Tag Archives: Mother’s Milk Books

Hygge Feature #29 Grandparents lost

Following on from yesterday’s post about grandparents, here are two of my own poems about my maternal grandparents. I never met them because they both died of cancer long before I was born, nursed tenderly by my mum. But I was told many beautiful stories about them, and they lived for me through those stories. I even felt my grandmother wished me into being, because mum told me she was watching my big sister playing with the handles of the dressing table, pre-school age, and from her sick bed she said to my mum ‘have another little girl, because little girls are lovely’. My mum was an only child. Her parents longed for a houseful of kids, but they only had the one. This photo is of my mum as a little girl, with her parents. Her father was Peter Coyne, her mother Margaret (known by some as Annie, nee Lawler)

If your children never met your parents, as mine never did, at least give them stories and show them photographs. Thankfully, for me the cycle of loss is broken and I have my delightful granddaughter.



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.

Little Dishwasher

You wanted a houseful of children,
sons. When your only daughter
made a polite appearance, you said
a little dishwasher. You didn’t mean
any disrespect; a boy would have
carried the family name, been a modest
pride for you. Through two world wars –
you serious in your uniform, did
the thought of her sustain you?

And when you lay dying, cancer
robbing you of all your fight,
you said to her as she washed you
how glad I am of my little dishwasher.
She who could shape a story
gave me this memory, a gift passed down
like a brassoed medal, to me,
your granddaughter, the one you never met.

Angela Topping

Both poems appeared in Letting Go (Mother’s Milk Books 2013)


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Hygge Feature #22 Pregnancy

What could be more appropriate to hygge than the womb? It’s surely the hyggekrog we all wish subliminally to return to, where we were warm and cosy, could dream our own dreams while hearing the sound of the world through a soft wall, with all our food delivered.



Soon Song
for Ethan

I’m joy-struck, dumb,
not numb, wee bun.
I couldn’t be fonder of you,
wandering sun of her
humming circumference,
drumming the tum of her,
more than the sum
of her and him.

Wee dove, wee chicken,
wee bun in the oven,
they haven’t a clue,
in the world how you
will sing them a song
that they never knew,
that they never sang
till they sing it to you.

O, you’ll have the run
of them soon, wee bun,
soon, when they cling to you,
drink in the skin of you,
soon, when you come,
wee bun, come new to them,
come to them soon,
wee bun, new kin to them.

Linda Goulden

First published in Magma 58 March 2014


Describing to my daughter how it feels when her baby quickens

Over and over, you ask yourself if
that’s it, or that …?
a feather might’ve touched you
but perhaps it was a digestive juice…
It feels like your imagination at work
but maybe it’s an intelligence …
Is it something you’ve swallowed?
Or are you just feeling nervous?
From inside a finger is stroking you
or a toe is reaching out to you
filling its universe of your interior space –
already a future tense has begun,
so close to your heart
you know its beat is being heard  –
your insides, your bones and sinews
are containing a presence,
so closely enwrapped together
but not yet feeling like touch.

Rebecca Gethin


We were spies on her world –
her safe house of skin. She
was etched in silver: moving, human.

She swam in a booming cave,
fathoms down. Heavy rope mooring her.
Round face, round eyes, ooh of mouth.

Gingerbread baby, currant eyes.
At home, I twist wool around needles,
craft garments, every stitch a wish.

Angela Topping

First published in Dandelions for Mothers’ Day (Stride 1988) and reprinted in Letting Go (Mother’s Milk Books)


A note on today’s artwork: The artist’s website is here: https://marijasmits.wordpress.com/

This picture is one of several made into cards and on sale at http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/index.php/shop

The Mother’s Milk Books poetry and prose competition closes today (31st January 2017) and the entry fee is a purchase from the website.




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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 Pram in the Hall#2



At the breastfeeding festival, where I recently read some of my poems to an appreciative audience, I heard a talk from Chrissy Chittendon, author of Attachment Feminism. She covered some points I had never thought of before.

