poetry."

An amazing group of women poets

"Most of it was written in Kingston. I started in Toronto and then in 2017 I moved to Kingston. That's when I started meeting with a group of poets in Kingston. We met semi-regularly and then by the time COVID-19 hit, we started meeting weekly on Zoom. They were people I trusted and who understand what I'm trying to do as a writer. It was like sitting in a little MFA workshop with close, trusted friends. Most of the work was done with the support of this really amazing group of women poets.

It was like sitting in a little MFA workshop with close, trusted friends. Most of the work was done with the support of this really amazing group of women poets.

"I have a couple of workspaces. The one that I'm usually in at this time of year is the very front of my house, which is a porch that's been climatized. You wouldn't want to sit there in the winter, but it's a three season room and all my books are there — a friend built bookcases for me.

"There are three big windows looking out on the street, which is a pretty busy thoroughfare in Kingston. I see people riding their bikes, kids going to the school bus. There's a couple that go on scooters with a Welsh flag and a Canadian flag."

Resisting beneficial change

"I'm pretty happy. I know this sounds odd because I am aware that the poems explore a lot of the grief that I've had in my life. But, if you don't have love, you can't have grief. I had a parent die when I was young — he was sick through my adolescence — so I think that affected the way I think about things. 

People have short term memory and resist change that would be better for the bulk of the population.​​​​​

"I am also mad about how things don't seem to change. There was a time when I was young that I really thought things were changing. And actually, I am not positive they're not changing.

"But we're just doing the same thing over and over again. People have short term memory and resist change that would be better for the bulk of the population."

No one can stay young forever

"I think a lot about how we see ourselves in the world. We see ourselves in the world through celebrities, right? We do our hair after certain people and we follow people's lives that aren't our own with this kind of fervour. The Beatles were icons or gods to my sisters. And I was a little girl who would watch them.

"I want to talk about the sort of the way nothing is permanent, the way that things are going to transition through this life, through this world. That is something that we're all going to do. 

That's the way of the world. That's how it should be. If it wasn't like that, we'd have an even worse world.

"I suppose that is an obsession of mine because I learned at an early age that we're all going to die sooner or later. What I'm looking at a lot of times in my work is how everything is transitory.

"Even the people that we thought were gods and would be young forever. They're not young forever. But when you're young, it feels like you will be young forever. And you can't imagine that famous celebrities are not going to be like that forever either. Then one day they're Paul McCartney and they're old. And it just keeps going.

"That's the way of the world. That's how it should be. If it wasn't like that, we'd have an even worse world." 

We don't have to pretend everything's okay

"I think readers might be surprised to know I can write a poem fairly quickly, but then I have to sit on it for a long time. I wrote TBH in like two weeks and that's seven poems. That's pretty fast. But I was kind of on a bender. I just had to just keep writing. 

"I don't write every day. So maybe that's the other thing. I do not sit down and write a poem every day or open up my poetry journal every day. I am always thinking of poetry and I'm always thinking of the thing I'm working on. But I probably only sit down a couple of times a week to really do the work. I don't have the situation to just write every day.

I think if we don't say it, if we pretend it's okay, that's a problem too. I don't want to necessarily make people feel unhappy, but I do want to say, 'what the actual hell?'

"I hope the next book won't be so bleak. But it might be, because even though I think I'm pretty funny and I make lots of jokes, I'm still a 'glass half-empty' kind of person. I think if we don't say it, if we pretend it's okay, that's a problem too. I don't want to necessarily make people feel unhappy, but I do want to say, 'what the actual hell?'"

Nancy Jo Cullen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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