Poet Laureate: Let’s rethink, reshape London

Adela Talbot // Western News

Tom Cull, who teaches in the American and Writing Studies programs at Western, is the new Poet Laureate for the City of London. He replaces Penn Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68, who was the first to hold the title.

The way Tom Cull sees it, London is on the verge of a Renaissance – an overdue makeover led by local artists taking the torch to forge a new image of the Forest City.

“London is this interesting town that’s gone through a huge transformation in the last 20-30 years since I was a kid (in Belgrave, Ont.). We used to come to London as the kind of ‘big, fancy city.’ But London’s a changed city. It’s taken a lot of hits,” said Cull, who teaches in the American and Writing Studies programs at Western.

“We’ve lost a lot of jobs; we often get in the news for the wrong reasons. We need to push back against that in a positive way. It’s still a beautiful city – just lots of things to change. I think art has a role to play in that. There’s some new energy in the city, and the arts scene is leading the charge.”

Meanwhile, Cull will be leading the scene. Last week, the London Arts Council named him Poet Laureate for the City of London, replacing Penn Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68, who was the first to hold the title.

“One of my jobs is to be the ambassador, not only of the literary arts, but of the arts in general in London. London is at a moment, and I’m hoping the poet laureate position can be a part of this rebuilding, rethinking and reshaping of London,” he said.

Cull grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, on a “beautiful farm in Huron County, where a river ran through it,” he noted.

“It was a pretty idyllic upbringing. That has imprinted on me as an internal map, and I take it places. I do environmental work with the Thames River Rally, I do cleanups, and then there’s poetry, and to me, those two have a great amount of overlap. They go hand-in-hand in my life.”

His interests, his hobbies and his creative work all grow out of his surroundings, Cull added. His work is inextricable form the environment in which it’s produced, and he largely considers himself a “regional poet.” It’s what propels him to advocate for London and its arts scene by way of art.

“For me, (poetry) is a bit of trying to negotiate fear and panic, and the way the world is. I want to write poems that are very much engaged with the world, and with stuff that’s going on. At the same time, I don’t want to be didactic or preaching. I want to present something and let it be something that helps me, or helps people think through, or negotiate problems in a way that kind of opens up thinking,” Cull explained.

Poetry is an opportunity to share and process a collective experience, he went on, and the poet laureate role will allow him to immerse himself even deeper in “London’s dynamic arts scene,” to bring people together and foster a greater sense of community in the city – a community that extends beyond the arts.

“We have a wildly diverse city. I would like to think about different projects, build bridges. I want to use this position to build inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity – especially now. We need to know who our neighbours are, and reach out to them, especially when we see what’s going on south of the border,” Cull said.

“What poetry can do is tell good stories. People are storytellers, generally. If you can break with conceptions of what poetry is, people open up.”

Over the coming year, Cull will work on varied projects, including writing a legacy piece and a London-themed colouring book featuring his verse alongside renderings of local landmarks by London artists.

A board member of WordsFest, London’s literary arts festival, he works with Poetry London, facilitates workshops for Western’s Language Day, Gathering in the Garden and the Children’s International Summer Villages Summer Camp, which engages elementary students in environmental conservation through poetic expression. He is co-publisher and co-editor of the WordsFestZine, a collection of poems written by festival authors and attendees over the course of the three-day festival.

His first chapbook, What the Badger Said, was published in 2013 by Baseline Press in London.

“This (position) is a great opportunity. The more I get involved, the more excited I am because I’m excited by the people. I have a lot of hope for it.”