One of the things she said which struck me was that no-one celebrates a woman’s post-natal body and society’s emphasis is to ‘get back to normal’. But a woman’s post-natal body IS normal.

When you have carried a child in your womb, the body is changed forever. It enters a new phase of existence. The womb never goes back to its pre-used state, like a balloon that has been blown up cannot return to its former tightness. The evidence of child-bearing is written on the body forever.

I wish someone had told me my breasts might leak or be engorged. The lustrous hair of the last months of pregnancy lost its volume. My belly was almost as large as when pregnant, but soft and empty. I continued wearing pregnancy clothing as at first, nothing else fitted. However, none of this bothered me. My body was a soft cushion for my gorgeous daughter. My cuddliness comforted her. It is a bodily state we ought to celebrate. And it is temporary. In the scale of things, it’s fleeting. Could it be nature’s design that the first few months after birth give us these baby-friendly bodies?

Between babies, my body did return to normal, without my doing anything in particular to help it do so, though admittedly I was a stone heavier than before my first. I was in my young mother body, one equipped for the job I was doing: a comfortable knee to climb on, a soft place to rest a child’s head.

I knew my body so well by then, I was able to tell very quickly when I was expecting a second child. I could smell it and feel it. I was in tune with it. My older child was told every stage of ‘our’ baby, so much so that when she came into hospital to meet the new baby, she demanded to know, aged three years four months, whether I had seen the placenta and whether my milk had come in yet.

My new self-knowledge opened up new places in my writing. Self-acceptance is very important, whatever the media pushes at women to have ‘perfect’ bodies. In reality, the perfection is about function, not aesthetics. I believe our bodies, like our faces, are all the better for being lived in.

I confess I was one of the lucky ones. I have no stretch marks on my belly, no scars from sections. But I do have stretch marks on my legs. I wrote this poem in celebration of stretch marks. They are normal and beautiful.

Silver Chains

The stripes are silvered on my skin,
not for common view; my secret signs,
whispering I love you  in tracery,
scripted onto my belly and thighs;
intricate as silver chains, glistening tracks
of snails on morning rugs, when they have
crept into the house, tasting the night silences.
Insignia of motherhood, cuneiform,
canticles of breathing space, mother-marks,
I will wear them all my life.

Angela Topping

(First published in Letting Go, Mother’s Milk Books 2014)



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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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Review: Echolocation by Becky Cherriman

This pamphlet, beautifully produced by Mother’s Milk Books, is a delight. I read it in one sitting but will be going back to savour its imagery and crafting in the future. The first poem, ‘Eucharist’ is a hymn to a mother’s love. It neatly subverts the religious element which is so often controlled by men, into an intimate ceremony of women, a mother making porridge for her daughter on mornings she feels well enough to do so.

This poem strikes a note for the whole pamphlet – the reader can see immediately the poems will be about mothers who struggle, hard times in a mother’s journey, let downs and difficulties, but love will triumph when it can. ‘All Princes Were Monsters Once’ focuses on the painful stages of one’s child growing up and beginning to detach, how one looks back at happier times and feels the loss of them. The imagery is uncompromising:

… I am older or uglier than I thought,
twisted up like plaited bread or a corroded school gate

This gives the lie to deluded people who think domestic imagery is cosy – it is anything but. I also like the way Cherriman uses the sofa as a symbol of the relationship. A sofa is where one cuddles up to breastfeed, read and cuddle. Now the sofa is not big enough to hold both of them: the notion captures the boy’s growth but also the space he now requires to detach from the mother’s love.

There are poems of lost love, poems of illness, poems mourning the diagnosis of sterility: all hard things women have to cope with. ‘Lone Parent’ is a poem full of grit and bitterness, but still the mother keeps faith with her child and her dreams. ‘Castrametation’ is written in the voice of a man feeling inadequate as he watches his infertile wife dreaming of her non-existent child. I love the fairy-tale imagery here:

A century passes in which I slash
through thorns to kiss those lips.
But still I cannot rouse her.

