Category Archives: New books in 2011

Much Wenlock Poetry Festival

Much Wenlock Poetry Festival was a delight. I wish I had been there on the Saturday to see the Wirral Alliance of Poets doing their street readings, but maybe next year I will go for the whole festival.

My two events were both on the Sunday. The first was a workshop in Wenlock Books – everyone’s dream of the perfect bookshop, full of cosy nooks to sit down and read, a splendid second hand section, real coffee and an enchanted atmosphere.

The workshop was primarily intended for children, but was also suitable for adults who write for children. So it was good to have one other adult there, as well as a granny who stayed to watch. The children were an absolute delight and they all wrote some amazing work. After we had got to know each other, using an alliteration game, and I had read a few poems to show the sort of thing I write, we got down to work. The first exercise produced a Kennings poem, followed by a sharing of work. One of the boys did his in the shape of a shoe, a girl wrote a beautiful poem about the sea. There were also poems about cats, a computer and penguins. An artist came and did a sketch of us while we were working, which I will share on here as soon as I have an electronic copy.

Over refreshments half way through we wrote a group poem:

Our Picnic

Spreading thick butter on the crispy crackling bread,
now things were ready we skipped merrily to the park.
As we arrived we set out the meal on a cloth.

Bread and butter, cheese and ham are all eaten
with lots more. We sip lemonade from plastic cups.
Everyone plays cricket. After the last wicket
we sit in the shade together.

We brush away the crumbs but some sandwiches are over
so we charge to the ducks, watching them fighting over the bread.
What a magical picnic we had with lots of fun today.

What a shame, it’s time to go home.

After break, we settled down again to write a mythical creature poem or story. The random generation of creatures with everyday locations game gave everyone some interesting combinations to work with. We had a werewolf in a left wellington boot, a frightened fairy, a vampire in a wardrobe who was obsessed with the colour purple (not the novel, but the shade), and many others. All the participants produced quirky and original pieces of writing. Some of the parents arrived back in time to hear the sharing part of the scond task. Everyone had fun and went home with two new pieces of writing – a lot to accomplish in two hours.

There was time for a quick lunch at the excellent festival cafe (all home-made food), a chat with the Welsh poet Liz Loxley, whose work I admire, a quick reconoitre with Roz Goddard, before moving off to my next event, which was a children’s reading.

The reading took place in a wonderful venue, the Methodist Chapel, which has wonderful acoustics and character – obviously a well loved building. The audience was small but I was able to hold them rapt for an hour and could interact with them individually. Reading at a festival is very different to doing a school reading to a full hall: the audiences are smaller but each child wants very much to be there.

I would have liked to have lingered in this picture-book town and taken in more eventsl, but we needed to get back. Before leaving I was presented with my copy of the festival anthology, to which every poet performing at the festival contributed a poem, most of them previously unpublished. I do urge everyone to purchase a copy of this book, reasonably priced at £7.99. Not only will it help support next year’s festival, but it is a really strong anthology. I spent a happy couple of hours reading through it.

Much Wenlock Poetry Festival has completed two years now, and we can only look forward to the 2012 one. Wonderful poets in a beautiful place set in stunning countryside – what more could anyone want?



Filed under Able Writers, Children's Poetry, Education, New books in 2011, Poetry Collections, Salt, The New Generation

Cheltenham Poetry Festival

Cheltenham Poetry Festival starts this week on Thursday 31st March and continues till 3rd April. I am reading at Waterstones at 11.30 on Saturday 2nd April, and giving an illustrated talk on John Clare at 1.45 at the YMCA, closely followed by a wonderful concert given by Gordon Tyrrall, who has set some of Clare’s lovelist poems to music.

There are many other wonderful readings including George Szirtes, John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley, Alwyn Marriage, Angela France, Cliff Yates, Clare Pollard, Philip Gross, just to name a few off the top of my head.

The organisers have worked really hard to put together an amazingly varied festival and I urge everyone to support it.

Here is the link:

Before that I am over in Oxford, reading and doing a school gig with my hero of old, John Foster, who was the very first person to put my work in a children’s anthology, apart from the ones from the Bees Knees collective. That was in 1992, in Can You Hear? poems for Oxfam, published by Macmillan.

I love going off to new places to do readings. I also love staying at home writing and making things, like I did today.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Education, John Clare, New books in 2011, Salt, The New Generation

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Lovely Review of I Sing of Bricks by Mark Burnhope

The Road Not Taken Often Enough, 18 Mar 2011

This review is from: I Sing of Bricks (Salt Modern Voices) (Paperback)

Reading Angela Topping’s poetry, I’m reminded of Robert Frost: not always in the way she writes, but because what she writes demonstrates how she thinks. Like Frost, Topping rejects – seemingly by default – what we tend to call “wilful obscurity”. “No tears in the writer,” said Frost, “no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” There are a few relatively experimental pieces here (‘Johari Whispers’ is one) but more often than not, those tears come from immediately recognisable experiences not obscured by intellectual tricks (‘Coping’, ‘Bypass’, ‘Hospital Visiting’). Those surprises come in language which hits us immediately with an epiphany which, however clever, is relentlessly generous and welcoming. There is no sense that Topping is writing just for fellow writers who ‘get’ this stuff.

