Category Archives: Poetry Collections

How to put together your poetry collection

There are as many ways to do this as there are to do anything worthwhile. I have done it different ways in different books, because the material one has often dictates the structure. Just as, in the writing of a poem, one has to listen to the poem itself, then with a book, one has to listen to the poems and allow them some say in choosing their own order.

 

Like a lot of other poets, I think it’s vital to print off the poems one hopes to include. It’s a good idea anyway, to have a hard copy of each completed poem; that’s the best way, other than having them published in book form, to guard against computer crashes and lost discs. I’m not always the best at taking my own advice here, I must confess.

 

My latest collection, The Five Petals of Elderflower, takes both its name and its structure from the title poem, which won first prize in the 2013 Buzzwords national competition. It is a poem in five parts, which can be read as the five stages of life. I divided the poems up into five sections according to the themes of each petal. I am indebted to my editor for this book, Elizabeth Rimmer, who saw at once the structure I was going for, and helped me cut down the manuscript I originally submitted, which was bursting with far too many poems. She had a very good eye for what worked well with those themes; some poems were cut because they will fit better in a later book. When working with an editor, one does fight one’s corner for the poems one loves, so there was some negotiation between us. I am enormously grateful for her acute sensitivity to what I was up to. The Five Petals of Elderflower is now available from my publisher, Red Squirrel Press.

 

petals-cover

 

My previous collection, Letting Go, has a different thrust. Because it is a selection of poems, some from out of print collections and some new, but all on the theme of childhood and parenthood, It is divided up into sections and runs chronologically, so it reads like a narrative, if taken in order, which people don’t always do with poetry. They dip, or start at the back, which I often do myself. But the narrative is there if people want to find it. The book doesn’t include every poem I have on those themes. With this one, I worked with Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk Books. She knows my previous collections very well and made suggestions as to what she would like to see included. Making the book at all was her idea in the first place, and it was her idea to use named sections, titled by quotations from the poems, which I had also done in an earlier book, The Fiddle (Stride 1999)

fiddle

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Paper Patterns, published by Dennis Greig of Lapwing Press, was structured more thematically, without editorial help. It includes two sequences which I separated by half the book, because readers need space and shorter poems after such lengthy ones. Themes include travel and curiosities, places, elegies, food, the brevity of life, seasonal poems, flower poems, literary references and responses, politics and ageing. Each poem speaks to its companions. This 2012 collection is still available.

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I Sing of Bricks (Salt 2011) was a set of poems which were put together as a sample of my work, following my return to full time poetry. It was my first adult publication for four years, and I was asked to send my best poems at the time. What I hadn’t realised, but was pointed out by a very perceptive reviewer, James Roderick Burns, that it was all about work. “For this is a book about work—actual work, be it drudgery or stimulation; the work of starting and sustaining relationships; the dreadful work of mourning, remembering the (many) people who have died, and moving with their memory into something new; the work, in short, of life. “ It’s a very smart reviewer who tells you something you didn’t know about your own work. The point I am making here is that your own obsessions and themes will show themselves wherever your work accumulates.

Brickscover

In summary, here are my tips for putting your own collections together.

 

  • Print off all the poems you want to include. Re-read them as you do.
  • Spread them individually on a surface like a floor or large table to begin to assess them.
  • Discard any you feel uneasy about or which need more work. Or do the work on them needed.
  • From your re-reading you will have some idea of how they work together. Start to look now for themes, common topics or contrasts.
  • Find a really strong poem to start and end with.
  • From that starting poem, find another one that speaks to it, either by contrast, similarity, different angle on the same topic, or any small link like a word in common, or a place.
  • Repeat until you have picked up all the poems, and making sure the run of poems up to the last one lead nicely to it.
  • Listen to the work. Your order might be chronological like some of my books, grouped in themes like others of mine. There should be some kind of internal logic that facilitates flow for the reader.
  • Pile the poems up in your chosen order, slide on one of those plastic binders to hold together. Go and have a cup of tea, a walk outside, a sleep. Then come back to it and read from start to finish. If it feels right, you are nearly there.
  • If you are not lucky enough to have an editor, and not all collections do, show it to a few people whose judgement you really trust. Listen to what they say. Make necessary adjustments.
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‘The Next Big Thing’ Blog Tour

The Next Big Thing, for those who don’t yet know, is a way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they’re working on. The idea is fairly simple. The writer answers a set of questions on his or her blog one week, and then invites five other authors to answer the same questions the following week. They in turn invite five more.

I was invited by Geraldine Green

What is the title of your new book?

Paper Patterns

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How did you choose the title?

