Try Poetry: Nothing Will Save Your Life + Nancy Jo Cullen

A new reader of poetry may be intrigued to read Nancy Jo Cullen’s poem ‘Drinking Alone on My Fifty-Fourth Birthday/Or, My Dad and Disco Died Circa the Same Time’ from her collection Nothing Will Save Your Life (Wolsak & Wynn Publishers) as it’s written in a conversational tone to be had with another bar patron. Cullen tells us that she likes the idea of poetry being a conversation and that maybe a reader new to poetry might like the idea as well. Read poem in full below.  


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Interview with Nancy Jo Cullen

ALU: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry? Describe it for our readers. Was it reading another poem? Was it listening to a poet read? Was it something different entirely?

I started to write poetry in my early twenties after I’d just finished theatre school; my father had just died, and I’d was going through my first big heartbreak. I was listening to Joni Mitchell, mostly the albums Blue and Hejira and I was trying to find a way to express myself in a similar fashion. I hadn’t really engaged with poetry before that but then I discovered the writing of Adrienne Rich and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid which I read and read. I was working in theatre at the time and we were writing and producing new works for the stage and I was thinking about how a poem could sound and I began there. And then somewhere I came across the poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” by Auden and that poem made my head spin. That’s when I started to think about how a poem could work on the page too. It was a long slow process (about 15 years) from thinking I could write poetry to my first published collection.

ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so? What kinds of things do you think the new-to-poetry reader might find fascinating about it? What could you share about the poem’s writing process?

In a sense this poem is like reportage so maybe that’s how I’d describe it to someone who hadn’t read poetry before. A poetic report on my state of mind on the occasion of my 54th birthday. I was eating dinner alone at the bar of a nice restaurant in my Toronto neighbourhood and I was treating myself to nice cocktail and a couple of nice glasses of wine and rather enjoying myself but also feeling nostalgic as I turned another year older. This poem is owes a lot to the kind writing exercises I practiced when I was beginning to write but rarely do now. Of course, most of what I was scribbling while I was drinking and eating and people watching and daydreaming did not make it into the poem, but the poem began with me not censoring any random thought I wanted to drop onto the page.

Perhaps a reader new to poetry might be interested in the fact that I tried to stay away from lofty metaphors and language in this poem. I wanted the poem to feel like it might have if I’d just struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me at the bar but since I’m a little introverted for that I imagined the reader as the person next to me at the bar. I like the idea of poetry as conversation and maybe a reader new to poetry would like that idea as well.

ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?

I think I would suggest that a poetry-curious person dig into Best Canadian Poetry anthologies, the current year, and past years to be found in libraries. I love these books because they show a breadth of poets and styles. I also think reading the anthology across years is a good idea as each year is curated by a different poet and so no one anthology is much like any other. It’s a great way to learn about poets and poems you like as well as the journals that published them. Santa brings me a copy every year!

‘Drinking Alone on My Fifty-Fourth Birthday
Or, My Dad and Disco Died Circa the Same Time’

From Nancy Jo Cullen’s collection Nothing Will Save Your Life

This bartender doesn’t want to talk to me –

How would my dad win her over?
Would he joke until she laughed?
Put a cork in his ear?
Would he remind her of her granddad?
Would she know he was small-town famous?
Would he tip her like he was rich?
I will, I will tip the bartender like I am rich!

Before he died my dad and I danced at the CKOV Christmas party
& even though CKOV was turning country radio, we danced to Boney M.
It was weird disco-dancing with my dad & I was pretty wasted.

I miss the days of disco
& my brother, when he could talk any woman into his bed.
Reader, he lit their cigarettes!

The jazz in this bar is so cliché
it reminds me that being alive is so sad
& not to be depressing, but once we felt so important.

When he died in 1982, I thought my dad was old
I thought KC and the Sunshine Band were bullshit.

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Nancy Jo Cullen’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The Puritan, Grain, filling Station, Plenitude, Prairie Fire, Arc, This Magazine, Best Canadian Poetry 2018, Room, Journey Prize and Best Canadian Fiction 2012. Nancy is the 2010 recipient for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ+ Emerging Writers. She’s published three collections of poetry with Frontenac House and a collection of short stories, Canary, with Biblioasis. Her first novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was shortlisted for the 2020 Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

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Thank you to Nancy Jo Cullen and Wolsak & Wynn Publishers for sharing ‘Drinking Alone on My Fifty-Fourth Birthday/Or, My Dad and Disco Died Circa the Same Time’ with us. Remember, if you purchase a copy of Nothing Will Save Your Life or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to if you purchase from your local!)