Rebecca Cullen

Rebecca Cullen is from Nottingham. She started to write poetry after careers in teaching and the civil service, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. She is in the final stages of her PhD 'Mastering Time: Time and Temporality in Contemporary Poetry' at NTU, funded by Midlands3Cities DTP and the AHRC. In 2016 she was the second poet-in-residence at Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Her poetry has been published in 'The North', 'New Walk' and New Poetries VII.


Q&A with Rebecca Cullen


How did you start writing? 


I’ve always been interested in writing. I used to sew books of paper together when I was about 9 or 10 and fill them with stories. When I was a student in Sheffield I wrote song lyrics and plays, but it wasn’t until after teaching and being in the civil service, in 2011, that I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. The scriptwriting module wasn’t running that particular year, and I chose poetry instead. It sounds a bit coincidental – I’ve done a lot of writing for work, but I’d never considered writing poetry as something to take seriously before.


Did your childhood or early life ever influence your writing?


I’m really lucky to come from a family which loves books and reading – the library was an important part of family life. My grandfather was musical and I grew up listening to a lot of beautiful words being stretched into songs. I went to a comprehensive school and did A levels (intermittently) in English, French and German and went to St David’s University College, Wales, before transferring to the University of Sheffield to do English and Drama. Then I had a long break for living, did the MA at NTU and then was really fortunate to be awarded a scholarship for a PhD in Creative Writing in 2014.


Do you have any poets or poems that you go back to?


Gerard Manley Hopkins’s terrible sonnets were the first poems to send shivers down my spine, but I still find myself turning over the words to ‘The Windhover’ when I see a bird of prey soaring: 

My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! 

I am entranced by the rhythms and elegance of T.S.Eliot’s ‘Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ each time I read it, and it’s about time, which is one of my obsessions – ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’. I love the different shifts of voice in it. There is a brilliant recording of Yeats reading ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ on the Poetry Archive website and it’s the most beautiful recitation, for all occasions. In terms of contemporary poetry, ‘Another Muse’ in Sujata Bhatt’s latest collection, Poppies in Translation, is a fine poem. The speaker wakes from sleep and hears a bird call that reminds her of her teenage daughter’s voice as a baby. She writes:


This morning smells of a newborn infant’s skin

in those moments

just before the newborn mouth opens –  


It’s a beautiful poem about awakening of all kinds, and these lines capture perfectly the anticipation and joy of a completely new life, and a new morning. There is so much wonderful poetry at present. Everyone should read Michael Ondaatje’s Handwriting.


Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?


I like to sing. I’ve been doing a PhD, which I’m in the final stages of. I teach Literary Foundations at Nottingham Trent and enjoy it a great deal. It’s a kick to see someone’s passion for literature evolve before you. I do writing workshops in the community, for instance for Refugee Week this year, and I did some work with care home residents last year, which included doing a waltz with a 102 year old. Generally, I do a lot of reading and a lot of talking.


How do you go about writing a poem or creating a collection?


I haven’t had a collection, but I have got some poems in Carcanet's New Poetries VII. I always write long hand then edit as I transfer to Word. I fiddle around too much and then wonder where the energy of the first draft went sometimes. But I keep all versions and often do my best editing when I’m making quick decisions. ‘Crossing to Marazion’, for instance, was originally a prose poem, but I listened to it one day and thought it would have more tension if it had a more defined form. The poem came from overhearing a tour guide at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall telling someone the story of the anchorite who used to live at the Abbey there, taking refuge because he was considered too tall. It became a poem about the child and his mother and the decision to protect her child that she had to make.


What are you currently working on?


I’m going to work on putting together a collection when I complete my PhD, and the living room needs a fresh coat of paint. I haven’t thought any further than that at present.


Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings

by Rebecca Cullen (1st Sep 18 | 978-1-912196-11-1)


Winner of the 2017/18 Book & Pamphlet Competition


Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings is a pamphlet of contrary people waiting to whisper in your ear – mothers, children, those who want to tell a secret or explain something before it’s too late, those who don’t quite fit and those who don’t want to. Characters such as Majid, a young boy who loves his mother, encourage us to see the same things repeatedly and to see them differently every time.


This is a pamphlet of poems which shine and crackle with their own dark electricity. Finely wrought, precise and wide ranging in their themes, they carry a pleasing shiver of wildness in their hearts. – Liz Berry


Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings

from Majid Sits in a Tree and Sings (smith|doorstop, 2018)



This morning, I wake with a bird in my heart.

My mother smiles only for me. I bash my car into the wall.

Sometimes she tells me to be quiet. Today, she laughs.


The men came in the hottest part of the day.

A walk, my love, a small walk, she says.

In the stairwell, the mothers hold their children.


The guns shine in the sun. I am a man,

this is no time for play, I do not hide.

We shuffle in, look for a seat in the stands.


A big black bird comes down from the sky.

The grown-ups hold their breath. They are blinking a lot.

The bird likes the meat hanging on the goalposts.


Tonight, my mother says I can sleep in her bed.

I make my back into a curved shell against her legs.

She strokes her palm across my forehead.


In the middle of the night, I watch her on her knees.

She tips her head backwards. I see all of her neck.


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