The Mersey Sound and Me

 

By the time I was 13, I was already writing poetry seriously, and read vast amounts of it from Widnes library for pleasure. In the early 1960s, Penguin started producing black paperback showcase volumes of three poets at a time, and when a bookshop opened in my home town, I began to buy these from my pocket money. They were affordable and introduced a wide range of contemporary poets than I had seen in the public library. I read through them, sometimes without comprehension, on long Crosville bus rides home from Liverpool, if for some reason I had had to miss the coach home, for rehearsals etc.

T.S Eliot was my current favourite at the time. I loved the music of his poems, and wasn’t too bothered about the complexity of the meanings.

My sister moved away from home with her husband and baby, and we went to help her unpack. The previous owners of the house had left some things behind, and I was sorting through an understairs cupboard when I found this tatty book. It looked different to the other Penguin Modern Poets, which had white flowers on a back background. This cover screamed at me with its orange Liverpool skyline and its pop art feel. I sat on the floor with my back to the wall, in my customary button-front jeans and aran jumper, and started to thumb through it.

Half an hour later, having been gobsmacked and enthralled by these poems, I came to, pins and needles in my legs, and ran to my sister to ask her if I could have the book. It became my constant companion and immediately influenced my writing, making me experiment with running words together, and writing about the ordinary everyday things which surrounded a working class Northern lass, like me. These poems told me about a lifestyle very different to my own. A way of living that included clubs, all night parties, smoking, and wall to wall poetry, in Liverpool, where I was going to grammar school at the time. It was electrifying, as out of reach as a fantasy land, yet I could walk the same streets, smell the same air, later go to the university at the top of Brownlow hill and worry about the same things as these three poets. I learned list poems and surrealism from Adrian Henri, the flexibility of rhyme from Roger McGough, and the value of strangeness from Brian Patten. The poems became part of the soundtrack of my life. Poetry was fun and serious at the same time. It possessed me.

Fast forward a decade. Adrian Henri was reading in my area. I had moved to Northwich with my husband and we had had one child and were expecting another. I was invited to read alongside, and in support of, Adrian Henri, at the Harlequin Theatre. Of course I took my copy along to be signed. Not only did he do so, but he said kind things about my poems, and signed the book  ‘for Angela and her poems’.

Fast forward again, faster. During my last few years teaching at Upton Hall, I took my writers group to hear Brian Patten, performing a lunchtime show at The Brindley in Runcorn. They loved it. We were waiting in the foyer for the school minibus, when the man himself came down the stairs. One of my year 7 pupils rushed over to him and spoke to him, then she pointed to me. I could hear her saying ‘my teacher is a poet’. There was nowhere to hide, but he came over and spoke to me, said he knew my name and thought we had been in some of the same anthologies. We had, including one edited by Roger McGough. My life overlapped briefly and beautifully with these amazing poets. Roger presents Poetry Please, where my poems have been featured several times. Lucky me.

I was of course close friends with another Liverpool poet, Matt Simpson. He knew the Mersey Sound poets well, admired them too, read with them many times. So I felt I knew them through him as well. Adrian stayed in Liverpool, so I had more chances to hear him read. When he died, I was moved to write him an elegy. I read this at the Wirral Festival of Firsts in a bar, and someone came up to me afterwards who knew Adrian because he used to play the trumpet at his performances, and I am pleased to say he reckoned I had caught him, just as he was.

 

Love is… Finally this

So Adrian Henri’s gone. Affable host of Liverpool 1;
iconographer of Canning Street; genial soul of every bar
dispensing compliments and beer. What’s love now?

Haunt your old haunts, Adrian. That huge cathedral’s too grand.
You’re more the poet of chippies, back street pubs, backs of vans.
Your eyes-closed readings betrayed the shy lack of faith in self.

I hope there’s a heaven made for you, of scotch in the afternoons,
the stained-glass colours of your paintings and a procession
of dolly-bird angels for you to eye like the Everlasting Sixties.

