My StAnza 2019 highlights

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One highlight happened in advance. This year I was invited to write a commissioned poem to be part of the visual installation which loops in the Byre throughout the festival. Commissions are always a fun challenge because they take a poet out of their comfort zone. Postcards were made too, so it was lovely that people could take copies home, in a kind of ‘collect the set’ game.

This was my fifth StAnza, and I’ve got to the stage now where I have actually made friends there and look forward to seeing them again, as well as the raft of friends from the Scottish poetry scene and beyond, that I mostly made at Sally Evans’ wonderful Poetry Scotland weekends at Callander, now finished but huge fun while they lasted. It’s always tricky for me to get to anything in March, because it’s a peak time for the lectures I do for Sovereign, and World Book Day is during the same period. These days I mark the dates in my diary and try to keep them available. It’s become a fixture.

I would have liked to have arrived sooner, as I missed many good things, such as Emma Jones on Christina Rossetti – ironic because I’d spent weeks preparing a lecture on Rossetti myself which I delivered on 6th in Manchester. I sadly missed Fiona Moore’s 5 O’Clock Verses as well as Sally Evans’ ‘Border Crossings’ reading. But I did arrive in time for some real delights. As soon as we had unpacked, I darted to The Byre to get tickets for the Centre Stage Readings for Friday and Saturday, and a few other things I was worried would sell out. Sadly my health made me miss far too much of Sunday, including the never-before-missed masterclass. However, I will focus on the events I did manage.

For me this year at StAnza, the female poets were my highlights. That’s partly down to what I could attend, but mostly down to the fact they were all stellar in different ways. Jacqueline Saphra is a clear and warm reader, with succinct commentaries where needed. The first part of her reading she shared poems from her earlier collections, which reminded me all over again why I enjoy her witty and inventive poems. Then she read her entire sequence of poems about Lee Miller, with photographs shown on the big screen. It was fascinating; one of those readings you come out of feeling you’ve learned something and been moved by it. I’d heard Menna Elfyn first at StAnza five years ago, when I was new to her work, so I simply had to see her again. She writes such glowing poems, but she gives us the joy of hearing them in Welsh first, and she switches between Welsh and English unexpectedly, so it helps the non-Welsh speaker stay tuned. Welsh is such a poetic language and by, does she know how to pull the harp strings of it. Her poems about Aberfan were particularly striking. I was only a little older than those children, and I can remember the shock of it happening, and how a village was robbed in one mud-slide of the voices of children ringing in their streets, and a vanished generation.

I had the pleasure of hearing Saphra again the next day, paired with Caroline Bird, on their favourite poets, in a delightful event at the town hall, just before the poets’ market got underway. Saphra on Edna St Vincent Millay and Bird on James Tate: what a happy thing to hear these two enthuse and read some favourite poems.  The Poets’ Market was its usual unmissable flurry of chat about poetry, greeting old friends, gathering an alternative book hoard and pop up events.

I’d heard the delightful Liz Berry before, so I knew I had to get a ticket for 5 O’Clock verses. She’s an enchanting and engaging reader, and she charmed me once again with her dialect lexical choices. I could dwell on phrases like ‘tranklement cabinets’ which chink so winsomely on the ear. But make no mistake, her poetry is tough, and she read poems about some difficult experiences, as well as a lush poem about men making love to each other in the bushes in a local park, which was full of zest for the physical.  Another poem that struck me was about how lonely it can be to just be with one’s baby all day, without adult contact. I’ve been there.

Revived by fish and chips with a dram, I went to hear Caroline Bird. I became very drawn to Caroline’s energy when I was on an Arvon course she tutored, on which she, alongside David Morley took the participants to places they never knew they could write of, painful places in our pasts. She bounded on stage, fresh as a morning rose, and greeted us with “‘ello”, full of enthusiasm as she always is. Caroline’s work is surreal and pursues metaphorical truth. She tends to recite rather than read, so her uncompromising gaze arrested the audience, and the reading went by in a flash.

