This interview with me was originally requested by Limebirds, in 2014. That site no longer exists, so I thought I would share it here for those who would like to know more about me and my work.
Looking at your blog you have had a very busy and varied career, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became a poet?
I was brought up on a council estate in a working class family. Books were very expensive but valued. Mum was a great storyteller. I was mad for story and this gave me the incentive to teach myself to read at the age of 3. I was a voracious reader and used to go to the library twice a week. I was making up rhymes all the time, and it didn’t take me long to discover poetry. I wanted to be a poet even back then. I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school in Liverpool, which broadened my horizons immensely. I walked out of my career interview when the adviser suggested a secretary would be the best career for me, after I’d said I wanted to be a poet. I was already writing very seriously by then.
At university, I showed my poems to a range of my tutors, and received mostly great encouragement, though one tutor was unhelpful. I had a poem published in Arts Alive Merseyside, which had a very wide circulation, because it was distributed free, but I became very self-critical and decided to undertake an apprenticeship. I bought a copy of Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, and worked my way through all the forms. I used to go and read at an open floor event called The Why Not, called after the pub whose basement it was held in, alongside many of the Liverpool poets such as Harold Hikins and his wife Sylvia. Matt Simpson, whom I had met during a three week interlude between A levels and University, at Christ’s College (where he lectured) used to go occasionally.
After uni, I was married and busy working in the Civil Service. First my dad died in 1978, and my mum was already terminally ill. She followed him two years after. It was a difficult and dark time in which very little poetry was written. My doctor told me I was not getting enough stimulation from my job, and to try to make some changes. We’d moved house by this time and I was pregnant with my first child.
I applied for a grant to go on an Arvon course, Starting to Write, even though I’d been writing for years. I had no confidence in my work at all. I was planning to be a stay-at-home mum, and hoped that this would be my time to grow as a writer too. Liz Lochhead was one of the course tutors, and in my one-to-one tutorial with her, she told me I was a born poet and I HAD to do it. It was as though I’d been given permission, and I never looked back.
I was very interested to read about your work in schools. I am sure I am not alone when I say I found poetry very intimidating when I was a pupil, what do you think needs to be done to encourage young people to engage with poetry?
As well as doing poets in schools work, I was a secondary school English teacher for 16 years. In my first school I took over a difficult year 11 group. We had to do a poetry assignment and they told me I would have to ‘translate’ each poem line by line because they were not able to understand it. That is the root of the problem. It’s been taught in such a way that pupils think it is hard and not for them. They think poets hide their meanings to trick them.
Of course I didn’t do what these students asked. I told them of course they could understand it. And they did, even though the head of department told me I’d chosen ‘A level poets’ and they would ‘never be able to understand them’. His jaw dropped when he read the essays.
Poetry is over-mediated in the classroom and students are made to think they have to get the right answers from the teacher. We need to give poetry back. I took to reading poetry to my classes just for fun, not to be analysed or written about. They started to fall in love with it.
Doing poets in schools, I see much good practice in primary schools but secondary schools vary. In a secondary school in Cornwall I was told that the pupils do not read any poetry until they are in year 9, when presumably it is killed for them when they are taught to collect marks in an exam by spotting techniques and regurgitating teachers’ notes. This is not what examiners want to read, either, which I know from my work as an examiner since 1993.
Poetry is brilliant for reluctant readers because a poem is a complete text and gives an instant hit. I don’t approve of cheap laugh type poetry for children though. I think they deserve the best and they should have choice by being given excellent anthologies. I loved William Blake, Walter de la Mere, Eleanor Farjeon and Milton when I was 8. Reading and hearing good poems is a sensuous thrill and even babies enjoy patterns in language.
As a poet in schools, I see enthusiasm for poetry and I meet children who write brilliant poems. Children rise to meet expectations and I never dumb down. I use poets like Elizabeth Bishop to show how to write truthful imagery, for example. I’ve also worked with some amazing teachers and T.A.s. A good teacher makes the world of difference.
What is your own writing process like?
Several things can happen. The most usual is I start getting words coming into my head. They bug me and I have to do something about it. I start writing, and strain to listen to them. I can get some of a poem this way, but the rest has to be worked for. Now and again I get a whole poem like this; these are the ones that write themselves. I find reading poetry can get me into the zone where the words start chasing me, as can observing something very closely. Physical activity, like ironing or gardening, done alone, can also help to get me into the poetry zone, which is a state of particular alertness. I prefer to wait for the poem to ask me to write it, but meet it half way by being receptive.
If I have been asked to write a poem about something, I have learned to order myself to do it. I read around the topic and spend time thinking about it and what it suggests. Eventually it will start to come.
