Applauding between Poems

Angela Topping

When I first started giving readings of my work, in the late 80s, poets were asked to read for 45 minutes, in most cases, if they were headlining, with a Q&A session to follow. People listened attentively, the poet made a few comments sometimes between poems, things that were interesting, things that were not in the poem itself.
These days it’s much more likely to be given a headline slot of up to 30 minutes, and sometimes, when reading with other poets, ten minutes may be all that is given. This isn’t a bad thing; it makes for poetry events which include a lot more variety, especially when the readers are professional in sticking to their time slots. There is also a proliferation of open mic spots and even whole events dedicated to open mics. Again, no bad things, especially with so many people writing these days, who all need…

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The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

Angela Topping

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…

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On being a young poet

Angela Topping

When I was a young poet, inexperienced and clueless about publishing, I used to read poetry widely, discovering and taking home books from Widnes library to devour at my leisure. I kept a folder of poems which I could not live without: when I had to return the books, I’d copy out my favourite ones. I still have this file. The poems in it all helped to tune me in to the craft.

I was writing seriously from the age of 14, and used to put together collections of my poems, all neatly copied out, and get people to read them. I was fond of saying to my readers: ‘is THIS a poem?’ ‘And THIS?’ I was published in the school magazine. I made all the usual mistakes that teens often do: big words, portentous style, abstractions. But I kept at it. I was highly commended in a W. H…

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A Tribute to Anne Stevenson

Angela Topping

Although I did not know Anne Stevenson well, I feel I must pay tribute to her, one small voice among the many tributes which will be written to say farewell to this fine poet and generous encourager of other poets.

I met her, as I met the late-lamented U. A . Fanthorpe, through my beloved friend Matt Simpson (1936-2009). He and Anne were of an age, and she was saddened by his death, like all his friends. For her 70th birthday, Matt Simpson and his friend John Lucas (Shoestring Press and also a fine poet, Jazz player and lecturer) created a marvellous festschrift, The Way You Say the World, with a large number of well-known poets as contributors. I was delighted to be asked to send a poem, and even more so to be asked to read it on the night of her party. Matt and I trundled up…

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Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Alice Frecknall

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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.

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.

Alice Frecknall website front page

Alice Frecknall

is a poet, short fiction writer, and fine artist. Her debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Out-Spoken Press in 2021 and is supported by Arts Council England. Her writing has been published online by Out-Spoken, has appeared in print in a number of anthologies, including The Stinging Fly, National Poetry Anthology, and Lightship Anthology, and was shortlisted for the Out-Spoken Prize for Poetry 2019 and the Lightship International Short Story Prize. Alice has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Hull, is a Roundhouse Poetry Collective alumna, and member of the UniSlam Post-Emerging Cohort. She has read her work at venues and festivals across the country and regularly writes with the Poetry Takeaway.


The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

At around the age of 16, I think. At that point it was very much a back-of-the-notebook secret endeavour. I didn’t really read much poetry outside of school and most of what I was openly writing was fiction – I still write short stories now as well – but writing poetry came out of a sense of urgency, the need to get something out. I’ve always been more comfortable with writing than talking and so poetry was a way of making sense, of exorcising my thoughts and feelings as a teenager trying to navigate the world around me.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I don’t think there was one person or artist. It was gradual. At an early age I was probably more familiar with poetry in theatre, through Shakespeare, as that was my parents’ interest. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I began to read more widely and independently. I also started listening to poetry, the work of artists such as Kae Tempest, Hollie McNish, Andrea Gibson… I studied literature and creative writing at university and the more poetry I was exposed to, the more I came to love and appreciate it as an artform. At that time there were also open mic nights starting to pop up around Hull, where I was living, so then I was introduced to live poetry and people who were writing and sharing their work much more readily. The idea of having some sort of lived life as a writer began to feel tangible.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

When I was at school, the poets on the curriculum were mostly, if not exclusively, dead, white men. And this was my main access to poetry. If I remember correctly, the anthology we studied at GCSE was a book of war poetry filled with traditional, often famous, old poems. I was definitely aware of this dominance but didn’t have the knowledge or tools (or confidence) to counter it.

I think poetry as a sector has definitely become more varied in terms of ages and writing styles of the poets who are making waves. Now, thanks to funding schemes and development opportunities, young poets can come through and make a name for themselves, whereas those who are older can find getting those breaks more challenging because those same opportunities are closed to them. At the same time, those who are young in age are often assumed to be young in craft or experience so may not be given the platforms that an older artist would. Age is such an unhelpful thing because life isn’t linear in the way society tries to force it to be.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Honest answer: I don’t have one.

