Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Angela Topping 

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

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Angela Topping

Angela Topping is the author of eight full collections of poetry and four chapbooks, including one from Rack Press. Her work has been broadcast on Poetry Please and set for A level. She has won several single poem prizes and commendations. Poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, The North, Stand, The Interpreter’s House, Prole and many others. She has contributed to over 80 anthologies, works as a freelance poet, and also writes critical books for Greenwich Exchange. A former English teacher, she now lectures for Sovereign Education, leads workshops and gives readings all over the country. In 2013, she was a Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library. She has appeared at a range of festivals including StAnza (the Scottish International poetry festival, with The Lightfoot Letters exhibition), Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Birmingham Literature Festival (with the #MeToo anthology edited by Deborah Alma), and several local festivals including Northwich Lit Fest and Sefton Arts Fest.
She blogs at
https://angelatopping.wordpress.com/blog/

The Interview

1. What inspired you  to write poetry?

It’s something I’ve always done. Before I could even write, I’d make up rhymes in my head. When I was about 11, a poem came to me unasked and I wrote it down. The buzz I got was tremendous and I got hooked. Everything I experience could be a potential poem. That’s the way I think.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My older sister used to read poetry to me when I was very small, and then at Primary School, we were often given a poetry anthology to choose a poem to learn by heart. I suppose it was a way of keeping us quiet, but I used to learn more than one. I found it very easy to remember them.  This led to years of delving in our excellent public library in Widnes to satiate my hunger for poetry. When I was about 16, and already reading a lot of poetry (my favourite at the time was T. S. Eliot), my sister moved to Windermere and helping her clear out cupboards in the new house, I found a copy of The Mersey Sound. It blew my mind and showed me there were different ways to write poetry. So my sister has a lot to answer for.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Very much aware and I never found them dominating. They were there to enjoy and to learn from. I found poets including Robert Graves, Elizabeth Jennings, Stevie Smith, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas in the library and devoured them at home, copying out in a ring binder the poems I could not bear to live without. (I still have these pages) When I was 19, I had a poem published in Arts Alive Merseyside, and immediately felt unworthy, so I set myself a ten-year apprenticeship. By this time, I had met the Liverpool poet Matt Simpson. He was enormously encouraging – said I ‘had something’, and that my talent was ‘delicate’, not in the way an invalid was, I hope, but more my subtlety and subject matter. I reached for poets like Seamus Heaney and Norman MacCaig, and whoever else I could find in the shops. I bought a poet’s manual (the one by Frances Stillman) and worked my way through all the forms.  When I was 26 and pregnant, I went on my first Arvon course. One of the tutors was Liz Lochhead. I showed her my scared little poems, and she raved about them, told me I was a ‘born poet’ and must get my work published. I felt as though I was being given permission. So after the Arvon course and the birth of my daughter, I started sending out poems again, and when I had one accepted, I wrote to Matt again. Our friendship grew, despite those few years where we’d lost touch. He was an unofficial mentor to me, unpaid, but the harshest critic, which I really wanted and needed, and eventually, he treated me as an equal, and I gave critique back to him, which he was grateful for. Through him I met poets like U. A. Fanthorpe, Anne Stevenson and George Szirtes, who are just a little older than me. I never found them anything but gracious and encouraging. It is today’s younger poets who can be rather dominating, if anything, and dismissive at times of people like me. I’ve been a published poet now for over 40 years, playing the long game. But I blocked someone on Facebook last year when I saw them commenting about something I had said – ‘who cares what an old, white, straight woman has to say’. Not all young poets are like this, of course, but there has been a shift in power somehow. When I was a young poet, we respected the older ones, looked up to them and learned from them. Good poetry has nothing to do with the age, gender etc of the writer.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Honestly? I don’t rise early, I mess about on the computer for a couple of hours, doing things like this or chatting on Facebook, replying to emails etc. I try to write poems or work on whatever book or lecture I am supposed to be writing, and take breaks in my craft room, or my writing shed. I always have a few commissions I am working on. But if a poem starts whispering in my ear, and insisting on being written, I drop everything and tend to its needs. I write initially by hand, in black ink, in a notebook, and not everything survives to the next stage of being typed up. Then it’s edit, edit, edit, and either send out and accepted/rejected, or languishes in a folder for years, when it might unexpectedly find its niche in the world. Matt Simpson always used to say that when a poet is just staring out of a window, they are working. So I go for walks, or do some gardening or baking, or making, and find poems come to me when I am doing something like that, because my body is busy but my mind free. I will also read other people’s poetry to get into the zone, or find watercolour painting and making books get me into a new poem.

