Tag Archives: Matt Simpson

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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‘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


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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Incwriters and Matt Simpson


I have been invited to guest blog on Incwriters for a fortnight. So if you want to read more, follow the link above. Today I have written about Matt  Simpson, as I want to spread the word about this wonderful poet whom I was lucky enough to call my friend.

Tonight I am going to First Thursday at Lingham’s bookshop in Heswall, on The Wirral. They are having a tribute evening to him and I have been invited to read one of my poems about him. I have two publications coming out this year in which the poems I wrote in the aftermath of his death are to appear. Matt quoted Ecclesiates: ‘A faithful friend is the medicine of life’ in a birthday card he made for me. That is how I will remember him. He was a tease, a mischief, stubborn and nicknamed ‘Grumpy’ by his grandchildren, but that was tempered by the warm, witty, vulnerable person we knew was there.

I am grateful to Incwriters for giving me the chance to spread the word about Matt’s work. If you have not read anything by him I urge you to do so. You will not be disappointed.

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How to do line breaks in free verse

Line Breaks in Free Verse

‘No verse is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ T.S. Eliot

In formal verse (written with a set rhyme and metre) the convention allows the sense to run on from line to line and stanza to stanza; the flexibility of this is vital to prevent the pattern becoming a straightjacket.

For example Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on they rear

Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying

(Larkin: ‘Dockery and Son’)

In free verse a line should be a unit of sense, and the stanza is like a prose paragraph, embodying one main idea. But these ideas are not rigid and can be used flexibly to good effect, for emphasis, to make us hungry for the next line. The shape on the page is a script to help us read the poem with the rhythms and emphases the author wants. When reading the poem aloud there should be the merest of pauses where the line ends, described by Manchester poet Peter Walton as ‘ half a comma’.

And poetry should be read aloud! (Silent reading is a modern concept – Shakespeare’s audiences went to ‘hear’ a play, and contemporary poetry was read aloud, often to friends in taverns – the origin of poems and pints!)

Read these examples of poems written without line breaks.

1) Attempt to decide where to put line breaks in.

In pencil, mark them in using this sign /

At the top of the stairs there’s an island of sun, where the carpet’s a world, curled all colours of warmth. Under its furr purr the hot water pipes. Geraniums hum from the tiled window sill. There’s a view of the clouds; birds chat upon the roof. It’s the best place: it’s where the cat sits.

Peter Walton.

2) Where would you put the line breaks in this poem? Try reading it aloud that way. Did you pause where you’d put the breaks? If not, try again.

Behind us gravediggers standing for the briefest ceremony. In my hung head I’m listening to a back gate latch, a voice. ‘It’s only your Auntie Fanny, luv.’

Matt Simpson.

Now look at the poems as they were written. Did you find the line breaks easier to find when hearing the poem read? Why? What do you think has been added to the poems by the line breaks? Line breaks are a vital part of the drafting process. Each line should be evenly matched with other lines, playing variations on the rhythm established, unless deliberate differences as being cultivated. Read your poems aloud, see where you pause naturally, let the poem tell you where a break is needed.

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Film of one of my poems here: Keeping Faith.

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