'The poems are more robust in this collection'

Emily Cullen on her new poetry volume Conditional Perfect

THIS SATURDAY sees the launch of Emily Cullen’s new poetry collection, Conditional Perfect, at the Galway City Museum. Published by Doire Press, this is Cullen’s third collection, following 2003's No Vague Utopia and 2013's In Between Angels and Animals.

Conditional Perfect’s thematic concerns range from the domestic to the political and from music to history, with Cullen writing as a mother and working woman, a scholar and harpist, responding to the world around her and exploring a spectrum of lived and felt experiences.

Over an afternoon coffee, Emily discussed her new book, beginning with her thoughts on its relation to her earlier collections. “I have ambitions to keep developing as a poet," she says. "I am conscious I am on a journey and hopefully I am learning and absorbing skills all the time and learning my craft. There are certainly different thematic concerns in this book. I am still inspired by people like Eavan Boland and the ‘dailiness’ of her work, which brings to life the immediate reality around her, and Patrick Kavanagh who said the parochial was universal and talked about the ‘placeless Heaven’ that is in front of all of our noses.

"I am very conscious of celebrating and interrogating what’s around me in my immediate vicinity. Then, as a woman, and a mother, in contemporary Ireland with so much happening and so many revelations about the way that mothers and babies were treated and women’s rights one can’t help but be moved and angered by many of these, and responding to that was important to me and locating myself within that space as well.”

The poem ‘String Theory’ finds Cullen in "angered" mode where she writes about the infamous rape trial in which the defence barrister produced the victim’s thong in court: "I held my tongue, then a barrister produced/a pair of knickers to indict a female victim/bespeak the defendant’s intentions, as if/the throngs were not also wearing thongs/and my g-string elastic snapped."

In ‘The Walk to School’, Cullen waves her son off in the morning then reflects on footage she saw of a little boy in Gaza also going to school and dwells on the dangers he faces. Other poems, such as ‘Sanctuary’ celebrate the cosy intimacy and joys of family life.

“It is always a fine line to navigate, the continuum of the working day and playing with Lego on the carpet,” she observes. “The poems try to represent the realities of those challenges that mothers have to contend with. The poems are more robust in this collection than in my second book and I feel strongly about themes such as Gaza and the push and pull that we all have to deal with in bearing witness to the harsh news headlines that are constantly coming at us, and then also wanting to block them out sometimes.”

The book concludes with a vivid sequence of poems in the voices of the harpers who attended the famous ‘last gathering of Irish harpers’ in Belfast in 1792. “I’m crazy about music and the harp; I did my PhD thesis on the harp and I was always very moved by the stories of the harpers,” Emily relates. “For a long time it never occurred to me it could be material for poetry; I saw it as study in an academic sense. Then, about ten years after doing the PhD, I started hearing the voices of those harpers.

"I was always very struck by the oldest harper Denis Hempson, who was the only one who played with the long fingernails, and by his emotive response to being asked to pass on his tunes to Edward Bunting. Hempson felt like some of the music could not be fully translated for the new era and there were tears running down his face as he talked about the ‘dear dear old Irish tunes’.

"Echoes of his voice kept coming back to me and I wrote the first monologue in his voice. Then it occurred to me that there were so many interesting characters there like Rose Mooney – what was it like to be a blind female harper in 18th century Ireland? I suddenly felt I wanted to explore the other characters in a sequence of monologues. Wolfe Tone was also present at the gathering and recorded his impressions so I did a monologue in his voice as well.”

Conditional Perfect will be launched at 12 noon on Saturday September 28 by poet and author Gerry Hanberry. On Thursday October 3, Emily will read at Galway City Library with fellow Doire Press poets, Michael J.Whelan and Simon Lewis. Admission is free.


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