National Poetry Day 2018

As a poet and a lover of poetry, I really enjoy seeing the buzz around National Poetry Day every year. It is great that many schools want to get a poet in on this day, too. The day itself is a stone thrown into a pond: the ripples spread, and seem to reach everyone. This year’s theme is Change, which can be a positive but sometimes scary thing.

In 2011, one of my poems was quoted on a National Poetry Day poem postcard. I can’t recall what the theme was that year, something to do with sport, I think, because it was the year of the Olympics. It also suits the theme of Change, so I wanted to share it in full.

The poem came out of my knowledge of Greek Mythology. The goddess Nike (pronouned Nikey, to rhyme with Mikey) is the Greek goddess of Victory. It was first published in the Wenlock Poetry Festival Anthology of the same year, and performed brilliantly by Miriam Margoyles, who gets more laughs that I do, reading it. M y poem is the last one in this video, at 7 and a half minutes in, because it was done alphabetically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkE7HukwTbI&t=9s).

I imagined what might happen to a brilliant runner, who became so focused, they did not want to stop. As often happens in Greek myths, a transformation occurs. The runner rises into the heavens and eventually becomes immortal. It’s a kind of blown kiss towards Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

An Athlete’s Dream: A Modern Myth

Nike: Greek Goddess of Victory

The gun said Go and then there was running;
the rush of air zooming past;
the grip of the running shoes on the track.
I forgot the others, kept on running,
could not stop, round and round the track
until I rose high in air, while below
medals were suspended around necks,
rousing music struck up.

I ran circling higher and higher
above earth, leaping into blue space.
I did not tire. My shoes wore out,
the rags of my clothes fell away from me.
My orbit is far from earth.
My name is Nike.

 Angela Topping

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Happy National Poetry Day, everyone! Lot of things going on all over the country. Find some poetry and join in, or pull down a favourite anthology and read some aloud.

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Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Angela Topping 

It was so kind of Paul to interview me. I enjoyed doing it, and I hope my followers will find what I said interesting – I was a bit controversial!

The Wombwell Rainbow

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Angela Topping

Angela Topping is the author of eight full collections of poetry and four chapbooks, including one from Rack Press. Her work has been broadcast on Poetry Please and set for A level. She has won several single poem prizes and commendations. Poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, The North, Stand, The Interpreter’s House, Prole and many others. She has contributed to over 80…

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Daddy, my Daddy

mum and dad wedding

This my dad on his wedding photo, two months after the wedding.

 

I was a fortunate child: I had a wonderful father. I know many children are not so lucky. Indeed, many of my friends were not so lucky. My Dad took me out on his bike most Sundays to give mum a break, and he showed me flowers and trees, animal tracks and we would forage in season for blackberries and elderflower/berry, which he would make into wonderful things. He was gentle and kind, if he was cross with me he would look daggers at me, which made me cry, but he would never ever have smacked me. He was my refuge and my guide, but he also let me find out things for myself. He taught me I was worth something, and as a result I have always been able to stand up for myself, even when life was tough and bullies held sway.

I was only 24 when he died and he was never able to be a granddad to my beloved children, but I have been writing poems about him ever since. I thought I would share this one, from Hearth, for Father’s day.

Dad’s Tea

Gave up milk and sugar in the war, long before I was born,
came to prefer his dark bitter brew. Couldn’t abide it weak:
if he could see white china at the bottom, he’d send it back
to the pot for further steeping. In vain I tried to get the spoon
standing up for him. The last one poured was always his.

We knew how to drink tea in our house. Countless cups of it
punctuated the day, from the early morning bedside one
to his enquiry every evening at nine: would you like a cup of tea?
before mother went to bed and he clocked off tea-making.
Tea was the reaction to every crisis, arrival and departure.

One evening, I listened to Under Milk Wood on the radio
in my room, wrapped in a blanket. He brought me tea,
a bowl of milky porridge, glistening with brown sugar.
Tea was the last thing he drank before he died:
I had carried a cup to him, strong and hot, rattling on its saucer.

Tea was the way we loved each other, the way he treated me,
and gentled my mother, with scones just out of the oven,
new bread and blackberry jam, apple pie. Easier than words
which made him trip and stumble since his childhood stammer.
Our tea cosy was stained brown where it snugged the spout.

from Hearth (Mother’s Milk Books 2015)

 

SJ & AT Hearth front cover scaled

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Line Breaks in Free Verse, a Handy Guide

I’ve recently been asked how to do line breaks in free verse, so I thought I would share it with my readers. As T.S. Eliot said: ‘No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ (Though of course he meant women too!)