That’s not to say the poems are superficial. Like Frost, the clarity of the language – that initial spark – ignites a fire in our imagination which lasts long after our first reading; a poem tempts us back time and again (I’m hesitant to say ‘demands’, but only because Topping wants to inspire, delight, not to prescribe or instruct). The title poem ‘I Sing of Bricks’ juxtaposes something religious, devotional, magnificent (singing) with something mundane and unremarkable (bricks). Its title is an apt one for the pamphlet, which is very often about seeing old, stale things afresh: shoes, a glove, grass, snowdrops (‘Each Blade Singly’ and ‘Three Ways of Snowdrops’ are among my favourite titles here). Topping’s writing is clever, but cleverness is never made a virtue for its own sake; it’s always a means to an end, which is to reach the heart. In ‘How To Capture a Poem’, the poem is made into an unseen, elusive entity which constantly evades capture; wriggles from our grasp whenever we try to pin it down. Topping understands that none of us has a monopoly on what a poem is or should be, does or should do.

Among Topping’s other books and pamphlets is her debut children’s collection The New Generation. Reading this pamphlet, I wonder how blurred the boundaries are – or should be – between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’. Of course, clarity and immediacy are expected in the former, but Topping reminds us that in fact, they’re hardly an enemy of intelligence or depth in all poetry. Frost isn’t trying to make us scratch our heads in ‘Walking By Woods on a Snowy Evening’. He wants to surprise us, delight us, fill us with curiosity about everything being left unsaid in the scene he describes. For the reader, the delight is in becoming like a child ourselves, full of so many questions that we’re bursting.

If the poems in I Sing Of Bricks aren’t wilfully obscure, they’re certainly wilfully determined: to sit among poems like Frost’s, which reach the intellect, but only as a rest-stop on their way towards the heart. Poetically speaking, Topping has taken that road not travelled often enough. So, whether you love poetry already, or wouldn’t normally touch it with a barge pole, that makes her very worth reading.

£6.50 from Salt Publishing


Filed under New books in 2011, Poetry Collections

Kids’ Stuff

Cover design of my children's chapbook, out tomorrow

This one even surprised me! I wanted to have a cheaper book for schools readings as well as my beautiful Salt children’s book The New Generation, as not everyone can afford that and I can’t always afford to sell it at a discount. I still hope to have a second Salt collection for children one day, but in the meantime, this little 36 page chapbook, which has a cover price of £4.50, will prove a nice addition to what I can tote around schools. I was bowled over when Erbacce, a Liverpool-based publishers who produced The Lightfoot Letters, wanted to take this on as well. and it has been done in record quick time, so I can take it to my poets-in-schools March placements.

It is all different poems to my Salt book, and I still have plenty for further collections. Here’s one that is included:

My Thumb

My thumb


of chocolate

warm milk



My thumb

feels like


birthday parties

warm baths


I think better

with my thumb

plugged into

my mouth


So why do

some people

shout and say

Take that thumb out?


I have always been fond of this poem, though I was never a thumbsucker and neither were my daughters. But I think children’s comfort habits should be respected. If left alone, they will grown out of them. Except dummies – I hate them.

I did the cover design myself. That’s the very first time I have dabbled. I took the photo at Whitby Folk Week last year. I have always loved carousels. Most fairground rides scare me.



Filed under Children's Poetry, Education, New books in 2011, poetry

Rack Press Launch

On arrival in London, I went to the publisher’s book-lined flat in Bloomsbury to sign and number the 40 copies of my pamphlet which are sold in the sets. The actual event started at 6.30, and the room was already thronged when I arrived. Nicholas Murray, the publisher,  greeted us and plied us with wine, and soon a friend who had come to hear me joined us. Christopher Reid introduced himself to me and we had a few minutes chat before he was drawn away by some fans wanting his signature.

The four readers sat all together at a table at the front of the room. Roisin Tierney read from her pamphlet first. Hers is called Dream Endings and contains delicate poems that deal sympathetically with difficult subjects. It was good to hear them read in her soft sweet Irish accent which suited the poems. She was followed by Christopher Reid. His pamphlet is by way of a libretto for a piece of music which will be performed at the proms this summer. He was commissioned to write on the difficult topic of the first world war, and he told me he spent three months researching and reading all the war poets, feeling very humbled. I admire what he has done. He achieves a lot by taking a captain and a sargeant, representing different classes. They are hanging dead on ‘the old barbed wire’ to quote the old song. Airs and Ditties of No Man’s Land’ is the musing and conversation of these ghostly voices. There is dark humour at work in these little songs, and I look forward to hearing them with Colin Matthews’ music. I would really love to write something to be set to music, combining my two passions. It must be wonderful to hear your words sung.