Not a consistent one, anyway. I’m a fine artist as well as a writer so I have to make space for both, and that is rarely an equal split. If I’m working on a painting commission then that will have to take priority over writing for a period, simply because I need the daylight to paint by and I’m often on a deadline. Similarly, if I have a writing deadline or project on the go then that will take my focus for as long as it needs to and I’ll work quite full, intense days for a time. I also work part-time outside of my creative practices so my available time and existing commitments across the days of the week are quite varied. 

But a writing day will almost always start with coffee and reading before I actually take to my desk to do any writing. I mostly work at home and prefer to write in quiet unless I’m deliberately writing from music as a stimulus, which is rare. I try to keep several pieces of work on the go at once, all at varying stages of completion so I can move between starting new work, editing existing drafts, or submitting work for consideration to publications. And at some point, usually when my head’s at the jumbled, saturated stage, I’ll take a break to head outside for a walk and let the ideas shake themselves down into order.     

5. What subjects motivate your writing?

I think every subject I fixate on through my writing can probably be boiled down to people and/or human experience. Which sounds broad but, ultimately, I’m interested in why people behave in the ways that they do, why we need one another and also destroy one another in a multitude of ways.

6. What is your work ethic?

In its most simple form, my work ethic is: show up. This could mean spending eight hours at my desk, but it could also mean going for a walk, or reading one page of a book, or giving myself a day off. It’s about remaining open and active but meeting myself where I’m at.

7. How did the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

I don’t remember reading much poetry when I was younger, so my earlier influences were all fiction writers. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy really got me into a love of storytelling, and I do tend to write poetry with a sense of story in mind. In my early twenties, I fell in love with Jeanette Winterson’s writing. I revisit her work most years and I definitely take inspiration from her often non-linear and at times surreal style of writing. There’s something really poetic in Winterson’s playfulness of language too. I read a lot of Ali Smith around a similar time, and she’s also very playful in her work. Their writing feels alive to me and very much like it exists in the truth of human experience even if it’s created in a surreal space, which is something I think has come into my own writing.

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

So many! And it changes all the time. Caroline Bird, she’s such a master of surrealism, and I could listen to her talk for days about poetry and writing; Ella Frears, I absolutely loved her recent debut collection Shine, Darling, I find that I really relate to her work and because she’s a visual artist too, as am I, I really enjoy when that element comes through in her poetry. I couldn’t get over Mary Jean Chan’s collection, Flèche, I thought it was just stunning, I borrowed it from a friend but bought my own copy as soon as I’d returned it because some books you just have to own!

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Oh wow. Can we open this up to art, more broadly? Though if I knew the answer to this, perhaps I wouldn’t need to anymore…

I think it’s a way of trying to make sense of things and communicate something; a way of getting something out and giving it to someone else in the hope that they might also recognise something in it. It’s about making that human connection. In her book Art Objects Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘I know of no better communicator than art. No better means of saying so precisely those things which need so urgently to be said.’ I think this is why I make art. Art is the best tool I have to make sense of, communicate my experience of the world, and connect with others.

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

If you’re a writer, you’re a writer. If you want to try and turn that into a career and an income source then, in very practical terms: read, meet writers, meet organisations working with writers, try things out, try more things out, always always study your craft, and keep knocking on doors until the right one opens. Celebrate the wins (no matter how small), and don’t let the rejections mean more than they do.

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

I’m currently working on my first full-length poetry collection, which will be published by Out-Spoken Press in late 2021. So that’s my main focus. At the moment, I’m really interested in human relationships and how we as humans process or fail to process the things we experience, and the ways in which these experiences can manifest. The collection will largely explore solitude and absence, and the tension between loneliness and the fear/vulnerability of connecting.