In formal verse (written with a set rhyme and metre) the convention allows the sense to run on from line to line and stanza to stanza; the flexibility of this is vital to prevent the pattern becoming a straightjacket. These enjambed lines are read over the line break, because the form is dictating where the line break is made, not the sense or the voice.

Free verse deals very differently with line breaks. The poet has an opportunity to manipulate them and use them purposefully. Free verse has a subtler rhythm than formal verse, and though is does include rhymes, they are not patterned and are often internal, or based on other devices of sound such as assonance and consonance. In other words, the free verse poem is free of the bonds of strict metre and rhyme patterns, but exchanges these for other guiding principles.

In free verse a line should be a unit of sense, and the stanza is like a prose paragraph, embodying one main idea. But these ideas are not rigid and can be used flexibly to good effect, for emphasis, to make us hungry for the next line. The shape on the page is a script to help us read the poem with the rhythms and emphases the author wants. When reading the poem aloud there should be the merest of pauses where the line ends, described by Manchester poet Peter Walton as ‘ half a comma’. And poetry should be read aloud! (Silent reading is a modern concept – Shakespeare’s audiences went to ‘hear’ a play, and contemporary poetry was read aloud, often to friends in taverns – the origin of poems and pints!)

I have heard people accusing free verse of being nothing more than ‘chopped up prose’, but they soon back down when the craft is explained to them. Each line break is there for a purpose, though the purpose can vary. White space matters; it is part of the poem, and should never be ignored.

 

Line breaks are a vital part of the drafting process. Each line should be controlled, matched with other lines, playing variations on the rhythm established, unless of course deliberate differences are being cultivated. Read your poems aloud, see where you pause naturally, let the poem tell you where a break is needed.

The point of free verse is to create your own pattern, make up your own ‘rules’ for that particular poem, but it’s always worth remembering that the two most emphatic places for a word are:

  1. the end of a line
  2. the start of a line

so throwing away these good places on a definite article must be done for a good reason.

This article is based on my own study and practice. I would welcome any comments from other practitioners who might want to add to this piece.

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Manchester-based poet Steven Waling has asked me to add this comment from his perspective: breaking the line just before or just after the end of the phrase provides a syncopation effect which gives a sense of forward motion, as I do here with the line break after ‘mouth’. My ‘rule’ that each line is a complete unit of sense still applies. A unit of sense does not mean a sentence but rather a phrase. This technique can help with creating a ‘turn’ in the poem too. Thank you Steven.

 

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StAnza 2018 Review

I would have liked to have gone to St Andrews for the whole period of StAnza, but this wasn’t possible because of my lecturing work, however, we set off very early on Friday morning with the aim of arriving in time for Martin Figura’s show Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine. We stumbled into the welcoming atmosphere of The Byre in time to get tickets, check into our accommodation and dash back for the show. Even my ‘not-into-poetry husband enjoyed it. Figura puts his heart and soul into everything he does, and his wicked sense of humour leavens any darker material. The set is very appealing to anyone who lived through the latter part of the 20th century, and the script is a rich mixture of poems and commentary. The real star of the show is Martin’s daughter Amy, whose life is a source of wonder to him, and to the audience, because she lives things so fully, getting involved with her favourite cartoon characters, and with her wonderful way of language, like calling the cinema screen a ‘big video’.

I had to miss some great events to eat and unpack at the rented flat, but I did manage t get a ticket for Poetry Centre Stage. Pippa Little gave a delightfully tender reading, taking us through several of her collections in a beautifully sequenced order. Her voice is lovely to listen to. Mark Ford was a contrast, in that his muscular style presented his surreal narratives in an entertaining way, but his body of work was less my cup of tea than Pippa’s, whose work I already knew.

The ‘Risk a Verse’ slot afterwards was brilliantly hosted by Andy Jackson, and a good range of poets performed their work against the background of people having fun, though the mike helped us cope with that. I read my #MeToo poem, which I felt was important, as copies of the book were on sale at the festival, and I had heard that the launch the night before had been so popular not everyone had got in!

