An Interview with Poet, Critic, and Author – Angela Topping

Angela ToppingAngela Topping is a British poet, literary critic and author. She has published solo poetry collections, Dandelions for Mothers’ Day (1988, 1989), The Fiddle (1999) and The Way We Came (2007). Her most recent book of children’s poems The Next Generation was published in 2010, and I Sing of Bricks an adult collection in 2011, both by Salt.

Angela loves words and making things out of them, mostly poetry. Giving poetry to others, no matter what age or walk of life, is her passion. Angela offers readings, workshops for any age group and poets-in-schools work. Her poems have been published widely and her children’s work has been included in over 45 anthologies.

Angela will be headlining at Word Soup on Thursday 29th March, and found the time in her exciting schedule to answer a few questions for the Lancashire Writing Hub.

You write poetry for adults and children. How does your approach differ for these readerships? What are the different rewards?

My approach doesn’t differ in any essentials. It’s more that some of my poems, perhaps the ones which deal with difficult topics, like death, might not interest children. I used to find it easier to write to order for children, as a result of many requests for material on specific themes, but more recently, this skill has transferred to all my work. From writing for children, I also found more rhymes and word play coming into my adult work. I don’t dumb down for children or limit my vocabulary for them. I write first for myself, because I need to write. Within me is every age I have ever been, so sometimes I am writing for my six year old self, other times for my teenage self, then for my adult self. I think the honesty of my writing speaks to all ages.

What does poetry mean to you? Has it always been poetry for you?

It has! I love stories and they are there in all the narrative poems. I loved reading the prose versions of stories from Spenser’s Faerie Queen, in a little book I had as a child. It was no surprise to me to find out they were from a long poem. I used to make up rhymes and poems from being very small, and my sister used to read poems like ‘The Forsaken Merman’ to me. At school we were made to learn poems by heart, which I really enjoyed, especially as we chose our own from an anthology. And it was stuff like Blake, Milton, John Drinkwater, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson. Wonderful stuff! Then I used to ferret out poetry books from the public library and I kept a handwritten file of my favourites. I do love drama, particularly Shakespeare, Marlowe and Brecht, because it is a form of poetry. And my favourite stories are fairy stories; really they are poetic too. When I was 16, I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. He said poets should dedicate their lives to poetry, so I did. By then I was writing seriously and putting collections of my poems together in exercise books, showing them to people. I had a huge desire to share them.

How would you describe your poetry, and what kind of things influence your writing?

My poetry is the poetry of rejoicing, even when it is about people I loved who have died. I am a poet of the everyday things, because I see magic in them. I can get enormous pleasure from, for example, the way the light falls on brickwork in the late afternoon, or the song of a bird heard but not seen. I write a lot about people, relationships and emotions. I think any subject is worthy of a poem, but I tend to side with William Carlos Williams when he says ‘poetry only in things’. I don’t like using or writing about abstractions, I like to find what Eliot called ‘an objective correlative’ to explore big questions, and I don’t always realise what I am doing, for example my poem about Frankenstein’s monster, ‘The Doctor’s Creation’ is really about trying to live up to parental expectations. I find I can get into the heads of characters and sometimes the dramatic monologue type of poem is a rewarding method for me. It’s not too different with the children’s poems. I bring characters from books into the everyday world, for example my vampire ‘Aunt Jane’ and my ‘Witch in the Supermarket’. I draw on my own experiences as well, and find poetry not only helps me work through things, but my readers too. I’ve been influenced of course by other poets, but this is always shifting and changing, more poets are added to my reading constantly. I like to be steeped in reading and writing poetry. I was lucky enough to be a close friend, for many years, of the poet Matt Simpson, and we used to look at each other’s poems, so I learned how to be hard on my work to toughen and tighten it, and we also used to recommend poets to each other. Since he died, I haven’t really shown my poems in that way to anyone, I have become my own first reader. Everything Matt taught me is still with me.

How does your life as a performer, poet in residence and enabler inform your writing?

