Tom Cull was strolling down Wellington Street when he saw five teenagers “clowning around” with five vacuum cleaners they had retrieved from the trash. The teens were headed toward the Thames River. Cull followed.
“When we got to the river, they just tossed them in,” said the English and Writing Studies professor who also serves as the Director of the Thames River Rally, a volunteer group that organizes monthly clean-ups by the river.
“I was yelling at them. They kind of laughed – then disappeared. I started thinking about what’s going to happen to these vacuums – where are they going to go? I was thinking about the river clean-up work we do and how vacuums are weird things in and of themselves. They are cleaners, but they are plastic and colourful and called things like ‘Sharks.’”
“I thought, ‘What if these vacuums go on this journey and as they do, they themselves change and metamorphose, and become ‘bad animals?’”
The London Poet Laureate’s thought process yielded Full Fathom Five, a long poem featured in his debut collection, Bad Animals, published earlier this year by Insomniac Press. The book is an extension of themes Cull explored in a previous chapbook, What the Badger Said, dealing with relationships between human and non-human animals and their environments within the contexts of global warming, the extinction of species, pollution and habitat destruction.
The poems present a historical look at our relationship with animals as our primary “other.” The “bad animal,” however, isn’t necessarily the non-human animal, Cull said. In fact, the poems explore this relationship between animals, humans and inanimate objects – such as pollutant vacuums – by blurring lines and re-defining what it means to be both ‘bad’ and ‘animal.’
“The thing about ‘bad animals’ is that there’s ‘bad,’ meaning ‘misbehaved’ or ‘poorly qualifying as,’ or ‘naughty,’ or ‘licentious,’ or ‘bad-ass’ and ‘revolutionary.’ Some of the animals are just bad at being animals,” he said.
“Animals are, in a sense, cyborg-like science-fictional entities that are transforming. This is also about nature and how quickly we seem to be in this new mode of transformation – climate change is changing everything; invasive species are taking over; how do we make sense of them?”
Within the collection, Cull likewise explores the relationship between humankind, animals and habitats – native or not, free or captive.
He wrote Parroting, among the oldest of the poems in Bad Animals, nearly 10 years ago while living in Los Angeles. Cull saw a group of parakeets one day, looked them up and found they were not native to the area and was inspired by their communion in a new habitat.
“They are parakeets that escaped from cages, and found each other, and live together in these flocks, way up in the palm trees in L.A. I loved the idea of these guys escaping; they were like convicts, escaping and finding a new community together in this strange city,” he noted.
A poem about Ripley’s Aquarium depicts “a spectacle of nature meant for consumption,” Cull added.
“It’s very odd to walk into a place and go to the first exhibit that is The Great Lakes and you’re literally a stone’s throw away from Lake Ontario. You’re going into a building to see a spectacle of the lakes and there are fish in the exhibit that don’t exist in the lakes anymore,” he said.
“It’s an odd thing we are doing, creating a false microcosm, a spectacle of nature as somehow full, vibrant, complete and abundant.”
At the end of the day, however, Bad Animals is indebted to London, the arts community and the environment that surrounds it, Cull added. Its poems come out of London, out of the river, out of the people and connections he has made. He finds inspiration in all of this, in conversations with students, on walks and in talks with everyone he meets.
His favourite poem is the one he just finished, the one that hasn’t been edited or workshopped. It’s fresh and close to him and in the new, Cull finds a breath of air, every time.
“I never know if the last poem is my last one; you never know if anything new will occur to you. Writing a new one is always really thrilling; it shows I’m still there. It’s life-affirming; there’s a high to that, to coming up with something new. The trick is to perfect it without killing it.”
Join Cull and Penn Kemp, London’s previous Poet Laureate, at a reading and discussion hosted by poet and scholar Tanis MacDonald, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23 at the Oxford Book Shop, 262 Piccadilly St.