Tag Archives: Arvon

The Pram in the Hall #1

girls on hill

girls on hill

I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘pram in the hall’ since I read at The Breastfeeding Festival in Manchester on 25 June. Perhaps in the past, this notion was true. The idea behind it is that women had to choose between motherhood and writing; doing both was impossible. Now, that might have been the case before effective contraception, but I believe motherhood can unlock writing, particularly poetry.

When I was 26, I had been writing poetry seriously for 12 years, but working in an office had not been conducive to that pursuit. Had I mentioned to anyone there that I wrote poetry, I’d have been ridiculed. So I kept quiet. I’d lost both my parents during those years too, and I’d become pregnant with my first child, just after my mother’s death. Being pregnant with a longed-for child and mourning a mum I’d been very close to, was a strange time.

I booked myself onto an Arvon course, at Lumb Bank. One of the tutors was Liz Lochhead. I showed her my scared little poems in our tutorial, and she did something very powerful. She gave me permission. What she actually said was ‘Angela, you are a born poet and you HAVE to do this’. She could have had no idea of the importance of those words. They cancelled out everything which had knocked me back. They drove me forward, they made me take myself seriously.

We had saved up so I could be a stay-at-home mum. I’d never really fitted into the office job, and had never been career-minded. All I ever wanted to be was a writer. I’d been told over and over again I couldn’t be one. The careers woman at school suggested I should be a secretary if I wanted to write. I walked out of that interview. But being a mum gave me headspace. It freed me up. When you are a baby-wearing, breastfeeding, attachment parenting mother, like I was, you are rooted, emotionally intelligent and very much in touch with all things tactile and playful.

I’d imagined I’d write about being a mum, but in fact, my little girls took me back to my own childhood, and I began to be able to explore the treasured memories I had of growing up as the baby in a family of four, growing closer to my parents as each of my siblings left home. My poems then were often a way of speaking to the beloved people I wished I still had round me. I wanted my children to have known them.

Eventually, I was able to write about my own experiences of motherhood. But I think I had to work through my grief first. I learned the art of parenting from my mum, unconsciously, and being in tune with my babies showed me how she must have responded to me, and how her mother had responded to her. Now I have just become a grandmother myself, I expect I will have to write even more about my own daughters before I write about the new family member, a granddaughter. At least she will know her grandparents. I never did, not on my mum’s side at least.

I wrote this poem about my mum’s mum, and how the stories about her I was always told made her real to me. This poem is included in Letting Go (Mother’s Milk Books).

Granny Coyne

My granny’s a whispering woman,

her stories follow me down the hall;

hang, half-told, in the corners of the kitchen

above a tut-tut of metal knitting pins.


My granny’s a soothing woman,

smoother of brows with a cool palm;

polisher of brasses; igniter of fires;

she picks up babies before they cry.


My granny’s a loving woman,

shoes clucking on tiles when I call.

her eyes laugh at me in photographs.

“She’d have loved you” my mother says.


Angela Topping



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On being a young poet

When I was a young poet, inexperienced and clueless about publishing, I used to read poetry widely, discovering and taking home books from Widnes library to devour at my leisure. I kept a folder of poems which I could not live without: when I had to return the books, I’d copy out my favourite ones. I still have this file. The poems in it all helped to tune me in to the craft.

I was writing seriously from the age of 14, and used to put together collections of my poems, all neatly copied out, and get people to read them. I was fond of saying to my readers: ‘is THIS a poem?’ ‘And THIS?’ I was published in the school magazine. I made all the usual mistakes that teens often do: big words, portentous style, abstractions. But I kept at it. I was highly commended in a W. H. Smith national competition, and I was awarded a grade 2 for my creative writing portfolio which was a voluntary extra for A level English Literature. Today young poets can enter many excellent competitions and have their own network as part of The Poetry Society, These are fantastic for encouraging young writers.

I walked out of my careers interview at school because I couldn’t get the person advising me to understand when I said I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t mean a secretary. At university the career advice was no better.

I met Matt Simpson and showed him my poems, when I was 19. He said I ‘had something’. The following year, when I was in secnd year of my degree course, I had a poem published in Arts Alive Merseyside, on their poetry page. I didn’t realise that was an achievement. I showed my work to several lecturers. One loved my work, but another one was very critical – she actually rewrote one of my poems for me and turned it into appalling cliche. But I believed her and did not send any more poems out anywhere for ten years!  Instead of submitting, I bought a book called Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary by Frances Stillman, and worked my way through every poetic form she includes. I taught myself the craft of poetry, I read ever more widely, I went to readings and I performed at open mics, such as The Why Not in Liverpool. Back then Liverpool was a fantastic place for poets. There were many independent bookshops which stocked poetry books and pamphlets.

