Nancy Jo Cullen
Nancy Jo Cullen

U of G master’s student Nancy Jo Cullen was 23 when she did her first poetry reading. It was at a 1985 reading festival in Calgary that featured new writers. She was working in theatre at the time and had only recently discovered her interest in writing poetry. Reading her poems for the first time, that was the moment she knew her work “could be read and enjoyed by other people.”

She never looked back.

Twenty-five years later, Cullen has a list of accomplishments that any artist would be proud of. Her collection of poetry Science Fiction Saint was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Steffanson award for poetry and the Book Publishers Association of Alberta’s best trade book. Her second book Pearl won the trade fiction award from Alberta Book Awards and was short listed for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.

Cullen’s latest prize, announced in May, is the 2010 Dayne Ogilvie Grant for an Emerging Gay Writer from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. As part of Toronto’s annual gay pride festival, Cullen will receive her award and read her work on the Proud Voices Stage in James Canning Gardens Park July 4, beginning at 5 p.m.

A few years ago, when Cullen was living in Calgary, she found herself wanting to explore her writing talent and “shake up her practice.” Along with her two children, she left Cowtown for Hogtown after she was accepted into the master’s program in creative writing at the University of Guelph-Humber.

“I’d been looking at low residency programs in the United States, but they’re horribly expensive, and they don’t encourage working in multiple genres,” says Cullen, who released Untitled Child shortly after moving to Ontario. “I knew I wanted to explore other genres besides poetry, and Guelph offered the opportunity to work in a few different genres.

“I was also very excited by the faculty list. The master’s program really has an outstanding faculty. It’s also broadened my writing community. I’ve met lots of people I might not have met otherwise.”

Her latest poems, which mark the early stages of a new writing project, are inspired by a cookbook her mother used while Cullen was growing up. “It’s a compilation of recipes from women all over British Columbia that was published in1958.”

She is presently trying her hand at prose, a genre she’s never tackled before but one she describes as being “terrifying, but exciting.”  She has also completed a collection of short stories that she is now shopping around to publishing houses.

Cullen says she is inspired by popular culture, current events, the work of other writers and her personal and family life. “I think a writer has to keep her eyes and ears open and just listen and look for surprising, little things that can be fermented into work. Eclectic looking is good.”