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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Simon Armitage: Poetry Beyond the Printed Page

 'Poetry goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.'

On Thursday 24th April I took myself off to Falmouth University in the evening, to hear Simon Armitage talk about "Poetry Beyond the Printed Page" in one of a series of lectures he's giving there as part of his tenure as Visiting Professor for the School of Journalism and Writing. Falmouth University is a classy campus with a range of unusual and interesting buildings. This was my first visit and I was very favourably impressed.

I was also impressed that Simon remembered me, even though it's almost twenty years now since we met: he co-tutored an Arvon poetry course I attended in the mid-nineties. Sadly, I suspect he recalled me for my pool-playing and my hardcore driving rather than my nascent poetry skills; we all went out to a local pub one night, and he was one of rather-too-many passengers who squeezed into my car on the way back. Those are narrow country lanes round Totleigh Barton, and I imagine the return journey at speed in the dark was memorable.

'Radio and poetry are natural bedfellows.'

'Poetry,' Armitage told us, 'goes back to the campfire, the temple, the theatre.' In its ancient past, poetry was an oral art, so is perfect for the medium of radio. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1954) was written specifically for voices, for a radio audience - here is the opening, read by Richard Burton.

The iconic poem 'The Night Mail' by WH Auden is often cited as the first film-poem. Armitage praised its 'great charm,' suggesting the rhythm of the poem matches both the train's movement and the swift-moving medium of film.

In the same way, Tony Harrison made documentaries using poetry instead a standard prose narrative, keeping to simple classical forms for clarity. Here's Tony Harrison's 'V' (1987), part documentary, part poem (scroll forward to about 4 minutes in for the poem):

'Leeds. Where the M1 does its emergency stop'
                                 Xanadu, Simon Armitage

Armitage also discussed Xanadu (1992), a poem film he made about a council estate in Rochdale with twenty-six blocks of flats originally named A-Z. Later the council tried to improve these names by adding a place name for each letter of the alphabet. When they reached X, they could only think of Exford. Simon says he was horrified by their lack of imagination, and so called his film-poem about the estate, Xanadu.

In Documentary in the Digital Age (Focal Press, Oxford, 2006) by Maxine Baker, Simon Armitage is quoted as having been reluctant at first to make the documentary Saturday Night, shot in Leeds, commenting of film poems in general: ‘Sometimes the poetry is used like subtitles for the film. Sometimes the film just illustrates the poems. I like it best when there is a friction between the two.’ But Armitage showed no such aversion during his talk at Falmouth, describing with great enthusiasm how he had been sent the footage shot in Leeds, then written his poetry to accompany it, using a stopwatch to time it perfectly.

Simon's books were on sale after the event.
Simon Armitage explained that he never meets the subjects of documentaries but writes poems for them - about their own lives - to be spoken on film or even sung. He prefers to keep a creative distance, reading about the people in each documentary, then writing a poem or song for the subject to perform to camera.

 If you'd like to explore some of those documentary films, here is 'Drinking For England' (alcoholism) and 'Songbirds' (Downview, a women's prison in Surrey). You can also read more about that last project here, in Simon's own words, at the Telegraph (2005): 'Songbirds behind prison walls'.

After his talk, Simon signed books while the audience enjoyed a glass of wine and a chat in one of the university rooms. I was delighted to meet Rupert Loydell at last, a poet and editor with whom I have exchanged emails in the past, and in whose magazine Stride I have had work published.

It was a very informative and engaging talk. This is the new Armitage book I bought - not out officially until next week - The Last Days of Troy.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Epicentre Magazine has moved to Raw Light

A few weeks back, I got all excited on social media, and decided to reanimate Raw Light as a poetry and writing-related blog.

My first thought, as a vastly busy person, was to solicit a few poems from other people, which would keep the blog going but not take up too much time writing endless new material for it myself. Canny, huh?

Random picture of me.

But then I remembered Epicentre Magazine.

I launched Epicentre Magazine two years ago almost exactly. I wanted an online magazine which would not be too taxing for me to run, and for a while it worked fine. But then I lost track of submissions, and frankly submissions were not brilliant anyway, so I just stopped posting work there.

But now, in a flash of inspiration, I have decided to move that idea of an occasional online magazine - updated at my whim, really - to Raw Light. This blog is a veteran of online poetry, after all, having been started back in the misty depths of 2005 and still ticking over today in 2014. It gets many thousands of hits every month, regardless of whether or not I post updates, and it seems like a great platform from which to 'relaunch' my idea of an online poetry magazine.

Unfortunately for those now rubbing their hands with glee and sorting out their best poems, I do not intend to load myself down with extra work by accepting unsolicited submissions for Raw Light. Instead I shall be inviting people on the (mainly British) poetry scene to submit poems, reviews or articles, and hope they are generous enough to say yes.

Relaunching Raw Light as a quasi-magazine ...
I shall also continue to post my own updates on Raw Light. So things will not change particularly, except that you may receive more frequent emails from me if you have subscribed to the blog. You can change this by clicking Unsubscribe at the bottom of any emails that arrive from Raw Light.

Meanwhile, I am not very good at asking people for things, having the memory of a flea, and there's every chance that if you're reading this blog AND writing the kind of things I enjoy reading, I may be happy to see your work here too.

