Monday, April 28, 2014

Angela Topping: A Poetic Manifesto

RAW LIGHT: the magazine

A Poetic Manifesto

Angela Topping

When Jane Holland invited me to contribute to her excellent poetry blog, I thought it might be useful to do something on how I came to write this poem, which was included in Salt’s anthology Troubles Swapped forSomething Fresh, which is now a set text on a number of Creative Writing degree courses

How to Capture a Poem

Look for one at midnight
on the dark side of a backlit angel
or in the space between a sigh
and a word. Winter trees, those
elegant ladies dressed in diamonds
and white fur, may hide another.

Look for the rhythm in the feet
of a waltzing couple one, two, three-ing
in an empty hall, or in the sound
of any heartbeat, the breath of a sleeper,
the bossy rattle of keyboards in offices,
the skittering of paper blown along.

You could find a whole line
incised into stone or scrawled on sky.
Words float on air in buses, are bandied
on street corners, overheard in pubs,
caught in the pages of books, sealed
behind tight lips, marshalled as weapons.

Supposing you can catch a poem,
it won’t tell you all it knows. Its voice
is a whisper through a wall, a streak of silk
going by, the scratch of a ghost, the creaks
of a house at night, the sound of the earth
vibrating in spring, with all its secret life.

You have to listen: the poem chooses itself,
takes shape and begins to declare what it is.
Honour the given, else it will become petulant.

When you have done your best,
you have to let it go. Season it with salt
from your body, grease it with oil from your skin.

Release it. It has nothing more to do
with you. You’re no more its owner
than you hold the wind. Never expect gratitude.

Angela writes: 

Rupert Loydell, who had published my first two collections under the Stride imprint, was editing the anthology Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh, and asked me to submit something. I’d never been much of a one for writing about my own practice but I thought it was about time I had a bash. I struggled to complete the commission, then Rupert sent me a reminder. I tried again. Nothing. 

I gave up and went for a bath. The first phrases came through suds and bubbles, shampoo. Once I was wrapped in my bathrobe, I started to write them down.

The title 'How To Capture A Poem' is because poems are wild animals and it’s hard to tame them. Midnight is the witching hour and poems are a kind of alchemy to me. The dark side of anything, the one not illuminated, is where poems hide. Angels are special to me because of my name. The winter tree image came into my mind when I was driving home from school in the snow. I was trying to think of a new image for snow-covered trees and I took the opportunity to place it in this piece.

Stanza 2 is about rhythm, which is important to me. It’s the tick tock of the poem’s clock, it’s how you know it’s alive.

Stanza 3 brings in some of my subject matter, the quotidian, the words all around us, giving us the sound-track of our thoughts.

Stanza 4 is about my practice, how a poem will gradually reveal itself to me, sometimes just giving me one phrase for free, sometimes much more. And more of my themes come into this stanza as well.
"It’s eccentric of me I know, but I do believe in listening to the poem."

It’s eccentric of me I know, but I do believe in listening to the poem. I was trying to get a poem about my mother’s death right, years ago. What I couldn’t at first see was that it wanted to be a sonnet. As soon as I noticed that two of the lines my right brain had given me were iambic pentameter, the rest of the poem sorted itself out as quick as you like!

Poems have to be let out into the world, they have to fly free. So the title comes full circle. Once you have captured it, it has to go forth on its own. I edit as best I can, and give up when I have made the poem strong enough to survive. Of course it will bear my fingerprints, something of me will reside in it, but it also belongs to the reader. Poems are nothing without readers.

The ending is a nod and a blown kiss towards W.S Graham’s poem ‘Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons’, a poem in five sections about teaching someone the flute, as a metaphor for writing. Graham ends his poem ‘Do not expect applause.’ My ending is ambiguous. Never expect the poem to be grateful to you – in fact I am always grateful to the poem for choosing me to write it. Also, never expect gratitude from anyone else. Or praise, or blame, or even a reaction.

I write poetry because I have no choice in the matter. I do have a choice to go out and do readings, which I love doing, and people have told me they enjoy hearing me read my poems. I have a choice, in a way, to publish. I mostly do that so that those poems leave me alone, I can think of them as completed and move on to the next collection.

This poem is my manifesto. 

Angela Topping

Angela Topping's latest books are Letting Go (Mother's Milk Books) and Paper Patterns (Lapwing).
You can find Angela Topping on wordpress

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