I love to share and it thrills me so much when people say they enjoy my readings. I love poetry so much I want to give it away like an armful of flowers, to everyone I meet. So when I am performing, I feel alive, as alive as when I am writing. Working with others to enable them to write well is, for me, another way of giving poetry away. I believe everyone can, and should, write. Not everyone is going to be like, say Famous Seamus, or Carol Ann Dufflebag, but fame and all that tosh do not matter, what matters is getting to know oneself and be truly honest to yourself. I don’t like sentimental doggerel or showing off poetry for those reasons. When I am doing a longer project, it’s a luxury to have the time to extend people, for example the six week residency I did in Denbigh recently with year 2 and 3 pupils allowed me to use drama and storytelling, which I do not have time to do on a single day visit to a school. I have the experience to work with lots of different age groups, in fact, age is not important really. I get a boost when I can help anyone produce a poem which amazes and delights them. I do give proper feedback as well; correct criticism is the ultimate compliment because someone has taken the time to look at your poem properly and give you advice. I sometimes look to my own poems for inspiration for leading workshops, so I think my writing informs my workshops, but to look at it from the other viewpoint, I never ask people to do what I have not done myself, so I am always looking to add more techniques and forms to my armoury of ideas. Ideas for workshops and ideas for poems come from the same places.

Your work as a freelance takes you all around the country, could you describe a typical ‘day in the life of Angela’?

What I love about it is that there is no typical day! Today, I am working from home doing some planning for an A level masterclass I am doing on Friday. I am answering these questions. I have reviews to write if I get time and I have to pack for a schools day in Leeds tomorrow. I did the planning for that a few days ago so it is just a matter of gathering my resources together. If I have a reading, I always prepare a set list and practise it, as well as timing myself. I usually have writing projects on the go, or proofs to do. I can sometimes fit in things I like doing for fun, such as making books, playing musical instruments and cooking. There’s not a day that poetry isn’t in my life somewhere though. If travelling a long way to a workshop, it’s good to go early, or the night before, and have sometime to discover the place a little, For instance, last week I had a day’s work in a school in London, so enjoyed going to the British Museum to see the latest exhibition the day before. It’s all about getting a balance between my own work and facilitating other people’s. If I am not doing enough of my own writing I don’t feel right.

Working with a wide range of ages in your workshops and teaching must be really rewarding. Can you tell me about this and the projects you are working on now?

It is rewarding working with anyone to help them write poetry or stories. I get a kick out of their delight and amazement that they could have created the piece that has just come off the end of their pen! It’s also enjoyable working with more experienced writers, because they are keen to improve their level of expertise and are very motivated to take detailed critique. I have recently started working with Reluctant Writers in schools so have been busy developing ways to encourage them and adapt workshop ideas I already have. The Denbigh project was to write a book of stories on the theme of the Sea, Seaside and the Coast, so a lot of work went into that. The children were very young, only 7 or 8, so it was a challenge dreaming up many activities for them to hold their interest and help them to write stories beyond themselves. I’ve been appointed as a tutor for a project which is going to result in a book, working with people writing poetry about a heritage site in Mid-Wales, in conjunction with Couplet Books. Every year I run three workshops at Whitby Folk Week, so I constantly dream up new ideas for them. People come back year on year and the group keeps growing. I love it.

Having an online presence and performing at readings is increasingly important – what is your approach to this?

I see having an online presence as a useful tool, but for me it’s more. I have made so many friends on Facebook, and then gone on to meet them in real life. Poets need the company of other poets. I find my blog useful to showcase work written at my workshops and also to share my own work or thoughts I might have. I write the occasional tweet. I’ve contributed to other people’s blogs as well, when asked to do so. Some poets are very generous about linking or featuring other writers. Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon is a good example. I have a website but have been too busy to update it recently. It’s important to keep track of one’s online presence too, and make sure it’s all accurate. People can pick up information from so many sources!