I was up next, and quipped that I couldn’t be like Cordelia and say ‘nothing’, as the others had thanked Nicholas Murray. So I thanked him for giving me the push to complete these new poems about Matt, which were hiding, fearful, in my notebooks. I had to fill people in on Matt before reading seven of the elegies from Catching On. I really enjoyed the reading and had some really lovely comments and messages later. It always means a lot to me when people say I read well or that they liked my poems.

Nicholas had decided to go last with Get Real, because he didn’t want the bitter and angry tone to interrupt the more delicate poems. It was an inspired choice as it ended the launch on an upbeat note, as even if the sentiments were not shared by everyone present, the verse form made the points punchy and witty in the metaphysical sense. The long poem is an argument and tour de force against the coalition government’s lack of logic and unfairness.

The pamphlets are £4 each. Limited edition of 150.


Filed under New books in 2011, poetry, Poetry Collections

The Lightfoot Letters

Well, the chapbook arrived yesterday and I am delighted with it. The publishers, Erbacce, have done a wonderful job and Maria Walker’s cover design is really beautiful. I have dedicated the book to my brothers and sister and I am looking forward to presenting them with a copy. I wonder what my dad’s family would have thought if they had known their letters would one day be published, revealing so much about working class life in a Northern industrial town in 1923.

Maria wants me to write more poems, so my work is not yet done, but at least I have a publication to include in the exhibition at The Brindley, which will be happening in late summer this year. I have a feeling I will need to order another box of books by then as so many people have shown an interest in this project. A friend only remarked yesterday that Maria and I only discovered the connection of the letters in October – what a lot can happen in such a short time!

The discovery of the letters, and my doing some work in Widnes at my old library and Farnworth Church, has brought me back in time and back to Widnes in a very curious way. Having not thought much about the place for years, and recently severing my links with it when my in-laws moved away into a retirement flat near us, I suddenly feel closer to the place than I have for a long long time, even though I am a bit of a stranger in that it is all so different these days. The busy town square is pedestrianised, Simms Cross school has gone and the market has moved. The library now has a coffee shop – we would have loved that – and the road home past the foundry where my brother worked is now a dead end. Roots are so important and you can never dig them up.

£5 from me or from Erbacce


Filed under New books in 2011, poetry, The Inspirational Old Letters

An experimental poem from I Sing of Bricks

There are those who think I am very conventional and do not experiment. I ask them to consider this poem from I Sing of Bricks. It uses a counselling techinque called Johari Square.

I believe a writer has to have reasons for their choices. I’d be interested to have people’s comments on this piece.


Filed under New books in 2011, poetry, Poetry Collections, Writing challenges

Prose Poem by Paul Beech, in response to my poem I Sing of Bricks.

Bricking It


Paul Beech



He had a special feeling for bricks.  He loved crumbling garden walls encrusted in moss, herringbone panels framed in oak, Ruabon Reds at sunset…

Yet haunted he was too, haunted by a dark memory from his early days on the job, when divining rods were still in use and camera surveys undrempt of.

Down a Victorian brick sewer in the City of Chester, he was searching by torchlight for an unmapped drain.  Bent almost double, helmet scraping the barrelled roof, effluent overspilling his gumboots, he waded upstream with turds and rats passing under his nose.

Then the stench hit him, the get-out-quick stench – methane!

He turned, or attempted to, but couldn’t, because his shoulders were held in the rough grip of the brick curvature on either side…

Aye, it was a special feeling for bricks he had, Jane Austen’s house at Chawton a particular delight of his sixty-fourth year.





£6.50 from Salt publishing

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Filed under New books in 2011, New Poems, poetry

I Sing of Bricks

My new book is now available from the publishers, or from me if you are likely to be coming to some of my events. I am delighted with it. It is easy to read from and feels less intimidating than a full collection and it is only £6.50. It has a gorgeous cover, as all Salt books do, and is shiny and solid in the hand. I am launching it at BLAZE, my monthly event at The Red Lion, Hartford. Here is the title poem:

I Sing of Bricks

Who first
thought of you?
Warm cakes of baked clay
exact corners
strictly rectangular
correct and
all the same
yet each one
slightly different.

Many hands
made you, many others
raised you into walls
to fend off weather.
Sunlight loves you
and shows off
your masculine charms.
Rain decorates you
bringing out the greys and reds.

Victorians loved
playing with you
embroidering houses
with elegant stitchery in earth tones.

How willingly
you align yourselves
clinging to mortar.
Your conversation,
always consonantal.
In deep clunks and scrapes
you engage with the previous courses.

Clubby and solid
as earth
you prop up our defences,
rise to roves
You plunge into earth
making no moan.
Supporting your fellows
is your delight.
Little loaves
you make up the smallest
pig house, the grandest manor,
humble, strong, biddable
servants, solid as hearth and home.





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Filed under New books in 2011, poetry, Poetry Collections, Salt