five-petalsIn my twenty-third interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Angela Topping about her poetry collection The Five Petals of Elderflower (Red Squirrel Press)…

“Enter through its centre of five petals
past the crown of stamens like matches”

(From ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’)

‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’ is the opening sequence in this collection. Could you say a little about how the book, the selection of poems and that overall collection title came about?

It came about from looking at the elderflower in five different ways. The first section is an extreme close up, going right into the flowers. The second section is in my father’s voice, the third is memories evoked by a sense of smell, the fourth uses synaesthesia and the final section is a vow. I’d been reading John Clare intensively when I wrote my book on him (Greenwich Exchange 2015), and the notion of the number five in nature was a strong influence, but it’s also come to stand for five stages of life, like Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, from As You Like It.

I realised quite early on that the Elderflower poem could give me the structure for a collection. I was proud of the poem because it had won first prize in a national competition, Buzzwords, and it was a must for inclusion in the new book. Indeed it was part of the initial sample I submitted to Sheila Wakefield at Red Squirrel Press. When I put the mss together, I organised all the poems I felt were good enough into five piles, according to each section of the poem. I had far too many poems, and this is where my editor, poet Elizabeth Rimmer, came in. She looked through the whole mss, to help me make the final selection. She also helped to re-tweak the order as result of the final choices, to get the flow right. It was fabulous to work with such a sympathetic editor.

So, though the collection is broadly using nature as a metaphor or reflection, the reader can follow each petal’s underlying themes as they read through. Personally I confess to being a dipper in collections and anthologies, but I think extra dimensions can be created by imaginative ordering, even within loose un-demarcated sections, as in this book.

Like the five petals of the flower, there are five themes that particularly struck me reading the collection. And, like flower petals again, these themes are also beautifully interlinked to form the whole. I’d like to ask about each one in term, starting with the elements and influence of nature, and the epigraph in the opening poem to John Clare. How important is the natural world to you in your writing and why?

The natural world is very important to me. As a small child, I was encouraged to enjoy nature. My dad would take me out on his pushbike from the age of about 18 months, and point things out to me. We used to forage for blackberries and mushrooms and I had a particular fascination with flowers, and still do. Dad told me a lot about plants, and we also grew our own vegetables and fruit at home. I knew the names of many trees and birds, from being very young. The second section of the Elderflower poem is my father talking to me while forgating. He was a delightfully down-to-earth man, always very close to nature.

In this collection, I tend to use natural imagery rather than write specifically about nature, but ‘Seedtime’ and ‘Sparrow’ are exceptions to that. Nature is still vitally important to me. I walk by the river and in local woods, I garden and I love landscapes. Some of the poems express my concern that these green spaces are being lost. I am with Edward Thomas in his love of wildernesses. We need breathing spaces.

“Until I went to school in Liverpool, caught
a twang of Scouse and fell into belonging
like a warm bath, all suds and consonants,
vowels squashed by a river’s weight, by all
the speakers who’d flowed in on Mersey tides.
And now at last am sitting comfortably with myself.”

(From ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’)

Specific places feature in many poems in ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’, particularly (but not exclusively) the north-west. I wonder how much these settings have become part of your identity as a writer, and also whether the sense of belonging or finding the right way/place to belong is a small or bigger part of this?

My mother’s family all come from Ireland. I have picked up on the yearning to be ‘home’ but have never really felt truly at home anywhere, despite always living in the North West. The sense of belonging eludes me. I feel comfortable in lots of places, yet am very rooted in this house, where we have been for over 30 years. I have wide horizons but feel safe in small places, like my study. I would agree I have a Northern identity. Many places, like Liverpool and The Lake District, are places I have strong ties to, because I have been visiting them since I was very small. I taught for 11 years on The Wirral, which is a very special place, hence the poem ‘Wirral Way’ in the collection. Time changes places and disconnects people from them. I barely recognise my home town, Widnes, now. As my friend, Bloodaxe poet Matt Simpson, wrote ‘the place a memory, the memory a place’.

“Elderflowers sing jazz, each petalled phrase
plays another variation on the last.”

(From ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’)

In ‘Spawn’, we have the vivid movement of tadpoles as “the crotchets | jiggle away from the stave and begin |to make music.” Meanwhile in ‘Autumn Boggling’, we have the fantastic sounds of lines such as “All along the yedge, the papple grows | thick with parva attracted by pollen. | It spreads purple as framboo.” Reading the collection, I’m very aware of both the wonderful use of musical imagery but also the music of the words and poems themselves. Is this very important to you, and is it something that arises naturally or that you have to work into the composition process?