The only event I managed on Sunday was one I was determined to attend. I had never heard Imtiaz Dharker read before and I was excited to have the joy of an hour of her work delivered personally. Her poetry reaches out; it’s people-centric. Her poem about the boys she crushed on turning into authors she loved is a hymn to libraries too. I can’t remember the title but I must track it down and get the book it’s in. If anyone knows the title, let me know in the comments.

That wasn’t quite the end of StAnza 2019 for me. The next day I had a reading in a primary school, as part of the festival’s outreach programme into the local community. There is so much enthusiasm for poetry in Scotland. I was booked for an hour but ended up doing an extra 20 minutes because I arrived early and they showed me straight in. It was great to be able to chat with the very engaged pupils in between poems, and one girl even noticed I was wearing a dress with a print of books on shelves, because I love reading so much.

We had four more nights in Scotland, post-StAnza, which gave me a chance to rest and sort out my health, helped by a lovely doctor in Blairgowrie who gave me an emergency appointment.  So let me also heap praise on the NHS in Scotland!

Already looking to block off some time for StAnza 2020. If you have never been, give it a go. It’s for poetry lovers everywhere, not just for people who write the stuff. And St Andrews is such a lovely part of a beautiful country.

 

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Poem for Valentine’s Day

Glove

Because I love you, I offer you
this old glove.
Wait. Do not cast it
aside. It has held my hand.
Its soft felt embraced my fingers,
covered my palm.
Its partner is lost.
Take it to remind you, how you and I
could lose each other.
It fits me perfectly.
Keep it under your pillow.
Perhaps it will
reach for you in the night.

 

Note: WordPress does not like the indentations in this poem, so it’s lost its shape. It was first published in my collection I Sing of Bricks (Salt 2011). I think of it as slightly spooky but others see it differently, which is fine. This poem was read on Poetry Please, so thank you to whoever requested it.

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Gladstone’s Library

The applications for next year’s Writers in Residence programme at Gladstone’s Library have just opened. I do urge people to apply. The library wants to help writers at all stages of their career and from all walks of life. The application process is fairly simple. You can find the guidelines here: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/events/writers-in-residence/submission-guidelines

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Amy Sumner has been asking former writers in residence to summarise their feelings about their residencies, and here is mine. If I’d had more space (brevity was important as it had to fit on my book cover) I would have added that being a Gladstone writer is a lifelong experience. I’ve attended workshops by other poets either side of my own residency, and been back to use the library. I’ve been invited back to read at both Gladfest and Hearth, to my great joy, and have enjoyed a few short breaks there besides. The library itself is a real proper old-fashioned library where there is silence so profound, one can hear the books whispering in their different languages. The bedrooms are cosy and all have desks, so work can happen at any time. While you can have peace and solitude in the library and your room, you can find company in the dining room or the Gladstone room, with its squashy leather sofas and a big square table with the daily papers. When I was in residence, I used to take my post-lunch pot of tea in there and read the papers before heading back to the library. For fresh air, there are plenty of nice walks locally, and a rather lovely church next door with some famous stained glass windows. The village of Hawarden is small but pleasant and has all you need including several pubs.

If you want to read more about how I spend my time there, you can find my three blog posts, as well as ones by other, here: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/news/volumes/glad-be-gladstones-angela-topping

https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/news/volumes/what-libraries-mean-me

I got loads done when I was there. Problems I was stuck on melted away as my focus improved. I wrote some new poems as well as completing my book on John Clare, and edited three pamphlet anthologies I’d been putting off doing. I gave individual written feedback to the writing group that meets there. I led a whole day workshop, and did an evening reading as well as an evening talk. The combination of interfacing with the public and having silent time really worked for me.

Seriously, apply. You won’t regret it.