From Angela Topping’s book The Way We Came (bluechrome 2007)

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More Poems from Whitby Poetry Workshops

 

 

 

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My Whitby Folk Week poetry workshops included writing invitation home poems, healing herbs poems, colour poems and a range of other ideas and hot penning prompts.

Here are a few more written by participants.

Three Poems from Fritjof Koerber

 

House Call
Hasten your steps, take down your tent.
Time from home is truly misspent.
You can fiddle right here in good company,
Even sit in the garden beneath your shady pear tree,
Whose ripening fruit, delightful in taste,
Without due care will go to waste.
Why do you shiver under canvas at night
When hot radiators are such a delight?
And two-pot meals are not much fun
When at home four hot-plates shine like the sun.
So hasten your steps, take down your tent.
Time from home is truly misspent.

 

Plantain

 

Oh plain plantain,
You saved my father’s life!
In World War II and nearly slain,
A prisoner away from his hive,
Fed on thin soup and bread,
He knew your healing skill.
Refused to die, instead
Bent nature to his will.
His wounds you cleaned,
Enriched his food.
He was redeemed,
You did him good.

 

Aquamarine
Aquamarine is a shade of blue,
Not red, not green, but a deep blue hue.
Look at the calm sea lit by sun’s light,
Slightly chilled and not too bright,
Spread like a cloth on a summer’s morn,
Out of which the day is born.

 

 

One Poem from Sarah Lough

Wrench

Your grandfather's gone, he'll
tramp no more Donegal hills,
whistle commands to dogs,
herd black-faced mountain ewes,
nurture his flock, count lambs. 

These farming ways that continued,
year after year, became
the sound-scape, the fabric
of our shared lives. 

Today, we pray in church. 
I watch you from a distance grieve,
think about our lost years - 
yours and mine -
the times we never shared

and stand in line to sympathise,
not knowing if you can bear
to hear me voice my words,
and take or shake my hand. 


 

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Whitby Poetry Folk Week Showcase

This summer, once again, I led stand alone poetry workshops at Whitby Folk Week. I have met some wonderful people doing this, many who come back year on year.

I always invite participants to send me poems I can share on my blog. There is no pressure to do so, and some will want to send them out to poetry magazines instead. But here are some wonderful poems from this year’s workshops. Enjoy.

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Foxgloves

 

Purple pockets, corked with bees

searching for every nectar blossom.

Stems rising through fiery nettle beds

to display flowers of amethyst digits.

 

Leaves and flowers pulped,

juice solidified, prescribed to heal.

Slowly absorbed, strengthening every

fibrillating heart beat of a tired old body.

 

A witch’s glove, mixed with the dandelions

ochre flowers and weeping leaves.

A colourful puree in the chalice tea,

seen only through haloed light, until the end.

 

Sharon Fishwick Whitby 2017

 

Gorse

When the Gorse is out of bloom

Kissing is out of season

Or so she learnt as they walked together

On hills bright with golden flowers

Across fields, over stiles, through kissing gates

 

Now she knows the prickles of gorse

Walks through kissing gates alone

But the herbal tells her

Gorse – a remedy for despair

 

Primrose

 

End of term gift

The primrose bloomed on the windowsill for weeks

Then was planted out

Next to the rose the builders had trampled and destroyed

 

Months later it flowered again

The rose threw up fresh shoots

Messages, when they needed them most

That life goes on.

 

Mo Waddington

Whitby 2017

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A poem for National Poetry Day, written by year 5&6 pupils at Westminster School, Ellesmere Port.

Be Free

I don’t want to be stuck indoors because of the weather

I don’t want to be grounded and not allowed out

I don’t want to be bossed around

or bothered by people who try to hurt my feelings

I don’t want to feel left out or have no friends

I don’t want to be bored in one room

I don’t want to have no money to spend

and not be able to have treats.

 

Let me be free, so I can play

in the park on the swings and slide

go on bike rides and to the trampoline park

get away from parents but still feel safe

go surfing in Conwy or swimming in a pool

or even the sea. Go on days out to the beach.

Go on holiday to Turkey or Spain or Scotland

where the skies are big and there is peace.

Let me be free to dance, whether its street dance

or Morris dancing, ballet, disco or tango.