I spent a long time deliberating this and then went back to my original idea. One of the poems is called Paper Patterns, and it came out of collaborating with a textile artist, Maria Walker. There are a few poems in the book which she has used on in her art work, and one of the sequences was written for a joint exhibition with her, all based on some family letters she had bought in a junk shop before she met me. After collaborating for a few months we met up, when we made the astonishing discovery that these letters she’d found so inspiring had been written by my father’s family. So the title reflects the work I had done with Maria.

The cover art is actually a piece of her work on which she embroidered words from the poem, Paper Patterns. I love that picture and she kindly gave me permission to have it as cover art. (Actually ALL my books have cover art by friends apart from my Salt books and my Rack Press pamphlet, because those publishers have a certain style and took charge of the covers for me.)

Also, the title resonates, because poems themselves are patterns on paper.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

As a poet, I tend to write the poems as I go along, and when I am putting a collection together, I think about which poems I want to include. Because this is a full length collection, it has several different themes and moods. It’s important to cut in some variety in poetry books. Although I know most readers will dip in and out, I have carefully arranged the poems so they speak to each other and take the reader on a journey throughout the book. For instance, the last few poems are about regrets and ageing, whereas near the start there are more light-hearted ones. The book also includes several sequences. One is The Lightfoot Letters which includes the poems written for the exhibition, another is Catching On, which brings together ten poems from the Rack Press pamphlet with 6 poems from my Salt collection I Sing of Bricks, about my friendship with poet Matt Simpson. There is also a new coda to that sequence, which charts the stages in our friendship and also the stages of coming to terms with his death. The third sequence is a small one of miniature poems in which wild plants speak their story.

Some of the poems were written on a course with Penelope Shuttle in France, and one was written after attending an inspirational reading by Pascale Petit. There are also some poems about birds, one of which was in Poetry Review, and several poems about fruit, written at a workshop by Jan Dean. Some were even written at my own workshops, where I tend to write as a way of timing the exercises and seeing whether they are good to work from. It’s not for me to track themes – I will leave that to the critics, who can be very perceptive.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. It’s not highly experimental. I write poems which are accessible but complex in terms of their layers and resonances. I think every poem is an experiment. I tend to write instinctively and then bring my intellect to bear at the redrafting stage, where I am quite a harsh self-critic. I like poems which both stimulate the intellect but ultimately move the reader, so that’s how I aim to write.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That scenario is very unlikely in the case of a poetry collection. But sometimes poems are performed by actors. So actors I would most like to perform my work: David Tennant, Miriam Margoyles (who already did a splendid job with one of mine), Patrick Stewart, Frances Barber, Colin Firth, Dervla Kirwan, Sarah Lancashire.

Who has published your book?

My publisher is Lapwing, an independent press owned by Dennis Greig, who is based in Northern Ireland. He expressed an interest in my work when we were discussing, over email, a mutual friend, the late James Simmons. Dennis had published a few friends of mine including Janice Fitzpatrick, Ian Parks and Andrew Oldham. I felt that the house style would suit Maria Taylor’s artwork and Dennis and I very much see eye to eye on the current state of the poetry world, so I decided to send him my collection. I hope to do an Irish tour to promote the book, as soon as I have arrange some free time. I am of Irish descent and very proud of it. I’ve started to explore it more in my work.

What other books would you compare ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ to, within the genre?

I think this one is best picked up by reviewers too. I hope I write in my own way and not leaning on the shoulders of others. My favourite poets include John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Matt Simpson, John Agard, Pablo Neruda, Ian Parks, Martin Figura, so it’s possible that their work and mine has some similarity. Helen Ivory is another poet I admire, as is George Szirtes, but I wouldn’t say this particular collection is similar to their poetry.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think this book is a development from my earlier collections, although family and friends are still inspiring poems. Myth and nature are strong themes and everywhere I go I am writing poetry, so this book includes poems set in Egypt, France, different parts of the UK including London and Scotland, Whitby and the North York Moors. I also wanted to bring the sixteen elegies for Matt Simpson, which appeared in two different publications, together so I could finally call the sequence complete. I have touched on some of the elements that went into the book in my previous replies, also.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

I love it when people say to me that my poems have helped them work through difficult or meaningful times, like bereavement and childbirth. Readers can emotionally connect with my work; it’s not about me showing off or being clever, but a genuine attempt to communicate with others.
Also, I use a variety of forms, sometimes sonnets and other strict forms do the job, and other poems feel more comfortable in free verse.
The moods of the poems range too, and there is an unfolding narrative if one reads the collection in order.
Although I do write personal poems, I also reach further, for example I explore personae and history, myth and story. I also write for children and sometimes my playful side shows in my work for the general adult reader. I live a fairly ordinary life and celebrate the little things that provide moments of piercing joy.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

The book’s blurb begins: Angela Topping unravels the threads that hold families and friends together, exposing the frailties, joys and tenacity of love, in these strong, spare poems.

I think that just about sums it up.

