Tag Archives: I Sing of Bricks

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.




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)



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.


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.


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.


Filed under Poetry Collections, Writing challenges

The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

There has been discussion about what a poet is and whether one can confer the title on oneself. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I don’t feel I could say that about myself unless other people said it about me first.
Matt Simpson always said poet was a ‘praise’ word. There is a tradition behind this assertion. So I used to call myself a writer of poems, or just a writer – which is true enough because I do write other things, such as critique books for Greenwich Exchange, chapters of books aimed at undergraduates, GCSE textbooks. But these are by products of my teaching career. I have written poems since I was very young, but when I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess’ at 15, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry. I read Auden’s essay ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ too, and from these texts gleaned that I needed to immerse myself in poetry and learn from the masters. I tried every form in Frances Stillman’s Poetry Manual. A poet needs to have the knowledge, to read, to learn from the best, and to keep on doing so.
I was almost 19 when I first met Matt Simpson. We gradually moved from mentor/ mentee roles into friends who commented on each other’s poems, a shift which evolved over a long period. I dedicated my first collection, Dandelions for Mother’s Day (Stride 1988) to him in recognition of my debt to him.
In 2009, he had a heart bypass operation. He was fully aware that he might not pull through and horrified me by describing it as ‘an awfully big adventure’. He had the operation on the Monday and it was a relief that it appeared to have gone well. I went to visit him in hospital on a beautiful June day. He hadn’t wanted me to go and see him in intensive care but I was so glad I did. It was to be the last time I ever saw him. This poem was written a few days later, after his death:

Hospital Visiting

I trace your steps
from hospital car park
in warm evening sun
impatient to see you.

A machine helps me find
a path to you through grey
shiny corridors, up stairs
and over bridges, through

protocols and passwords,
hand gels to sanctify me,
like holy water in church,
before I can touch you.

I have to ask where you are.
The medics have claimed you
though I’m allowed
to squiggle on to a high stool.

We think this is all temporary,
that soon we’ll have you home,
a new man. We’ve plans for you.
You say it’s kind of me to come.

As if I could stay away. You know
I love you. You introduce me
to your favourite nurse, the one
with the film star eyes. Tell her

‘This is my friend Ange, a poet too.’
Not a title to be claimed for oneself,
but you gave it freely, a last bequest
in your final days of life. *

Whether one subscribes to the notion of poet as a title conferred, as Matt did, or sees it purely as meaning someone who writes poems, what Matt said to me on that visit was a great gift, and I know he did it deliberately.

I read it as giving me that long-withheld title, out of love and respect, of passing the baton to me, of telling me to go forward with my poetry despite him not being there to critique and encourage me, as he always had done, his way of saying I was a fully-fledged poet, which indeed he had said in a review but not to my face.

And it is why I now feel able to call myself a poet.

*This poem first appeared in my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet I Sing of Bricks and was united with the remaining poems from the 17 poem elegiac sequence I wrote for Matt, from my Rack Press pamphlet Catching On in my collection Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)


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Valentine’s Day

Today is our 35 and a half year’s wedding anniversary. I very rarely write poems about this aspect o m life, because such poems are difficult. Real love begins where romance ends No-one can can live with the chemical madness of the first flush of love. Real enduring love is in the small gifts of kindness we give each other every day.

Nonetheless, this is the one day of the year when we can remember that weird and fantastical phase of falling in love.

I want share this little poem from my Salt collection I Sing of Bricks which came out just over a year ago. I wrote it because I had a beautiful pair of gloves, but then I lost one of them. What could be a sadder symbol than a single glove? Add this to the fact it was plum coloured and embroidered with beads and roses, and you will see why it’s a good subject for a little valentine conceit poem.


Because I love you, I offer you

this old glove.

Wait. Do not cast it

aside. It has held my hand.

Its soft felt embraced my fingers,

covered my palm.

Its partner is lost.

Take it to remind you, how you and I

could lose each other.

It fits me perfectly.

Keep it under your pillow.

Perhaps it will

reach for you in the night.Image.

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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

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