Category Archives: Poetry Collections

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?

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

On the Eve of the Royal Wedding

Here is a poem from my first poetry collection, Dandelions for Mothers’ Day, published by Stride in 1988, about an occasion before my own marriage in 1976. Weddings are always a cause for celebration for commoners and royals alike.

Fishing (Before Marriage)

Canal fishing in the Bridgewater,
chewing flapjacks, baiting the hooks with bread:
he watches the float; I see only
the water’s wedding-dress brocade.

Nothing doing. He digs for worms,
catches two sticklebacks together,
each mouth on each worm half,
like lovers, clasped mouth on mouth.

Wanting roach, he scorns Jack Sharps.
We pack up, catchless, satisfied,
telling his floats like beads,
in Walton Gardens, mouth on mouth.

We have decided to have a little garden party for our neighbours afterwards, because we enjoy their company and it’s a good chance to have fun outside in this pretty weather.

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Robert Johnson poem from my 2007 bluechrome Collection The Way We Came

Mastering the Guitar

The mysteries of tablature yield

shape by shape. The strings sing their metal

sentences. None of this is enough.

*

In Clarksdale once, an man

sold his soul for mastery,

to be King of the Blues.

He found a totem place, crossroads.

Take the bone from a cat, black

as a shellacked guitar, black

as the skin of Robert Johnson himself,

the devil’s slave now. Unwrap your guitar.

Start to play the only way you can.

Keep pickin’. Sense another’s breathing.

Hear the pluck of unseen hands,

press your fingers without cease,

frets stain with blood

blue as the Blues in the ghostly dark.

Let the whites of your eyes show

white as bone, in full moon light,

playing your immortal soul away.

You’re branded now, master.

You can play any tune, embellish

and syncopate like the devil himself.

Go home in morning silence

and astonish your friends. It will be enough.

Any tune you like, remember.

*

Travellers to Clarksdale, where

Highway 61 and Highway 49

cross one another in the night,

find only a bricked-up Laundromat.

Squatters’ rights, on Johnson’s corner,

lye soap to wash away the blues.

Too many poor folk here, the devil’s

long moved on.

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Cheltenham Poetry Festival

This shiny new festival was a joy from start to finish. I wasn’t able to attend any of the Thursday events as I was in Oxford doing two readings with the wonderful John Foster, but we arrived in good time for Philip Gross’ reading. He was, as ever, wonderful, and was joined by accordion player Mike Adcok, whose own compositions resonated hauntingly with Philip’s words. Philip and I were booked to read together at the LRB bookshop in November 2010, which was unfortunately postponed. We are still seeking opportunities to read together. We both write for both children and adults – and make little distinction between them, as both deserve well crafted and intelligent verse.

The next event we attended was with George Szirtes, Nigel McLoughlin and Kviria, the Georgian harmony singers. The venue at Francis Close Chapel, was perfect for the meditative poetry of Szirtes, who, as I am sure people know, is an excellent reader, always leading his audience on a journey of discovery. I hadn’t realised before this event what Nigel’s Ulster accent would add to his poems. The music of them was enhanced for me. Nigel and I were both published by bluechrome, so we shared some commiserations over their mysterious disappearance.The singers were enchanting. We were sorry we had to miss the last five minutes to get to John Cooper Clarke’s performance whish turned out to be not to our taste. However, there was a huge audience of people who were loving it, so we slipped out unnoticed after a while.

The next day I had to concentrate on my own two events. The reading at Waterstones was fun, although it can be somewhat challenging at times to make oneself heard on the ground floor of a busy shop. It’s very good to see my books in a prominent position on the shelves! On the plinth in the poetry section my book is cheek by jowl with one of Owen Sheers, festival patron, ace poet and thorougly lovely person.

In the afternoon I was giving a multi-media talk on John Clare. I chose to structure the talk around arguably his most famous poem, ‘I Am’. This allowed me to concentrate on the positivity of his life rather than the asylum years. The representative of the sponsors, This England magazine, commended my approach. I do not see Clare’s life as tragic despite his mental illness. He lived it intensely and had great joy in his love of nature.

Shortly after I had finished handling questions and packing up, we dashed over to Francis Close Chapel to hear Gordon Tyrrall singing his settings of Clare songs, accompanied by his friend Caroline on the flute. I know these songs well, as I play the CD (A Distance from the Town) , but I had heard them all live before. Gordon has a gift for composing tunes which bring out the words and meanings of the poems with great sensitivity. His performances are enhanced by his obvious enjoyment in sharing his talents.

John Hegley, unlike the other John mentioned above, did not disappoint us. This was an extraordinary evening of fun, poetry and music. Hegley is an engaging performer, and I have seen him before, but I had never seen him play his mandolin accompanied by a fantastic jazzy double bassist. See, Hegley is a stunning wordsmith but he can also amuse, impress, involve and entertain. Hats off to him, I did not want this concert to end.

Next day was a little quieter in the events I sought out. We went to hear Cliff Yates, fellow Salt poet, give a quirky reading to a good crowd. He was joined by singer/songwriter Men Diamler, who provided a good contrast: his angry young man style set up some lively tensions with Yates’ gentle and laid back delivery. Later at the same venue, Angela France gave a strong reading. She was joined by Jennie Farley, whose narrative poems I had not heard before. This was a lovely reading. I knew Angela’s work already and enjoyed her readings on other occasions.

The last event I went to was Buzzwords. I will be leading this in September so I wanted to get a flavour while I was already in beautiful Cheltenham. Pat Borthwick was the guest. I have been familiar with her work for a long time and like it very much. The workshop gave me three quick drafts which I intend to work on when I have some time, and the standard of the open mic before Pat’s reading was truly impressive. Angela is an excellent event manager and host as well! Pat’s own reading was both powerful and entertaining by turns. Cheltenham is very lucky to have such a great event happening every month. Buzzwords is running its first national competition, so do get some entries together to support this smashing event.

Anna Saunders and her team deserve hearty congratulations for the success of the first Poetry Festival. Let’s watch it grow.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Everything else, Festivals, John Clare, 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:

http://www.cheltenhampoetryfest.co.uk/

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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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

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