One of the stand-out poems for me in this pamphlet is ‘The Foster Mother’s Blanket’. Apparently foster parents sleep with a blanket to give to the child when he or she moves on to a forever home, so that they have the familiar smell to comfort them when they leave. Cherriman makes it a symbol for memory and futures unknown, for love, for history shared and severed, and for promise.

‘Pamela’ is a story of a woman, not perfect, not always likeable, but who would not give her illegitimate baby up for adoption, that mother-love redeeming her faults. ‘In Bloom’, the closing poem which explores the story of Alice Scatcherd, was commissioned by Morley Literature Festival. Rightly placed at the end, it is a poem of consolation and hope.

The pamphlet is £5 from Mother’s Milk Books, or from Becky Cherriman herself. Five Leaves bookshop stock it also It is highly recommended. BC-Echolocation-front-cover-scaled

If anyone aspires to be published by Mother’s Milk Books, please note I am judging their pamphlet competition. Details here: http://www.mothersmilkbooks.com/index.php/pamphlet-prize


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The Notion of ‘After’ on poems: An attempt to define

There has been a lot of discussion recently on how poems which rely heavily on others should be attributed in work that follows it. There are people who say they work from a starting point of someone else’s poem and change words until they make it their own. I do not see that as creating, but learning how to write, and not to write something that could be submitted for publication. Poet means ‘maker’, not ‘alterer’.
Those who aspire to write poetry must read it and aim to learn from poets who have spent time learning their craft. Expertise cannot be gained overnight: it comes from years of practice and reading, experimentation and critique. Those who have immersed themselves in poetry absorb much. They don’t sit and write with other people’s poems to paste in or alter, unless they are doing cut ups and collages – and in that case they do make things anew, and they credit their sources.
When I write ‘After’ under the title of a poem of mine, I am acknowledging a starting point that has come out of poems I internalised long ago. Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is about a train journey across England in which he observes many newly married couples getting on to the train at various stations. My own poem, ‘Spring Lines’, which I share below, nods towards this poem, as I am expecting the reader to make a link between the Larkin piece, one of the most well known poems of the last century, because I too am meditating on something observed from a train I am travelling on. I do not borrow a single image or phrase from Larkin; my train journey, like his, was real. So embedded is his poem in our collective consciousness, that I doubt I am alone in being reminded of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ anytime I take a train across country in spring. I write ‘After’ both to acknowledge that poem as a reference and to make the reader think of it as a kind of response. I do not take Larkin’s verse and change ‘bride’ to ‘washing’ or any such reductive method of composition. My structure, verse form and rhythm are my own, my ideas are my own, my imagery is mine. I did not have Larkin’s piece in front of me at any point; I had it in my mind as an echo, a fellow-feeling.

This poem was recently published in Hearth (Mother’s Milk Books), a poetry duet in which Sarah James and I respond to each other and interleave our poems.
I share my example because I can do so without infringing copyright. There are many thousands of poems which use ‘after’ to acknowledge what has gone before. That is its proper usage, NOT as an apology for misusing someone else’s sweated-over words.
Judge for yourselves:
Spring Lines

after Larkin

An early morning train to London and Canary Wharf
from Crewe, the first warm day of the year. Regular
as local stations, lines of laundry start to appear.

Backyards and suburban gardens, balconies of flats:
strings of washing hang half the length of England.
Freed-up linens, tugged by spring’s fingers, on parade.

Even the pegs are little miracles, brought forth
from ingenious bags, to clutch underwear,
spread sheets and dangle white lace handkerchiefs.

Small acts of love, pinned up with such hope of drying,
kissing an April Saturday from North to South,
a fanfare of frills, bunting-dressed to welcome spring.

SJ & AT Hearth front cover scaled


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