The following writers are contuining the tour. Do vist their blogs to see their responses to these questions:

Lindsey Holland

Adam Horowitz

Steve Ely

Catherine Edmunds http://catherineedmunds.blogspot.co.uk/

Fiona Sinclair

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Filed under poetry, Poetry Collections, The Inspirational Old Letters

Death Door Dave, the Turtlejack

When I lead an Able Writers’ Day for Authors Abroad, I like to write a group poem with all the pupils working on a different stanza. I take ideas from the participants and try to incorporate as many as I can, discarding the ones that don’t fit. Then each small group works on an aspect of the topic, feeds back to me, then I shape it and write it up. This teaches them structure and consistency.

This is the most recent one, written last week at Mill Lane Primary. The pupils suggested we make up our own mythical creature. I split the topic up into things like physical appearance, habitat, diet, behaviour and so on. THis is what they came up with in half an hour!

 

 

Death Door Dave, The Turtlejack

His head is a barking jackal with orange eyes.
The wet-noser has a turtle body,
a creature with wire wings and green blood;
wolverine-clawed, its scorpion tail is green-flamed.

Invivible he can be, or camouflaged,
breathing fire, water or air. If he knows
you are coming he lies in wait.
He can fly high or low, scary in the sky.

You cannot hear him come, you cannot hear him go,
you cannot hear him run from all the things he fears.
He may look like a blood-thirsty savage
but his heart is a baby’s touch.
Diaphonous smoke curls around him
with a reek of gloom and loneliness.

At night he steals dinosaur eggs, seasons them with fairy dust,
eats with a salad of brussel heads, lettuce and carrots.
By day he kidnaps humans to make friends
and wonders why he fears them.

Death Door Dave used to be a happiness thief
a life crusher, a human eater, a dream disintegrator.
That was before pest control put him in prison.
Now he’s a changed monster, vegetarian, wise.

He was first created in a meteorite accident,
the only one of his kind. Now he lives in
a groovy flat, a moose-head on the wall.
candles lit, a massive double bed, waiting for a mate.

Written by the group on Able Writers’ Day at Mill Lane Primary School, Thame, Oxford

 

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Filed under Able Writers, Children's Poetry, Education, Salt, The New Generation

Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night

Fireworks blossom on
the black sugar paper sky.

The spicy smell of first frost
makes nostrils tingle.

The bonfire burns like a furnace.
My face is as hot as an iron.

My fleece jacket is snuggled
Round me to keep me warm.

I write my name in air
with my white hot sparkler.

Before bed, there’s hot chocolate,
floating cushions of marshmallow.

From The New Generation by Angela Topping (Salt 2010)

This poem was based on my own memories of Bonfire Night as  a young child and also as a parent when the girls were younger. We used to have a small bonfire in the back garden and a few fireworks lit by my dad or later, my husband for our children. I always loved Bonfire night, it seemed to me magical and comforting, though the notion of the guy used to upset me, particuarly as I knew Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who has been killed horribly for trying to blow up Parliament. I now know he was a mercenary employed as a pyrotechnics expert by the plotters. He was very brave: to avoid the cruel death of being hanged, drawn and quartered, he jumped when hanged, effecetively breaking his own neck. I cannot understand why he became the focus of such hatred, especially as James I was an unpoplar king and the laws against Catholics at the time were horrific. It is only now that the law against Catholics marrying into the royal family is considered to be outdated and might even be changed.

Although I loved bonfire night, I uset to be traumatised the next day by items in the news about children who had been badly burned. As teenagers, we used to build our own bonfires and cadge combustible materials from houses near us, save up pocket money for fireworks and beg spuds to roast in the fire. I wlecome, therefore, the growing trend of organised bonfires, put on by the council in parks and so on. Much safer and a lovely act of community bonding. Ever since the Millenium, though, fireworks have been set off on almost any occasion. I don’t like this trend. Once a year is enough to traumatise pets and disturb neighbours, and worse, overdoing things can soften their impact. In a society that demands and gets strawberries in winter, for example, we are blurring the lines between the seasons with our excesses.

Where I live now, and have lived for the past 25 years, I have a good view of other people’s fireworks and prefer to recreate a favourite memory of when my oldest daughter Laura was around three years old. We had just moved to this house and I sat on her bed with her, having finished the bedtime story routine, opened the curtains and spent a happy half hour with our noses pressed to the pane watching the sky flash orange, white, blue and green, shooting stars swim by our window and sparkle off into the navy blue above our trees. It was unplanned, the baby was asleep in her cot in the next room, full of breastmilk and my husband downstairs.

The best pleasures are the simplest by far.