Mixtape: July-September 2020

Thom Sullivan

My mixtape for July-September 2020: 01. Aaron Espe: Everyday (Buddy Holly cover). 02. Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass: TroubleSoHard. 03. Benjamin Francis Leftwich: PureMorning (Placebo cover). 04 Beta Radio: TongueTied (acoustic version). 05. Bonny Light Horseman: TheRoving. 06. Coach Kit: TheLordGodBird (Sufjan Stevens cover). 07. Donovan Woods: Portland, Maine. 08. Eddie Berman: TheCanyon. 09. Field Guide: YouWere. 10. Fontaines DC: TelevisedMind. 11. Joshua Burnside: And You EvadeHim/Born in the Blood. 12. Lydia Luce: TrueLoveWaits (Radiohead cover). 13. LYR, feat. Simon Armitage, Florence Pugh & Melt Yourself Down: LockdownIn Aid of Refuge. 14. Noah Gundersen: Fire. 15. Old Sea Brigade & Luke Sital-Singh: Los Feliz. 16. The Paper Kites: St Clarity. 17. Peter Bradley Adams: MyArmsWereAlwaysAroundYou

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#FascinatingInvertebratesWeekend writing and artwork challenge. If anybody wants to DM me, or message me via my WordPress site with their unpublished/published work I will feature it over the weekend.


Looking forward to your submissions


Every Fall – Bombus

I read again how males
will rest (just as we
at night on flowers
like the tall Helianthus
outside the bedroom
window. Not allowed
back inside the nest.
Just waiting for a chance
to mate. Fresh-raised queens
have more in mind,
the need to fatten up;
each wants to leave
the old, find another
hole underground,
hibernate the winter there
— start a brand-new colony
when spring comes next.

Thus, when you said you’d
not touched the clumps
of re-blooming creeping thyme
and red clover when
you mowed the lawn —
I was glad.

-Elly Nobbs


Katydids’ rattle
rises above crickets’ rasp
this mid-August night.

It was ever thus
in dwindling summer, evenings

-Gregory Luce

Covid 19 Sutras by Hank Lazar (Lavender Ink, New Orleans)

Tears in the Fence

In writing about Hank Lazer’s 2019 collection of poems Slowly Becoming Awake (Dos Madres Press) for issue 28 of Lou Rowan’s Seattle-based magazine Golden Handcuffs Review I referred to a ‘Notebook’ entry for October 7th 2016: ‘poem radiating outward’ with its immediate follow-on, ‘landfall the page’. The strings of thought in Lazer’s new collection act in a similar fashion as the particularity of the moment is seen against a spiritual and philosophical awareness of the progress and effects of the Covid 19 virus. In a comment made by Charles Bernstein after reading these poems Hank Lazer ‘precisely notates the passing of time through pandemic and uprising’:

‘Consciousness alights on each poem “like a butterfly drawn to a bright flower,” offering luminous company in dark times.’

That luminosity is brightly evident from the opening four lines of the first poem:

‘books & blossoms
spring & all
cold morning no
wind cloud…

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Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “192 Miles With Carla” by Robbie Frazer

Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews

192 Miles with Carla front cover

Robbie Frazer describes himself:

I used to be a businessman with suits, ties and a smug look reserved for airport lounges. Don’t have much use for any of those these days. In 2015, close bereavements coupled with a peaking sense of ennui with the rat race saw me walk away from it.
I published my first collection of poems this year (192 Miles with Carla) and am currently creating films of poetic monologues to be released in the Autumn.
This year should also see the completion of a book about finding meaning and purpose in midlife.
Beside the writing, I help executives navigate transitions or, more accurately, support them through periods of inertia and feelings of meaninglessness.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I was a troubled 10 year old: lonely, bullied and trying to make sense of a new home with a new father. While my outer world was turbulent, my inner one was colourful and full of hope. I couldn’t paint to save myself but I discovered that I could change the way I felt by moving words around a page. I could introduce words to each other that had never met before and what happened surprised me. That’s when I started experimenting with poetry.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My English teacher. Mrs Shields! All the boys had a crush on her …

2.1. Who did she introduce you to?

Absolutely no idea. But it did lead me to picking up The Mersey Sound (McGough, Patten, Henry) from a bookshelf – which I loved although didn’t wholly understand.

I didn’t love the bookshelf…

2.2. What did you love about it?

I do remember being thrilled at the irreverence of it all. The poetry I’d been introduced to at school left me cold whereas the Liverpool poets’ work struck me as more liberated and fun. I was drawn to the surreal nature of some of it and immediately went off to write my first ballad – The Strawberry Moose – about an elk with skin blemished by strawberries who found love with a creature covered in fruit salad.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Actually, I was more aware of the dominance of men in traditional poetry. That said, we can look around the poetry scene of the 19th century and assume that it was dominated by old men with massive beards. But Tennyson was 21 when he published Claribel and Mariana, Coleridge was winning awards at 20 and Wordsworth was 23 when he published his first collection. He went on to sleep with the woman Coleridge was in love with and who, as it happens, was his own wife’s sister; not the behaviour of an old fart, I suggest. But when I first encountered these three, bored rigid in my Leeds comprehensive, I could only picture them as old statues. The only reason we see Shelley and Byron as young men today is because Shelley died in his twenties and Byron looked sexy as hell in a headscarf and didn’t get to see 40.

