‘There are no rules for inspiration’

Professor Angela Leighton is Senior Research Fellow in poetry at Trinity. Spills is her most recent collection of poetry. It includes a memoir, short stories and translations of the poems of the Sicilian writer, Sciascia, as well as her own verse.

Professor Angela Leighton
Professor Angela Leighton

Professor Leighton has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, including books on Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victorian women poets, Anne Stevenson, as well as a study of poetic form: On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word. She is currently completing a book on the poetics of sound in poetry.

Spills (Carcanet Press 2016), her fourth volume of poetry, draws on a mixed English and Italian background, recalling time spent in Edinburgh, Naples, Yorkshire and the Western Highlands. The daughter of a composer father and an Italian mother, these poems and stories reflect on questions of nationality and place, in a language as musical as language might become.

Here she discusses her role at Trinity, her research and her poetry writing.

Is being a Senior Research Fellow an unusual role?

It’s a very privileged role, in many ways – one which focuses on research and writing, while giving one time to think. This last is an unaccountably precious commodity! Meanwhile, Research Fellows are free to take on teaching and lecturing commitments, and are expected to serve on college committees.

How do you spend your time as a Trinity Fellow?

In my time here I have lectured in the English Faculty, supervised at undergraduate, MPhil and PhD level, and served on a good number of college committees. So mine is by no means completely free time. Nevertheless, the remainder is research time, spent working on two critical books: one on the music of literature, which is nearing completion, and the other on Walter de la Mare. My own poetry is written in the evenings.

Are you in a different state of mind when writing poems compared to engaging in literary criticism?

Yes, completely different – hence having to divide my day into parts: day time for criticism, evening for poetry. Criticism requires my fresher, rational brain; poetry, a dreamier, more visceral brain – something to do with thinking at the finger tips, down the spine, or in the guts. It’s a bit like having two selves, two thinking centres. Clocking in and out of them is not always easy, though a glass of wine in the evening can help!

What inspired Spills?

A wish to explore my musical background, as well as my half-Italian heritage. Those two languages, music and Italian, lie deep in my consciousness, one from my father, the other from my mother. I lived in a house that was full of the sound of the piano being played, while every summer we travelled by train to Naples to stay with my Italian grandmother. I think Spills was born of those three noises: music, Italian and English. Also, in this volume, I wanted to test the limits of different genres: memoir, short story, prose poems and translations, as well as poetry proper. So it’s a collection which tells a kind of story, about identities and places, by mixing forms of writing and testing the limits of each.

Is Trinity and Cambridge an inspiring location for a poet?

When I came to Cambridge my friends said I’d stop writing poetry. In fact, the opposite has happened. Although my roots are in the north (and further south), I’ve come to love the flats of the fens, and the way that Cambridge opens out into that managed landscape. So, perhaps poetry can be written anywhere, even in the scholarly atmosphere of a university town. There are no rules for inspiration.

Would you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Have patience. Work. Give it time and space. Don’t rush to publication. Above all, do not turn poetry into an activity expected to earn its own keep, or you will sell it to the market – the market of readings, prizes and competitions. Luckily, as publishers know, poetry doesn’t make money – or not for long. So get the day job. You have to stay alive, and keep sane!

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