 

 

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All a Cat Can Be #6 anthologies my poems were included in in 2018

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Sharon Larkin posted on Facebook about wanting to do something to help her local cat rescue, and coming up with the idea of a charity anthology of poetry for them. I don’t see myself as a cat person but I hate the thought of any animal suffering, plus cats, despite my ambivalent feelings towards them in general, though I have known and loved many individual ones, seem to keep slinking into my poems. I prefer the big wild cats, but I can understand why people want to have pet cats, as they are strokeable and cute. I do admire the superior attitude cats display to the world, and something about them fascinates me, so I sent Sharon a few poems. In the end she chose my children’s poem, ‘Savoy Hotel Cat’, which is in the voice of the cat that hotel kept to  set a place for to avoid there being 13 at the table, and the cat actually used to sit there with a bib on, on a dining chair, to eat. Naturally this made the cat even MORE superior. My poem has had other outings so I won’t include it here.
Sharon Larkin and Sheila Macintyre have assembled a goodly collection of poems here, and as a bonus included some great colour photographs of very pretty kitties, used as section dividers. The book is organised into sections, which breaks down the reading, and gives a sense of connection between poems. Sections include ‘Waifs and Strays’, ‘Whatever the Weather’ and that tricky one ‘Saying Goodbye’.

It’s always hard reviewing an anthology, because one doesn’t want to single out some poems at the expense of others, but I am going to mention a few of my personal favourites. ‘Seconds’ by Melanie Branton, uses language full of fun and invention, to bring life to her ‘roguish stowaway pirate’ of a cat rescued with his ‘more marketable symmetrical brother’. Angi Holden’s ‘Temporary Home’ about a car who came for a few days and stayed for 18 years, aptly called Rags, I found moving, as it shows how these animals can hook themselves into our hearts without us really noticing. I relished Lesley Quayle’s ‘Of Cats and Fish’ for its lack of sentimentality and its cheeky quote from Burns, and the tenderness  of memory, and Alison Brackenbury’s ‘Spotted’ poem about the feral hunting cat, which is written in quatrains with deft rhymes. Anne Drysdale’s poem about an unlovely but loved old cat, I found very beautiful, with lines like ‘busy feet treading the  slow mills of God’ . Jessica Mookherjee’s sonnet based on Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s ‘ How do I Love Thee’, ‘The Cat Lover’ similarly moves me. Mavis Moog’s ‘Catterel’, about an awkward cat, is witty and  the clever rhymes enhance that humour. Phil Knight’s poem ‘Ginger Cat’ gave me pleasure. I enjoyed both of Sarah J Bryson’s poems in the last section, and Rachel Clyne and Patrick B Osada contribute heart-breaking poems about the loss of cats – a topic which is almost a cliche, but they make it new and particular. I almost forgot to mention Jayne Stanton’s ‘A Kenning for Kitty’. I love seeing kennings and this is a really good one.

This anthology is family friendly and has many poems which are accessible to children. It reaches beyond the usual audience for poetry anthologies and would be enjoyed by all cat lovers, or people like me who have never had a cat, but admire them from afar.  It is £8.95, available from  https://eithonbridge.com/anthologies/

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Bonnie’s Crew #5 Anthologies of 2018 my poems appeared in

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Bonnie’s Crew is a tiny anthology with a huge purpose. When poet and editor Kate Garrett gave birth to her precious daughter Bonnie Melissa, she needed the care of Leeds Congenital Hearts. Thankfully, Bonnie is fine and thriving – and just turned one year old, but Kate Garrett was so appreciative of their care, and so empathetic with other parents whose child needed help, she decided to bring out an anthology in support of the unit as a fund-raiser. She also runs a blog of the same name and is still accepting submissions for that.

This darling little A6 pamphlet anthology is a little jewel. The artwork is by Marija Smits, and it’s a striking cover, but also eminently suitable as Bonnie is named for a famous pirate, Ann Bonny, as anyone who has read Garrett’s pamphlet Deadly, Delicate (Picaroon) knows. 

The resulting anthology is full of poems about courage, heart, childhood and hope. Louisa Campbell excels at verbs; the child in her poem can ‘wobble’, ‘splunch’ and ‘spin’ in her play, while her mother has to ‘flame away the dark’ at night. (Sandbags) Sharon Larkin writes of a mother ‘praying in tongues’ as her very ill newborn suckles ‘half-heartedly’, both literally and metaphorically true, as the baby has a suspected heart defect. Maureen Weldon’s poem of hope, ‘Midnight Robin’, is one I have always been fond of, and Finola Scott has an utterly gorgeous poem about feeling her daughter’s child move: ‘feel in my daughter/ her daughter dance beneath my hands’, similar to Angi Holden’s golden grandchild moment of her daughter ringing her to say she’d heard the baby’s heartbeat for the first time. Ben Banyard, like every parent, lives in fear of anything happening to his young ones or his wife, an anxiety I can empathise with as it has never left me since my first child was placed in my arms.