My first thing on Saturday was an early visit to the legendary Poetry Market, where  one is sure to bump into friends and part with cash. The Red Squirrel stall was the first one in, and £20 left my purse with rapidity, as I wanted Elizabeth Rimmer’s Haggards  and Brian Johnstone’s Juke Box Jeopardy, continued the theme of music from the latter part f the 20th century, after Dr Zeeman’s.   I’d enjoyed Anne Pia’s poem the night before so I bought her book, and met Eileen Pun, finding we had a passion for book-making in common.

There were many great events I would have liked to have gone to on Saturday, but I’d left my ticket purchasing till we arrived, so that  limited my options. There were tickets left for the Don Paterson / Marie-Elsa Bragg conversation so I went into that and made a few notes, as it was an interesting topic, on the borders between poetry and prose.

My next event was the book launch of the W.S Graham anthology, which I had meant to submit to but forgot, so I did the next best thing and bought a copy. This was a lovely relaxed event. It was good to see Douglas Dunn again, and Rachel Boast read a Graham poem which was new to me, so beautifully, and a few other contributors got up and read theirs too. Vahni Capildeo read hers, and we had a brief chat afterwards. I have not yet had time to read the book, but it will be a joy to come I am sure.

Poetry Centre stage on Saturday night was something I had been looking forward to. William Letford presented us with poems from an apocalyptic imagined narrative of diary and poems, which was highly original, but the real highlight for me was Liz Lochhead in the second half. She was every bit as passionate and funny and entertaining as she was all those years ago when I first met her. Liz  encouraged me when I was a young poet, telling me I was a ‘born poet’ and I ‘had’ to publish. This was like someone who knew what she was talking about giving me ‘permission’, and it made all the difference to me. To my utter amazement and joy, she remembered me right away, and we had a lovely chat after she’d done all her book signing. I promised her a copy of my latest book, and made good on that the next day.

I decided not to attend the slam, because although the quality is high and I wanted to support friends who were in it, I find it very hard to cope with the audience noise, which is why I normally avoid slams. So it was an early night for me on Saturday.

I have been to the masterclass every time I have been to StAnza, because it’s fascinating. Gillian Allnutt chaired it calmly with many good insights, but perhaps there could have been a little more on where the poems were less successful. A few of us got into a little huddle afterwards to continue the discussion, which was fascinating, as we all made similar points about what we would have liked to have said had there been time.

There was time for a quick lunch at Zest cafe before going to hear Polly Atkin and Gerry Loose. I’d been looking forward to Polly’s reading (she was writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library this year, as myself and Katrina Naomi were in the past), and I’d bought Polly’s collection from her in person at StAnza 2017. As well as some great stuff from her books, she read a new poem imagining a bear in the library at Gladstone’s, inspired by the snow just after we left after spending the weekend there while she was nearing the end of her residency. Polly has a wonderful rich voice to listen to, which makes hearing her an aural pleasure, and her poems are just as rich, and sometimes strange and funny, too.

StAnza was starting to approach its last few events and I felt sad to think it was passing by so fast. I’d agreed to go and hear Gillian Allnutt with Liz Lochhead, so we sat together for the reading and then parted. I hope to keep in touch with her and I hope she thinks my poetry has developed over the years from those shy little poems she enthused about in my first book back in 1988.

After cooking a meal at the flat to avoid the Mother’s Day revellers, we both set off to the Festival Finale, which had excellent music and put us all in the party mood, though many friends had had to go by then, there were still plenty to chat to. StAnza is such a friendly festival, no-one stands on ceremony and I had some great chats with lots of poetry friends such as Linda Goulden, Sally Evans, Colin Will, Helen Ivory and Martin Figura, Sheilas Wakefield and Templeton, though only fleetingly in both cases, Brian Johnstone and Jean, Michael Augustin and Sujata Bhatt,  and many others already mentioned. I also made new friends or met Facebook friends in the flesh for the first time.

StAnza is a truly international festival with a very Scottish home. Having the Byre as a focus brings people together and the very air seems filled with the passion for poetry that brings us there. It’s massively inclusive and welcoming. This was my fourth time and I think I enjoyed it the most, because now I feel relaxed and at home, no longer shy.

Thank you so much to Eleanor Livingstone and the rest of the team, the polite and friendly volunteers and everyone involved. Hope you see you all again next year!

