AH Spools of Thread front cover final scaledIn my latest interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Angi Holden about her poetry pamphlet Spools of Thread from Mother’s Milk Books…

‘Spools of Thread’ is a very vivid and evocative pamphlet making full use of all the senses right from the first poem, ‘I Measure My Mother’s Love’. Here, we have sight and touch in “brushed Viyella for winter nightgowns, | grey twill for press-pleated skirts’, as well as the sound of the Singer sewing machine. The following poem ‘Memories of a Good Plain Cook’ is a pantry stocked with different tastes, including hot Mexican Tabasco “lodged like a single thought amongst the jumbled gelatine | and Maraschino cherries, the olives stuffed with garlic cloves”. Do you have a favourite or more dominant sense – and if so which one and why?

I’m very aware of each of my senses, and couldn’t pick a ‘favourite’. However, family history is an important theme in my writing and I find smells extremely evocative of memory. The smells of Christmas cakes and bubbling chutneys transport me to my Grandmother’s kitchen, a whiff of pipe tobacco or the scent of L’Aimant remind me of my parents preparing for an Officers’ Mess ball, a trace of woodsmoke takes me back to childhood gardens and the excitement of bonfires.

Smells can also have negative associations of course; just as the ferric smell of spilled blood can recall the trauma of a serious accident, so an acrid burning smell can recall a house fire. These associations can provide a useful approach to exploring violent and distressing incidents in our lives, or in the lives of others.

A friend recently thanked me for ‘I Measure My Mother’s Love’, saying ishe recognised it as a poem about her mother. It is of course a poem about many women of that generation. I think including sensory detail allows space for the reader to bring their experiences to the poem, and to relate to the content on a visceral level.

The pamphlet includes some very moving poems of role reversal, where the daughter ends up caring for the mother. They also feel very much rooted in personal experience – the depiction is so strong. Some of these are written in the first person, but also second person and third person. How did you make the choice of perspective for each particular poem? Were some easier or more difficult to write and why?

I’m seldom conscious of the decision-making process when it comes to point of view in writing poetry. Usually my poems ‘need’ to be written from a particular angle and in a specific voice. I have prose pieces which I’ve deliberately rewritten from a different point of view or in a different tense to see if it makes them more immediate or engaging, but I haven’t done that often with poems.

‘All You Need To Know’ is perhaps the exception. After a workshop discussion I tried to rewrite that in first person (it was, after all, a description of my own wedding) but its structure as a series of vignettes seems to require the distance of third person, as if it were being viewed on a screen.

There is a difference between the poems I found the most difficult to write and the poems that were the most difficult to share. ‘Son’ was easy to write. The words came with indignation and candour in immediate response to an incident, but my anger was sufficiently contained that it didn’t spill over. Sharing the poem was a difficult decision.

The poems that I found the most difficult to write, including one about a paedophile, were mostly the ones that found themselves on the cutting room floor. It felt like an important poem, but its tone was inconsistent with the overall selection.

Photo by Chris Holden

Photo by Chris Holden

Letters feature in different ways and with different significances in some of the poems in ‘Spools of Thread’. I love letter-writing myself, the personal individuality of them in particular as hand-written communication becomes rarer and rarer. I wondered how important letter-writing is or has been generally both in your life and your writing?

Letter writing has been very important throughout my life. As an RAF family, our links to family ‘back home’ were through letters and photos, as even when we were not abroad there was always the geographical distance imposed by forces postings. As a child I had penpals too.

When I was at university I once wrote to my Grandmother during a particularly tedious maths lecture, apologising for my use of lined exercise paper. She was of that generation who had lived through the war, for whom a letter was indescribably precious, a lifeline. So she wrote back saying she didn’t mind what I wrote on, so long as I wrote. Taking her at her word, my next letter to her was yards long… written on a continuous strip of crisp Izal toilet paper. My father found it after her death, carefully secreted in her roll-top desk.

When my Mother died my sister and I sorted through her possessions and I came across a large carrier bag full of letters which I’d written to her. They were chatty, newsy letters, full of school trips and days out with our children, coughs and colds and dental appointments, new jobs, burst pipes and rainy afternoons. As a reminder of the Mother with whom I’d had a happy relationship before she was stolen by Alzheimer’s, it was a great comfort. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into a world before mobile phones and emails and Whatsapp.

I find it interesting, particularly given the ephemeral nature of our communications these days, that both my Grandmother and my Mother kept so many letters. It’s unlikely that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have such a rich variety of resources to explore.

Who or what would you say is the strongest influence in/on your life and writing? And where and how can this be found in the pamphlet?

My grandmother was a strong independent character, known for being frank and outspoken and a woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly. By contrast I am non-confrontational by nature, often to my detriment, and I sometimes envy her forthright nature. I did however inherit from her, and from my father a love of books. She was a voracious reader. She was also a great story-teller, with an endless supply of ‘Granecdotes’. Both she and my father were also passionate gardeners and I have inherited their love for gardening, if not their expertise. Her pale pink cyclamen bloomed in my father’s garden; they still bloom in my garden, and now in my daughter’s too. They were both interested in genealogy, tracing back the family tree for several generations, and I wonder what they would have made of today’s online resources.

Family stories, inheritance and the tracery of genealogy are stitched though this pamphlet and the final poem is an expression of my interest in etymology.

My grandmother and father were strong believers in what we now label ‘lifelong learning’. My father would consider a day in which nothing was learned a day wasted. He went to evening classes long after he had any career need for qualifications, studying economics and learning a variety of languages. I became an undergraduate again when my youngest child went to university and when I was awarded my doctorate in creative writing he was the first person I thought about. Several of the poems in this pamphlet were previously included in my thesis.

Without the influence of my father and grandmother, I doubt I would write; certainly Spools of Thread wouldn’t be the pamphlet it is. And of course, I wouldn’t have that ‘forehead that could have been my grandmother’s’.

What haven’t I asked that the poems would absolutely insist that I should question? And what is the answer?

The poems in Spools of Thread are very much about family and inheritance, threads that can be traced back through the generations and strands that flow forward through children and grandchildren. Are you ‘written-out’ in terms of family writing, and if so, what topics might you turn your attention to next?

I don’t think I’m ‘written–out’ in terms of family writing. Relationships are dynamic and there are always new additions to a family, just as there are departures. Also I think our perspectives change as we age – growing older provides different insights and interests. However, I wouldn’t want to be known as a writer who is limited to family themes and I’ve recently responded to a number of political call-outs, which has taken me by surprise.

Other themes? Well, when I was at school, studying history meant learning lists of wars and dates. I gave up the subject as soon as I could. Later in life I became interested in social history, the lived experience of people in the past, and I’ve started writing about the individuals from whom we’ve inherited our landscape. Who were the men and women of our mill towns and of our farming communities? Who were the women who fought for suffrage? Who were the men who were jailed as conscientious objectors? Who were the families who set sail on the ill-fated Titanic? And most importantly, what do their stories have to tell us about our lives now? There is a wealth of material to explore.

Instead of ‘wars and dates’ I chose to study geography, and this still fascinates me. There has recently been a resurgence of writing about place and landscape and I’m interested in exploring these in poetry. The best of the new non-fiction writing about place goes beyond the observational or illustrative. It has something to say as well as something to describe, and for me poetry should do this too.

AH Spools of Thread front cover final scaledWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Spools of Thread’?

Spools Of Thread can be purchased from Mother’s Milk Books, an innovative independent press which celebrates motherhood, femininity and empathy through images and words, with a view to normalising breast feeding.


Thank you, Angi, for these wonderful insights into ‘Spools of Thread’, and the various threads that run through it.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.