5. What motivates you to write?

I can’t not write. I’ve tried, and I am never wholly myself in fallow periods, never wholly alive. I must obey the poem’s imperative, or it is like a persistent ghost that begs to be laid to rest.

6. What is your work ethic?

I’m a hard worker, but I can also take a long time to get round to things I somehow don’t want to do. I worked very hard to get all my poems in shape, and to put my books together, and to travel around reading from them to promote them. I see myself as being quite lazy, because I have too many things I want to do and not enough energy to see them all through, but people are always telling me I astound them because I do so much. I have no idea who is right. But I know I am awfully good at wasting time. I was a very hard-working teacher so sometimes it’s nice to feel I can have a lazy day, and maybe just read or write poetry, and enjoy being alive.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I learned from them but found my own voice and I don’t think I am under anyone’s influence, but I treasure the lessons I learned from them. From John Clare (my favourite poet ever) and Norman MacCaig: the power of looking and observing; from Matt Simpson: the power of using words from both dialect and standard English, Anglo-Saxon and Latinate, and saying what I really mean; from Thomas Hardy: compression and use of form; from Emily Dickinson: wringing essence from the world and being nobody; from Robert Frost: the power of simplicity and rhyme; from John Donne: cheek and humour and argument. And where would any of us be without Elizabeth Bishop? My head is full of all the poems I have read all my life, and that richness helps me write.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most
and why?

It’s very hard to evaluate poets who are still alive and writing, but I will give it a go.
Anne Stevenson- I admire her great wit and her uncompromising pursuit of mastery.
Carol Ann Duffy – she’s my age and we have both been writing a long time. I don’t enjoy her more recent work as much, but I love her boldness, her wit and her ability to write in the voice of others so brilliantly, in all her books up to and including The World’s Wife. I’ll be interested to see if she’s liberated again after the millstone of the Laureateship is left behind.
David Morley – because he continues to develop his poems, he is always true to himself and is a great nature poet. We share a passion for the work of John Clare -and he is unfailingly generous.
Jen Hadfield – I love the way she is so inventive in her language, and so close to place.
Liz Berry – when I read her first book, I had to keep putting it down to recover from its beauty. It moved me.
John Agard – for his wit and charm, and he’s a brilliant performer.
Brian Patten – he’s underrated, I love his charm and wit but also his surrealism.
There’s a ton more, my shelves are crammed, but these are today’s top of the head ones.

9. Why do you write?

To stay alive, to get that buzz, to fulfil my dreams. Because I am. When I was 15, I dedicated my life to poetry because Robert Graves said you had to, to be a poet, as opposed to someone who writes poems. You have to live it. Matt Simpson, the last time I ever saw him, in hospital suspecting his number was up, introduced me to his favourite nurse, saying ‘this is my friend Angela, she is a poet too’. He had always taught me that poet was a praise word and you had to be given it. He was giving me that gift as his last bequest. That is why I have to go on with it. There won’t be a day when there is nothing left for poets to say, because the world is changing round us all the time. And the language itself is changing too. I serve poetry, not my own ego. Poetry, for me, is a service. I want to contribute my part to the great chain of words. I am addicted to poetry.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Read. And write what you can. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. Don’t accept the word of anyone who tells you to stop, nor the word of anyone who gives nothing but praise. I used to teach Adult Ed. creative writing classes, and I would always say at the first one: ‘I can’t teach you to write. You can only learn by doing. But I can walk with you, and show you techniques, and we can talk about what makes poems work.’ I was repeatedly told at school and university careers’ services that I couldn’t be a writer. Luckily I didn’t listen and stuck to my goals. There is no shame in having a day job alongside it. So simply, you become a writer by writing. It’s easier than ever these days, because of computers and the internet.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am a third of the way through of writing a reader’s companion to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which will be published by Greenwich Exchange when I am finished. That’s part of what I do as a Literature specialist.
I am almost finished putting together a chapbook for Three Drops Press, called Grimm Rules. It is poems based on fairy tales, which I have always loved.  I prefer the darker stories, more Angela Carter than Walt Disney.
My last full collection came out with Red Squirrel Press in 2016, and it’s already been reprinted once. So I am still promoting that and giving readings, while thinking about what my next one, my ninth, is going to look like. I always write organically, not to a theme, so it’s fascinating to see what my obsessions are. I usually have a structure to each collection though, a shaping vision for it.
I’ve been asked back to Gladstone’s Library, where I was a writer in residence five years ago, to give a reading of mental health poems at their Hearth festival in November, so I am preparing for that now, selecting poems and reworking those as yet unpublished.
There is always something to keep me busy, which gives me a sense of purpose.

Angela Topping
September 2018

 

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