Pirene’s Fountain interviews
With Angela Topping
When did you first start writing poetry and what occasioned your first poem?
The earliest thing I would call a poem came after being seated almost a bit too close to the stage at a contemporary dance performance. It was the first dance thing I’d ever been to, and I guess I was on a date. When you see dance from far away it looks like some gentle thing, but up close you see the work, the muscle, you hear the breath of the dancers - and this delighted me. I had the realisation that art is spirit and body moving together. When I got home I wrote what would become one of my earliest published poems; that was around twenty years ago.
You have sometimes said at readings that Literature is your mother and father. Which authors could be credited with your parentage as a writer, to extend that metaphor? And which poets are you reading now? How do these authors influence your work?
The writer who sparked me to actually write in the first place though was e. E. cummings. As I have grown as a reader I have gathered a pool of writers such as Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, DH Lawrence, and Pablo Neruda who have remained constants in my life. I don’t move on from these writers, I just delve deeper into their work, and perhaps every few years I make a discovery of a writer to add to my personal family canon. The last couple of years have really been about a deepening of my love for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I read early on but now I am really exploring at a cellular level. I’ve also been studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets as I found that there was much talk about them but little experiential knowledge. I wanted to see what they could offer a man like myself. What is interesting in my relationships with these writers, is that they are my companions in a lifelong set of conversations in which we challenge and love each other.
At what point did you decide you needed an office to work, and how has gaining one influenced your methods of composition?
John: I’ve had a dedicated writing space almost since day one. The real art of writing is turning up to work. I see my office as a boat in which I can sail to any world, or as a laboratory where I can make lots of mistakes in order to lift a few pieces out of the fire and hold to the light.
Your poem ‘Cheap Moisturiser’ has been greatly admired and has moved many people to tears at readings. Do you think you have more poems like this one in you, given that you look after your elderly mother? Or is the subject too painful now?
I am so grateful that my work touches people in the way it does. I have no idea what poems the future holds; each book is, and continues to be a miracle to me. When I look back on any piece I can’t tell you much about how it came to be, of course I can speak technically and so on but as for the truth of the poem, I don’t know where that comes from or how it is ignited, apart from being open to the possibility and working on taking away the things which stop you being creative. I think poetry is in the air, people and landscape all around us, and on good days the poet tunes into that. The outside and the inside are the same place.
Recital is a concept book. How did you come up with the idea and go about researching it?
As discussed above, ideas are just in the world, it depends on our development, artistry and perception whether we are open to them or not. Recital arose because of a conversation about the full moon with my dear friend Xanthe Gresham. The idea of compressed time seemed a natural way to look at the cycles of life, and the third aspect of the concept of the book being a love poem to Britain came from the July 7th 2005 bombings and the subsequent police murder of Jean Charles de Menezes. I saw that in the period of my own memory how far we had strayed from our idea of ourselves as a country. I also could see that the only thing we can really do is to love ourselves and the land, not in a nationalistic way, as you know I detest the false concept of nation, but to bring love to the idea of place and self. Hate, war, delusion, politics and greed based foreign policy will not make anything better, they have no real value, but love, fire, guts, intelligence, spirit, integrity, and poetry (be that in the writing of a book, or in the art of being a plumber), these small things are all we have.
In your book Full Blood, you share some very intimate moments. This strikes me as very brave. How difficult were these poems to write and was your partner happy with your publishing them?
There was no difficulty writing them, they are a true record of physical experience. Some are beautiful transformative moments, other times they are ordinary, and sometimes difficult, mirroring the two sides of the main theme of the book. I’m interested in how the physical bodily gets memory written into it, I thought that would be a beautiful thing to explore. My wife and I have no trouble with any work created with integrity.
You have published a children’s collection with Salt. Is your collection influenced by your schools work, knowledge of children such as your stepson, or from your own childhood?
Yes all of those things, and also the desire to write a real poetry for young people. The only real difference I can perceive in my children’s writing is that the musicality and metrics might be more regular in some ways, and the language choices tend to be made with young people in mind. I write for children with the intention of encouraging them to explore the inner and outer world.
In a recent review of Full Blood (in Poetry Review), you were identified as a ‘public’ poet. What do you think this means and do you agree with the label?