 

Happy bonfire night everyone! And remember, light the blue touch paper and retire. Keep the fireworks in a tin and drop our sparkler on the ground when you have finished writing on the night.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Festivals, Poetry Collections, The New Generation

Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en is a festival I feel strongly should be celebrated. It is based on the Celtic festival of Samhain which honoured ancestors and marked the passing from summer to winter.It then became subsumed into the Christian festival of All Souls, which serves to remember people who have died. November is the month of the dead in Christianity.

There is a wealth of Literature, much of it from the Romantic Movement, which concerned itself with the world of the imagination, among other things. From this period we have texts like Dracula, Frankenstein and many more. This period also saw a revived interest in the traditional tales and ballads from the past. We love the thrill of being scared, safe in the knowledge that it is not real.

I fear that, in the increasing commercialism, the festival itself is being lost. Dressing up (in home-made costumes), carving a turnip lantern (nowadays pumpkins are favoured), bobbing for apples and telling stories were all delightful ways to have inexpensive fun. Trick or treat is a fairly new idea, but there is a misconception about it: as the dressed-up children come, the idea is to give them a treat or show them a trick. It is a pity that visiting each other has almost died out and people lack the ability to interact with their community, seeming to privilege the internet over flesh and blood friends.

When I was teaching I always used to tell my classes the wonderful Hallowe’en story of Tam Lin and Janet. It’s a Scottish ballad and tells how Janet meets a beautful knight in the forest and falls in love with him. She has to free him from the Faery Queen on Hallowe’en before he is sent to Hell as a tithe. The Queen turns him into several scary things but Janet holds fast as he has told her and eventually the Queen gives up.

There are many poems and short stories too, which are worthy of reading aloud by candlelight, to create magical memories for children, friends and family. Here is one of mine:

 

White

 

White Face at the window.

White face in the hall.

White sounds in the garden,

seeming to call.

 

White skin in the glooming.

White teeth in the night.

White moon in the darkness,

a world–weary sight.

 

White bones of the forebears

buried in clay.

White tomb stones standing

against the day.

 

White Face in the garden,

white hands scrape the latch.

White Face coming closer

with sharp nails to scratch.

 

White feet are mounting

the stairs one by one

searching for something

or maybe someone.

 

White fingers feeling

for the key and the lock;

White Face is greeting

white veil and white frock.

 

White two united,

they join their white bones

their faces meet lightly

to silence their moans.

 

White lovers meeting-

their time apart done,

they drift away hellwards

before the first sun.

 

 

This poem appeared in Kids’ Stuff, my Erbacce chapbook for children.

 

 

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Education, Festivals, Poetry Collections

Fancy a Riddle Poem? Here’s a sequence of them.

Batterie de Cuisine

I

Use me before you use anything.

Someone’s got to sort the good from bad.

Lumps in the sugar, grit in the lentils-

those are my tasks, I’m Cinderella.

I sift flour, create clouds of finery.

II

My hands hold plenty, weigh it up,

inform you of all its statistics.

Numerals are my gods, I adore them,

reel off their names in my own private litany.

I would like to speak my facts aloud.

Pointer or iron cakes, it’s all the same to me.

I know all, am confident with decisions,

my head teems with instructions.

III

I build with air to make castles of light,

an airy cage to lift your life.

Don’t think I’m an air-head –

I batter lumps, crash their privacy,

rescue the love life of sauces.

I’m your girl in shining armour.

IV

I came from a large and venerable family,

though not quite silver myself, I am stainless.

Some of us are royal, some religious,

we have our apostles, our servers,

runcibles are our literary sisters.

You scoop and measure with us,

we are the first implements your baby meets

and we are loved in palm or mouth.

                                     V

Sharp enough to cut myself, that’s me,

kept well honed, ready for action.

I cannot bear stickiness; keep me polished.

Honest smells cling lovingly, pungent onion-

I score and square its tingling moons.

How powerful I am, the Lord of the board.

I make mincemeat. Give me fingers, lives.

Feel the weight of me, serious,

my wooden handle snug inside your palm.

Use me well or I will turn on you.

This sequence appeared in my 1999 collection (Stride). Although it is officially out of print, I still have some copies here, from the publisher’s stock cupboard.

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Artist’s Impression

Here it is! The artist’s impression of my workshop at Much Wenlock, in my children’s poetry workshop at Wenlock Books as part of the Poetry Festival.

Many men have asked to paint me, and I always refused, especially to the one who said ‘it would be so interesting to depict all those curves’. In this case the artist was female. I don’t know her name -she hadn’t brought her business cards with her, but this is very good indeed, in my view, even though it doesn’t really look that much like me. I was moving around, so it was hard for her to get me down.

She tiptoed in and sat on the stairs with her sketchbook and paints, and I think she did this in under an hour as she had to go on to another event. This artist’s visit was a wonderful surprise and is typical of the magic of this wonderful festival, set in a little gem of a town. Do go next year!

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Filed under Festivals, poetry, The New Generation