Let me be free to draw and paint and collage.

Let me go to gymnastics and do tumbling

or play on my x-box, computer and phone.

Let me be free to text my friends and have a laugh.

Let me listen to my choice of music,

pop, rock and roll or jazz.

Let me lose myself in books full of magic and adventure

Let me write poems and take photographs

or play Monopoly with my family or watch football together.

I love to be free.

Collated by Angela Topping, school visit 2017. The National Poetry Day theme for this year is FREEDOM.

 

Kids at play

 

 

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A Tribute to Kathleen Gibson, nee Callaghan, my English Teacher

Kathleen (002)This morning, I received the sad news that my English teacher, Kathleen Gibson, died at the age of only 73. She taught me from year 9 through to A level at Broughton Hall Grammar School. She was always very kind to me and was extremely encouraging of my poetry. I think she saw something in the quiet, shy girl I was, as she gave me a great female lead part in her production of The Crucible in the sixth form. Perhaps she realised that despite my outward shyness, inside there was an actor full of confidence trying to escape. The Crucible was an odd choice for a girls’ grammar school production, but she pulled it off, and gave me some valuable directions for my part as Abigail. And she took it well when the first half on the first night, ended with an ignominious bout of giggling from some of the cast when one of the girls (now sadly no longer with us) fluffed her lines.

As an A level teacher, she took pains to enrich our knowledge of literature. We spent the first term reading around our subject and she organised two trips to Stratford on Avon to see that season’s plays. We saw Coriolanus, which I found fairly incomprehensible, sadly, and Richard II, the famous production with Ian Richardson. For a working class kid from Widnes, it was an amazing thing to go to Stratford and experience those two plays and I still love Richard II to this day. She gave us an extensive reading list and told us we should all be reading these books. I discovered many personal favourites because of her encouragement, but also concluded that life was too short to ever re-read the depressing Jude the Obscure or any more Graham Greene.

Kathleen, it turns out, was not much older than her students, though of course we treated her with respect and had no clue the age gap was so small. It makes sense now, because she was full of fun and once gave me a lift to her house after I missed my last bus after a school trip. As she only lived in Cronton, it wasn’t too far to get a lift home from my sister. I could even have walked it. The school choir sang at her wedding but I don’t think I was able to go, being  a Widnes girl.

I admit I was a very curious student and read lots of critical works and asked a lot of questions. I really respected Kathleen because if she didn’t know something, she would always say so, and then offer to find out for me. I used that tack myself in my own teaching career. At the time, I did think I wanted to be an English teacher, mostly because of her, though it took me a while to get round to it.

I wrote this poem, which references her, in 2013. I wonder what she would have thought had she read it. After leaving school, I never saw her again but would have liked to have kept in touch. I shall always remember her earnest, smiling face and her passion for English, her encouragement of my poetry (with my fragile confidence, that certainly made a difference) and her heavy briefcase as she walked the corridors of school, no doubt full of books and our essays. I never once heard her complain as she seemed to love her work and her students.

Here’s the poem:

A Level Classes in the Seventies

 

I wish I’d never said I didn’t like Emma.

She was spoiled and silly, couldn’t see

what was under her nose. Miss Callaghan

wouldn’t choose me to read aloud from it,

thinking I’d meant the novel not the girl,

but worse, Sister Mary Columba’s idea

was that Emma and I were two of a kind.

Up till then I’d thought she liked me.

 

Handsome? Clever? Rich?

I wore glasses, struggled to keep up

with the brainy Oxbridge girls,

lived in a small semi in Widnes.

True, I’d learned to use my wits

to stop the bullies’ baiting

but I never would have used

my smart mouth on Miss Bates.

 

Jane Fairfax would be my best friend.

I’d never be taken in by Mr Elton

and would have itched to slap

Frank Churchill for that oily charm.

It’s true I introduced three couples

who later married, and happily

but that wasn’t twisting Harriet

to break it off with honest Mr Martin.

 

Emma? No not she. I’m Lizzie Bennet,

Like her I failed to practise the piano.

