Q&A with Poet in Residence Catherine Ann Cullen

22nd October 2020

October marks a year since our first ever Poet in Residence, Catherine Ann Cullen, joined the team at Poetry Ireland. We caught up with Catherine Ann for a quick Q&A on how her year has been, how she is building links with communities and about her own writing work in the past few months.  

Q. What’s a day in the life for you as Poetry Ireland’s Poet in Residence? 

A. While Covid-19 restrictions are in place, I’m mostly “in residence” at home. On Mondays, I post two poetry prompts on Twitter and Facebook, one for adults and one for children, both illustrated by photographs I’ve taken over the weekend. My husband Harry contributes photographs too. I retweet all the poems submitted by the ‘prompt’ community over the week.  
 
Tuesday is my day for photographing letters around the city in preparation for Wednesday or #ABCDublin day - my project for a rhyming Alphabet Blitz for the City of Dublin - see question 5! Along with those projects, there are always meetings to attend, video recordings to make, online workshops and curations to host, and the rare in person event during Covid-19. In the past week, for instance, I was recording poems and links for the Dublin Arts and Human Rights Festival, seeing the finished “Paradise Lost”-themed Irish Spanish Latin American Festival event, where I had chosen one poem each from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Century to read myself or have read by other poets, and meeting to discuss a proposed anthology I have been asked to edit. 

Q. What have been some of the highlights for you over the past 12 months in the role? 

A. My first project as Poet in Residence was to work with the Pathways Centre for prisoners and former prisoners. Every week from October 2019 to March 2020, a group of 10 to 15 from Pathways came to a writing workshop in the beautiful bright front room at Poetry Ireland. I had a great bond with the group and their performance at Christmas to an appreciative audience was one of the highlights of my time so far. There was rapping, spoken word, poetry and prose pieces, all written with sharp humour and insight.  
 
The workshops moved online in March and are due to start up with a new Pathways group shortly - I’m looking forward to that. Another highlight was writing words to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, to be performed by groups and individuals all around the country on Midsummer’s Day as a tribute to frontline workers.  
 
A third was the event I curated for the Frank Harte Festival last month. Harte was a Dublin singer and song-collector, a man I knew and loved, and for months I had planned an afternoon that would celebrate him in poetry and song, as part of the festival organised in his name by the Góilín Traditional Singing Club.  
 
It was a disappointment that the event had to be recorded, as I sorely miss the buzz of a live readings and singing, but it was full of wonderful moments - a new song written by Moya Cannon and sung by Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, a tribute to Harte from former Poetry Ireland Director, Theo Dorgan, award-winning musicians Daoirí Farrell and Niamh Parsons, Irish Mincéir storyteller Oein De Bhairduin, and many more. The one saving grace of the online event is that it has been seen by almost 1,000 people, many more than Poetry Ireland could accommodate. 

Q. Tell us about the work you’ve been doing with different communities and the impact that you’ve seen working with those groups? 

A. I had planned to do a series of mini-residencies with local schools in the inner city and I am hoping to replace some of those with recorded or live online events while Covid-19 persists. One pre-Covid residency I did in St Audeon’s Primary School, with four visits, was a blast of fresh air and creativity. I let the children commission a poem from me each week - we had poems on Cars, Karate and even Grammar!  
 
We also wrote a communal song together about the old city walls, which are visible from their classroom window. The children loved the commissioning idea and the fact that they could have agency in creating a poem. They also relished the exchange of history, ideas and local lore from their own families that went into fashioning the song.  
 
Other community initiatives that have made a real difference have been the workshops with the SAOL group for women recovering from addiction and the Pathways group (see above). In both cases, it has been heartening to see the growth in confidence of the participants in their writing. I’ve also visited community education groups and secondary schools in the pre-Covid days and will be going online with some of these groups in the next month or two. 

Q. Covid-19 has affected the ways in which community building takes place and has obviously affected some of your plans as Poet in Residence. How are you connecting with communities during the restrictions? 

A. I really miss the hands-on, face to face encounters with children in classrooms and with other groups for workshops at Poetry Ireland or in community centres. During Covid-19, through the poetry prompts I’ve been posting - two a day for the first 100 days, then weekly since, a wonderful community has developed on Twitter who post poems daily and are very supportive to each other.  
 
I’ve also run many workshops online, for the Pathways Centre and the Bealtaine Writers for example, and I’ve done many recorded readings too. Poet Rachael Hegarty and I did a performance of our poetry and songs called “Keeping it Real” for the Five Lamps Arts Festival, which is online this week, and I’ve done recorded readings for Cruinniú na nÓg, the Irish Spanish Latin American Festival, Decameron, Cultivating Voices, The Frank Harte Festival, and for the launch of several books/journals including Poetry Ireland Review. I’ve also judged competitions including the Trócaire/Poetry Ireland Competition which had a phenomenal number of entries this year. 

Q. Most recently, Poetry Ireland launched school participation in the Alphabet Blitz for the City of Dublin – can you tell us more about the project, which is part of the Poet in Residence Neighbourhood Project, and what are the benefits for schools to get involved? 

A. The Alphabet Blitz for the City of Dublin has been running for adults since July and in the past few weeks we’ve been inviting schools to take part. It’s a simple idea - a rhyming alphabet for the capital city, submitted letter by letter as the adults have been doing or as a class project, with perhaps every child in a class taking a letter and writing a rhyme about something in the city that begins with that letter.  
 
I’ve always been fascinated by alphabets and have a collection of wild and wonderful alphabet books. The letters of the alphabet are often our first encounter with the written word, and almost everyone learns to sing the alphabet at home or school. I was delighted to get the first completed alphabet from a school in Duleek in County Meath, perfect proof that, although the project is based on Dublin, it can be an enjoyable and educational experience for children all around the country.  
 
Children love rhymes, and everyone can produce a short rhyme or two for the project. I love to see the children’s drawings too, and I’m hoping for a few variations on the project to come in - a little alphabet video, some rhymes in languages other than English - the words are your oyster! I read and retweet all the #ABCDublin submissions every weekday, and compile the #ABCDublin rhymes on a special blog, abcdublin.org. Teachers can email their entries to poetinresidence@poetryireland.ie, or get in touch with any queries. 

Q. How is your own writing going? Are you working on anything at the moment? 

A. I’m always working on something, some days I have more time than others! I’m finalising the first draft of my fourth poetry collection, which is due to Dedalus Press next month, it will, I hope, be out sometime in 2021. It includes poems I’ve been writing during the residency, for example, poems about objects in the North Inner City Folklore Project Museum. This wonderful collection of items and recordings by Terry Fagan is looking for a new home at the moment.  
 
I have also been writing poems related to the historic building that is Poetry Ireland’s home, as well as a series of poems on Irish words used in English - one of these, 'Plámás', is published in the current Poetry Ireland Review. I’ve also been working on fascinating commissions, including for the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, a version of some neglected verses of the Irish poem Dónal Óg into song, poems for art exhibitions including a forthcoming one called Sanctuary by Nickie Hayden at the Olivier Cornet Gallery, just around the corner from Poetry Ireland.  
 
I’ve just finished a book chapter on nuns in broadside ballads which will be published shortly by The Ballad Partners in London. And when I have a spare minute, I work on a song or two!