Music is vital to me. I have always loved music, both listening and making it for myself. Because it’s been such an integral part of my life and evokes such intense emotions, it creeps into my poems organically. Music is superb at articulating deep feelings, and consoling and it can also be witty and delightful in its patterns. Rhythm is important in poetry and I think I have learned that partly from music. Folk music is a rich world of story and classical music has always been a part of my life. I play several instruments (all of them badly!) and so music terminology is often one of the first things that occurs to me. I am slightly synaesthetic as well, which helps.

I compose my work aloud, and when it sounds right is when I know it is finished. I don’t consciously aim to use assonance and consonance but my ear wants them to be there. I’ve also been known to use scansion on my drafts to find out why something feels wrong.

The poem you quote there is a very playful one, using the names of lesser known and rather quirky English villages. I love the sounds of words, have been in love with words all my life. When I was teaching, I used to say to my classes: ‘words are free and they are out there; start collecting!’


“…More strangers will come.
New Road. The Local Shop will soon be an Asda,
the Palace a bingo hall. There will be no going back.”

(From ‘Welcome to Royston Vasey’)

Memories are another aspect of this collection that stand out strongly for me. A number of the poems are also dedicated to particular people. I get the sense that people are important to you (perhaps as much or more than place) and also the act of remembering – this both at a personal level but also maybe at the level of passing on legends and tradition. Despite the quote at the start of this question, in many cases it also feels like while there may be no going back as such (with places or people), the past does actually become part of who we are in the present. I wonder if I’ve intuited this correctly and what role poetry plays for you (both in your own poems and more generally) in the acts of remembering, passing on and becoming?

I am very much a people person, and my next book looks like it will focus on people even more, from the poems I have cached thus far. You are right about my feeling the importance of passing down story and tradition. We couldn’t afford many books in our house when I was growing up, so the library was important, but my mum was a wonderful storyteller, which perhaps came from her Irish background. As a bookish little girl in a small working class town, books were my best friends, and authors’ minds a joy to connect with. I gave my own children a story-rich childhood. Stories, particularly folk and faerie, give me a frame of reference.

However, the ‘no going back’ line in the poem ‘Welcome to Royston Vasey’ is about the way towns are changing and greenbelt land being eroded to build new houses and more supermarkets. I’ve seen that with my own eyes in places I know well. The fictional Royston Vasey stands for many small Nothern towns which are changing forever. It’s not just the habitat for animals but the sense of tight-knit communities. Towns are becoming increasingly homogenous as the big chains take over, and this poem is a kind of lament for the towns we used to know, even when they were not all that nice, at least they were individual. However, in a poem, one can still inhabit the place as it was. Memories can be so strong that the actual place often disappoints on return after many years.

My poems often question and probe a memory which has suddenly surfaced. Why am I remembering that? What will I uncover if I examine it closely?

“All the winters I have been alive, the weather
has been teaching its hard lessons:”

The weather – in particular rain and snow – features evocatively in a number of poems in ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’. But this and the seasons are perhaps a strand of nature, which I’ve already asked about. There’s also a background sense of learning and growing for me in the collection that I’d like to ask you to say a little more about as a theme? Alongside this, also the question of where does inspiration mostly come from for you – the head, the heart, the senses, or a mixture of these?

I’m a great fan of the seasons and seasonal changes. I think the cycle of the year is embedded deeply into our psyche (no pun intended) and we need these shifts. Seasons can often work on us metaphorically, and I think I use them that way in this collection. For example a January snowfall is a ‘new page for you to write on’ and the poem you quote above, ‘The Glass Swan’ is about the fragility of life and how our different responses to the seasons can ‘bank’ us up, make memories. Yes, the seasons teach us things and for me, writing poetry is about making discoveries. As C. Day Lewis said, ‘every good poem is a bridge into the unknown.’

What question haven’t I asked about ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’ that you’d really like to answer? (And what is that answer?!)

There are several other themes you have not asked about, such as the supernatural, forbidden love, dementia and death. But I am happy that you have not asked about these and others, because a collection of poems needs to have surprises and interlinking themes, and does not want to give up all its mysteries at once. I think it is interesting that my two kind endorsers , David Morley and George Szirtes both independently used the word ‘magic’ in their comments for the cover. Morley said that my work is ‘open to the darkness and pain in our lives’. I’ve hoped to balance that with positivity and the courage of facing up to things, but I think I need to leave that to reviewers to decide. Good reviewers can often tell one things one doesn’t know about one’s own work.

five-petalsWhere can readers get hold of ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’?

They can obtain copies from Sheila Wakefield at Red Squirrel Press (http://www.redsquirrelpress.com/Index.html). They can also obtain copies from me, either by post or at readings. There are some copies at the London Review of Books Bookshop and the gift shop at Clare Cottage. It can also be ordered from any good bookshop. I am actively seeking more readings to promote the book. I can be contacted at anji.topping@gmail.com.

Thank you, Angela, for these fabulous answers sharing some of the creative processes and influences that lie behind ‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’.

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