As for readings, I love doing them and it is always good to be asked. I’ve enjoyed reading at so many different venues and for different audiences. I don’t usually find nerves a problem. I tend not to go to open mic events unless I am booked as a guest because there are just so many of them. I go to them occasionally to support them, and I am on the organising committee for Zest! In Chester. I also run a local event, BLAZE, but on an admittedly ad hoc basis! It’s giving poetry to people that I love, whether I am reading my own or doing a themed reading like the ones I have done for Time to Read. I am pretty much open to doing a guest slot or longer reading anywhere people will appreciate what I do. If people haven’t heard of you they are not likely to buy your books. That’s another reason to get out there and share, for the sake of your publisher who needs you to make some effort to publicise the book they have invested time and money in.

Is there any advice you would give to someone starting out as a writer?

Steep yourself in the type of writing you want to do. Have a passion for it. Read. Forget fame and fortune – writing is not a good method to achieve those. Write for yourself, never for a perceived market or fashion. Be humble. Listen to others, watch others perform, go on courses like those run by Arvon and Ty Newydd. Find your role models and then transcend them by taking techniques you like and synthesising them in your own way. Adopt the approach of a craftsman who tries to make the best table possible, so poems have good legs to stand on. Avoid being all style and no substance. If you have nothing to say, say nothing and trust that a poem will come along soon. Be ever alert for the spill of words in your mind. Carry a notebook everywhere and use it. And have fun. Play. All play is creative.

Is there a best route to take if you wanted to teach creative writing and run workshops? How did you start?

I started from nowhere. My first book came out and I was asked to teach evening classes. I got into poets in schools through a network of poets who worked for The Poetry Society. In those heady days they had funding for small residencies in schools, which meant all schools could have one free writer for three days. So I was simultaneously working with adults and children. It’s been like that ever since. I did a part time teacher training course in FE and did seven years voluntary work in my children’s primary school. I went into teaching full time from there, and did further qualifications including an M.Ed. in Arts in Education. It’s vital to pick up experience of teaching and to have a really good subject knowledge as well. I’ve been told I am a born teacher but I think that’s because I have good people skills and treat people as individuals. Like everything else, one learns best by doing and by asking your students which activities they enjoyed and found helpful. It can be useful to do some voluntary work to gain experience for your CV, and to ask to be allowed to go in and observe others leading workshops.

What are you working on at the moment? Is there anything we can look forward to at Word Soup?

I am finalising my next collection, which is to be published by Lapwing this year, called Paper Patterns. The book includes poems I wrote last year for an art collaboration with Maria Walker, which was exhibited at The Brindley, Runcorn. We hope to tour with this exhibition, The Lightfoot Letters, and Maria is currently looking at other galleries which might host the work.

I’ve got an idea for another sequence, this time based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in which I am going to use the book of spells as a manual to get through life, rather than its intended purpose of coping with the underworld. There is only one poem done so far – the last.

I’ve also been co-editing a book of protest poems with Alan Morrison of The Recusant. This will be out soon and is called The Robin Hood Book.

I am also adding another chapter to a book I have written on poet John Clare, because I felt the Everyman Selection, the basis for the monograph, had not included what I consider some of Clare’s best work, so the publisher suggested I expand the premise to include them. In the book I argue a case for Clare being a major poet. He was neglected partly for reasons of snobbery and partly because some of his best poems were suppressed at the time, being considered too outspoken about the land enclosures. I don’t know yet what my next Greenwich Exchange project is going to be.

I’ve had two children’s poetry books, which were really just selections of my best ones, but now I want to put together a new collection based on an idea I have to write poems based on historical figures who are obscure, to bring those stories and legends to new audiences and rescue the knowledge before it dies out. I wrote a poem about Maggoty Johnson, the last professional jester in Britain, who is buried in Cheshire. I was greatly encouraged by this poem having been highly commended in the High Sherriff’s Prize run by Chester University.

I don’t worry about my next project because I always know there is going to be one. I’m always looking for a new challenge. Developing myself as a writer is an important concern. I want to be the best I can be, for the sake of poetry, which I serve.

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