Her faults are all ones nobody minds,

enough to make her human but not

to ever be disliked except by Caroline.

She would be a better one for me

for I do dearly love a laugh

and love to prick pomposity.

 

Angela Topping

This poem was first published in Advice on Proposals, edited by Angela Topping (2014 Like This Press £6) Currently available from Angela Topping.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of her, though I can see her in my mind’s eye, sitting on the classroom podium, smiling at us. So this book cover must stand for all she taught me. My love of literature has never diminished.

 

Update: Kathleen’s husband has been kind enough to send me a photo of her, which I have included. Of course when she taught me she was a young teacher, only 11 years older than us. I wish I could have been a friend to her, but in those days, one held one’s teacher on a pedestal, if they were teachers like her, and loved.

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Describing my own Poetry

me

My poetry is the poetry of rejoicing, even when it is about people I loved who have died. I am a poet of the everyday things, because I see magic in them. I can get enormous pleasure from, for example, the way the light falls on brickwork in the late afternoon, or the song of a bird heard but not seen. I write a lot about people, relationships and emotions. I think any subject is worthy of a poem, but I tend to side with William Carlos Williams when he says ‘poetry only in things’. I don’t like using or writing about abstractions, I like to find what Eliot called ‘an objective correlative’ to explore big questions, and I don’t always realise what I am doing, for example my poem about Frankenstein’s monster, ‘The Doctor’s Creation’ is really about trying to live up to parental expectations. I find I can get into the heads of characters and sometimes the dramatic monologue type of poem is a rewarding method for me. It’s not too different with the children’s poems. I bring characters from books into the everyday world, for example my vampire ‘Aunt Jane’ and my ‘Witch in the Supermarket’. I draw on my own experiences as well, and find poetry not only helps me work through things, but my readers too. I’ve been influenced of course by other poets, but this is always shifting and changing, more poets are added to my reading constantly. I like to be steeped in reading and writing poetry. I was lucky enough to be a close friend, for many years, of the poet Matt Simpson, and we used to look at each other’s poems, so I learned how to be hard on my work to toughen and tighten it, and we also used to recommend poets to each other. Since he died, I haven’t really shown my poems in that way to anyone, I have become my own first reader. Everything Matt taught me is still with me.

This post is part of an interview I did for Wordsoup. The rest is here:http://www.lancashirewritinghub.co.uk/an-interview-with-poet-critic-and-author-angela-topping/

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Gladfest 2017 Review

I was thrilled to be asked back to lovely Gladstone’s Library to read from my latest poetry collection, The Five Petals of Elderflower (Red Squirrel Press 2016). My residency was in 2013, and though I have been back for workshops during that time, I hadn’t stayed over. I hadn’t been to Gladfest before because it clashes with Callander Poetry Weekend, and I had wished every year I could be in two places at once. Being asked to be  a speaker was a great privilege. The library is a special place for me.

I attended the drinks reception on the Friday evening, and met some of my fellow speakers and chatted to staff, Gladvocates and guests, in the cosy Gladstone Room, where I had enjoyed quiet evenings during my October 2013 residency. Peter Francis announced the 2018 writers in residence and I was thrilled about the chosen poet, but I can’t say a word yet.

The following morning, I left home bright and early to attend my first chosen talk. This was Mike Scott, on Demythologising Shakespeare. Mike made some excellent points which chimed with my own views, such as: there is no need to worry about the meaning of every line or look up every reference.  The story arc and the emotions and themes are the important thing. He dismissed arguments that Shakespeare could not have written those plays, which I too put down to snobbery, because Shakespeare was not a toff nor a university man. He gave examples of how canny Shakespeare was at not offending the government of the time. But what most impressed me was his reading of examples of speeches to illustrate his point. He read these so tenderly, so quietly and so authentically, that the words were allowed to communicate with the audience without show, just as if the character was there before us. He also spoke about memorable performances and how we must not be reverential, but instead experiment with the plays and keep them fresh. Always something new can be found in great literature. He emphasised their PLAYness, as theatre. Not all teachers might agree but he nailed it for me. I subsequently had some wonderful conversations with Mike about Shakespeare on the Sunday, which was a more relaxed day.