It’s really all about letting your subconscious mind come to the fore, like drawing. The left brain can be so bossy. It’s what Ted Hughes refers to as outwitting the inner policeman.
There is no buzz like getting a poem down on paper, and my best poems surprise me.
I am very interested in hearing how poets balance their writing with motherhood, has being a mother had an impact on your writing (and how do you find time!)?
For me, motherhood was a great help to my writing. Being a stay-at-home mum as tough at times, and my babies were lively ones. But breastfeeding gave me time to read, and being a parent took me right back to my own childhood. I used to find the only time I really had to myself was late at night, so that became my main writing time, though I’d often find myself urgently writing phrases down as I was cooking the tea.
Once the girls started school, I was able to come back to the house, set the washing machine and the dishwasher going, put some classical music on as I whirled through the household tasks and snatch some writing time. Getting our first computer made a big difference as I was a terrible typist. Word-processing was so much easier and I began to send more poems out to magazines.
I’d started doing some part time teaching in FE when my second daughter was a baby. The publication of my first collection in 1988 had brought in some offers of work, and I was also doing some poets in schools placements for The Poetry Society.
In 1992, I started teaching full time – a rewarding job, but as a busy mother and teacher, I found it hard to send work out or promote my books, though I had two full collections published during this time. I left teaching in 2009 to go back to full time writing. My daughters have left home and are married; one is in Leeds and the other lives locally. I have lots of time for writing now but miss those years when they were small. One is so busy as a mother it’s hard to stop and notice. As Hardy puts it in his poem ‘The Self Unseeing’:
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
As a poet you are very widely published. What advice would you have for aspiring poets who would hope to follow in your footsteps?
Read. Find poets you admire and learn from them. Go to poetry readings and listen to the best. Make your own mind up about what you like. Do not be a slave to fashion, nor write in out-moded ways. Be true to yourself. Listen to the poem and do what it asks, which can mean striking out a phrase you admire, or removing rhymes that are bullying the poem. Go to workshops and courses, strive to be better. Write every day to keep those muscles toned. Dream. Leave space in your head for poems to creep in. Worry about writing the good poems, but about where they might be published.
As for publishing, think of it as letting the poems fly free. They want to leave you when they are ready, just as children know when it is time for them to leave the family home. Try poems out at readings first. Then send them to magazines you like. Aim high. When you have had lots in magazines, you can start looking to put together a book of them. Choose a publisher carefully.
I find once I have put my poems into a collection and had it published, it clears the mind for more poems to have. That’s my main aim in getting a collection out there.
You have also judged writing competitions, what sort of thing do you look for in a poem?
When I do my initial reading of submissions, I am looking for poems which stick in my mind in some way, that avoid tired clichés and obvious rhymes which bully the poem into submission. I am open to all types of poem but I look for something which stays with me after many readings. I also look for originality and music which suits the topic. In the best poems, it is impossible to separate what is being said from how it is being said. And I think the best poems affect both the mind and the emotions.
I was reading the wonderful interview that you did over at Mother’s Milk Books where you mention your old mentor, Matt Simpson. I was interested to hear how this relationship came about and if you have any suggestions for emerging writers who would like to go about finding their own mentor.
I was 18 when I met Matt Simpson, when I briefly attended Christ’s College (now Liverpool Hope). He was kind to me, offered to look at my poems (he said I ‘had something’) and we kept in touch after I left. I went to hear him read a couple of times, and bought his pamphlets. After only three weeks at Christ’s College, I was offered a place at Liverpool University to read English and Classical Civilization. We were in touch for a good while, but then I was caught up in family and work. I got back into writing after my first child was born. When I had a poem accepted in a magazine, I wrote to him to share my news, and he wrote back immediately. We arranged to meet up where he and his wife had a static caravan (for weekend breaks) not far from us, and he invited me to attend a critique group he ran in Runcorn Library. It was during these sessions that my first collection was knocked into shape. Matt brought visiting writers he had organised to come to Christ’s College, which was how I first met George Szirtes, Barry Unsworth and Gael Turnbull.
After three years, the class folded and Matt invited me to visit him at home. I did so and we kept up a very steady correspondence by letter as well. I would send him poems and he would comment. I would also take poems when I went to visit him. Sometimes he would hold poets’ meetings at his house. Attenders were poets like Michael Murphy, Peter Walton and Jonathan Wannam. Matt and I grew ever closer and the letters were replaced by weekly (at the very least) phone calls. Our relationship changed over time and became one of mutual critiquing.