By the time I felt ready to submit again, I had graduated, married, lost both my parents after having done a good bit of looking after them, and had a child of my own. I was published in Orbis, Envoi and then had a marvellous acceptance for London Magazine, when Alan Ross was editor. I’d love to say things really took off for me, but it wasn’t like that. I’d never heard of the Gregory, so never applied for that. I was lucky to get the chance to bring out a debut collection with Stride in 1988. It was the epitome of a slim volume – only 23 poems, and I dedicated it to Matt Simpson, who had mentored and tutored me at his critique class in Runcorn library, and in letters.

Looking back, I realised the very negative effect the critical lecturer had on me. She was the only one who failed to encourage me, and many others did, But I still hid my work away. When I was pregant with my first baby, I attended a course at Arvon, led by Liz Lochhead. She told me I was a born poet and I HAD to write and publish my work. It was as though I needed permission.

Young poets can be sensitive and easily discouraged. It is so important to take them seriously and give helpful and constructive critisism. When I was a teacher, I had a saying in my classroom, which is now in my study. It says (original in Gaelic) Encourage Youth and it will Prosper.

Poets, this is your mission. Encourage young poets, tell them what is out there for them. Show them poems you love, buy them books. Be like Liz Lochhead and not like my American Studies lecturer, whose name I don’t even remember.



Angela 1975 ish


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My Personal Rules for Poetry Editing

Since this is a new year, I decided to share my most recent set of rules for editing. I never worry about rules when I am writing a poem; I believe in letting the poem do its thing. But editing a poem is a different matter and requires a different set of skills. These rules come from what I have noticed what flaws there often are in my first drafts.

Angela’s Rules:

1) Watch out for tautology

2) Take care to avoid unknowing repetition

3) See whether you need ands, yets, buts and articles

4) Let the darkness in

5) Don’t be scared, say what you really mean

I devised this version of them after the recent Lumb Bank course with David Morley and Caroline Bird, a course which made me braver in my work. I do recommend their work, and also the work of Liz Berry, whose enchanting collection Black Country has won critical acclaim for its orginal use of dialect.

If you want to create your own set of reminders, look at the things you have to keep working on in your drafts. Hopefully your own guidelines will prevent you from doing the same things in future, when a new set of rules will need devising. I keep mine to a maximum of five, otherwise it all gets unweildy.

If you are stuck for ideas, I recommend Nell Nelson’s fantastic blog. You can see the link in my blogroll listing.




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Lumb Bank: Poetry and Handmade Books June 2013


I booked on this course because I was interested in developing my handmade book skills and because I wanted to treat myself to some serious new stimulation from Jen Hadfield’s approaches to poetry. Of the 15 others on the course, some leaned towards poetry and others towards book making, so there was an interesting mix.

We enjoyed a week of amazing weather in which many of us spent glorious afternoons forgaging, walking, exploring and painting, while Jen Hadfield and Rachel Hazell, the delightfully upbeat book artist, held tutorials. The centre staff looked after us like we were royalty and the cooking was of a high standard, even though people were a little nervous about it. It’s changed a bit since I last went over 15 years ago in that the menu is decided already and the ingredients laid out ready, so it was a total doddle.

The house at Lumb Bank was looking stunning. I particularly enjoyed the library and the gardens, though they had none of my books there, they did have all Matt Simpson’s Bloodaxe ones. I felt as though he had followed me there! I loved browsing through the poetry books and finding old friends hiding there.

Jen’s workshops were excellent and I learned to loosen up my book-making because of Rachel’s relaxed and experimental approaches. I have several books to finish and several poems to type up – not all from the workshops. Some poems I have been mulling over for a while came to a firm draft during the week. The guest speaker was artist Richard Long, who was the topic of much conversation the next day. However, jen Hadfield’s wonderful reading and Rachel Hazell’s slideshow on the Tuesday night were perhaps the highlights of the evenings.

There were three pianos at Lumb Bank and silly me forgot to take any music, so, perhaps fortunately for others, I wasn’t able to play in the barn in the afternoons. I did do a painting I am proud of and might even frame, of the view of the garden and the valley and hills beyond.

The theme of the week was very much realised through foraging, which was great fun. Three of us took a taxi to Hebden Bridge because there was a flea market on, and I found some beautiful Chinese Painting pamphlets in a charity shop, as well as a few finds from the market, so we all came back with some things to use in our book making. Some people did intriguing rubbings outdoors, and others dyed paper with flowers and plants, after Rachel invited us to ‘texturise’ a piece of Bockingford watercolour paper. My piece became a reversible slit (beak) book, which I am still working into.

The last night was a raucous one of sharing and performing our work, which eventually turned into singing and a right old party. Unfortunately I had no wine left. But perhaps just as well, as I packed after it ground to a halt at midnight, ready to leave the next day before all the taxis blocked the narrow lane. Image

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