My own poem in here is a short and previously unseen by anyone poem about the wonders of what’s inside our bodies, a topic I am trying to write more poems about.

Copies can be bought here: https://bonnieandcrew.wordpress.com/

It makes a lovely little gift even for those who are not into poetry, as it is very accessible and enthralling.

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22 Wagons #4 anthologies my work appeared in in 2018

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How I came to be in this anthology was something of a miracle, and most unexpected. Danijela Trajković contacted me to ask permission to translate some of my poems into Serbian. I am not sure how she stumbled across my poetry, but her anthology of translations includes Fiona Sampson. Pippa Little, John Greening, Wendy Klein, Richard Skinner and George Szirtes, as well as myself. It is called 22 Wagons, The Collection of Anglophone Poets of 21st Century.

Danijela translated my poems ‘The Glass Swan’, ‘How to Capture a Poem’, and ‘What Became of the Black Piano’. I am sure her translations are wonderful. Unfortunately I can’t read Serbian but feel so honoured to think I can now be read in that language. I share a lot of my ethics of truth and clarity with Danijela, so I know her translations will have caught the spirit of the poems.

I love the cover too. It’s a wonderful thing to have the book on my ‘Angela Topping’ shelves.

I am not sure where to purchase a copy, but I am sure Danijela can help.

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Opening Words (The Cheshire Prize for Children’s Literature) #3 Anthologies I was in in 2018

20190117_123537Another competition anthology I was lucky to get into was Opening Words, from the Cheshire Prize for Children’s Literature. (University of Chester Press 2018). Both prose and poetry can be entered, but very few poems seem to make it into the anthologies, though I have no way of knowing what proportion of entries fell into either genre. A few years back, I won a prize with my poem ‘Maggoty Johnson’. I was astonished on the night and thrilled to get a hug from Tony Robinson, who was presenting the prizes. My poem was the only one out of the top five entries: the other four were all stories. This time around, there were other poems in the anthology. This time, there were four poems included out of 15 texts, and all the winning pieces were prose. Apart from mine, all the other poems were funny rhyming poems. So I was proud of that.

I went to the launch, in the beautiful riverside building of Chester University, with wonderful views from the balcony. It was a lovely event, though sadly, my name didn’t come out of the hat to read my poem, because all the contributors’ names were put in, even though not all attended. I never have luck getting my name pulled from hats – it must be heavy and sinks to the bottom. Phil Redmond happened to be there, because he’s married to the mayor who was presenting the anthologies. He’s a real gentleman, showed a lot of interest in everyone’s writing. Another lovely thing was one of the other poetry contributors came with his friend as a plus one, someone I used to teach years ago in my FE classes. So it was marvellous to see her again and hear her news. I hadn’t seen her since 1992.

It’s funny how a theme can often emerge even when none was set. The editor Simon Poole commented that ‘having a touch of magic was perhaps the defining characteristic for all the entries selected for this year’s volume’.

The Cheshire Prize is a wonderful institution and I do try to enter it whenever I can. It is free to enter and anyone who has lived or worked in Cheshire is eligible.

This is my poem:

A SHINGLE BEACH

No buckets and spades,
no hunting for shells:

this is a shingle beach,
a pebble hill;

but there’s stones to skim,
walls to be built.

Sort pebbles into size,
count their colours:

blue, grey, yellow,
red, white and black.

Listen to their clatter
and clack.

Sand can’t make
a noise like that!


It was written after visiting Seaton Bay in Devon, on a visit to my friend, the fantastic poet Jan Dean.

Where to buy a copy: https://storefront.chester.ac.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=12_13&products_id=768

 

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