Through Matt I made the acquaintance of U.A. Fanthorpe (who was always very kind about my poems), Anne Stevenson (with whom I am still in touch occasionally), John Lucas, Deryn Rees Jones, Maurice Rutherford. Meeting these poets enlarged my horizons and made me feel part of the world of poetry. Matt liked me to go to readings with him and we would talk for hours about poetry. I visited him as often as I could and we would go for a swim together at his daughter’s house, have lunch with Monika, his wife, and listen to music. I was devastated when he died suddenly after a heart bypass, aged only 73, just when I was about to leave teaching and hoping to spend more time with him. I last saw him in intensive care, the day before he was sedated and just a few days before he died without regaining consciousness. He was a wonderful friend, and all our years of knowing each other so well came out of his willingness to help along another poet on the road to publication.
Mentoring is an interesting thing to do. I myself have mentored young poets, but like Matt I did it for the love of poetry and out of friendship. I’ve never had an official mentor. I showed my early poems to all sorts of people. There are some excellent poets who charge a small fee to comment on poems; there are also poetry surgeries run by The Poetry Society. I’d advise setting up your own critiquing group, with say 6 members maximum who are at the same level as you, and give each other feedback. It’s important to have a few ‘first readers’ who are totally honest and tell you when you are getting things wrong, drifting into cliché, being unclear, doing something that’s been done before and so on.
In a recent blog post you mentioned a masterclass you attended at StAnza run by Paul Muldoon where he spoke about poetry and you comment that he said many thing you agree with. I was wondering if you would expand on this and share a few of your thoughts on poetry itself.
Muldoon refers to a poet as ‘the person through whom the poem is written’. I do agree with that. I think of Edward Thomas’ poem ‘Words’:
Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
You English words?
That’s just one stanza, but I’ve always loved this poem and feel the same about writing. To me a poem is a gift. It doesn’t come out of an idea. It comes out of a feeling not fully understood. In writing the poem, one arrives at an understanding. Muldoon said ‘if the writer has an idea, so will the reader, so there is no mystery’. He also said ‘ideally we come out of a poem feeling something has happened to us, see something we haven’t seen before’. I agree with that. Or as C. Day Lewis puts it ‘every poem is a bridge into the unknown’. I’m aware that mine is an old-fashioned view. Others can see poetry how they want it. I make no rules for others. But I was glad to hear Muldoon articulating my beliefs. I felt a fellow feeling.
Poetry is not going to make anyone rich or famous. Those are false gods. I see myself as serving poetry, trying to make each poem the best I can, for the sake of poetry, not to massage my own ego. For me, a poet’s job is to articulate things others struggle to express. Muldoon also said a poem should be as clear as the poet can make it. Again I agree. Sometimes what is being said is complex, and that can make the poem require some effort in the reader. But the effort should never outweigh the reward.
What are you currently working on yourself right now?
I am always working on another collection. I don’t set myself a theme. I wait to see what emerges. At present I seem to be writing a lot about the natural world and the human relationship with it. The centrepiece for the next book will be my poem ‘The Five Petals of the Elderflower’. I have a bunch of poems which I will select from, when I feel ready to put it all together.
I’ve recently edited a set of three pamphlets of poems inspired by Austen, The Brontes and Shakespeare for Like This Press, so I am feeling as though I need another editing project. I am also considering doing some translation work, which I don’t want to say too much about at present. But I want to translate one of my favourite Latin poets, because it will do me good to work at my Latin again. I did A level and used it in my first degree but it’s so rusty it’s almost gone.
I am always in a state of receptiveness for a poem, as one never knows when one might come. I always carry a notebook.
Finally can you share with us a piece of work that has inspired you, a poem, song, painting or anything else that has resonated with you.
There are hundreds of poems I love, and as music is also a passion, many songs. I enjoy art immensely as well. So this is a hard question. I’d love to share Matt Simpson’s ‘Song of Caedmon’ but it’s in copyright as are many others of my treasures.
Emily Dickinson inspires me a great deal, and I quoted one stanza as an epigraph to my first collection. Here is the poem in full. It sums up my way of writing:
|ESSENTIAL oils are wrung:|
|The attar from the rose|
|Is not expressed by suns alone,|
|It is the gift of screws.|
|The general rose decays;||5|
|But this, in lady’s drawer,|
|Makes summer when the lady lies|
|In ceaseless rosemary.|
Letting Go: http://www.themothersmilkbookshop.com/
I Sing of Bricks: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844718214
The New Generation: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844717651
The Lightfoot Letters: http://www.erbacce-press.com/#/angela-topping/4547995384
Catching On: http://rackpress.blogspot.co.uk/
The London Review of Books Bookshop has some copies of my work.
Also most of my books are available from me. Contact me via my blog Angela Topping, on WordPress. https://angelatopping.wordpress.com/
Angela Topping April 2014