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Ten Ways to Keep Depression At Bay

Yesterday I posted about the Please Hear What I’m Not Saying Anthology for MIND. I have been medicated three times for depression, and I absolutely needed it each time. They were all work-related. Now I work for myself, much of that stress is relieved. I find the medication numbs me so I cannot write poetry, and writing poetry is essential to my well-being. So for myself, I have rejected medication.

So how do I stave off depression? Caveat: these work for me but may not work for you, and the battle is often with the dreadful lethargy that is one of the main symptoms of depression, and that stops one doing anything. I find it helps to spot the signs and take evasive action while the energy to do so is still around.

  1. Take some time every day to go outdoors, even if it’s just a stroll round the garden, a walk to the shops or in the park, or ten minutes on a bench outside with a blanket and a flask of tea.
  2. Set some small achieveable goals every day. Simple things like getting a shower, getting dressed, making the bed. Then at the end of the day, when you feel another wasted day has gone by, you can remind yourself of these small accomplishments.
  3. Take exercise, because that increases seratonin in the brain. Can a friend pick you up and take you swimming, is there somewhere nearby where you can walk or run? Try an exercise video at home, from YouTube, or do some gentle yoga. Salute to the Sun is a great way to start the day. Or put a good track on and have a 5 minute dance-athon. You might feel so good you want to carry on longer.
  4. Housework is one of the things that can seem overwhelming, and like self-care, often goes by the board. But if you can choose a daily goal of tidying or cleaning one small thing, like the sink area, or clearing a surface, it really lifts the mood.
  5. Take Vitamin D.
  6. Although junk food is very tempting, such as chocolate for a quick lift, try to eat nourishing foods, plenty of fruit and veg, and if possible, keep away from ready meals.
  7. Spend some time with a pet or small child. Animals and small humans live in the present and are fun to be around.
  8. I find crafting really helps me. If I have some knitting on the go, or some hand sewing, I can sit down to do it, and even if I only do a little, it feels like an accomplishment and gives me a reason to look forward. I don’t do jigsaws anymore, but they can achieve the same thing.
  9. Do something nice for someone else. Even if it’s just an email, a phone call, a small gift, a genuine compliment, it will make you feel better that you have brightened someone else’s day.
  10. Read poetry. A poem can only take a minute to read, and a lifetime to remember. Poetry is a consolation. Poetry tells you you are not alone.

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Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

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Mental health is a massive problem in our society, and prevents some people from enjoying their life and coping with the stresses of the modern world, which can be a pressurised and noisy  place. We are constantly bombarded with things we ought to buy, things we ought to be doing and the demands of full time work with insufficient leisure and family time. Some people who know me might be aware that I suffer from depression from time to time. I also have anxiety, indeed the two often go together. I am fortunate that these are relatively mild, and I have developed strategies to overcome them when I feel they are starting to dominate. I am very confident in some areas of my life, but I am also a highly sensitive person, and things can affect me for years. For example, my anxiety around travel alone at night stems from an experience when I was only 17, and coming back from a theatre trip by train.

I don’t very often write about my struggles, but occasionally a few poems do make themselves known and insist on being written. When Isabelle Kenyon asked for poems on mental health for a new anthology she was compiling, I sent her three poems on the topic and was delighted when she wanted to include them all.  Mental health is an important part of well-being, and problems can strike anyone at any time: it does not discriminate. I decided to send the poems because we all need to talk about mental illness. It should not be a taboo subject. It is not a sign of weakness. It can be a sign of bearing too much for too long in silence. It is an illness like any other, but one which is neglected and under-funded. The book is a charity anthology for MIND, and all profits go to that organisation. So in buying the book, you will be learning, helping, and reading some vert accessible and honest poems too. I don’t want to single any one poet out, but I have been reading my copy and I can see there is something here for everyone.

Isabelle has structured the book in sections, and it represents a journey through pain and the recognition of difficulties, to a more positive ending where solutions are being found, help is sought and given and some sunshine asserts itself. It is not a depressing read, but a fascinating one.It covers a wide range of experiences and there is plenty of light and shade. There are well known poets included alongside the more obscure.

It is a lovely thick book, with plenty of white space around the poems. It feels good in the hand and is easy to flick through and dip into. It is available on Amazon for £10.99 post free. https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=please+hear+what+im+not+saying

 

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