I think that is inherited from writers like Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Charles Dickens and so on. I have to say that I love the fact that many of my readers are simply readers and people who enjoy literature. In reality of course the idea of the public is merely a construct. There is only a reader and a book. The implied voice in the poem is speaking to the reader, and the reader is bringing his or her life and experience to meet the poem, creating a unique moment of life for each person encountering the work.
You have written poetry for dance and some of your work has been made into short film animations. Have these collaborations developed your practice and if so, how?
They are all part of the poetry and writing, they are in no way separate, poetry is central to everything. I’m part of that lineage of poets who are ‘writers as artists.’ To take words and give a dancer a spark to move from, to see the heart of a poem rendered in personality, flesh, skin and movement is an incredible thing. The animated films you mention were a side project to Recital designed as a supplement and extension of one of the core aspects of the book. I know that people generally love poetry but their access to it has been reduced in this part of the world in recent years with the art form becoming so inward looking and obtuse regarding its relation to the human soul, so the films were created as a way to bypass false ideas of poetry and lead people by a different means to the text. They were also made to stand alone as little bullets of beautiful entertainment.
You are known for completing several high-profile residencies in, for example, Los Angeles, Blackpool and Canterbury. How did these come about, and how have these residences impacted on your own writing?
I am very grateful that commissions and residencies come my way; it is very interesting that I don’t actively pursue them. I try to be the best writer and reader I can be, and I think that creates a resonance so that work is attracted to it. I enjoy these aspects of my work very much as it gets me out of the office and forces me to think in new ways. A few pieces in Full Blood started life as commissioned pieces but whatever I’m working on at a time will lead back to my core artistic thoughts in ways I often don’t expect, which is lovely. The poem ‘Every Atom’ is a prime example of this. Originally it was commissioned for a dance piece, I had, I thought, finished Full Blood, but the subject of the dance brought all the ideas of the book together, so the poem ended up being made into dance, a film and more incredibly revealed itself to be the missing piece which made the whole of Full Blood hum with a sense of completeness. I disagree with Andrew Motion’s recent comments on his perceived constraints of being commissioned and in residency; a commission is both a challenge and an opportunity to create/subvert for the good of the art, to find something of meaning or beauty where you might think it impossible to see. What seems at first like restriction is often the route to innovation. It seems he is much relieved to not have to face that in his work anymore.
Do you see yourself primarily as a free verse poet or do you experiment with set forms and invent new forms?
I am a writer who is free to write anything he likes. When encountering or creating a form which I wish to use as a container for the life of a poem, I put myself in the role of apprentice to the poem or book idea, and it teaches me over a long time how to work with its materials.
I have noticed a trend in your recent work of using the imperative voice and sometimes advising the reader how to make their lives better. I am thinking of some of the children’s poems and work like ‘Thirst’, ‘Unwritten’, ‘How to Sleep’, ‘How to Become a Moth’, ‘On Becoming a Writer’. Do you see a poet’s role as one which has a duty to pass on realisations about how to live a good life, in philosophical terms?
That is not the poet speaking in those poems, it is the poem speaking through the poet. The moth, writing, and sleep poems are little magical spells to be understood. Thirst is the poem speaking directly to the reader using the incantation of its form to say what it has to say on a number of intellectual, spiritual and emotive levels. Poetry and all great art has the astonishing ability to speak directly to the reader by bypassing the armour and the realm of ego constructed mind. If a work is made only to convey a message, like for example some of Ginsberg’s poetry, its main impact is short lived and belongs to its time. Later it may serve as an historical document, and there is nothing wrong with that kind of responsive, perhaps agitative work. Of course the poet wants to take the reader on a journey, and specifics make a journey vivid, but it is the reader who embarks, the poet simply tries to be a good guide.
Thank you, John, for those insights into your work and your writing practice. Good luck with all your current projects.
Biographical note: Angela Topping’s ninth solo poetry publication, Paper Patterns, is a full collection due from Lapwing Press in 2012. She has also co-authored textbooks on poetry for OUP and writes critical books for Greenwich Exchange. The third one, on poet John Clare, is due out in 2012.