There was time for fresh air and a comfort break before the next speaker took the stand, in the Theology room of the library – and what a great setting that was for these talks! Diarmid MacCullock was speaking about the reformation, and his knowledge of the topic was both broad and deep. He was able to give an overview of what started off this massive religious reform, which left me in a position of more deeply understanding the whole period. Essentially one idea from the writings of Paul of Tarsus and Augustin of Hippo, removed hope from doctrine by saying that because God is perfect and humans are fallible, we are all doomed. No good works we do can make a difference. It is only reliant on God’s mercy. So to give some hope, the idea of Purgatory came in. Purgatory gave some hope but also allowed for vested interests, as indulgences and masses can be bought for the souls of the dead, to redeem them from the hell-like place. As a Catholic child, I had prayed fervently for the souls trapped in Purgatory who had no families left to pray for them. It was only when it dawned on me that the merciful God I had been taught about would surely not have approved such a barter. There was far more to this talk than that, and I made copious notes. Diarmid ended with a passionate plea for Historians, which will stay with me. Historians are there to give a balanced view where possible and to bust ghosts and purvey sanity.

Speakers who are both passionate and knowledgeable are a hallmark of Gladfest, and I was excited by everything I attended. But the schedule was so carefully planned, there were breaks between each event, time to get a drink, browse the craft marquee, wander outside for fresh air.

I checked into my room, a single ensuite, small but perfectly formed, made cosy by a gorgeous Welsh wool blanket on top of crisp white cotton sheets and duvet. Had I been staying longer, I would have had chance to use the generous desk all rooms are fitted with, but I spent little time up there as there were far too many interesting people to talk to.

It was then time for my own event. I was met by Louisa, miked up and taken to the chapel (a gorgeous venue) ahead of the ticket holders. Amy, the marketing manager, had my powerpoint already loaded up and ready to go, and I am grateful to her for encouraging me to make one, after I realised some of the poems would benefit from a visual image, such as my close up photos of elderflower, and some pieces of art which had inspired specific poems. I had a wonderful audience, with a few people I knew, and many I did not, some of whom listened with closed eyes and smiles on their faces. I was in heaven sharing my poems and had some interesting questions afterwards. During my book signing, I felt very appreciated and by Sunday morning, the shop ha sold out of The Five Petals of Elderflower and all but one of Letting Go (my 2013 selection from Mother’s Milk Books).

I would have liked to hear Kathryn Hughes (Victorians Undone) speak, but as I had already heard her at Words by the Water, back in March – and very good it was too – I decided to go and support the other poet at Gladfest, Rebecca Farmer. I was very glad I did! She spoke beautifully about Louis MacNeice, a poet I admire hugely, before going on to read some of her poems from her prizewinning Smith/Doorstop pamphlet.

It had been a day of bumping into friends, making new ones, hearing inspiring talks and eating hearty and well-prepared food over conversations, but I finished it off with an evening talk by Sally Magnusson, speaking about Dementia and how to live with a person who has it by using music, poetry and touch to keep the disease in check. She gave great advice too – compile your own soundtrack of your life, because it helps to keep memory alive and can even bring back speech. It was very life-affirming and Sally’s mother was so lucky to have such wonderful care in her dementia years.

Sunday was a much quieter day, with a greater concentration of workshops than talks, which is excellent planning. I spent the day relaxing, chatting, working on poems in the Gladstone room, at the large table, sharing thoughts with another poet who was a guest at the festival, and going back to the marquee to look at the craft stalls, second hand bookstall and making a few sketches in my art journal. I made time to have a scone and a pot of tea in Food for Thought, because I loved their scones when I was in residence. I had meant to go to an afternoon talk but I lingered too long over my cheeseboard dessert at lunchtime so I went to Gladbooks for a browse and treated myself a little.

It was so wonderful to be welcomed back into the Gladstone family, and to reconnect with several of the staff who were there during my residency. I could not have been better cared for or made to feel more welcome. Thank you so much for inviting me back!

 

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