So see Submissions for details anyway. Just be aware that I have a madly busy life these days and don't expect an instant response.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Penelope Shuttle and Caroline Carver reading Zeeba Ansari's poetry at Waterstones Truro

Caroline Carver and Penelope Shuttle about to read from Zeeba Ansari's work

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading at Waterstones Truro, Cornwall, where well-known Cornwall-based poets Penelope Shuttle (on the right, above) and Caroline Carver (on left) were reading from Zeeba Ansari's debut poetry collection, Love's Labours, published by Pindrop Press.

The event was part of the Truro Festival.

Sadly Zeeba herself could not be present. But here is her book ...

And here are some other photos I took of the event ...

It was a packed audience, despite being an evening event.
Penny and Caroline choosing what to read.
Poet Graham Burchell

Some of my kids - probably wondering how much longer they would be required to look well-behaved!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Vote for the Saboteur Awards

The SABOTEUR AWARDS are here again: VOTE NOW for your favourite poets, publishers, reviewers, spoken word events etc. 

Key Dates:
Nominations are open 1st-30th April 2014
Shortlist announced 1st May 2014
Voting open 1st-25th May 2014
Winners announced and Awards presented on May 31st 2014, Oxford.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Poetry Wars I & II

Archive Post from March 2008: Poetry Wars I and II: reblogging for fun in April 2014.

I'm reading Peter Barry's Poetry Wars: 'British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court' this week, published by Salt. It's an absolutely excellent read and I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in the politics of poetry, each page containing fresh hilarities and salacious gossip from the world of 1970s British poetry.

I'm still only partway through it so will probably blog about this again, once finished, but I couldn't resist a few juicy comments now.

Poetry Wars is not a linear read but a satisfying dip in and out read, as recommended by the author, who has constructed the book in several parts. First, you have the linear narrative of how, in the 1970s, the 'radicals' (i.e. those avant-gardists who consider themselves to have descended in a direct line from the gods of early modernism like Eliot and Pound) beat off the 'conservatives' (i.e. the poetic backlash against modernism, advocating a return to normalcy, traditional forms and cucumber sandwiches) to take over the Poetry Society London HQ, then situated in fading gentility in Earls Court. Then you have chapters devoted to various 'themes' connected to that - almost decade-long - battle, with further chapters at the back consisting of dated lists, relevant documents, explanations of terms etc.

Reading this book has clarified for me, in a matter of hours, the terrible enmity that still exists between these two main strands within British poetry. Taking the bulk of its material from Poetry Society and Arts Council archives, memoirs, personal statements, plus a full account of the Witt Panel investigation of the Poetry Society's operations in 1976 - think full-blown McCarthyism in Piccadilly! - this book details, often meticulously, who said what to whom and when. There's rather less discussion of 'why' than I would like, but I suppose these memories must still be raw enough in some people's minds for that question to be approached with delicate circumspection.

And it's not all one-sided. Although Peter Barry is firmly on the 'side' of the radicals, by his own admission, he has tried to present evidence and anecdote in as unbiased a manner as is possible with such difficult material, not trying to hide mistakes by his own party even as he highlights occasionally underhand actions by the more conservative element as they attempted to get back into power.

So here's a quick taster of life at the Poetry Society in the mid-70s, in a marvellous anecdote apparently related by Peter Finch:

'We're sitting in the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantel piece ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob [Cobbing] has drunk almost half a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning. Jennifer [Jennifer Pike, Cobbing's wife] arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes, papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We drive. Somehow we get back.'

More of this later.

You can buy 'Poetry Wars' online at Salt Publishing.


Poetry Wars PART II

Tucked out of sight of the snipers, safe for now under my duvet, I continue my reading of Peter Barry's highly dangerous Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court. See previous post for full briefing.

March 13th 2008. Late evening. Skim-reading through Chapter Nine: Taking a Long View. Bombing less heavy tonight. Discussing possible reasons for the marginalisation of experimental poetry both then and now, Peter Barry writes from the quieter trenches of retrospection (pp.183-4):

'Part of the explanation, then, must lie in the specific social formation of avant-garde poets, and to some extent (to return to a point raised earlier) it concerns their attitude to publication, which is often very complex and contradictory, as frequently with avant-garde groups. Some variety of self-publication, in fact, has long been the norm for innovatory writing - it isn't an accident that T.S. Eliot first published The Waste Land in a magazine he was editing himself, or that Virginia and Leonard Woolf ran the Hogarth Press. By definition, almost, the quality of something new will not easily be recognised by major publishers, who must cater for an existing set of public tastes. But these existing public tastes are precisely what an avant-garde despises or distrusts ...

... In Liquid City (Reaktion, 1999), Iain Sinclair, en route to visit Eric Mottram [experimental poet and 1970s editor of Poetry Review during the running battles between what Peter Barry terms 'radicals' and 'conservatives' - JH] with photographer Marc Atkins, explains to Atkins who Mottram is and what he represents:

The names don't mean anything to Atkins. This is deleted history - Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, the heroes of the 'British Poetry Revival' - have been expunged from the record. Poetry is back where it belongs: in exile. In the provinces, the bunkers of academe. In madhouses, clinics and fragile sinecures.'


For more on avant poetry versus the mainstream, here's a discussion of some antithetically opposed contemporary anthologies.

ARCHIVE POST: These two posts were first published on Raw Light in March 2008.