Merely by avoiding walking in front of buses or by sidestepping knives in bar room brawls in south London, a poet will inevitably become a member of the cultural gerontocracy. The truth is that much of the famous poets’ creative output happened in their youth but most of them had the misfortune to survive into old age. Take the Mersey Scene poets I mentioned before: today, the edgy zeitgeist of the sixties has become slippers, mint tea and Radio 4. But the work itself is still young.

If anything, I think there is a bias today toward young poets and “new” work in poetry magazines where sometimes the novelty trumps the merit.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t have one. Deadlines do force me to work which is why I avoid having them.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

Words flow in to fill fissures when we are torn or pulled out of shape by events. So like most writers, loss and love dominate my motivations. Injustice is another. I wish I could write about football so that I could claim my wasted hours on the internet could be classed as research.

Sometimes an image pops into my head and I create a story around it. Only later do I realise where the thought came from. The images are often bizarre or starling: a penis in a jar, a feral child caught in a car’s headlights, a drop of a dying cat’s blood falling through the still water of a canal. Other times, a piece arrives into my head fully formed and all I need do is write it out. That feels a bit like cheating.

6. What is your work ethic?

I work in bursts and in phases. If I am in a transitional phase I tend to graze on the surface while the real work is bubbling away in my subconscious. But when I am in a phase of productivity, I will work intensively for an hour or so, then waste time doing something mundane like peeling vegetables or being fascinated by my feet, before returning to the focussed creation. I am not someone who can sit head down at a desk all day. I move around the house from early morning till late at night with a laptop and either coffee, tea or wine.

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

I did not read much when I was young. I wrote reams and lived much of my early life in my own head, trapped in an imaginary world that was more pleasant than my outer one. I’m surprised at how little I read considering how interested I was in writing despite that. Usually one begets the other.

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

I have a casual disloyalty with writers. One day I can love everything about Margaret Atwood and the next eschew her for Niall Williams because he has magic coming out of his pen. Today, I like Ted Hughes (again) and Don Paterson (again) because of their lyricism; I often find myself not breathing when I read them. I need to be moved before I connect to a poem and Alice Oswald does that effortlessly. She swims through me with a scalpel. Last week I read some fabulous work by Becky Cherriman and Niall Campbell, both of whom deserve a bigger stage. There is some cracking talent out there too that is yet to step forward except in a couple of competitions: Meredi Ortega and Isabella Mead are two truly outstanding writers I’d love to read more from.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I think we all have a hard-wired need to connect with the world outside of ourselves. That’s why solitary confinement is a form of torture. Writing is doing just that but with the luxury of not needing someone to talk to. For me, what is left on the page represents most accurately the emotions and thoughts I had been experiencing – rather than the flailing approximations of discussion. The held pencil can get to just that part of your back that’s itching when nothing else can.

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

I would ask why? Perhaps they’re drawn to the rock and roll lifestyle, the wild orgies fuelled by booze and drugs, the all night parties in Soho private clubs or, quite simply, the heaps of cash. If so, I’d recommend they sit down and write something about whips, leather, bondage and, I don’t know, wizards. But if they have a yearning to express themselves through writing, I’d ask them why writing in particular. I think writers tend to find that their best mode of expression in the written word, as opposed to the spoken word or the painted image. Some people find the route from inside the mind to outside the body is easiest through music, others through sport or dance. If writing is the means of communication that is your best, I’d say go for it. Just start writing, about anything, but preferably about something where you can be honest and vulnerable. I don’t think you ‘become’ a writer, you simply become a better one.

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

I have three. First, I am in the final straight of a manuscript of a book about finding meaning and purpose in midlife. It’s part memoir and part take-down of self-help. I talk about the hideous mistakes and horrid embarrassments of most of my business career, walk through tragedy and terrorism and then into a more self-aware phase of reflection. By the end of it I hope to know what the hell to do next.
Second, I’m releasing a short film next month. It’s a poetry monologue set in lockdown and features domestic abuse, cancer and climate catastrophe. It’s a barrel of laughs.
Third, I’m starting a Poetry Films business that creates short films featuring poems I will write for special occasions. Love, death and honour will feature heavily. There might be some laughs in that, but quite a lot of death too.

