Emily Cullen and the poetry of transitions

TRANSITIONS OF many kinds - be they in relationship status, becoming a mother, eras and generations, to the dizzying speed of digital and technological developments - are at the heart of a new poetry collection by Emily Cullen.

Emily Cullen will launch In Between Angels and Animals, her second collection of poetry, in The Kenny Bookshop & Gallery, Liosbán, Tuam Road, this Saturday at 1pm.

Although born in Tipperary and now based in Melbourne, Emily has strong connections with Galway, having studied at NUIG and becoming the university’s inaugural arts officer.

The theme of transition is summed up in the collection’s title, which was inspired by Dante.

“It refers to Dante’s worldview in his Inferno, in which he positions humans between angels and animals in the great ‘Chain of Being’,” Emily tells me. “This medieval concept stayed with me and is taken up in one of the poems entitled, ‘Ode to Lost Poems’.

“Since the book addresses various states of in-betweenness, such as the transition from single woman to wife and mother, it seemed like an apt title. There is also a sense of the animal and the divine as some of the poems grapple with the corporeality of pregnancy and motherhood, and the illumination that maternal love brings.”

While some of the transitions and ‘in-betweenness’ concentrates on the personal, the collection also takes a look at issues of a more socio-political and technological nature, be it the abrupt change from boom to bust since the late noughties, and the continual evolution of the digital age.

“Two poems, ‘Oidhreacht’ and ‘Time Of Your Birth’, evoke contrasting imaginings of the Ireland that was and is,” Emily explains. “In the latter, the Irish harp now hangs “in mercantile gaze/on the National Asset Management Agency”. I am also deeply interested in the ways we engage with technology in our daily lives and a number of the poems are inspired by the tensions between tradition and progress.”

The personal, as well as wider issues of identity, heritage, and the future intersect on a number of poems inspired by Emily’s grandmother.

“She was from North Kerry and is a latent presence behind at least three of the poems in the collection,” she says. “I celebrate her rich Hiberno-English in the Ireland of her era. At a time when our national narratives are being reexamined again, her memory evokes, for me, a sense of from where we have come and what we might hold onto as Irish people.”

Emily’s debut poetry collection, No Vague Utopia, was published by Ainnir Publishing in 2003, and addressed themes from the perspective of a younger woman in a different decade in Ireland. What kind of progression does she feel In Between Angels and Animals is from her debut?

“I feel I have honed my craft and my voice has matured considerably,” says Emily. “My writing has always been, and continues to be, musical and textured. I am a harpist and I used to DJ on a regular basis so, to me, there is a natural continuity between music and language.

“While the lyrical impulse is a blessing, it also brings with it particular challenges, as life doesn’t always end on a positive note or perfect cadence. I have learned to look for ways to accommodate a poem’s natural rhythm without inhibiting its train of thought. This collection doesn’t aim to speak definitively as the voice of this generation, but it does attempt to use language to fracture the habitual ways we understand our rapidly changing world.”

The event will also see the launch of two other collections, Necessary Silence by Lisa C Taylor and Ripple Effect by Terry McDonagh. All three are published by Arlen House. The guest speaker will be the poet Sarah Clancy.

Those interested in attending the launch should RSVP to Alan Hayes at [email protected]

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