12. 12. “Crunching Bones” seems to be about a dog gnawing a bone in a kitchen, Am I close?

Actually, it’s about a teenage boy living with his mum and dad in a Yorkshire farmhouse. A Wuthering Heights kind of vibe.

I wanted to write a scene of quiet tension filled with this sudden and massive dark presence, dripping wet from the incessant rain. I pictured something claustrophobic and unrelenting so wrote it as just three sentences punctuated by the repeating sounds of the wind and rain outside.

12.1. How do you feel about it being open to many interpretations?

I’m very happy for any interpretation to be made. I think that’s one of the beauties of any creative piece – that it can appeal in different ways to different people. (Well, as long as the interpretation is not malicious, like justifying fascism or something!)/p>

Also, I think that sometimes others’ interpretations often get to the source of an inspiration more accurately than the artist can because often we create things, whether it be music, art or a piece of writing, from an emotion. But where that emotion comes from, we often don’t know. It’s like a shortcut between sensation and expression, bypassing cognition in the process. Sometimes others pinpoint that source better than the piece’s creator.

What I will correct, however, is when someone says ’this is about…’ when it is just an interpretation. ’To me, this is about…’ is more reasonable, I think.

13. How important is the use of form and rhyme in your poetry?

I use internal rhymes and chimes frequently to imbue a piece with a lyrical quality. If you listen to a poem in another language, you are lulled by the wave-like repetitions. I recently listened to poems in Farsi and Italian and was transported by them – like lying in a row boat being gently swayed by the movement. I think that musical and rhythmic aesthetic is an important element of poetry.

End rhymes go with a more ordered structure and I have used them when I want to inject pace. Like the ‘Dublin Chrissie’ ballad. I wanted it to be propulsive and the rhythm and rhyme contributed a lot to that.

I used a sestina form for ‘Eat it with skin fat’ because I wanted to trap the narrator. He is a man imprisoned in a life he hates but his only way of escaping it is by first going within – into an internal voice – and then disappearing altogether into wild fantasy. But he never manages to wriggle out of the shackles of reality – the rigidity of the form. I actually looked for the most unyielding structure and decided upon the sestina. It was hard!

Another example is the slightly pulled-about sonnet used in ‘Collapse to rain’. The man – my father – was conventional and also a Catholic. But he didn’t adhere to their structures very tightly. So I reflected that in distorting the given form of the sonnet with the ‘holy trinity’ of tercets. Probably going up my own arse with that one – too abstruse probably – but that was the thinking.

I guess I am saying that form and rhyme is important but I only use it when it lends something meaningful to the writing.

14. How did you decide the order of the poems?

Honestly, there was little strategy to it. I chose through feel.

I wanted to kick off with something short and arresting. Carla, in second, was an accessible piece with some pace which I hoped would give some momentum to the reader.

After that I tried to balance grief with hope, love and surrealism in equal measure so the middle bit was like a pie filling.

The three poems at the end are about loss: impending loss, the moment of its happening, and the aftermath. I wanted to finish with endings.

15. How important is the natural world to your poems?

It’s surprising to me that I do not write about the natural world much because I spend so much of my time in it and being enthralled by it. I think it’s because of the subject matter. The natural world evokes in me metaphors and symbols for existential subjects: meaning, purpose, time, the physical realm. Whereas most of my writing of late has focussed on more domestic issues like relationships, loss, hope and love. I suppose I find the emotional content of interpersonal connections more readily accessed than the more lofty or ambitious subjects that present themselves when I contemplate the natural world.

16. What do want to leave with after they have read the book?

When I first presented the collection of poems to the publisher, they asked me ‘what’s the theme?” to which I said that I didn’t really have one. However, what I do hope to inject into the poems is immediacy. I want to drop the reader into the middle of scenes and take them on a journey, sometimes literally like in 192 Miles With Carla or Scars to Heptonstall, but also figuratively as in The Flower-eating Girl. I would like to think that each poem is like a fair ground ride – you sit on, be jerked into a novel experience, to be let off at the end with some hairs out of place and a button undone.

I don’t have a high purpose for the book; it is not an attempt to further any particular theme or campaign. What I do hope a reader will experience, apart from a diverting read for a while, is some stillness. I like to think that there are some quiet hollows in some poems in which to rest; where those shades of meaning – like the intimate love of a stranger, the rusting of uncoiled loss, the confusion of being different, or the injustice suffered in simply being human – can be felt in that space and then fed by the words around it.